TWO ragged stone pillars stand open like jaws in the dry riverbed near the road. In the old days, camel caravans passed between them on their way to Samarkand. These natural rock columns are called the Gates of Timur, because the 14th-century ruler, Timur the Lame, once extracted tariffs here. Our Intourist bus bumps past them, on a road roughly paralleling the ancient Silk Route. Soon we're rolling across the open steppe, where cotton and mulberry bushes seem to grow right to the edge of distant, treeless mountains. Women in bright silk harem pants stand apart from men at bus stops.
Here we are - some 2,000 miles southeast of Moscow, in Soviet Central Asia. A Muslim city of 500,000, Samarkand lies about 200 miles from the Afghan border in the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. Since extended families live nine or 10 to a room in low, shedlike buildings, the city is much smaller than its population would seem to require.
Indeed, Samarkand does not appear large enough to hold all the medieval Islamic monuments and ruins we have come to see. Along the narrow main street, outsize images of Lenin look down at us benignly, the familiar face modified to reflect Central Asian features. Below, street hawkers sell deep-fried meat pies.
Natasha, our urbane, Russian Intourist guide, takes us first to the ruins of the Ulughbek Observatory. Ulughbek was the favorite grandson of Timur the Lame, who is known as Tamerlane in the West. Timur may have decreed Samarkand his grand capital, but it was Ulughbek who gave up the life of wars and conquest to make it a center of learning. One story has it that the poet Omar Khayyam studied mathematics here.
At his observatory Ulughbek achieved a remarkable feat, estimating the length of a year to within 62 seconds of modern-day calculations. Built in 1428, the observatory itself was a wonder, housing a giant marble sextant with a radius of 131 feet and an arc 207 feet long. We look down on the long stone tunnel where the pendulum once swung in the musty coolness; Natasha tells us that Ulughbek was beheaded by his son, who wanted to get on with the business of empire-building.