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Central Uzbekistan Cities: Samarkand: Timurid Capital of Arts and Science

UZBEKISTAN | Wednesday, 28 August 2013 | Views [2664]


Samarkand: Timurid Capital of Arts and Science


After a couple of days on the road visiting the desert, the Aydal Kul Lake and Sentob, a mountain village, we headed to the Samarkand, the former capital of the Ancient Sogdian province of Turan. It was the capital of the Timurid Empire (1370-1499) as well, and this was probably its most glorious period. In the 16th C the capital was moved from Samarkand to Bukhara and it became the second rather than the first city of the region.  Its last period as a capital city was after WWI from 1919 until Stalin in 1930, when it was the Soviet Republic of UZ.


 The city and region have seen a number of conquerors come and go, and while their local hero Timur the Great was the worst sort of tyrant to those outside his homeland, within it, 600 years after his demise, he is honored and held up as the national hero. Alexander didn’t fare quite so well; he came here in 329 BCE as part of his march eastward. He left his stamp on the city by changing its name to Marakanda, and introducing Hellenistic ideas and artifacts into the trade center.  Beautiful gold coins with his image found in Samarkand are in the museum in Tashkent. Alexander was never able to fully conquer the city so he married a Sogdian princess to blend the bloodlines and urged his soldiers to marry local women as well.  During Alexander’s time Zoroastrianism was the main religion in the city and there was a major temple here.  Sogd as an empire is mentioned in the Avesta as a country created by Ahura Mazda for ‘Aryan space.’


The ‘Aryan Space’ didn’t last too long, as the Arabs came in the 7th C, and in the 13th Genghis Khan wrought as much havoc and destruction here as he had in the other cities. He burnt the Afrosaib, the old city, and no one has lived there since.  In the 20th C, Russian scholars found and excavated part of the Afrosaib and discovered 11 layers starting with the 8th C BCE and extending until the burning in the 13th.  Different from Alexander, the Mongols had no intention of “mongolizing” their conquered territories. They were simply an economic tool to supply money, weapons and labor to the Khan.  The people by most accounts, did not like their foreign overloads and there were attempts at revolts throughout their reign.  The rebels weren’t successful, however, until Timur arrived on the scene.


The Mongols stayed in power until Timur was finally able to get revenge for being wounded in battle as a young man. When he managed to wrestle control of the region, his empire was called Maverounnahr and Samarkand was its capital.


Timur conquered territory from Egypt to Turkey to Moscow to China and Afghanistan. European rulers were worried he would cross over the Bosporus and start to pillage their countries.  In the museum there is a letter Timur wrote to King Charles VI of France. But the Europeans didn’t need to worry, his interests lay in the immediately accessible terrain to the West and the vast lands to the East. Timur controlled Mesopotamia and Persia and on into Northern India. His descendants ruled from Delhi and Agra (incl. Babur, Sharjahan  & Auranageb). When he came back from pillaging India, he brought 60 elephants and many precious jewels and treasures.  With this treasure he built a number of mausoleums, mosques and madrasahs in Bukhara, Samarkand and Shakhrisabz.  What was left of the precious jewels has all been stolen. But most of his buildings survive.

 The first complex we visited was Timur’s tomb in the Gur Emir Mausoleum, (14th C) It was built for Timur’s grandson, Mohammad Sultan, after he died on a military campaign in 1403. The mausoleum was intended for Timur’s descendants, but only those males who were closest to him.  The others are buried elsewhere in the city as well as in Shakhrisabz.  Timur had a number of children but only a few made it into the local history books.  Of the four sons, his eldest, Jahanghir, died when he was 29 from a horse riding accident. As he was supposed to inherit the empire, it fell to Jahanghir’s son, Muhammad Sultan. Unfortunately Muhammad Sultan also died during Timur’s lifetime.

