The Gur-I Amir and the Building of Tamerlane’s Samarkand

Image of the interior of the dome of the Tilya Kori Madrasah in Samarkand.  The blue and gold geometric patterns decorating the dome are extremely intricate.  Similarly intricate squinches at the corners provide a transition from the square structure to the round dome.
Interior of the dome of the Tilya Kori Madrasah, Samarkand. © Artifacts

Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan has long held a special place in the imagination of artists, poets, and historians.  Romanticized in both the East and West, it inspires a sense of wonder – a place where, perhaps, anything is possible.  Much of its mystique comes down to the man who put it on the map – Timur the Lame, better known as Tamerlane.  Born in 1336 AD, Timur was the son of a minor member of the Mongol aristocracy.  Though lacking a glorious pedigree, he would go on to conquer vast territories, leading campaigns in India, Turkey, Syria, Persia, Mesopotamia and many other places beyond.  Through his conquests, he (forcibly) brought the best minds of Central Asia and the Middle East back to Samarkand, employing them in monumental construction projects across his capital.  Through his patronage, he would inspire a new period in Islamic architecture, art, and science, which we know today as the Timurid Renaissance.  Nowhere better embodies this than Timur’s own tomb, the Gur-I Amir, which blends the best of Central Asia’s nomadic culture with Persian art and design. This structure and the cultural movement it epitomized would loom large for centuries after Timur’s death, establishing a model that rulers from Istanbul to New Delhi would aspire to.

The Heir of Genghis

A bust of Timur staring coldly into space.  The face is a reconstruction based on Timur's exhumed skull.
A facial reconstruction of Timur based on exhumed skull. (Credit: Wikipedia user ShakkoCC BY-SA 3.0)

Timur was born in Transoxiana – a region 80 km south of Samarkand.  His father was a minor noble in the Barlas tribe, which though Mongol in origin, had mixed widely with Turkic peoples.  Like the other nomadic peoples of the steppe, the Barlas tribe had converted to Islam long before Timur’s birth.

In his youth, Timur dabbled in brigandry, stealing sheep and cattle.  It was during one of these attempted robberies that he is said to have been hit with two arrows, costing him two fingers and the use of his right leg. This injury, however, did not blunt his ambition.  The poet Sakkaki writes that following his injuries, a dejected Timur watched a crippled ant attempt to carry a piece of grain up a hill back to its colony.  Like Sisyphus, each time the ant neared the precipice, it would lose its grip and the grain would fall back down.  Again and again the ant tried to get the grain up the hill and on the 70th attempt (by Timur’s count), the ant made it.  According to Sakkaki, this taught Timur the value of perseverance, a trait that would carry him from lowly beginnings to heights attained only by Genghis Khan. 

It would, however, be a long road.  It would take 10 years of high-stakes political maneuvering and subterfuge before Timur would finally become the head of the Barlas tribe and take control of his home region of Transoxiana.  From this base, he would launch conquests of steadily greater ambition.  He would first expand in Central Asia before taking Iran, then much of Mesopotamia.  This provided him the wealth and manpower to make plays against other regional powers, most notably the Golden Horde – which held territory stretching from Siberia to deep into Eastern Europe.  In a series of campaigns around the Caspian and Russian steppe, Timur scored victory after victory against the Horde, sacking its capital and overthrowing its leadership in 1395.  The Horde would never recover from these defeats and slowly broke apart into smaller khanates over the next several decades.  With the Golden Horde defeated, Timur became the most powerful figure within the Mongol-nomadic world. 

A map showing the approximate extent of Timur's empire around the time of his death.  The empire stretches from northern India to Anatolia.  Samarkand lies not far from the empire's north-eastern border.
Approximate extent of Timur’s empire at the time of his death. (Credit: StuntelaarCC BY-SA 3.0)

The Empire Expands

Following his defeat of the Golden Horde, Timur turned back toward the settled lands of Islam.  In 1398, Timur led an army against his nearest major Islamic rival, the Delhi Sultanate.  The culmination of this campaign came during the Battle of Delhi.  The Sultan of Delhi was confident that his armored elephants, their tusks tipped with poison, would make short work of Timur’s army.  Timur, however, was prepared.  He is said to have packed kindling onto his camels’ backs, set them alight, then pointed them toward the elephants.  The frightened elephants broke ranks, causing havoc within the enemy lines and assuring Timur’s victory. 

