Suitcase and World: Tamerlane & Samarkand.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tamerlane & Samarkand.

The Registan.   (Photo by Stomac)

If you had asked me a year ago to name places in Central Asia, I would have come up with a handful of names best. The first place that would have come to my mind would have been Samarkand.  I think that without a shadow of a doubt, it is the place that many people would associate with Uzbekistan.  They might not know what the capital of Uzbekistan is but they will know Samarkand. After all, it is where the country's most famous heritage landmark, the Registan, is located.

In doing reading on Samarkand, I quickly realized it wasn't really possible to fully appreciate this place without getting to know something about Tamerlane, the Uzbek ruler who made Samarkand his crowning achievement.

Statue of Timur in Samarkand.  (Photo from
Timur was his birth name; Tamerlane was the name given to him by the European world.  By all accounts, he was a brilliant military strategist, a fearless warrior and one of human history's most brutal despots.   His European name is based on the Turkic nickname Timur-i-leng, meaning *Timur the Lame.*  He supposedly got this nickname after a childhood incident that resulted in a permanent limp.

Timur was born in 1336, near the city of Kesh (now called Shahrisabz), located about 50 miles south of Samarkand in what was then known as Transoxiana.   His father was the chief of a tribe that was of mixed Mongolian and Turkic ancestry, descended from the hordes of Genghis Khan and the earlier inhabitants of Transoxiana. While some historians have claimed that Timur was descended from Genghis Khan on his mother's side, there are no facts to really substantiate this claim.

During Timur's youth, Transoxiana was driven by conflict between the local nomadic clans and the sedentary Chagatay Mongol khans who ruled them.

Drawn into battle, Timur's bravery and tactical skill made him a successful mercenary soldier, winning one campaign after another, defeating rival nomadic tribes and usurping their lands.  As his empire grew, so did Timur's thirst for conquest.  By the 1366, he had amassed enough lands to declare himself sovereign of Transoxiana.

Through sheer intelligence, military skill and force of personality, Timur was able to conquer an empire stretching from Russia to India, and from the Mediterranean Sea to Mongolia.

Over the next decade, Timur seized the rest of Central Asia, as well and continued to expand his empire, invading Russia in 1380. He also defeated the Lithuanians in battle. Timur captured Herat (now in Afghanistan) in 1383 and by 1385, all of Persia was his. Timur's army captured Moscow in 1395 and a year later, had conquered Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Mesopotamia and Georgia.Conquest of India, Syria, and Turkey. Timur looked west in 1399, retaking Azerbaijan and conquering Syria. Baghdad was destroyed in 1401 and in 1402, Timur captured early Ottoman Turkey and Egypt.

Timur was a ferocious and brutal man. In his battle campaigns, his armies left nothing but carnage in their paths.  Under Timur's command, they looted and pillaged, often leveling entire cities and terrorizing and killing entire populations.  Timur did not care to establish any sort of governmental structure to replace the one he had just obliterated or build trade routes to connect the states in his empire.  He just destroyed for the sake of destruction.

Although the Timurid Empire did not survive following Timur's death, his descendants had better luck.  The most successful Timurid ruler, Timur's grandson Uleg Beg, gained fame as an astronomer, mathmatician and scholar.  Unfortunately, Uleg was not a good administrator and was murdered by his own son in 1449. Centuries later, another descendant of Timur made the history books -  specifically in India where where his great-great-grandson Babur founded the Mughal Dynasty in 1526. The Mughuls ruled until 1857, when the British expelled them. Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, is thus also a descendent of Timur - I would say he inherited his Timur's eye for beauty.

The name Samarkand is derived from Old Persian asmara (*stone, rock*) and from Sogdian qand (*fort, town*) so Samarkand literally means *stone fort* or *rock town*).

"Samarkand".  Painting by Richard Karl Karlovich Zommer ca. 1910.

Samarkand is one of the oldest existing cities in all the world, have been founded in pre-Achaemenid times, sometime between 650 and 550 BC.  The city was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC after which it was known as Maracanda. 

In the early 8th century AD, Samarkand was conquered by the Arabs and soon became an important center of Muslim culture and it subsequently grew as a trade center on the Silk Road.

