One of India’s most friendly Central Asian nations, Uzbekistan, hails Timur as their national hero as it emerges out of the Soviet penumbra since gaining Independence in 1991. The trail of Timur in Uzbekistan is also the trail of the ancient Silk Road, which the 8th UNWTO (UN agency for World Tourism) in Berlin in March 2018 chose as the most important transnational tourism route of the 21st century.
But if you are visiting Uzbekistan on the trail of Timur- with Genghis Khan, India’s first Mughal emperor Babur and great Timurid astronomer king Ulugbek thrown in for good measure – your initiation perhaps begins with a museum to the Timurids in the sprawling capital city of Tashkent.
The Museum of History of Temurids – which is called the Amir Timur Museum popularly is a building with a blue cupola with all three floors dedicated to the pre-Soviet rulers of Uzbekistan. Once you enter the building and before exploring the various exhibits what you confront at the centre of the main hall is a copy of the Muslim holy book – the Koran Osman.
This Koran is said to be a copy of the oldest holy book of the Muslims which is preserved in the same capital city. This museum was built to commemorate the 600th birthday of Timur, but your Timurid trail can begin right here.
As you stand in front of the Koran admiring its display and size, you come face to face with Timur in a large mural on the wall in the style of miniatures, titled “The Great Timur – the great creator” with a beautiful chandelier adorning the ceiling Made by Uzbek artists, it reflects on the life of Timur from his birth to his death, and includes a shooting star symbolising the translation of his name “Amir Temur” as “born under a lucky star.”
The second section of the mural shows off the creative side of the great ruler – the majestic buildings you see in Uzbekistan- Ak-Saray Palace in Shakhrisyabs or the BibiKhanum in Samarkand. And third, the final part of a panel is the last stage in the life of Timur, his tomb -the Gur-e Emir, also in Samarkand.
Since its inception, the museum has become a centre of research and education. The exhibits of the museum are of great historical value. For the Indian visitor, history and cultural ethos resonate easily. In the museum there are also archaeological, ethnographic and numismatic materials and ornaments of Amir Timur era transported through the Great Silk Road. A replica of the Taj Mahal would also hold an Indian’s interest in this museum.
The Timur trail continues on a two hours bullet train journey from Tashkent to Samarkand, the ancient city which is often referred to as the diamond of Central Asia.Founded in 742 BC, writers and poets paid glowing tributes to Samarkand with epithets like “Eden of the Ancient East”, “The City of Allah”, “The Pearl of the Eastern Muslim World”, “The Face of the Earth”, etc.
The earliest mention of Samarkand, known as Marakandain ancient times, is found in the descriptions of the conquests of Alexander the Great (329 BC). Who said, “Everything I heard about the beauties of Samarkand is all true, except that it is more beautiful than I could imagine.”
The city was influenced by Persians, Seleucids, Chinese, Turks, Arabs and Mongols during different periods. In the 14th century, the city was the capital of the empire of the Great Timur and its dynasty.
From every successful expedition to India, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Transcaucasia, Timur brought to Samarkand skillful architects, jewellers and scientists. The rulers of the European states considered it an honour to visit Samarkand. It is here that you see an explosion of Islamic architecture under the Timurid dynasty. In the heart of the modern city of Samarkand is the public square called the Registan which was the crowning glory of the city under the Timurids. Registan means “Sandy place” or “desert” in Persian.
In the Timurid era people would gather here to hear royal proclamations, heralded by blasts on enormous copper pipes called dzharchis. It was also a place of public executions. Registan is framed by three splendid, tilting madrasahs (Islamic schools) of distinctive Islamic architecture.
The works of majolica and azure mosaics of these buildings form the centrepiece of the city. This Unesco World Heritage complex with its azure glistening cupolas (domes), ornate portals and patterned minarets overwhelm you as you walk into the grand public expanse. No wonder that British India viceroy George Curzon had described Registan as “the noblest public square in the world”.
Under Ulugbek, Samarkand also became a well-known scientific centre, with astronomers and mathematicians. In 1428, the Ulugbek Observatory was built, the key instrument of which was a wall quadrant in partly underground section. It was used to chart movements of celestial bodies across the sky.
