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Timur’s Legacy: The Architecture Of Samarkand
“Let he who doubt Our power and munificence look upon Our buildings…” - Amir Timur, 1379 AD
Timur, better known in the West as Tamerlane from his nickname Timur-i-leng or “Timur the Lame”, was the last of the great nomadic warriors to sweep out of Central Asia and shake the world. As befits a man styled “World Conqueror”, we know a lot about him - and not all of it good. In 1336, at Shakhrisabz in present-day Uzbekistan, the wife of a minor chief of the Mongol Barlas clan gave birth to a son with blood-filled palms, a sure omen that the infant was predestined to cause the death of many. He was given an appropriate name—Timur means ‘iron' in Turkish—and raised in the Turkic-Islamic tradition of the surrounding steppe as a rider, archer and swordsman.
Even by the harsh standards of the Mongol hordes, Timur excelled. Before he was twenty years old he had attracted a band of followers with whom he ranged across the steppe raiding caravans and rustling horses. In 1360 his skills as a commander were rewarded when he was recognised as chief of the Barlas clan. Over the next ten years he steadily extended his influence over Transoxiana — the region between the Oxus and Jaxartes Rivers centred on present-day Uzbekistan — acquiring wounds to his right arm and leg in the process, and hence his nickname. In 1370 he conquered Turkistan, the last surviving Mongol Khanate, and declared himself Amir or “Commander”. He made the Silk Road city of Samarkand his capital, and then embarked on a series of military conquests that rocked Asia and Europe to their very foundations.
For 35 years Timur's forces ranged far and wide, repeatedly sweeping across Central Asia, Iran, Turkey and northern India. In 1405 Timur was preparing his greatest expedition ever, aimed at conquering China, when he was struck down by fever. Despite the best efforts of his doctors, to the sound of massive thunderclaps and “foaming like a camel dragged backwards by the rein,” Timur finally succumbed. The Ming Emperor must have breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief when he eventually heard the news.
Historians estimate that Timur, who personally led his forces as far afield as Moscow and Delhi, may have been responsible for the death of as many as 15 million people. Yet he made little attempt to consolidate his conquests, preferring to mount regular, devastating attacks against his neighbours before returning to his native Transoxiana. As a consequence, the dynasty he established proved to be short-lived, though in 1526 Timur's great, great, great grandson Babur restored the family fortunes by conquering Delhi and founding the resplendent Mogul Empire.
Timur must have been an enigma to his contemporaries. Brutal and utterly ruthless, he was nevertheless a man of culture. He is said to have been illiterate, but fluent in Turkish and Persian. Sources speak of his sharp wit and hunger for knowledge. When not out and about slaughtering his neighbours, he indulged in passionate debate with scholars of history, medicine and astronomy. He enjoyed playing chess. Above all, he seems to have loved his capital, Samarkand, and he spent much time between campaigns embellishing this previously undistinguished city. To help in this great enterprise, he plundered cities like Damascus, Baghdad, Isfahan and Delhi not just for the loot, but for their skilled artisans, who were brought back to make Samarkand a city worthy of the “World Conqueror”. As a consequence the warlike Timur's most lasting and unlikely legacy remains the unsurpassed architectural jewel of Central Asia.
With Timur's death Transoxiana began a long period of decline, culminating in gradual Russian conquest during the 19th century. Samarkand had long been inaccessible to outsiders because of the xenophobia and religious bigotry of the ruling amirs. This situation was compounded in 1920, when the Red Army seized control of the region and began a process of Sovietisation. In 1924 Samarkand was included within the frontiers of the new Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, and a curtain of silence fell across the region with Westerners, in particular, being rigorously excluded. Only in the 1980s did the veil begin to rise, and then within a few short years the former USSR disintegrated, resulting in the birth of independent Uzbekistan in 1991. Although ruled by a suspicious and innately cautious former Soviet aparatchik, Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan is today slowly opening to foreign tourism. It should do well. The cities of Bukhara and Khiva, together with Timur's capital at Samarkand, are truly magnificent. In places, it's as though time stood still: it didn't of course. The Soviets worked long and hard to restore what remained of Timurid Samarkand, and Uzbekistan stands to benefit greatly as a result. Moreover, the process continues apace, both in spiritual terms — Timur is now an Uzbek national hero — and at a more mundane level. Everywhere the chip of stonemasons' hammers is to be heard, and a whole new generation of skilled craftsmen is being trained to restore the architectural legacy of the “Iron Limper”.