 Timur had placed his sons and grandsons throughout the territory as rulers of cities and provinces reporting directly to him. While Muhammad Sultan was governor of Samarkand he had built two madrasahs. Timur ordered the mausoleum to be built in one of them and his grandson’s body placed there. 

  In 1405 Timur died in Otrar in modern day Kazakhstan while on a campaign to conquer China.  He became ill but didn’t want his troupes to know he was probably dying so to cover it up, he went swimming naked in February in a freezing near to Siberia lake. When he came out, he died.  The inscription on the entrance to the tomb reads: “Before the world leaves you, leave the world.” 


 Of the three original buildings in the complex only the Gur Emir mausoleum stands; the other madrasah and kanaka no longer exist. The original madrasah was built between 1399-1400 and had 28 cells for 2-3 boys each. There were 4 minarets and 4 domes reaching to the heavens. It is in this complex that Timur is buried with his sons Shahrukh Mirza and Miran Shah, his grandsons Mohammad Sultan and Ulugbek, and great grandsons two of Ulugbek’s young sons. Mir Said Baraka, his spiritual mentor is at Timur’s head.


Mir said Baraka, who died before Timur, was a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and as his tomb was placed directly in line with what would normally be the central main entrance Ulugbek ordered that the center door be closed and one on either side be opened up.  Timur’s tomb is made of dark green jade, the others are made of marble.

 Legend about Gur-Emir:

 “The Chinese believe that jade possesses divine power.  For this reason, an enormous jade slab had been used at a place of worship in the Chinese emperor’s palace.  Under unknown circumstances two large pieces of jade were given to Ulugbek after his victory over the Mongols in 1425 near Ketmentepe village in the valley of the River Chu.  Samarkand masters joined them with each other by means of a thorough adjustment and made it a gravestone for Timur.

 After conquering the Khanate of Bukhara in 1740, Iranian Shah Nadir ordered the removal of the jade gravestone from the mausoleum to bring it to Meshed. The court historian Nadir-shah wrote that the stone was planned to be used for making the floor and the facets of walls in a sacred building in the capital of Iran.  However, in his sleep Nadir shah saw Timur’s spiritual teacher Mir Said Baraka, who said that the stone should be returned. In the morning the scared shah ordered the immediate return of the stone to its rightful place.  On the way to Samarkand the jade fell in the river and broke into two unequal pieces.  Nevertheless, the stones were eventually returned and the masters joined the two pieces with each other again and put it in its former place.” (28)

  In the alcove to the left of the center tombs, lies Timur’s father’s mentor’s, Emir Taragai’s, son, who was a holy man.  He has one pillar by his tomb.  The more pillars, the more powerful, so he was honored and respected but not too much so.

 The decorations around the tomb are 5 pointed stars relating to the 5 pillars of Islam, 6 pointed stars and 12 pointed stars.  Also inscribed in the six sided are 3x the name of Muhammad; in the four points of the square are 4x the name of Muhammad. The design that looks like the fleur de lys is the symbol for Islam and Peace. The inscribed gilded gold suras are only the ones that are allowed to be read in cemeteries.

  The minaret’s design has the names Allah and Muhammad. It is 32 m high now, but was 42 m and it had a pointed top. 

 The entrance to the door of the next mausoleum states “Paradise is the ultimate destination.” The inscriptions were originally in gold.  The gold inscription plates were sold in Turkey and are said to be in the hands of a private collector in Germany, but no one knows for sure. There is a story that Timur and his descendants were first buried here and then moved to Gur Emir.

 There is also a big stone basin in the courtyard that was supposed to have been used by Timur as a wine vessel for his soldiers, and later as a bathing well.  Others say it held pomegranate juice. Perhaps it was used for all three at different times, who knows…. But pomegranate juice for soldiers does seem a bit odd.

 The street that connected the mausoleum and mosque with the palace was called Shakhrih, the King's Road. and no one was allowed access to it other than the vizier, and he wasn’t allowed to walk on the carpet.  (So the Pres. of Turkmenistan is actually copying the Timurids with his “dead street”!) The current mausoleum was restored for the 600th anniversary of Timur’s death.

