Trans Eurasia travel

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

Bibi Khanum by Ella Maillart

Bibi Khanum, the ruins of former grandeur!

Two immense mounds at the entrance, massive piles of bricks strewn in places with squares of faience a vast courtyard over three hundred feet long, once paved, but now planted with trees. In the centre, raised on two steps and borne by eight cubic pillars, is a splendid lectern of carved stone, set there with the intention of supporting the Koran of Osman. Originally it stood in the sanctuary, and one of its inscriptions is to the effect that Ulug Beg caused it to be removed from Djitti in Mongolia. It is the Kursen, the stone beneath which sterile women crawl at morning, fasting.

To the left is a tiny mosque with a gallery, from the top of whose tower the muezzin wails and cries aloud.

And here at last, facing me, I perceive an enormous eighty-foot arch, the portal of the immense mosque, dominated by a segment of the crackled cupola, a glittering turquoise dome that makes the sky seem pale by comparison. It is the same blue as the dazzling little lake of Kashkassu, the classic Mongolian blue that ravishes one with delight. The porch is flanked by huge octagonal minarets in which the turquoise and sea-blue bricks are built into the walls in raised designs; while slabs of faience make a facing for the walls that surround the portico.

To get a better view of what remains of the dome, which rises nearly one hundred and eighty feet, I climb over the outer wall. From that position I see an acrobat moving about in the heights. He is collecting wood for himself, which he drags away from the beams supporting the brickwork of the vault. The wood is smooth, hard, and raspberry-coloured. The man goes off with his booty, leaving the ground strewn with glazed bricks. The intensity of the dark blue is indescribable against that of the joyous turquoise blue.

It took five too rapid years to construct this cathedral-mosque, 1398-1404. Aged seventy, just before he died in 1405, Timur had himself borne in a fitter to the site to superintend the work. The passage of time, earthquakes, and the cannon-balls of the Russian conquest of 1868 have made of it a ruin that nothing can save now: the dome fell in 1882.

But what has become of the numerous stone columns that stood around the mosque? The contemporary writer Sherif-Ed-Din writes that in all there were four hundred and eighty of them, each nineteen feet high. Ninety-five elephants were brought from India to help in their transportation, and innumerable workmen and technical experts were dispatched from all the surrounding countries to execute the work.

The story goes that Bibi Khanum, a Mongolian princess and Timur's favourite wife, decided to have a magnificent throne-room constructed for her lord, and that Timur, who was warring afar, scattering destruction in his train, dispatched all the most skilful workers among his prisoners to her to this end.

Day after day the princess visited the site, but her Arabian architect, madly in love with her, invented innumerable delays for holding up the work, so that she might not cease her visits. Impatient to see its completion, she asked: "What must be done to hasten the work?"

"Grant me permission to kiss your cheek."

She refused. But news was brought that the returning Timur had reached Merv. Then she consented, at the last second, however, interposing her hand. Yet so ardent was the kiss that it burnt through to her cheek, leaving a dark spot that nothing would take out. Whereupon, she commanded all her women to veil their faces. Timur, returning, wondered what the cause might be.

"It was done that our modesty might be preserved," she explained.

Timur learnt the truth, and commanded that Bibi Khanum be buried alive in the mausoleum already built for her, which stands opposite the mosque. As the Arab architect was being pursued to the summit of the minaret in which he had taken refuge, wings appeared upon his shoulders, and he took flight towards Meshed.

Some attribute the appearance of the spot to the fact that Bibi Khanum betrayed her husband, even though merely in words. Others, on the contrary, claim that the spot appeared because Bibi Khanum had not kept the promise given to the love-sick architect. The spot did not remain very long on her cheek, but a custom grew up by which those who forswear their promises, or fail in their duty, are called 'black faces.'

"Turkestan Solo" by Dervla Murphy