Day 59: Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum

Gur-e-Amir Complex illuminated at night.  Timur’s tomb lies beneath the dome.

“Tomb of the King” in Persian, Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum is the final resting place of Uzbek National Hero, Amir Timur.  Located on the former southwestern edge of Samarkand, the Mausoleum of Tamerlane fell into decay along with the rest of the city in the 17th century after Bukhara regained it’s former prominence as the more important crossroads of the silk road.

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detail of the vaulted entranceway looking toward the main door of the mausoleum

Although Timur was supposed to be buried in his purpose built crypt in his hometown of Shakhrizabz, the Gur-e-Amir was finished in 1403 by the great conqueror due to the sudden death of his beloved grandson, and heir to the empire.  The mausoleum then became the final resting place for most heirs to the Timurid Empire over the next hundred years, including Ulugbek, who completed its construction.

The Gur-e-Amir is considered to be a masterpiece of Central Asian architecture.  Included on the list of historical monuments inscribed as part of Samarkand’s UNESCO World Heritage status, the monument is said to have served as inspiration for many other world famous Mughal era architectural landmarks, including the Taj Mahal (which coincidently was also built by descendants of Timur).

Construction of the earliest parts of the complex were begun in the late 13th century on the orders of Timur’s grandson Muhammad Sultan.  The structure was purpose built to be a Madrassa, but Sultan’s death resulted in the conversion of the site into a mausoleum by the distraught Timur.  Timur himself was buried here in 1405 after succumbing to illness on the way to his long planned campaign to China.  His body was brought back to Samarkand, and interred at Gur-e-Amir only because the mountain passes to his hometown of Shakhrizabz were snowed in.  Timur the Great was placed in a simple tomb inside the vault below the mausoleum’s central chamber.  Inside the chamber are the marble tombstones of Timur’s sons and grandsons, as well as a massive jade slab directly beneath which lies the tomb of Timur.

spectacular contrast between ribbed blue tiles and unglazed brickwork

The bones of Timur lay in peace for 600 years for good reason.  According to legend, the great conqueror’s tombstone reads “When I Rise from the Dead, The World Shall Tremble” – while inside the tomb is another inscription which says “Whosover Disturbs My Tomb Will Unleash an Invader More Terrible Than I.”  The actual jade tombstone contains a plaque added by Ulugbek which reads “Anyone who breaks my peace in this life or in the next one will suffer and perish.” Timur’s jade tombstone had previously been the throne of Kabek Khan, direct descendant of Genghis Khan.

An expedition was sent by Joseph Stalin in 1941 to open Tamerlane’s tomb, but the party was warned by the resident Muslim clergy about the curse, to no avail.  On June 20th, 1942, the tomb of Amir Timur was opened by the team of Soviet archeologists.  On June 22nd, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union.  After 18 months of study in Moscow, Timur’s remains were returned to Samarkand and reinterred within his tomb at Gur-e-Amir in December 1942.  By February 1943, German forces finally surrendered at Stalingrad in a decisive Soviet victory.  Some might say the timing is a coincidence, others might say the curse of Tamerlane is real.

gold leaf and blue highlights within the main chamber of the mausoleum

Restoration of the Gur-e-Amir continued in the second half the 20th century including restoration of the outer dome, and reconstruction of the two minarets which frame the mausoleum.  The interior dome is by far the highlight of any visit to the complex, where marble panels and carved inscriptions transition upwards to spectacularly decorative gold leaf and blue highlights on the dome’s interior which imitate the stars in the night sky.  The 15 meter diameter exterior dome is ribbed with Uzbek trademark blue tiles and a sheen of grass poking through the masonry.  The shimmering blue tiles and stylized inscriptions in Persian-script provide a contrast to the unglazed brick work of the rest of the complex.

additional detail of the underside of the vaulted entrance to the Gur-e-Amir complex

The crypt, which the guidebooks say may be assessable if you slip the caretaker 10,000 сўм, remained strictly off-limits on each of our three visits to the monument in the past few years.  Some reading material may paint a picture of a deserted monument with friendly caretakers smiling and showing hapless western tourists all the interesting historical quirks of the structure, but the reality is that Gur-e-Amir is buzzing with tourists, both local and international.  Security is also pretty tight, so unless you happen to visit at night when the busses are long gone, be prepared to fight crowds.  It’s worth paying extra for a guide, but most the of the interpretive dialogue will take place outside the complex, with only time for a few key points inside the main chamber of the mausoleum.

Take your time walking around the structure, and you’ll be amazed at how photogenic the architecture actually is, even compared to the all the spectacular buildings in Samarkand.  People say you’ll quickly tire of blue tile domes, but don’t pay them any attention!  It’s no wonder once you’ve visited Gur-e-Amir why this 600 year old monument would go on to inspire an entire branch of Islamic architecture.

Nature always finds a way, even atop the the spectacular tomb of Timur the Great



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