My visit in Samarkand continued with Gur-e-Amir. Gur-e-Amir means “tomb of the king” and is not only the final resting place of the great Timur but also became the royal necropolis of the Timurid rulers. Timur’s two sons: Shahrukh and Miranshah, and his two grandsons: Muhammed Sultan and Ulugbek, as well as Timur’s spiritual advisor: Mir Said Baraka, were all buried here. This building was originally constructed by Muhammed Sultan as a madrasa (theological school) for the children of the Samarkand nobility and a khanaka (hospice for the dervishes). Timur, devastated over the sudden death of Muhammed Sultan in 1403 who was his favorite grandson and proposed heir, decided to change this madrasa into a mausoleum. Timur already had his own mausoleum built in his birthplace, Shakhrisabz, and never intended to be buried here. However, he died suddenly of pneumonia when in Kazakhstan in the winter of 1405 and the path back to Shakhrisabz was heavily snowed in, so he was laid to rest here in Gur-e-Amir instead. The ribbed dome and walls of the mausoleum are completely covered by blue mosaics of different shades while the interior is covered by blue and gold tile work and gilding. Gur-e-Amir became a model for later Mughul architecture such as Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra. In the center of the tomb is a slab made of a single piece of dark green jade that Ulugbek brought back from Mongolia to cover Timur’s grave. Surrounding it are 7 marble tombstones which are just markers of the actual graves in the vaulted crypt below. To the left of Timur’s jade tombstone is that of Ulugbek; to the right is that of Mir Said Baraka; to the front is that of Mohammed Sultan; and to the back are those of Shahrukh (father of Ulugbek) and Miranshah. And further behind is that of Sheikh Seyid Umar who was one of Timur’s teacher and a descendent of the Prophet Muhammed. Legend has it that in 1740, the warlord Nadir Shah took the piece of jade and accidentally broke it in two after which he had a run of bad luck including the near death of his son. His advisors convinced him to return the jade to Samarkand and by doing so his son recovered. Another legend is that there is an inscription on Timur’s grave that says, “whoever opens this will be defeated by an enemy more fearsome than I.” The only time the graves were opened was in 1941 by the Soviet anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov who confirmed that Timur and Ulugbek were truly buried here. The very next day after he opened the crypts, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.
Another ancient and more interesting necropolis here in Samarkand is that of Shakhi-Zinda consisting of rows of square tombs with turquoise domes along a long narrow street and often called “street cemetery”. There are 44 tombs inside the 11 mausoleums built mostly in the 14th and 15th centuries for the Timurid aristocracy. Shakhi-Zinda means “Tomb of the Living King” and refers to the innermost and holiest shrine believed to be the tomb of Kusam ibn Abbas who was a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed. Kusam ibn Abbas was said to have preached Islam in Samarkand in 640 and was beheaded by the Zoroastrians. During the medieval times, a pilgrimage here was considered equivalent to going all the way to Mecca. The avenue of tombs is filled with stunning mosaic tile work and unfortunately much of this majolica and mosaics have been restored and not original. The most important tomb here is that of Shodi Mulk Oko Mausoleum built in 1372. It is the tomb of Timur’s sister and niece. This tomb needs barely any restoration work done to it because of the exceptional quality of the tile work where there is barely any space between each tile.
Ulugbek, Timur’s grandson, was more an astronomer than a ruler. He built a three-storey observatory in the northeast outskirts of the city at the foot of the Chupan-ata mountain in 1428. The observatory was destroyed in 1449 by religious fanatics and the only thing preserved was the lower arc of a sextant 11 meters long with a radius of 40 meters used to observe the sun, the moon, and the stars. It was the largest such instrument the world had even seen. This medieval sextant was oriented exactly along the meridian from north to south and there are tiny niches cut into the surface for exact calculations. It was buried 11 meters into the ground to lessen seismic interference. Using this medieval instrument, before the invention of the telescope, Ulugbek and his team of astronomers produced a star catalogue charting the movements of 1,018 stars. They were also able to determine the length of a year with such accuracy that it was only one minute longer than modern calculations. Even today, the calculation of the earth’s axial tilt is still the same as Ulugbek’s 23.52º. A model of what the observatory would have looked like is built based on different historical records and displayed here in the museum.
Another interesting museum is the Afrosiab Museum located at the archaeological remains of an ancient settlement, Afrosiab, in the northern part of Samarkand. Afrosiab was destroyed by the Mongols in the early 13th century. The museum displays finds from different periods including ossuaries, fragments of ancient weapons, coins, pottery, and frescoes from a palace from the Ikhshidid Dynasty (7th-8th centuries). The main exhibit here is that of the frescoes from the Hall of Ambassadors from the 7th century. It depicts Sogdian King Varkhuman receiving ranks of foreign dignitaries including Chinese ones carrying silk and other gifts. The left hand wall shows red and white faced dignitaries leading horses and geese and the right hand wall shows the Tang Dynasty emperor Gaozong hunting panthers. The paining on the southern wall depicts a procession with two royal figures on a camel and a string of sacrificial birds. Also in the procession are characters with bandages on their faces theorized to be Zoroastrian ministers who should not have defiled the sacred fire with their breath. The second floor of the museum exhibits discoveries from the 11 layers of the archaeological site.
Last stop in Samarkand is the Konigil Meros paper mill where paper is still made the traditional Samarkand way. It is said that Samarkand paper can last 300-400 years whereas plain white paper can only last 40-50 years. Legend has it that thousands of Chinese soldiers were captured in Samarkand when the Chinese invaded Central Asia in 751 and in order to have their lives spared, they shared the knowledge of paper making. Samarkand paper is made from mulberry bark that is cleaned and boiled for 4-6 hours. Then the bark is beaten using a water mill to make a “dough”. The “dough” is then placed in a tub and filtered on a large sheet of flazelin. After being pressed, the paper is removed and dried. The yellow colored paper is then polished with a piece of granite or bone horn.
This wraps up my 8 days in Uzbekistan. From Uzbekistan, I flew to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Stay tuned!
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