 During the Soviet period the tombs were raided by Russians looking for precious metals and jewels, finding none they stole the heads instead.  They brought them to Leningrad, where casts were made with facial reconstructions. We now know what Timur and his close relatives looked like from these casts.  There is a local story that when the Russians were losing in WWII, Stalin got jinxed and ordered Timur’s head returned.  Before placing it back in the coffin the soldiers were told to go around the tomb three times, which is typically a sacred ritual, and a very bizarre command from a very confirmed non-believer.  He also ordered the reconstruction of the mausoleum.  Soon thereafter they started to win the war.


 Timur wanted Pir Muhammad, Jahanghir's second son, to be his heir. Halil Sultan was the oldest living son he felt the throne should have gone to him. He seized Samarkand, the seat of power. Halil had not lived up to his father’s standards, though, which is why Timur had made it known that didn’t want Halil to be the ruler. Halil was a spendthrift and womanizer, who spent the treasury’s money on having a good time rather than caring for the people.  For the public, though, rumor had it that Timur believed the bloodline for his dynasty wouldn’t be regal enough with Halil’s wife’s bloodline.  Shadmulk Hatum, Halil’s wife and Timur’s the daughter-in-law, was from the middle class rather than from the aristocracy, and she was subsequently blamed for the conflicts. Shakruhk, Ulugbek’s father, and Halil’s uncle, took over. He could control the entire empire, but legend has it not his own wife, Gaukar Shadbegim.  He wanted his son to succeed him, but his wife wanted the grandson to rule. In the end, they both did.  She lived for 10 years after her husband died and was finally beheaded, supposedly because she muddled in politics too much.  There is the saying that “women are the neck, and men are the head” meaning the neck controls the head, but the head is what people see.  Within three generations of Timur’s death, the Timurid Dynasty/Empire collapsed. But their legacy continues. It is said here that “Great rulers build great buildings.  People die, but monuments survive.” (And so Gilgamesh lives on….)


The Shah i-Zindah is basically a street of mausoleums to house Timur’s descendants and those relatives not in Gur Emir or in Shakrisabz. Wives are buried separately from their husbands, but infants-toddlers are buried with their mothers.  The extent to which the person was close to Timur can be read by the use of mosaics = close or majolica = not so close. This had nothing to do with bloodline closeness, but more emotional closeness.  His first wife, for example, is buried in a majolica tomb, while his youngest wife has elaborate mosaics, as does his niece.


Some of the mausoleums that are here include one for General Amir Burundhk who conquered the Golden Horde for Timur There is another for five women that is quite different from the rest as the architect was from the Caucasus; it has 8 doors rather than one and a very ornate cupola. The inscription over the door reads “ Paradise is under the feet of the mother.” 


 The Shah-i-Zindah mausoleum is here and there are a few legends about it:


“Kusan ibn Abbas, a cousin of the prophet Mohammed and Hakim (mayor) of Mecca,  was sent with a small army to Samarkand to convert the city to Islam and introduce the foundations of shariah.  According to Arabic sources, Kusan came to Samarkand in 676 and fought about seventy battles near the city against local idolaters, who were later converted to Islam. But suddenly pagans from the Penjikent mountains attacked Samarkand.  Muslims were slaughtered because at that moment they were praying namaz.  Kusan ibn Abbas was also killed with an arrow.  According to another version, Kusan did not suffer torments. The minbar split and he hid through the formed narrow slot.  Another legend says that with the help of Saint Hazret Hyzra, Kusan went down through the well Shaaban to stay underground were he is still living today.  Thus, the name “Shah-i-Zinda” meaning ‘A Living King’ came about.  Yet another one says that “The Saints cells in the Friday Mosque are small and they only had bread and water and complete silence for 40 days. The saint was Kusan-ibn- Abbas, the Living King, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, who died 30 years after the Prophet. The patron saint of Samarkand, Kusan-ibn- Abbas, was supposedly beheaded by the infidels, but he took his head and headed for the hills, which opened up for him.  He protects the city from the mountainside. He was the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, so no one can open his tomb to see if he really was beheaded.” (35)


 There is also one about the Ruhabad mausoleum which  says that under the dome there is a box containing seven hairs of the Prophet Mohammed. It is also said that Timur regarded Sagardji as one of the most esteemed clerics at court. Timur always used to jump off his horse and walk on foot when passing the mausoleum.