In 1220, Samarkand was almost completely destroyed by the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan. It wasn't until 1369 when Timur made it the capital of his empire that the city truly flourished.  It was Timur that put Samarkand on the world map and much of the architecture visible today was built by him or his descendants. The empire declined following Timur's death and nomadic Uzbeks (Shaybanids) took Samarkand in 1500. In 1784 the emirate of Bukhara conquered it. The city was taken by Russia in 1868 and once again began to assume importance. From 1924 to 1930, Samarkand was the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).

As vicious as Timur was as a conqueror, he was also reputedly a patron of the arts, literature, and architecture. Samarkand was his crowning achievement - he turned what Genghis Khan and his army had destroyed into an exquisitely beautiful city.

The religious complex known as the Registan was the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand.  The name Registan means *sandy place* or *desert* in Persian (ریگستان).

The Registan was a public square, where people gathered to hear royal proclamations as well as a place where public executions took place. It is framed by three madrasahs (Islamic schools) - Ulugh Beg Madrasah, Sher-Dor Madrasah, and Tilya Kori Madrasah.

Ulugh Beg Madrasah (Photo by Arian Zwegers)
The Uleg Beg Madrasah was built by Mīrzā Muhammad Tāraghay bin Shāhrukh, better known as Ulugh Beg, the scholar king and grandson of Timur.  Construction on the madrasah began in 1417 and was completed in 1420; it is the oldest madrasah in the Registan.

The Uleg Beg Madrasah was long considered the leading center of Islamic education in Central Asia.  From an architectural perspective, it has an an imposing iwan with the open end  facing the square.  In Islamic architecture, an iwan is a rectangular hall or space, usually vaulted, walled on three sides, with one end entirely open. Up until just this minute, I would have looked at the photo, figured out that the iwan is where the front entrance to the madrasah is and described as an entrance with a vaulted ceiling.  See what I learn as I research for my trips? :-)

The corners of the building are flanked by high minarets. On the other side of the entrance is square courtyard that includes a mosque and lecture rooms, and rooms for scholars and students.  The four corner rooms are lecture rooms (darskhonas).

Sher-Dor Madrasah. (Photo by tchumbley)
The Sher-Dor Madrasah was built between 1619–1636 under the orders of the ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur.  The name Sher-Dor translates as *Madrassah with Lions*.

The Sher-Dor Madrasah is located opposite Uleg Beg.

It also has an impressive iwan.  On the panel above are a pair of images of tigers with the sun on their backs .  The tiger mosaics are interesting, in that they flout the ban in Islam of the depiction of living beings on religious buildings.  Also, above the entrance is the image of a swastika, which in ancient times was the symbol of abundance and fertility.

Architecture wise, Sher-Dor almost mirrors Ulug Beg Madrasah, i.e. it is a square building with an inner courtyard, rooms for scholars and for students and two lecture rooms.  However, Sher-Dor is larger in size and because it's 200 years younger, the builders were able to incorporate the latest architectural innovations that were available at the time.  Even though it is more modern, many architectural experts consider Uleg Beg to be the *finer* building.

Tilya-Kori Madrasha.  (Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)
The Tilya-Kori Madrasah was built between 1646–1660, also under the orders of Yalangtush Bakhodur.  Tilya-Kori was built on the site of a caravansaray which had existed for over two centuries.  The name of the Madrassah translates as *decorated with gold* and that speaks to the fact that it was lavishly decorated using gold.  Apparently, the interior of the main hall is ornately gilded.

Architecture wise, Tilya-Kori definitely stands out from the other two madrasahs. The square-shaped building of the madrassah spans the distance that separates Ulug Beg and Sher-Dor.  The front façade, is symmetrical and consists of the high portal and two floors of arched niches, flanked by towers.  The inner courtyard is flanked with rooms for scholars and students and for lecture rooms.  The mosque, which is located on the western end of the madrassah, is crowned with the big glazed dome. For a long time this mosque was the main mosque in Samarkand.

In addition to the Registan, there are several other important heritage landmarks in Samarkand including the Gur-e Amir Mausoleum (1404) which is where Timur is interred and the Observatory of Ulug Beg (1428–1429).

We have a little over a day and I think that should be enough to see the major sights.  I cannot wait!