Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!

Bibi-Khanym Mosque

At the Bibi Khanum one day I watched such a woman in whom at least one of the pre-Bolshevik instincts was still primitively intact. She was no longer a maiden but was still well within the years of motherhood. She entered the courtyard of the mosque with a score of friends and a guide, who stopped them beside a curious stone structure in the middle of the yard. It was a very large lectern on which an enormous version of the Koran would have been placed so that it could be read aloud to a congregation gathered in the open air, by some cleric standing on a balcony above. The guide, I imagine, added the information that, according to the old beliefs, any barren woman who crawled under the lectern, between its numerous legs, would soon conceive. He finished, and led his charges to the doorway of the mosque, and they followed, twinkling a little at what they had been told. All but she, who paused and let the others go on. She did not then crawl under the heavy stones, but she leaned forward and placed her hands on them; then ran her fingers swiftly down the lectern's side in some sort of genuflexion of her own, while she murmured something quietly to herself.

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse

Two of the three buildings once associated with Bibi Khanym, Timur's Chingizid wife, are still standing. The third, a madrassa with a portico so large that it rivalled that of the neighbouring mosque, was destroyed by Nadir Shah's Persian troops when they invaded in 1740. The Bibi Khanym Mosque is one of Samarkand's most impressive sites, but also one of its most controversial due to the heavy reconstruction that has taken place: what you see before you is an almost total rebuild dating from the 1970s.

Flush with plunder from the sack of Delhi in December 1398, Tamerlane vowed to create a mosque without parallel in grandeur or decor throughout the Muslim world. Despite the ravages of time on one of his foremost expressions of power, the remains still captivate the visitor by their fantastic scale and romantic legend.

The enormous congregational Bibi-Khanym Mosque (working hours 8am-7pm Apr-Oct, 9am-5pm Nov-Mar), northeast of the Registan, was finished shortly before Timur's death and must have been the jewel of his empire. Once one of the Islamic world's biggest mosques (the cupola of the main mosque is 41m high and the pishtak 38m), it pushed construction techniques to the limit.

The best slave-artisans in the realm laboured to realize the emperor's plan. Ninety-five elephants imported from India hauled wagons laden with marble. In October 1404, Spanish ambassador Clavijo judged it "the noblest of all", yet Tamerlane, believing the portal too low, had it rebuilt at great haste: "in his litter every morning he had himself brought to the place, and he would stay there the best part of the day urging on the work. He would arrange for much meat to be cooked and brought, and then he would order them to throw portions down to the workmen in the foundations, as though one should cast bones to dogs in a pit . . . and at times he would have coins thrown to the masons when especially they worked to his satisfaction."

As at Tamerlane's palace in Shakhrisabz, courtyard activity was paramount and the pishtak (portals) leading onto these magnificent arenas were considered just as important as the buildings themselves. Bibi Khanum's soared over 35 metres around an arch 18 metres in diameter with flanking minarets 50 metres high. It led to a rectangular court (167 by 109 metres) paved with marble, cornered by minarets and fringed by a gallery of 400 cupolas supported by 400 marble columns.  The original bronze gates, stolen by Nadir Shah, rung out when struck. North and south were side mosques with fluted domes and to the east the portal of the main sanctuary topped 40 metres. Ornamentation was suitably magnificent-carved marble and terracotta, glazed mosaic in multiple form, blue-gold frescoes and gilt papier-mache. The court historian declared: "The dome would have been unique but for the sky being its copy; the arch would have been singular but for the Milky Way matching it."

Legend says that Bibi-Khanym, Timur's Chinese wife, ordered the mosque built as a surprise while he was away. The architect fell madly in love with her and refused to finish the job unless he could give her a kiss. The smooch left a mark and Timur, on seeing it, executed the architect and decreed that women should henceforth wear veils so as not to tempt other men.

The interior courtyard contains an enormous grey Mongolian marble Quran stand donated by Ulug Beg that lends some scale to the place. Once it held the one-metre-square Osman Koran, a seventh century treasure brought here by Tamerlane, taken to St Petersburg in 1875 (when the Russians removed the lectern from the dangerous prayer hall) and subsequently returned to Tashkent by the Bolsheviks. Legend promises children to barren women who crawl three times between the lectern's nine legs. The courtyard also contains two smaller mosques. The one on the left as you enter through the enormous main gate has an impressive unrestored interior festooned with Arabic calligraphy.

Yet soon after consecration of the mosque, worshippers were already dodging falling bricks. Debate continues on the reasons why - unsound foundations, ambition outpacing contemporary possibilities or simply undue haste. Later earthquakes accelerated the decay. Bukharan emirs stripped it for building supplies and in the early 19th century one melted down the gates of seven metals into coinage. Tsarist officers used the mosque as a stable and cotton market. Slowly crumbling over the years, it partially collapsed in an earthquake in 1897 before being rebuilt in the 1974.

In recent years, the heavy entrance portal still dwarfing the neighbourhood. All three mosque domes have crudely reap-peared, retiled in turquoise-blue on yellow-brown brick, the classical Samarkand contrast of sky and earth. Below the spheri-conical main dome, sheathed in smooth blue, runs a Koranic phrase so vertical as to seem geometric rather than epigraphic. Such a design complemented the upward sweep of the complex, achieved by tapering portal towers and slender corner minarets. Gain side access to view traces of ceiling decor and huge cracks in the interior dome.

It's typically a quiet spot (far more so than the Registan), and at prayer times you may well see both men and women prostrating themselves in the courtyard or immediately outside the mosque's main entrance.

Opposite the entrance to Bibi Khanum is the blue-domed Bibi Khanum Mausoleum (1397) brightly restored in 2007. Between them once bustled a noisy bazaar, while a leaden aqueduct bubbled overhead. It's a simple, brick built structure with a turquoise dome sprouting a profusion of grass and weeds. In truth, this is not the mausoleum of Bibi Khanym at all but of her mother and two other female family members. Bibi Khanym commissioned its construction, however, and the name has stuck. Three female burials were discovered in the crypt beneath the mausoleum's octagonal chamber. The interior has some fine decorative mosaics, including a depiction of paradise.

The legend of 'Chinese princess Bibi Khanum' probably stems from Tamerlane's chief wife Saray Mulk Khanun, daughter of a Mongol Khan and involved in building both mosque and mausoleum, but so advanced in age (Bibi Khanum means 'elder wife') as to be unlikely to tempt the architect!