 One of the major structures in Samarkand that is not a Mausoleum is the Bibi Khanym Mosque. Bibi Khanym was a favorite wife of Timur and the original wife of his friend, Hussein (who he had killed in an early struggle for power). She was the daughter of the Mongol ruler.  She died after Timur and was buried first in Afghanistan then brought back to Samarkand.  She didn’t have any children herself, but she raised Timur’s as well as his grandchildren, including Ulugbek.  When Timur brought the elephants and jewels from India, he used some of them in the construction of this mosque, which was started in 1399. The pistok entrance is now 36m high, but used to be 50 m., the minarets were 60m. When it was first constructed, it was the third largest mosque, after Mecca and Baghdad. The Friday Mosque should be near the Silk Road and market to help convert traders and merchants; the market is still next door.


 Legend about the Bibi-Khanym Mosque:

 “It is said that beautiful bib-Khanym, Timur’s wife, decided to surprised her husband and make him very happy. While the ruler was away at war, she called the best builders and masters of Samarkand together and suggested building the mosque. The work was started immediately and proceded at a rapid pace.  Meanwhile, the Queen received word that her husband was on his way back from wars in Central Asia.  It was Bibi-Khanym’s intention to surprise Timur, so she visited the construction site frequently, trying to speed up the work on the building.  Then the architect told her that he would have the building completed in time only if she gave him a kiss.  The Queen was in despair. “I’ll give you any of my handmaidens that you wish.  Why do you look only at me?  Look at these painted eggs.  They are different colors and there is nothing similar between them. But when you break them, will they differ from each other? So are we, women.”  But the architect persisted: “I will explain. Here are two identical glasses. I’ll fill one with pure water and the other with white wine.  And now they look alike, but if I touch them with my lips, one will burn me with fused fire while the other will be tasteless to me.  So it is with love.”  Timur was approaching Samarkand. Bib-Khaym was extremely upset.  Her surprise for the ruler was under threat. Besides, according to legend, the architect was young and handsome.  So she agreed to allow him to kiss her.  But at the last moment she tried to protect herself with the palm of her hand. However, the kiss was so passionate that the ardour traveled along her arm to her face, leaving a crimson mark on her cheek.  When Timur arrived in the capital, he was impressed by the magnificence of the cathedral mosque, his wife’s present. But when he saw his wife’s face and she told him what had happened, he became furious.  Timur told Bibi-Khanym to take all her valuables and leave.  Bibi-Khanym ordered her slaves to take Timur and follow her, and responded: “You are the most valuable thing I have.” Of course, he forgave her. But since that time he ordered all women to hide their beauty and wear a veil.” (22)

 Timur said he ruled by three principles: 1) he came to power by his own intelligence, 2) he always gave peace to the countries he conquered if they submitted to him, 3) if they didn’t submit, he killed them.


 Ulugbek was clearly shaped by his grandfather, as well as his parents. He was born in 1394; when he was five his father and grandfather took him on their war maneuvers, where he learned the geography and history of their conquered peoples. He wasn’t much interested in politics or in warfare, but rather in the sciences.  As a warrior and leader however, he had to be trained to govern. When he was 15, in 1409, he was put him in charge of Samarkand; Shakhruk was made governor of Khorasam, including Khiva. Ulugbek’s father, Shakruhk had left a large library and the young man made the most of its resources. Ulugbek studied and built two madrasahs in Bukhara and one in Samarkand. At these madrasahs, theology, theological commentary, the Koran, as well as the natural and physical sciences were taught, along with poetry. Ulugbek participated in the weekly debates, personally oversaw the curriculum and administered the school. The madrasahs had an 8 year curriculum, but they didn’t cost the students anything.  He paid for the boys room, board, tuition and clothing. They also received a stipend called a ‘ulufa’.


