Samarkand, early 1900s. The first ever colour photographs of the ancient Persian city by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, an unknown Russian who invented his own colour photography process.

Sart woman. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Sergey Prokudin-Gorskii.

In 1948, two Russians named Mikhail and Dmitri Prokudin-Gorsky approached the U.S. Library of Congress with 2,607 photographs for sale. The images were taken in In 1948, two Russians named Mikhail and Dmitri Prokudin-Gorsky approached the U.S. Library of Congress with 2,607 photographs for sale. The images were taken by their father Sergey, in the Tsarist Russian Empire in the early years of the 20th-century by their father Sergey. In the Russian Empire during the time of the Tsar. 

There were albums, some 14 volumes of photographic diaries and 705 8×8 cm prints. There were also 1,902 very special glass negatives. Sergey Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944), was a very early pioneer of colour photography. He devised his own colour imaging process. Each colour image required 3 black-and-white glass negatives, three exposures made using blue, green and red filters which, when sandwiched together made photographs that could be printed or projected in glorious colour. The people at the Library of Congress snapped up the Prokudin-Gorskii photo cache.

General view of the Bibi-Khanym mosque from Shakh-i Zindeh. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Old Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)

Using a railroad-car darkroom provided by Tsar Nicholas II himself, Prokudin-Gorsky traveled from around 1905 to 1915 documenting the Russian Empire using his new process. The Empire at this time stretched 7,000 miles from west to east and 3,000 miles from north to south and comprised one-sixth of the earth’s land mass. It was the largest empire in history and spanned what today are eleven different times zones. He tralelled by rail, boat and automobile and the Tsar personally supported and sponsored the ambitious project by providing passes and transportation. He documented religious architecture, ancient sites, industry and agriculture, public works, water scenes, railway routes, and views of villages and cities. He even went to Italy and Finland. Many of the images were in colour, on triple stacked blue/green/red filtered black and white glass slides. 

In 2000 the Library of Congress finally got around to digitising Prokudin-Gorsky’s slides and colour triples for each subject digitally combined to produce hundreds of high-quality colour images of Russia and its neighbors from over a century ago.

Of those 2,607 photographs these are a selection (in both black and white and Prokudin-Gorsky 3-colour process) of the city of Samarkande, modern day south Uzbekistan.

These the first ever colour photographs of an legendary ancient place; the inspration for a generation of Orientalist painters, a place of Emirs and harems; of the tombs of legends, and of ordinary people doing then what they do now, selling flatbreads, fruit and carpets.

Fabric merchant, Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
The old city from the Shakh-i Zindeh mosque, Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
General view of Shakh-i Zindeh mosque, to the left of the entrance from the hill. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Shakh-i Zindeh. View from the west. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Shakh-i Zindeh. Detail over entrance from the left, (ca. 1905-1915)
Shakh-i Zindeh. In the Passage of the Dead. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Portion of Shir-Dar minaret and its dome from Tillia-Kari. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)


Lined with ancient tombs, mausoleums and shrines, The Passage of The Dead is found in the Shakh-i Zindeh necropolis in the oldest part of Samarkand. The whole complex was formed over eight (from 11th till 19th) centuries. The name Shakh-i-Zindeh means “The living king” in connection with a legend that Qutham ibn Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, is buried here. He came to Samarkand with the 7th century Arab invasion to preach Islam. Popular legend has it that he was beheaded for his faith, but he didn’t die, took his head and went into the deep well (The Garden of Paradise), where he’s still living now.

Doorway to the upper canopy of Shakh-i Zindeh mosque. Entrance to the Passage of the Dead. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Passage of the Dead. Shakh-i Zindeh mosque. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Tomb on the Passage of the Dead. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
The Passage of the Dead. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Part of wall on right side of the Passage of the Dead. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Tomb on the left in the Passage of the Dead. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Detail of external wall on left side of the exit from The Passage of the Dead. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Passage of the Dead, detail of left side. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Tomb of Tamerlane’s relatives. General view from the left. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)


The most sacred shrine in the Passage of the Dead is that of Prophet Muhammad’s first cousin Qusam. One of the greatest nomadic conquerors in history, Tamerlane had many of his female relatives buried there. Tamerlane (1336-1405), was a Turco-Mongol conqueror who founded the Timurid Empire in and around modern-day Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia, becoming the first ruler of the Timurid dynasty. As an undefeated commander, he’s widely regarded as one of the greatest military leaders and tacticians in history.

Detail of tomb of Tamerlane’s relatives. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)


Courtyard of the Tillia-Kari Medrese. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Tillia-Kari from Uluk-Bek. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Alim Khan, the last Emir of Bukhara. Bukhara, outskirts of Samarkand, (1911)


A grand and ornate palace was built by the third-to-last Emir of Bukhara, Nasrullah Khan, a mad and cruel khan who loved his wife dearly. When she died in childbirth, he named the palace after her. Her name was Sitorabony and the khan likened her beauty to the moon. Thus it became Sitora-i Mokhi Khosa Saroy, the palace of a star like the moon. When Prokudin-Gorsky photographed the palace, Nasrullah Khan’s grandson, Alim Khan was Emir. He was to be the last Emir of Bukhara. In 1920, three years after rebuilding his palace, Communism arrived. The Bolshevik commander Mikhail Frunze marched the Red Army into the city. The Emir fled to Afghanistan, The soldiers enjoyed their reward; it’s said that each carried off one of the 400 women in the Emir’s harem.

Mosaics on the walls in the country palace of the Emir of Bukhara, a wealthy Sart. Bukhara, outskirts of Samarkand, (1911)
Inside the country palace of the Emir of Bukhara. Bukhara, outskirts of Samarkand, (1911)
Tomb of Baian-Kuli-Khan. Bukhara, outskirts of Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Tea room. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Water pipe. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Monks in Kalandar-Khane. On the outskirts of Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Stone pedestal for the Koran in the court of the Bibi-Khanym mosque. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Seller of Flat Bread. Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Interior in Uluk-Bek, Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Policeman, Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)
Two Jewish Girls, Samarkand, (ca. 1905-1915)

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