Samarkand is one of those relatively rare places that we almost instinctively know the name of, even if we have no idea where it is or where we heard of it–somehow, it is a part of our collective consciousness. Now Uzbekistan’s second-largest city, Samarkand’s history is ancient, going back at least to Sogdian times (post on the Sogdians to come), but its greatest era was when it became the capital of Tamerlane’s Central Asian empire.
Amir Temur, known to the western world as Tamerlane (Timur the Lame, and indeed the remains in his tomb confirmed that one of his legs was not well), was born in 1336 in the city now called Shakhrisabz south of Samarkand and was said to be a descent of Genghis Khan. In his young adulthood he became known for his successes as a military leader, and eventually rose to head the local Turkic tribes. Using Samarkand as his capital and base, he led campaigns in all compass directions, reaching as far as now Turkey and Georgia in the west, now India in the east and Moscow to the north. Tamerlane was preparing an attack on Ming China when he died, almost 70 years old.
From the wealth of his various conquests (from Delhi it is said that he carried away 90 elephants’ loads of precious stones), and by conscripting artisans from far-away lands, he built up his capital, leaving it the city of architectural marvels that it is today. Tamerlane has become a national icon for Uzbekistan since independence, and Tamerlane sights in Samarkand have been recipients of a great deal of recent renovation.
Bibi Khanum Mosque, Samarkand, named after Tamerlane’s Chinese wife
Shah-i-Zinda, Samarkand. This necropolis, built near the grave of a cousin of Mohammed is who said to have brought Islam to Central Asia, contains mausoleums of many family members and descendents of Tamerlane.
Registan, Samarkand (three facing madrasas built by Tamerlane’s successors)
Remnant of the enormous portal to Tamerlane’s summer palace Ak Saray, Shakhrisabz
Tamerlane was more famous for destruction and plunder than true empire-building, and his empire did not last long after his death. His descendent Babur, however, would go on to found the Mughal dynasty of India. Tamerlane and Babur were in a sense the last of the many great Mongol or Turkic conquerors who swept out of the Central Asian plains to control huge swaths of Asia–perhaps one day the Central Asians will unite again and create a new empire!
Crypt originally built for but unused by Tamerlane, Shakhrisabz
Gur-i Emir, Tamerlane’s mausoleum in Samarkand