Legend of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque

The 40m dome of the Bibi Khanym mosque towers above modern Samarkand
The 40m dome of the Bibi-Khanym mosque towers above modern Samarkand

For a bit of a romantic twist in the history of Samarkand, we visited the massive 14th century Bibi-Khanym Mosque. The monument is best known today for an illicit affair that supposedly took place between Timur’s Queen, and the mosque’s architect.

Legend says that while Timur was away during his military campaign to India, his favorite wife, Queen Saray Mulk Khanum, ordered the construction of a mosque adjacent to the Samarkand Bazaar to honor his return. The mosque was to be the grandest cathedral mosque in the known world, and the tallest most magnificent monument in all of Samarkand.

In Timur’s absence, the architect of the project fell madly in love with the queen. The architect, due to his love for her, purposefully delayed the works in order to spend more time with the queen, who frequently visited the site to monitor the construction progress. Knowing that she feared the mosque would not be completed in time for Timur’s return, the architect proposed that perhaps he might be encouraged to finish on time if the queen were to grant him a kiss.

Outraged, and determined to teach the architect a lesson, the queen ordered a servant to bring her a dozen eggs all painted in different colors. “Look at these eggs!” demanded the queen. “They are all painted with beautiful colors, but on the inside, they are are identical! You have the choice of any woman you want! Why pursue me? It is impossible. Don’t you know who I am?”

from within the spacious park-like courtyard of the Bibi-Khanym complex
from within the spacious park-like courtyard of the Bibi-Khanym complex

The architect then asked the servant to bring two glasses. One glass he filled with water, the other glass he filled with wine. He said to the queen, “Look at these two glasses. They look exactly the same. If I drink the first glass, I will  feel nothing. If I drink the second, it will intoxicate me. It is the same for my love.”

In light of his valid argument, the queen relented, and the architect was granted his request. But this kiss was so intense, so passionate, so true, it left a visible mark on the queen which was unmistakable. Timur soon returned from his successful conquest of India and was thrilled beyond belief with the magnificent gift of the mosque. However, he soon realised there was something different about his beloved wife.

No one knows what happened next, but unsurprisingly, the impudent architect is said to have mysteriously disappeared.

In reality, the mosque was constructed by order of Timur the Great, funded by plunder from his conquest of India in 1398. In his absence (he didn’t get back until 1404) the queen likely made some changes to the plan for the mosque to honor her husband. However, on his return, Timur was not happy with the way the project was progressing, and ordered additional changes, which were not finished until only shortly before his death.

Architectural issues plagued the completed structure, and the mosque fell into disrepair within 200 years. In the 16th century, a restoration was begun, but regime change soon canceled the effort. Left alone for some 400 years, what was once the most spectacular mosque in the Islamic world finally succumbed to the elements, looting, and frequent earthquakes.

The ruin became a quarry for the residents of Samarkand over the centuries, and little remained when the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic undertook modern restoration works beginning in 1974, which were only recently completed. However, as if refusing to give in to the tests of time, a 2013 earthquake again damaged the structure, and today only the exterior can be appreciated. Restoration works are ongoing. The sheer size of the monument means your best photos capturing the Bibi-Khanym Mosque in one frame can only be taken from afar.

It's magnificence best appreciated from afar, the Bibi-Khanym rises above an old-town mahalla of Samarkand - Viewed from viewed from a minaret of the Ulugbek Madrasah at the Registan complex
its magnificence best appreciated from afar, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque rises above an old-town mahalla of Samarkand – viewed from a minaret of the Ulugbek Madrasah at the Registan complex

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