Siab Bazaar, Samarkand’s Bustling Market

An enthusiastic vendor at the market’s dried fruits and nuts section

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Among Asia’s oldest cities, Samarkand is globally renowned for its treasure trove of Islamic architecture, a vestige of its former role as an economic and cultural crossroad between east and west. Even though its days of glory are long gone now, this ancient metropolis still prides itself as one of Central Asia’s most visited cities. As most tourists flock in masses to the monuments, madrassas and mausoleums Samarkand is awash with, its other facets remain largely unexplored. As it turns out, amid the numerous historic sites, one can find the city’s modern-day heart, a hamlet-size marketplace that encapsulates almost everything Uzbekistan has to offer.

Often obscured by Samarkand’s illustrious sites from its bygone era is the day-to-day life, a phenomenon prevalent in many of the world’s most popular cities. Be that as it may, for visitors who wish to explore the lesser-known sides of the city, there is probably no better place to do so than in Siab Bazaar, a ginormous market that showcases the country’s agricultural wealth, hospitality and customs.

 

Wedged between Shah-i-Zinda St. and Bibi-Khanym Mosque, the 7-hectare complex comprises multiple buildings, with many of the stalls spilling out to the open grounds in between. Throughout this higgledy-piggledy market, there are entire zones dedicated to a single type of products, including an ample meat department, an odor-rich dairy section and perhaps most notably, a massive roofed structure where freshly-picked vegetables and fruits are being sold.

 

But it is the traditional Uzbek treats that truly make Siab Bazaar a worthy place to wander around. It is here where visitors can find the fabled Samarkand non – a tandoor-baked flatbread whose soft crust is garnished with sesame seeds. Other unusual edibles include salted apricot kernels, qurt – a spherical snack made of strained yogurt and navat- crystals of grape juice, to name just a few.

 

While vendors entice potential customers with free samples, there is also a medley of small eateries where ravenous market-goers can fill their bellies with classic Uzbek eats such as Plov, Manti dumplings, Laghman soup, Somsa pastries and meat skewers (a mere fraction of the culinary tapestry offered at these restaurants).

 

Somewhat surprisingly, victuals are far from being the marketplace’s sole draw. In fact, standing alongside the hectic food sections is the five story “Shodiyona” shopping center as well as multiple stalls dedicated entirely for handicrafts, garments, wood carvings and artisanal souvenirs.

 

None of the current buildings exceed the age of a few decades or so, yet the bazaar itself can trace its roots back to the 14th century, when the city functioned as a prominent stop along the ancient Silk Road. It was during this time that traders from China, Europe and Central Asia huddled together at this place, selling a wide assortment of exotic produce.

 

A lot has changed since those times, but one thing remained the same – an incessant hubbub of haggling accompanied by pungent scents that waft through the air, inundating one’s nostrils with raw authenticity.