The historic heart of Samarkand is the Registan, an open square dominated by three great madrassa, or Islamic colleges. George Curzon, later to become Viceroy of India, visited in 1899 and was moved enough to describe the Registan as “the noblest public square in the world”. He continues: “No European spectacle can be adequately compared to it, in our inability to point to an open space in any western city that is commanded on three of its four sides by Gothic cathedrals of the finest order.” The architecture is distinctively Timurid, being characterised by an extraordinarily lavish use of colour, especially emerald, azure, deep blue and gold. The great domes are fluted, the vast porticoes richly decorated with corkscrew columns and intricately-patterned glazed tiles. Astonishingly, the façade of the Shir Dor Madrassa on the east side of the square is decorated with half-tiger, half-lion creatures stalking deer, whilst a blazing sun with a human face rises behind the beast of prey's back. In Islam, such representational art is generally forbidden, and it is wonderful that these clearly heretical images have survived through the long centuries since they were created.
Samarkand—let alone Uzbekistan—has too many Timurid gems to describe in one short article, but after the Registan, the monumental Bibi Khanum Mosque is perhaps the most extraordinary sight in the city. Built for Timur's chief wife, Saray Mulk Khanum, this magnificent building was financed by the plunder brought back from Delhi in 1398; it is said that 95 elephants were used in hauling marble for the mosque. On Bibi Khanum's completion a chronicler was moved to write: “Its dome would have been unique had it not been for the heavens, and unique would have been its portal had it not been for the Milky Way.” Even so, historians have shown that in his plans for the Bibi Khanum, Timur's vision exceeded the architectural possibilities of the time. Quite simply, the lofty iwan (portico) and the towering minarets were too ambitious for the technology of the time—especially in a land prone to violent earthquakes. By all accounts, parts of the giant mosque began to collapse within months of its consecration. Today all three massive azure domes have been restored, and work still continues, though this time with ferro-concrete supports hidden behind the elaborate glazed tile work, on the lofty iwan and minarets. When the restoration is complete in around 2002, Uzbekistan will have yet another architectural marvel to draw visitors.
Finally and fittingly we turn to the Gur-i Amir, or “Tomb of the Ruler”, Timur's own last resting place. This fabulous structure, which was completed in 1404, is dominated by the octagonal mausoleum and its peerless fluted dome, azure in colour, with 64 separate ribs. Within lie the remains not only of Timur, but also of various members of his family, including his grandson the scholar-king Ulugh Beg. Timur's tomb is protected by a single slab of jade, said to be the largest in the world. Brought back by Ulugh Beg from Mongolia in 1425, it was broken in half in the 18th century by the Persian ruler Nadir Shah, who tried to remove it from the chamber. Carved into the jade is an inscription in Arabic: “When I rise, the World will Tremble.”
Coincidence, no doubt, but on the night of June 22, 1941, the Russian Scientist M. Gerasimov began his exhumation of Timur's remains. Within hours Hitler's armies crashed across the Soviet frontier signalling the beginning of the Nazi invasion. Gerasimov's investigations showed that Timur had been a tall man for his race and time, lame as recorded in his right leg, and with a wound to his right arm. Surprisingly, red hair still clung to the skull from which Gerasimov reconstructed a bronze bust. Eventually Timur's remains were reinterred with full Muslim burial rites, giving truth to the message thundered in Arabic script three metres high from the cylindrical drum of the great conqueror's mausoleum: “Only God is Immortal.”
Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media