Following his victories in India, Timur went on to attack the Ottoman Turks, capturing the famed Sultan Bayezid in 1402 during the Battle of Ankara.  Bayezid would die in captivity, initiating an 11 year civil war among his heirs.  This checked Ottoman expansion, providing Byzantine Constantinople a few decades reprieve from further Turkish encroachment.  For this, Timur was celebrated in Western Europe, which was at that time deeply concerned about further Ottoman expansion.  By decisively defeating both the Ottoman Turks and the Sultan in Delhi, Timur was now the leading figure in both the Islamic and Mongol worlds.

A painting of Timur walking into the room holding the Turkish Sultan Bayezid.  Bayezid rises from a bed as Timur enters the dilapidated room, accompanied by his nobles.
Timur visiting Sultan Bayezid in captivity. Painting by Stanisław Chlebowski – 1878. (wikicommons)

Timur’s greatest campaign, however, was the one that never happened.  The Mongol dynasty that had ruled China had been overthrown and a new Han-Chinese dynasty – the Ming – had come to power.  Chinese envoys were dispatched to Timur’s court, demanding that he make tribute to the Son of Heaven.  To punish this and return China to Mongol dominion, Timur prepared a great expedition of 200,000 men.  This army, however, would never arrive at its destination.  Hit with an unseasonably cold winter, the aged Timur died en route in 1405, sparing China what would have certainly been a devastatingly brutal conflict.

Timur’s Samarkand Takes Shape

Throughout his campaigns, Timur committed a series of breathtaking atrocities, murdering the inhabitants of entire cities.  17 million people are said to have died during his campaigns.  Even in a brutal age, he stood out as especially vicious.  But he was careful to always spare the leading artists and craftsman of the areas he conquered.  As with the rest of his war loot, he had them sent back to Samarkand, an old way station on the Silk Road which he made his capital in 1370 after assuming leadership of the Barlas tribe.  It is here that he initiated a building campaign to rival the greatness of his conquests.  As on the battlefield, Timur was relentless.  He demanded construction works be completed with lightning speed, often supervising the work himself.  And when he wasn’t satisfied, he would not hesitate to have buildings torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.  Major works were erected in quick succession – the Aq Saray Palace, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, and the Rukhabad Mausoleum.

The crown jewel of Timur’s buildings, however, was the Gur-I Amir – the King’s Grave.  The Gur-I Amir was originally meant as a tomb for his grandson (and heir), who had died in battle at the age of 29 – but it would eventually become Timur’s final resting place as well.  As with other Timurid buildings, the Gur-I Amir was built as a multi-functional complex, which included a madrasah, hospice, and public bath.  It was a structure of unprecedented ambition which blended the two worlds straddled by Timur’s empire – the settled Persian-Islamic lands and the nomadic Turkic-Mongol world of the steppe.

A photo of Samarkand's Gur-I Amir as seen through the entrance of its monumental archway.  The blue dome of the Gur-I Amir is perfectly framed by the blue tiles of the archway, which contains an array of intricate geometric floral patterns.
The Gur-I Amir viewed through the monumental entrance archway. © Dudarev Mikhail/stock.adobe.com

The Gur-I Amir

Everything about the Gur-I Amir was innovative for its time.  Entering the complex, one first passes through a monumental archway, 12 meters high and covered with lapis tiles containing Arabic calligraphy and plant motifs.  Past the archway, you enter a large courtyard, the walls of which once contained rich Iranian-tile mosaics – primarily of floral motifs intertwined with Arabic calligraphy.  These floral and plant motifs, a key element of Islamic tomb architecture, recall the descriptions of paradise in the Quran. 

Beyond the courtyard is the tomb chamber itself, which is topped with a massive 35 meter high dome decorated with intricate geometric patterns.  The dome sits on an octagonal structure, which scholars now believe was designed to look like a yurt – the place in Mongol tradition where bodies were displayed before burial.  The exterior of the dome is covered with tiles of different shades of blue – lapis, turquoise, and cobalt – the color of mourning in Central Asian cultures.  The interior walls of the tomb are decorated with gold and lapis and once displayed Timur’s military gear and clothing.  Geometric patterns abound throughout the space, which transitions from a square at ground level, to an octagon at ceiling height, then to the rounded dome.  This subtle transitions in geometry mirrors the blending of cultures in Timur’s Samarkand.  By taking the best of each and uniting them in a common purpose, boundaries began to blur and a new aesthetic began to take shape. 

