Suitcase and World: Samarkand. Gur-e-Amir.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Samarkand. Gur-e-Amir.

View of the magnificent domed ceiling inside Gur-e-Amir.

Just a few minutes before 9a, we were back down in the lobby. If you travel with Pat, you can be assured you will never be late! On this trip, she is our designated time keeper and she's a good job making sure we arrive, anywhere we're suppose to be, with time to spare!  So like me though I've not told her that....yet.

There, in the lobby, was a very neatly dressed older woman.  She was dressed in a long black blazer over an ivory colored skirt.  Beneath the skirt was a pair of leggings. A white scarf was loosely tied around her neck and her hair was neatly coiffed into a bun.  She had on a low pair of heels - very appropriate for the long day of sightseeing ahead of us. She looked very professional.  She was Valentina, our guide.

Out front, Shavkat was standing next to our car.  Valentina suggested we start our visit with Gur-e-Amir as it was located just a few minutes walk away.  We agreed.  As we walked, Valentina gave us some background on Timur and the mausoleum that he, his sons Shahrukh and Miran Shah and his grandsons Ulugbek and Muhammad Sultan are entombed.  Also buried here are Timur's teachers - Sayyid Baraka and Sheikh Seyid Umar, the most revered of Timur’s teachers, said to be a descendent of the Prophet Muhammed.

Close up view of one of the minarets.

We stood nearby the portal entrance as Valentina continued to brief us.  It was now approaching mid morning and tourists, albeit not that many, were beginning to dribble in.  I could see Valentina wanting to speed things up so we could get inside ahead of the other people.

I listened as best I could to Valentina but my eyes were distracted by the beauty of this place.  We had seen Uzbek Islamic architecture in Tashkent but what I saw at Gur-e-Amir was so much more splendid!

Construction of Gur-e-Amir itself began in 1403, after the sudden death of Muhammad Sultan, Timur's heir apparent and his beloved grandson.  Work on the mausoleum had not completed when Timur died in 1405.  His grandson, Ulugbek finished the construction.  Originally, Timur was to be buried in a smaller tomb that he had built for himself in Shahrisabz near his Ak-Saray palace.  However, when Timur died in 1405, on a military expedition to China, the passes to Shahrisabz were snowed in so he was buried here instead. During Ulugbek's reign the mausoleum became the family crypt of the Timurid Dynasty.

The mausoleum has suffered from the ravages of time and earthquakes.  Today, only the foundations of the madrasah and khanaka, the entrance portal and two of the four original minarets remains.  Much of what we see today has been reconstructed.

Looking up and through the entry portal.

Front facade of the portal.

Decorative tile work.

Detail of the fluted dome.

More views of the exterior facade.

We entered the mausoleum through a side door.

We stepped inside a small room that was lit only by light coming in from the door and streaming down from a small skylight above.

Stone inscription.

Here, we crossed paths with a woman and her two daughters.  Valentina stopped them to admire their dress which she thought was lovely.  I'm still working on appreciating Uzbek sense of fashion and style.  What caught my eye was their facial features - a bit Asian and a bit Persian mix, I thought.

After a brief chat, we headed inside the grand chamber.  Oh my God!  The instant my eyes laid on the walls of this room was the same instant my jaw dropped to the floor.  It was unbelievably splendid in colors of blue, gold and white.

Literally and I mean literally, every inch of space was either intricately decorated.  While Valentina proceeded to tell us more about this magnificent room, I shot some video to capture what my eyes were seeing.

Large expanses of the walls are decorated with painted plaster and gilded bas-relief work. 

The five pointed star was a common design element.

Valentina called special attention to the arches which feature marquanas which as described in Wikipedia are:
...a form of architectural ornamented vaulting, the "geometric subdivision of a squinch, or cupola, or corbel, into a large number of miniature squinches, producing a sort of cellular structure", sometimes also called "honeycomb" vaults from their resemblance to these. They are used for domes, and especially half-domes in entrances and apses, mostly in traditional Islamic and Persian architecture. When some elements project downwards, the style is called mocárabe. These are reminiscent of stalactites, and are may be called "stalactite vaults".

Valentina asked us to guess what material was used to create the marquanas.  Of course, we had no idea.  The answer was *papier-mâché*.   I was so surprised at her answer.  I've never heard of or seen paper being used to decorate a wall in this way.  It's so intricate and so well done!

In the center of the room were the tombs.  In Islamic traditional, the tombstones are just markers; the actual crypts are in a chamber beneath.

Timur's tombstone is easily recognized - it is the one that was once a single block of nephrite jade.  Timur's tombstone was brought by Ulugbek from the region that is now Mongolia in the 15th century.  It was and still is the world’s largest piece of nephrite jade.

Timur's tomb is flanked on the left by that of Ulugbek and on the right by the tomb of Sayyid Baraka. In front of Timur lies Mohammed Sultan. Behind Timur are the tombstones his sons Shahrukh (father of Ulugbek) and Miran Shah. Behind these lies Sheikh Seyid Umar.

 As we gazed down at the tomb, Valentina told us of a legend associated with Timur's jade tomb.

Before it became Timur's tombstone, the slab of jade was believed to possess magical power.  It had been an object of worship in a Chinese palace, and then was used as a throne by a Chagatai khan, a descendant of Genghis Khan.  In 1740, the Persian king Nadir Shah invaded Samarkand and subsequently removed the tombstone and carried it off to Persia.  Nadir Shah was soon struck by a run of ill luck, including the near death of his son.  His advisers strongly recommended that he return the stone to its rightful place.  On the way back to Samarkand the stone was broken in to at least two pieces.

Standing around Timur's tombstone, Valentina proceeded to tell us another *legend* though this one hails from more recent history.   The tombstone has an inscription in Arabic saying that loosely translates to something along the lines of "whoever opens this will be defeated by an enemy more fearsome than I.", basically warning anyone from attempting to open it.  What she told us next falls into the *believe it or not* category of stories.

In June, 1941, the Soviet anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov opened the crypts and, among other things, confirmed that Timur was tall (1.7m) and lame in the right leg and right arm (from injuries suffered when he was 25) and that Ulugbek died from being beheaded.  The next day, June 22nd, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.

Back outside, we walked around part of the mausoleum where would could still see some unrestored sections of the building.

As we wrapped up our visit to this most amazing landmark, we crossed paths with yet another Uzbek family.  This time, we gladly stood and posed for some photos.  With Valentina translating, we exchanged a few words before moving on. 

Shavkat was waiting for us just outside the entrance portal.  We got into the car and headed to our next destination, the Registan!