Domes of Blue and Gold: Royal Samarqand

Media outlets over the past year or so have been fascinated by the excesses of autocratic regimes, from Gaddafi’s golden gun to President Assad’s personal expenditures. This fascination with larger-than-life figures, their quirks and grand visions (think of Turkmenistan’s ‘Neutrality Arch’, topped by a rotating, gold-plated statue of the president) speaks to an enduring characteristic of power–its repressiveness paired by self-aggrandising creativity.

The spectacular architecture of Shah-i Zinda evolved over many centuries.

The Timurid dynasty–descended from the conqueror Timur, or Tamerlane–is an outstanding example of this duality from mediaeval Central Asia. As some of you may recall, Timur’s tax collectors were accompanied on their rounds by torturers, in order to winkle out any sources of hidden wealth, while Timur’s son Shahrukh led a crackdown on intellectuals in the wake of an assassination attempt.

During their violent rule, however, the dynasty also patronised some of the most impressive architecture of the age, sponsoring a cultural florissance at odds with their widespread reputation for brutality.

Nowhere is this cultural legacy more visible than at Samarqand, a city in modern Uzbekistan noted for it’s merchants’ activity on the Silk Route. This trading city had a single principle monument, a shrine dedicated to one of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousins–Qutham ibn. ‘Abbas. As Timur’s successes grew, however, he chose to endow Samarqand as his capital, expanding the extant religious foundations into an extensive royal complex known under the collective name of Shah-i Zinda.

The Gur-i Amir, resting place of Timur, decorated in delicate brickwork. (Wikimedia).

One of his most notable projects was the Gur-i Amir Mausoleum, originally intended as the resting place of Muhammad Sultan, Timur’s grandson and heir-apparent, and begun in 1403-1404. When Timur himself died in 1405, however, his own tomb in Shahr-i Sabz (his birthplace) was inaccessible, and Timur was thus buried in Samarqand alongside his spiritual advisor Sayyid Barakah, his sons Shahrukh and Miranshah, and his grandson Ulugh Beg.

In accordance with Islamic convention, the Gur-i Amir is not decorated in a representative style. Instead, patterns were made through the arrangement of glazed brick, incorporating verses of the Qur’an in bold Kufic calligraphy. For this and other surrounding buildings, including two mausolea to Timur’s sisters and a madrasa (religious school), craftsmen were brought from across the breadth of Timur’s conquered territories. They brought with them many Persian techniques, hitherto unknown in this region, which allowed the monuments to grow to impressive size.

The Gur-i Amir’s imposing dome, for example, rises 34 meters above the ground, allowing its turquoise tiling to be seen from great distances.

The reconstructed entry-way of the Bibi Khanum Mosque, intended as Samarqand’s main venue for Friday prayers. (Wikimedia.)

Another of Timur’s projects displays his preoccupations with size even more clearly. Known as the Mosque of Bibi Khanum, it originally possessed 8 minarets and a colossal entry facade. Unusually, it also employed stone, as well as brick, which enhanced the building’s status in the eyes of its contemporaries.

Both projects were designed to impress. Timur, who traced his roots back to the nomadic Mongols, deliberately broke with these traditions by choosing a capital city for himself. By endowing it with such spectacular buildings, he hoped to present a more civilised aspect of his rule, one able to compete with the highly cultured history of Persia.

In addition, associating himself with a shrine to the Prophet’s cousin bolstered Timur’s credentials as an Islamic ruler–a difficult task given his notoriety on the battlefield. After his death, the members of his family who wished to seize control of his legacy continued the tradition of embellishing Samarqand–laying claim to his authority in the process.

Interestingly, however, it is not only the male members of the dynasty–brothers, sons, and grandsons–who did so. Royal women both received lavish tombs and patronised building projects (especially madrasas); activities which give insight into their active political lives. Through the architecture of Samarqand, therefore, we can see as the dynasty’s ambitions evolved from the bold assertion of Timur’s power to the successive appropriation of his legacy by subsequent generations.

Learn More:

Lenz, T. and Lowry, D., Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century, (Washington, D.C., 1989).

Subtelny, Maria E., Timurids in Transition: Turko-Persian Politics and Acculturation in Medieval Iran, (Leiden, 2007).

Pinder, Wilson R., ‘Timurid Architecture,’ Cambridge History of Iran: The Timurid and Safavid Periods, eds. Peter Jackson and Lawrence Lockhart, (Cambridge, 1986.)

7 thoughts on “Domes of Blue and Gold: Royal Samarqand

  1. All the Islamic dynasties descended from the Mongols actually had this tradition of big and extravagant tombs for the dead, including women. The involvement of women in politics was also not completely ruled out. But they mostly tended to be daughters and / or of Emperors, not wives.

    Nice post!

    • Thanks!
      You’re right that women in the post-Mongol Islamic lands are generally far more prominent than before the invasion. Compared to the Timurids, however, few of the dynasties seem to have had quite the same level of female participation. This is true (though with a few notable exceptions) for the Safavids, as well as for the Ottomans. For many royal women in these dynasties, they could have a great deal of influence, but mostly within the palace and the harem. The Mughals, on the other hand, seem closer to the Timurid precedent. When all four of these dynasties are compared with, say, the Fatimids or Mamlukes in Egypt, their gender roles emerge as something rather notable. At times, it can be traced back to the Mongols, but Turkic dynasties like the Seljuks also have these traits, and they can probably be attributed to the steppe, rather than the specifically Mongol, culture.

  2. I’ve been to Turkey and Armenia but Georgia and north east into the true steppes would be fascinating. Gorgon in Iran as the last place Zorastrianism flourished would also be an interesting stop.

    Your comment about women and steppe traditions seems right on from what I know. There are several reports of different steppe societies allowing female warriors and I think the Scythian tombs where female skeletons with armor and weapons designed for them are now famous. Eastern Turk tribes such as Oghuz seemed less into this expression of female power but still allowed women far more rights than almost anywhere else at the time if the woman was not highborn.

  3. Pingback: Kings, Princes, Poets, Astronomers | mediaevalmusings

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