If Amir Timur Square is a ring, the State Museum of the History of the Timurids is a precious stone decorating it, or so said the first President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, when he dedicated the museum in 1996. After independence, Uzbekistan needed a national hero. President Karimov was a fan of Amir Timur from early in his presidency, so the 14th century Turco-Mongol conqueror, Amir Timur, was chosen for the job.
The museum was commissioned by the new Uzbek President in order to give the people of Uzbekistan a story to go along with the newly proclaimed hero. Exhibits feature highlights from the life and times of Timur, from birth near Shakrisabz in the year 1336, to his death on the cold Kazak steppes in the year 1405. In all, more than 5,000 exhibits and artifacts occupy the three levels of the museum in an ode to Timur the Great, the Timirud dynasty, and the empire, which at its peak stretched from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf, half of modern day Pakistan, Northern India, and the steppes of Kazakstan. The museum tells a heroic story, depicting Timur as a great statesman, military leader, and patron of science and culture. Most of the gory details are left out, and most display cases feature copies of original artifacts which have long since been carted off as spoils to distant museums around the world.
Construction was carried out during the flurry of building activity immediately following Uzbekistan’s independence. During the same time period, other monumental projects such as the Supreme Assembly Chamber were also constructed. Visitors will immediately notice the resemblance in architecture of the classical blue dome of the Amir Timur Museum with those of most major architectural monuments around the country. The museum was built by Uzbek architect Valerij Akopjanyan, who is also known for at least 90 other projects, and studied at both the Samarkand Institute of Architecture, and the Soviet Institute of Architectural Residential Building in Moscow. In fact, three of his best known projects, the Uzbek Parliament, Amir Timur Museum, and Alisher Navoi Monument, all feature the same ribbed blue dome roof, a trademark of Uzbek architecture since Timurid times.
Beneath the museum’s central dome, a copy of the Qur’an of Usman is on display, the original kept for safekeeping at the Khast Imam Complex on the other side of town. The three levels open to a central gallery looking down on the Qur’an as a centerpiece, with spectacular murals of Amir Timur adorning the walls. The domed ceiling is decorated with gold leaf muqarna similar to the interior of the Tilla-Kari, Samarkand’s Gilded Madrassa, on Registan Square.
Overall the highlight of the museum is this central domed gallery. As the guidebooks point out, the near total lack of genuine artifacts makes exploring the three levels of this museum in great detail a rather tedious experience. The architecture is interesting, but is noticeably not of the same quality as the Palace of International Forums across the square, and does not live up the greatness of Timur’s legacy. On our visit there in March 2016, the halls were noticeably devoid of visitors, making us wonder how the published visitor statistics of 1.65 million per year could possibly be accurate.