The name Samarkand conjures magical images of exotic tribes in Central Asia: the Turks, Arabs, Iranians, Sogdians, Mongols and Uzbeks. Today, this south-eastern city in Uzbekistan consists of an old city dating from medieval times and a new section built after the Russians occupied the area in the 19th century.
A wonderful showcase of Samarkand’s rich heritage is the Bibi Khanym Mosque, one of the most outstanding in the Islamic world. Built between 1399 and 1404 during the last years of the feared Turkic-Mongol conqueror, Timur (aka Tamerlane), the Bibi Khanym mosque is riveting in its monumental scale and splendor.
Timur built it to commemorate his wife, who was buried in a tomb located in a madrasa complex just across the main road which leads from the old city to the center of the Timurid city at the Registan. The finished building was immense: it covered an area of 460 x 325 feet, making it substantially larger than a major league soccer field (about 350 x 150 feet).
The most striking architectural feature of the mosque is the arched portal, which measures 62 feet (19 metres) high. The lofty arched portal is a feature which goes back to ancient Persian architecture to which Timur turned to for inspiration.
Behind the portal is the massive dome that reaches a height of 144 feet (44 metres). Court poets at the time compared the dome to the vault of heaven and the portal’s arch to the Milky Way. The vaults supporting the domes from below also reflect Iranian influence – they were not only structurally complex but decorated with dazzling Islamic “stalactite” (muqarnas), a symbolic representation of God’s creation.
Timur is reported to have imported elephants from India to carry the huge blocks of stone for and to have personally supervised the construction of what is to be a concrete symbol of his conquest of the world. By all standards, he succeeded; the Bibi Khanym mosque is an imposing masterpiece, matched in scale only by the later Kalan Friday mosque in Bukhara, which together with Samarkand, were important trading posts of the fabled Silk Road.
A Brief History of Samarkand
Nomads and Conquerors
Central Asia was traditionally the home of nomadic tribes, periodically overrun by conquerors from east and west. As dynasties changed, caravan trails led to virgin lands being converted into cities and towns. Culture and economy flourished. Caravanserais (roadside inns), tombs, madrasas and mosques were built. Genghis Khan, one of the world’s greatest conquerors, was born here in AD 1167, the son of a petty Mongol chieftain or khan. Before he died in AD 1227, he had become the Great Khan and ruled from the China Sea to the borders of present-day eastern Europe. His descendants fanned out further westward into Iran, Anatolia, and Bagdad and adopted Islam (Islam spread to Central Asia in the 8th century). One branch founded the Ilkanid empire in Persia, with its capital at Tabriz; another converted to Buddhism, the prevailing faith in Mongolia. By the mid-12th century, Islam had been adopted by parts of the Turkic-Mongol population. The Turkish Uighers in northwest China also converted to Islam between the 14th and 17th century.
After Genghis Khan, Timur, ‘Ruler of the World’ dominated the history of the region. A man who killed thousands and destroyed complete cities, he also built one of the largest mosque in the world at Samarkand, the Bibi Khanym Mosque discussed in this post.
Timurid architecture is an eclectic mix of the styles of all the different places linked to Timur’s conquests and are distinguished by their monumental scale and colossal portals flanked by equally massive supporting pillars, huge domes on high drums and often, lofty minarets. These elements reflected Timur’s own ego and the wealth he amassed. After him, no significant mosques were built. The architecture of madrasas and mausoleums became more balanced in their proportions and decorations. It was now the turn of the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India to declare their magnificence in art, architecture and culture.