A view up into the interior of the Gur-I Amir's dome in Samarkand.  A golden haze lights the dome and walls.  The complex geometry present in the structure is readily apparent from this vantage point.
Looking up into the dome of the Gur-I Amir. © pe3check/stock.adobe.com

Samarkand After Timur

The Gur-I Imar was the architectural pinnacle of Timur’s rule in Samarkand and would leave a lasting impact throughout the Islamic world.  But his death was not the end of monumental architecture in Samarkand.  Timur’s heirs would continue to build – erecting lavish new mosques, madrasahs, and tombs.  Among their most notable works is the iconic Registan – a public square bordered on three sides by monumental madrasahs.  They also carried on Timur’s legacy in other cultural spheres, continuing to patronize intellectuals and artists from around the region.  As a result of this support, great strides were made in literature, metal working, and science.  Timur’s grandson – Sultan Ulugh Beg – would himself become a gifted mathematician.  At his orders, an observatory was built in Samarkand.  From this observatory, the Sultan and his scientific collaborators created star charts that were used for centuries across the Middle East and Europe.

An image of Samarkand's Registan square taken close to sunset.  The three madrassahs which frame the square loom large over a smattering of people milling about.
The Registan in Samarkand. © Artifacts

As a result of the rapid pace of innovations in art and science that occurred under Timur and his descendants, scholars now call this period the Timurid Renaissance.  Unfortunately for Samarkand, it would soon have to share the limelight with Herat – which became the new capital of the Timurid empire under Timur’s successor (and youngest son), Shahruk.  Herat, already a center of Persian culture, was much closer to the geographic center of the empire and thus much easier to defend.  Samarkand remained a leading center of the empire for several decades, but eventually declined to the status of a regional capital before being conquered by the Uzbeks in 1500.  A fifth generation heir of Timur – Babur – made multiple attempts to reconquer Samarkand, but would ultimately fail.  He eventually would turn his attention south, where he would found the Mughal dynasty in India.  The Mughals would rule India for 300 years, during which time Timurid culture would take deep root in the subcontinent.  One notable example of this is the Taj Mahal, which shares a number of architectural features with the Gur-I Amir, including the bulbous dome on top of an octagonal structure.

Timur’s Samarkand

The decline of Samarkand did not diminish the legacy of its cultural and scientific achievements, a full accounting of which could go on for many more pages.  In many ways, it was this cultural legacy that had far greater influence than Timur’s short-lived empire, which fell into stagnation and decline not long after his death.  While not discounting the cruelty and suffering he inflicted, it was Timur’s vision in bringing together the greatest minds from across the Islamic and nomadic worlds that enabled the cultural renaissance that bears his name.  Nowhere is the fruit of this vision more visible then in the architecture of Samarkand.  From the floral mosaics that merge into Arabic calligraphy to the geometric harmony built into the structures themselves – Timur created a world that had never before been possible.

1) If you are interested in learning more about how the Ottoman Turks recovered and went on to establish their own universal empire, see my piece on the Grand Bazaar, here.

2) Timur’s wars against the Golden Horde would have long lasting ramifications – one of which was to open the door to Russian expansion eastward. To read about that, see my piece on St. Basil’s Cathedral and Ivan the Terrible, available here.

Sources/Further Reading:

There is an amazing amount of very good and easily accessible material out there about Samarkand and Tamerlane – a welcome change from other topics I’ve written about. Of the pieces highlighted below, the most useful sources were Marefat’s article (item 1) and Manz’s pieces, particularly items 2 and 3. The other documents cited below were also quite useful, but these three articles really guided my thinking.

  1. Marefat, Roya. “The Heavenly City of Samarkand.” The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), vol. 16, no. 3, 1992, pp. 33–38. 
  2. Manz, Beatrice Forbes. “Temür and the Problem of a Conqueror’s Legacy.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 8, no. 1, 1998, pp. 21–41. 
  3. Manz, Beatrice Forbes. “Tamerlane’s Career and Its Uses.” Journal of World History, vol. 13, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–25. 
  4. Manz, Beatrice Forbes. “Tamerlane and the Symbolism of Sovereignty.” Iranian Studies, vol. 21, no. 1/2, 1988, pp. 105–122. 
  5. Dale, Stephen Frederic. “The Legacy of the Timurids.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 8, no. 1, 1998, pp. 43–58. 
  6. O’Kane, Bernard. “From Tents to Pavilions: Royal Mobility and Persian Palace Design.” Ars Orientalis, vol. 23, 1993, pp. 249–268. 
  7. The UNESCO listing of Samarkand is available, here.
  8. A short article on Timur’s conquests from The Diplomat available here.
  9. An introduction from the Met of Timurid art, available here.