Many, including me, do not view Tamerlane in a positive light. Known for his steely resolve (Taimur meaning iron in Turkic), his conquests led him to annihilate some 17m people (about 5% of global population) during his 40-year rule.
So, it was a little surprising that he also made an effort to build monuments and not just trailblaze a path of destruction. From his conquests, Tamerlane brought back builders, stone masons, stucco workers, painters, architects, engineers and artists from countries like Persia, India, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan to construct his monuments of victory.
His monuments are just like him – grand, almost stupendous. Even with years of disrepair, the size of these constructions and their extravagant decoration prove that the conqueror wanted the world to remember him for his audacious ambition and sheer determination.
In his birth city of Shakhrisabz, Taimur’s Ak Saray (White Palace) was 72 feet high; it even had a pool on top – imagine pumping water up to such heights in the 15th century! Today, even at 40 feet high, its dilapidated structure impresses you with its colossal size and breathtaking engineering feat.
In his capital, Samarkand, the Bibi Khannum mosque is another example of his larger-than-life size and scale. It was built after Tamerlane’s India victory, somewhere between 1399 and 1404. The mosque was almost near completion when Tamerlane returned with the spoils of the war from India and asked that the height of the mosque be increased. “Higher. I want it higher,” he must have said.
Shah-i-Zinda, the holy site for all Uzbeks in Samarkand too was built and completed under Tamerlane’s command. The mausoleums in their Majolica blue and intricate organic depictions of nature are the resting place for royals and nobles, including a burial for Tamerlane’s wet nurse.
Tamerlane was keen to control trade along the Silk Route and therefore encouraged arts and culture. He however is known to subjugate the upper class (even erecting a mountain of decapitated heads) and show mercy to the poor – or so the legend goes. From Istanbul in the west to Delhi in the east, Hormuz in the south and Baraka (beyond Kashgar) in the north, Tamerlane built an empire that somewhat eclipsed his distant Turko-Mongol predecessor, Genghis Khan.
The conqueror was well prepared for his demise too. He had selected his final resting place and the position of his tomb – by the feet of his spiritual teacher Mir Said Baraka, who is known to be the direct descendant of Prophet Mohammad.
His sons did not however carry forward Tamerlane’s empire in the manner that he did. His favourite grandson Muhammad Sultan, who Tamerlane regarded his heir, died young in 1403. His son Ulugh Bek was a keen astronomer and even built an observatory. He was less interested in building Timurid empire like his father. His other son Shah Rukh – the son of Timur’s concubine – established his capital in Herat (present-day Afghanistan). With the death of Timur, a number of tribes began fighting among themselves with local princes in Azerbaijan and Iraq slowly winning back their freedom. As the sun set on Transoxiana, it marked a new era of Mongol influence in India.
At about the same time, Vasco-da-Gama discovered the sea route to India and with that, Silk Road lost its importance and became obsolete.
By 18th century, there were many legends about Timur’s final resting – some believed he did not return from his China expedition and was buried along the way. So, in 1941, Stalin assigned Russian anthropologist, Mikhail Gerasimov, to confirm the identity of Tamerlane by exhuming his body.
The archeological team not only confirmed that the tomb in Samarkand did indeed belong to Tamerlane but were also able to ascertain his facial features based on the bone structure as well as the limp in his leg, for which Taimur was known for (Taimur-i-lang or Tamer the lame). The most unexpected discovery was of the inscription buried inside that said: “Whosoever Disturbs My Tomb Will Unleash an Invader More Terrible than I”. The people in Uzbekistan still believe that it was because of uncovering his grave that Soviet Union fell to Nazi Germany in November 1941. History’s most horrifying war saw a loss of more than 26 million lives in Russia.
The country’s independence in 1991 has given Uzbekistan the opportunity to reclaim its lost heritage, to revive its culture and identity and to reclaim its place and position in the new world.
More importantly, as Uzbekistan is trying to find a common figure to help unify its varied races: Tajiks, Uzbeks, Tartars, Karakalpaks and even Russians, Tamerlane is being seen as the great unifier, a patron of arts and conqueror of the world who swore by the ‘Sword of Islam‘, and under who, the region flourished economically and culturally.
Today, Uzbekistan makes tremendous efforts to build and restore historical monuments in an attempt to carve its identity. The country has done justice to Tamerlane’s legacy by building awe-inspiring statues in his birthplace Shakhrisabz and in his capital, Samarkand. Gilded in precious gold-leaf, his tomb is a Mecca for all Uzbeks who visit and pay homage to the man who was unstoppable in his pursuits.
In 2006, the former President Islam Karimov inaugurated Amir Temur Museum in Tashkent, which celebrates Tamerlane’s military achievements.
Taimur’s name has long replaced Marx’s and Lenin’s all over Uzbekistan.
All you can see today is a fleeting glimpse of Lenin by the side of the road from Nukus in Karakalpakstan to Khiva – the man and his principles, slowly eroding from the country and from people’s memory like sands of time.