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 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.
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.
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.
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.)