During Ulugbek reign the city had its apex as a leading cultural and scientific center. He considered himself first and foremost a scientist, not a warlord. His contemporaries said of him “In geometry he was similar to Euclid, in astronomy to Ptolemy.” (6)


 Before Galileo invented the telescope, he built a circular observatory from 1424-1430 on the top of the nearest hill. It was 36m high, 42 m in diameter and had three floors.  There was a rotating sextant between two light holes inside and an astrolobe. The outside was decorated with mosaics. The colors and the designs all mean something.  Blue is for power and peace within the Timurid Empire, gold is for wealth, green is for Islam, and white represents good/pure thoughts, good/pure intentions, which comes from the earlier Zoroastrian tradition. The 12 pointed star refers to the 12 signs of the zodiac, the squares are the four elements 3x over from Zorastrianism,  4 = earth 3=divine; 4 is also the four temperaments from the Greeks. Supposedly Alexander had the Avesta translated into Greek and Ulugbek had access to a copy. He also promoted music and was conversant with Pythagorean musical as well as geometrical theories.


 While Ulugbek was concerned with his madrasahs and observatory, the city and surrounding territories were falling apart. Rulers were supposed to conquer territories not ideas and the local imams, who garnered money from the pillaging, weren’t at all happy with him. The story goes that they plotted against Ulugbek and even said he was not mentally competent as he didn’t follow the path that was expected of a ruler.  They supposedly persuaded his son to kill him and “save” the empire. The son was killed about a year later. Soon thereafter the Timurid Empire in modern day Uzbekistan collapsed.  There is another version of the story that I heard as well that says Ulugbek had ordered the killing of a supposed traitor or criminal {it’s not clear which}, the person’s to be killed son, Abbas, watched the public execution and vowed to get revenge for his father. In this region, strong rulers should kill the descendants of the ones they order executed, so that there won’t be later problems, but Ulugbek’s was compassionate which is seen as a weakness. Abbas got his revenge by killing Ulugbek and then put Ulugbek’s son in place as a puppet government for six months before he was also killed.


 According to legend, after Ulugbeg died, Kushchi, one of the leading scholars in the madrasah (Ulugbek had gathered the brightest minds together for his schools), took some of the most precious books and treasures from the library and hid them in the Pamir Mountains so that they wouldn’t be looted or destroyed by the Shaybanids, the new ruling clan. The observatory was also abandoned.  The only proof we have that Ulugbeg’s records were shared was the “Gurkhani Zi” the “Book of Ulugbek” which was translated into English in the 17th C and into French in the 18th. In it he calculated the measurements for 1,018 stars and the movement of the earth’s rotation. The picture in the gallery shows that he was off only by a few seconds from modern computer based calculations. 


 The statue of Ulugbek by the observatory is supposed to be life-like given that it was done with model casting after the Russian tomb raid.


 Ulugbek’s main madrasah is in Registan Square, which means Sandy Place. There are three large madrasahs in the complex: Ulugbek madrasah (1417-1420), Tillya-Kari madrasah (1646-1660)), and the Sher-Dor madrasah (1619-1636) .


