This article was originally published in the December 1996 issue of the magazine.
In the northwest wall of old Samarkand stood a gate through which caravans embarked on the Silk Road. It was by that entrance, or the rubble of it, that I walked in. Through this same gate in 1220 rode Genghis Khan, who was about to ravage one of Central Asia’s greatest cities.
Samarkand’s population, by a modern estimate, was 200,000 or more. Its artisans produced saddles, copper lamps, and silver lamé. An aqueduct sluiced water across the arid steppe, making gardens bloom. There is only grass now, nibbled to the nub by goats. I see bits of porcelain and an occasional brick—nothing more. The remains of workshops, palaces, and all else lie beneath wind-heaped ridges and hillocks.