Down Tamerlane

With the best traditions of oriental architecture, Uzbekistan beckons you to go on a trail of the Great Silk Route, writes SUJOY DHAR

SCHOOL OF THOUGHT Registan in Samarkand madrasa. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

The trail of Uzbekistan’s national hero Amir Timur (also spelt Temur) is also the trail of the ancient Silk Road. But if you are visiting Uzbekistan, your initiation with history perhaps begins with a museum to the Temurids 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 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 only to commemorate the 600th birthday of Timur.

Amir Timur Museum.
Amir Timur Museum

 

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’. Made by Uzbek artists, it draws your attention along with a beautiful chandelier adorning the ceiling.

The picture reflects the life of Timur from his birth to his death. It shows a shooting star, symbolising the translation of his name ‘Amir Temur’ as ‘born under a lucky star’.

In the second part of the mural, there is a creative work of the great ruler, which are the majestic buildings you see in Uzbekistan — Ak-Saray Palace in Shakhrisyabs or the Bibi Khanum 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 scientific thought and education. The exhibits of the museum dating back to Timurid era are of great historical value and for an Indian, they are relatable with our history and culture almost intertwined since Babur came to India.

Interiors of Gur e Emir.
Interiors of Gur e Emir.

 

In the museum there are also archaeological, ethnographic and numismatic materials and ornaments of the 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.

But the real splendour of the country begins when you take a two-hour 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, since ancient times known as Marakanda, is found in the descriptions of the conquests of Alexander the Great (329 BC). Alexander described Samarkand as: “Everything I heard about the beauties of Samarkand is all true, except that it is more beautiful than I could imagine.”

In different periods, the city was influenced by Persians, Seleucids, Arabs and Mongols. In the 14th century, the city was the capital of the empire of Timur and its dynasty.

From every successful expedition to India, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Transcaucasia, Timur brought to Samarkand the most skilfull architects, jewellers and scientists. The rulers of the European states considered it an honour to visit Samarkand.

It is in Samarkand that you see an explosion of Islamic architecture under the Timurid dynasty. In the heart of the modern city of Samarkand is this public square called the Registan, which was the crowning glory of the city under the Timurids. ‘Registan’ means ‘sandy place’ or ‘desert’ in Persian.

It is here that in Timurid-era people would gather to hear royal proclamations heralded by blasts on enormous copper pipes called dzharchis. It was also a place of public executions.

Gur-e-Amir where Timur and other leaders are buried.
Timur was buried in Gur-e-Emir.

 

Under the dome

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 one of the world’s scientific centres. There was a whole scientific school, uniting astronomers and mathematicians. In 1428, the Ulugbek Observatory was built, the key instrument of which was a wall quadrant in partly underground section with a radius of 40m and a working part from 20° to 80°, 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, al-Biruni, Rumi, Rudaki, Omar Khayyam, Jami, Navoi, Babur and Ali-Kushchi.

Aged over 2,750 years, Samarkand was the most important point on the Great Silk Road between China and Europe.

If you go dizzy viewing the grandeur and scale of Registan, then pause and head to the the mausoleum of Gur-e Emir (Timur). This building was laid by the grandson of Timur — Muhammad-Sultan — as a madrasa in 1401. However, Muhammad-Sultan died prematurely, returning from the campaign to Asia Minor. So his madrasa was rebuilt by the order of Amir Timur himself, and Muhammad-Sultan was buried there.

Amir Timur Mural in  Tashkent Museum.
Caption

 

The Bukhara experience

If Samarkand leaves you breathless 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. The city was the largest trade centre on the Great Silk Road. In the caravan-sheds, merchants from different countries stopped for rest.

 

Bukhara winter palace.
Bukhara winter palace.

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