Maracanda: ancient name of Samarkand.

Samarkand, AfrosiabSituated on the banks of the river Saravšan, Maracanda was an old city. Archaeological discoveries suggest that it was already occupied in the fourteenth century BCE. Remains at the Qala ye Afrasiab (Castle of [the legendary hero] Afrasiab) date back to the Iron Age.

In the sixth century BCE, the Persian king Cyrus the Great (559-530) conquered Maracanda and his successor Darius I the Great (522-486), who organized the Achaemenid empire, made it the capital of the satrapy Sogdia. During excavations of the 10-13th century mosque, remains of the ancient temple of the Sogdians were found. Hardly anything is known about this period, although it is likely that Maracanda was sometimes visited by travelers who went from Babylonia, Assyria and Persia to China. (Their route was to become famous as the Silk road.)

Two centuries later, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid empire. Between 329 and 327, he used Maracanda as his base for expeditions in the region. The residence that was excavated at the Qala ye Afrasiab must have been the place where he celebrated famous drinking parties, and it was by one of those occasion that he accidentally killed his commander-in-chief Clitus.

SogdianAfter Alexander's death, Maracanda lost its status as satrapal capital. In the Seleucid empire, Sogdia was part of the satrapy Bactria. The city now disappears from our sources. This is a bit strange, because at 130 BCE, the Chinese authorities started an active policy to open the Silk road. The route flourished until the third century CE. We would have expected that Maracanda played a role of some importance, but if it did, it was not noticed by the historians.

When the Silk road was reopened by the emperors of the T'ang dynasty (618-907), Maracanda was one of its most important stations. It became a center for the spread of (Nestorian) Christianity. Until 711, it was a treasured possession of the khan of the Western Turks; in that year, it was conquered by the Muslims. The eighth century was a period of great splendor; Samarkand, as it was now called, became one of the most important cultural centers of the Islamic world.

This page was created in 1998; last modified on 25 July 2015.