The history of the city is closely connected with the names of great poets, philosophers and scholars like Ibn Sina, Biruni, Rumi, Ali-Kushchi, Rudaki, Omar Khayyam, Jami, Navoi.
If you go dizzy viewing the grandeur and scale of Registan, then pause and head for the mausoleum of Gur-e Emir (Timur). This building was laid by the grandson of Timur – Muhammad-Sultan- as a madrasah in 1401. However, Muhammad-Sultan died prematurely, returning from the campaign to Asia Minor. So it was rebuilt by the order of Amir Timur himself, and Muhammad-Sultan was buried there. Famous historian Temur Sharaf al-Din Ali Yazdi wrote that “the dome of this building was high, like the sky, the lower parts of the building were decorated with gilded and turquoise patterns in marble.”
Inside the mausoleum’s high chamber, you are left spellbound by the intricate, ornamental and gilded works and panels. The deep niches, paintings, arches and ornate carved headstones leave you in awe of its creators. Here also you see the beautiful Muqarnas or ornamented vaulting that characterises Islamic architecture. Amir Timur himself was buried here in 1405.
Not to be missed is another architectural high point: Bibi-Khanum mosque that Tamerlane’s favourite wife Bibi-Khanum had built in honor of his return from a trip to India. She wanted it to be the most grandiose creation of Samarkand.
If Samarkand leaves you spellbound with its beautiful monuments and architecture, then hold your breath till you are in Bukhara, the museum-city where every building, alley and brick breathes history. There are some 140 centuries-old monuments in Bukhara with its historical centre included in the Unesco World Heritage List.
Bukhara’s history dates back to more than 2500 years. According to legend, the city was founded by the Persian prince Siyavush, to whom the vassal state was handed over as a wedding gift by the ruler of Samarkand Afrasiab. In the center of the state was erected a fortress “Ark”, which was surrounded by settlements of artisans. At one time, the city fell to Alexander the Great, later the Arab conquerors and was subjected to destruction by Genghis Khan. In 1370 Bukhara became part of the empire of Timur.
The city was the largest trade centre on the Great Silk Road. In the caravan-sheds, merchants from different countries stopped for rest.
Bukhara reached its peak at the end of the 16th century, during the reign of the Sheibanid dynasty and Ashtarkhanid dynasty.
A visit to Bukhara is also about soaking in the beauty of Poi Kalyan (“the foot of the Great Minaret”), an architectural ensemble centered around the Kalyan Minaret built by Arslan Khan (1127 – 1129) and consisting of the majestic Kalyan mosque and the Mir-i Arab Madrassah (1527-1536). Poi Kalyan is located in the centre of Shahristan (Inner City) of Bukhara.
At the initiative of late President Islam Karimov, the complex was completely restored. And what an inexorable journey of Islamic craftsmanship it is for a visitor to be here to see all that survived and rebuilt after destruction by Genghis Khan. Kalyan Mosque with its beautiful tiled work and the sprawling courtyard is simply spectacular.
The Kalon or Kalyan Minaret (kalon meaning great in Tajik) was said to be the tallest in Central Asia during those days standing 47m tall with 10m-deep quake-proof foundation that even Genghis Khan spared as he destroyed rest of the city.
The Minaret is the only structure of this complex, which was kept safe during the siege laid by Genghis Khan. The body of the minaret which also used glazed blue tiles is topped by a rotunda with 16 arched fenestrations, from which the muezzins summoned the Muslims in the city to prayer. There is a brick spiral staircase that twists up inside around the pillar to the rotunda.
However, not much is known about the beautiful Mir-i Arab Madrasah in this complex. It is marked by stone mosaics work with geometric, vegetative and calligraphic writings and patterns.
On a late winter afternoon, as the mellow sun covered the place in golden light, it felt surreal to be standing in front of the complex wondering what it took to create such beautiful mosques, gypsum works, wood carvings, massive blue cupolas and patterned minarets.
India Blooms News Service / TWF