 The site gets its name from the 13th C.  Genghis Khan had tried to dam the river, but instead it dried up and changed course, leaving the sandy basin behind which became a crossroads for the Silk Road and town.  The covered market and caravansarai blossomed and given the strategic location was deemed the place to put a mosque to convert the traders. In the 15th C Ulugbek ordered the construction of a madrasah to replace the earlier market and caravansarai which were destroyed by the Mongols.  It took 13 years to build and was finished in 1430.  Khuschi, the architect, used an Iranian decorative style.  There were 4 minarets and pistok/entrance portals, which were 41m high.  The decorations used lots of star shapes given Ulugbeg’s interest in astronomy. There are three original minarets left standing and they are 36m high. In 1945 two of them started to lean/partially collapse, but they are still there.  The foundations of the minarets are 8m in diameter. When it was operational, there were 42 2-storied cells, 2 summer and 1 winter conference halls.  It was run on the Jama system, in other words, following Ulugbek’s principles.  There were no more than 10 pupils per group with a headmaster.  The boys studied 5 days a week.  He brought the best scholars from all over to teach at the madrasah.


Legend about the madrasah: “When the construction of the Ulugbek madrasah was coming to an end, Ulugbek ws asked about who would become its rector (‘mudarris’).  Ulugbek replied that he would appoint a person competent in all sciences.  His words were heard by Maulana Mohammed Havafi, who was sitting in dirty clothes among piles of brick. Havafi began to aspire to this position. Surprised, Ulugbek began asking him questions.  As soon as the ruler became convinced of Havafi’s knowledge, he ordered to take the wanderer to the bathhouse and had him dressed appropriately.   On opening day, Havafi gave a lecture in front of 90 scientists, but no one could understand the lecture, except Ulugbek and Kazi-Zadeh rumi (Ulugbek’s teacher), as the lecture was scientifically very complex.”


 The Sher-dor: I received differing translations for the term, either “having tigers” or “bearing lions.” In any case this amazing building has an image of a tiger on either  side of the pistok along with a deer and an image of a face in the sun. It was built by the governor of Samarkand in either 1617-1630 or 1619-1636, the stories differ according to source.  There are many interpretations of the tiger/lion, and sun figures.  One is that the architect wanted to depict when it was built so the two lions are the sign leo while the deer is libra.  (This is pretty far-fetched as far as I’m concerned; I doubt these prominent images refer just to the construction of the building.)  Another far-fetched theory is that he wanted to show that Shaybanid women were like lions. For the cupolas he took ideas from all over. The first cupola is over the tomb of the Sheik, while the second is over the mosque. There is a snake-styled spiral on the sides that is copied from the Timurid period.  About 90% of the decorations are original and we know who did them as the architect and decorator inscribed their names on the side of the building.


 The third madrasah, Tillya-Kari, was built with gilded gold as it was built around a 13th C destroyed and reconstructed mosque.  After the architect of the Sher-dor died, his wife continued his work.  In the digging, they came across the 13th C mosque, which she asked to have restored. The second and third of the Registan Square monuments are from the same ruler who ordered back to back construction. These two structures also use a fair amount of green, which was uncommon because until then they didn’t have the technique to make it properly. Turquoise, which was the royal color since the 11th C, was used instead.  Only after an Iranian decorator was hired in the 17th C, were they able to mix the proper green color.  Today the reconstructed parts need constant repair and look somewhat faded, while the original tiles and majolica have quite vibrant colors. Mosiacs were more costly than the glazed majolica as they were studded with precious metals and jewels. This was the rich kids school, only the boys from wealthy families could afford study in the Tillya-Kari madrasah. 


 Registan Square was also a market and public gathering spot as it is today. Even in the crowds, we never had any trouble with pick pockets or thieves anywhere; perhaps it was because in the past if a robber was caught stealing from the merchants, they would stone him, while the public watched.  Other historic events that took place here include the beginning of the revolt against Tsarist Russia; Uzbek women revolting against the traditional facial coverings and long arms that delineated whether or not they were single and burned their coats in the square (an early form of 1960s bra burning!); and that the whole UZ army left for WWII from Samarkand as there was a railway between the city and the Arals. Now it is the scene for an international folk music festival that they were preparing for when we were there.






Samarkand: The City and the Legends. Tashkent: Davr Nashriyoti, 2009.



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