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Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum

Before we also left, I slipped away for a last communion with Tamburlaine, Ulugh Beg and the other Timurids who lay in the Gur Emir. The most accessible of all Samarkand's antiquities, this was only just round the corner, in a quiet backwater that had reminded Wilfrid Blunt of an English cathedral close. The mausoleum was encircled by a number of houses with an intervening space, and women regularly emerged from their homes to draw water or wash utensils at a number of pumps standing in this close. On sunny afternoons they sat in groups, leaning against one or other of the houses, enjoying the warmth and the view of the great fluted turquoise dome, and the comings and goings of tourists by the busload. Possibly, too, they ruminated on the sublime definition that tiled the drum of the Gur Emir in a calligraphy of white characters outlined against the honey-coloured brick - God is Immortality.

Tamburlaine and his seven companions lay side by side within a low fence of fretted white marble under that dome, in a gloom that needed much more artificial light to reveal the delicate murals all around and high overhead. The tombstones were of white marble also, with the exception of his, which was a lozenge of black, said to have been the biggest piece of jade in the world when it was lowered over the emperor's body nearly six hundred years ago. It was unfortunately no longer in one piece, and patchings down the side showed where breakage had occurred; more earthquake damage, as like as not. But Tamburlaine was assuredly underneath, as Professor M. M. Gerasimov demonstrated in 1941. In the course of restoration at the Gur Emir, he was given permission to examine closely some of the tombs, and he paid particular attention to two exhumed skeletons. He established that Ulugh Beg had indeed been assassinated as described in the traditional accounts; and that Timur had been crippled by an injury to his right leg.

A legend had always insisted that if the Scourge of God were disturbed in his long sleep, catastrophe would follow. A few hours after Professor Gerasimov uncovered these remains, news came from Moscow that the German panzers had invaded Russia and the Ukraine.

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse

The Gur-e Amir or Guri Amir is a mausoleum of the Asian conqueror Tamerlane (also known as Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. It occupies an important place in the history of Turko-Persian Architecture as the precursor and model for later great Mughal architecture tombs, including Humayun's Tomb in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra, built by Timur's Persianised descendants, the ruling Mughal dynasty of North India. It has been heavily restored.

In a place called Shakhrisabz, about 80 km south of the Samarkand in Uzbekistan, a giant monument to the 14 century Temur (Tamerlane) marks the place he was born. The towering statue of Temor cues what is to come: in the city of Samarkand itself, even more references to one of the country's most important historical figures are to be found, including the heavily-restored mausoleum where he was buried.

Amir Timur wanted to be buried in a simple tomb in his home town of Shakhrisabz, but his relatives and advisers had grander plans, for which Samarkand's modern tour guides are no doubt grateful.

The Gur-e Amir (which translates to 'tomb of the king') is seeped in both rich architecture and legend. Its construction began in 1403 after the death of Temor's most beloved grandson, who is also buried there. The Persian-style building features a single turquoise copula, ribbed and detailed with ornate rosette pattern. The dome tops an octagonally-shaped building that is also highly detailed with ornamental mosaic and epigraph.

Is Temur really buried in this mausoleum? in 1941, the tomb was unsealed to verify the remains as Temur's. The excavation was successful in the sense that the skeleton's damage matched descriptions of the injuries Temur incurred in battle that caused his death and confirmed that the remains are indeed his.

'Should the sky disappear, the dome will replace it' enthused a poet on glimpsing the peerless cupola atop Tamerlane's mausoleum Gur Emir, the Tomb of the Ruler, a few minutes' walk from the Hotel Samarkand. Timur had built a simple crypt for himself at Shakhrisabz, and had this one built in 1404 for his grandson and proposed heir, Mohammed Sultan, who had died the previous year. Spanish envoy Clavijo reported how the ageing emir, carried to the site in late 1404, had demanded it rebuilt with added grandeur in only ten days 'under threat of a terrible forfeit to the workmen'. But the story goes that when Timur died unexpectedly of pneumonia in Kazakhstan (in the course of planning an expedition against the Chinese) in the winter of 1405, the passes back to Shakhrisabz were snowed in and he was interred here instead. Tamerlane was laid to rest beside his grandson, his body covered with a slab of Mongolian jade, and followed by descendents down to Ulug Beg, whose presence has spurred recent restoration. The Gur-i Amir effectively serves as the Timurid dynasty's necropolis, for in addition to Timur and Muhammad Sultan, the bodies of two of Timur's sons, Miranshah and Shahruh, and his grandson, Ulug Beg, are also here. The stone tombs you see are in fact purely decorative, as was traditional: the bodies are in fact interred in crypts beneath the floor.

The Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
The Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The burial place of Emir Timur (Tamerlane). Gur-e Amir, which translates as Tomb of the King in Persian, is a mausoleum in Samarkand that contains the tombs of Tamerlane (also known as Timur) and his teacher Sayyid Baraka, sons Shah Rukh and Miran Shah, and grandsons Ulugh Beg and Muhammad Sultan.

Mohammed Sultan's blue-tiled portal opens onto a courtyard once cornered with minarets and flanked by madrassah and khanagha, but today only the foundations survive. Their absence emphasizes the simple monumentality of the Gur Emir itself, based on an octagonal chamber decorated with geometric girikh. Above it, belting the tall, cylindrical drum, the inscription 'God is Immortal' thunders in white Kufic script three metres high. Crowning the building in fluted majesty is the sky-blue dome, gently swelling to a height of over 32 metres. Across its 64 ribs spreads a skin of coloured glazed tile in a continuous lozenge pattern.

Outwardly the Gur-e Amir Mausoleum is a one-cupola building. It is famous for its simplicity of construction and for its solemn monumentality of appearance. It is an octahedral building crowned by an azure fluted dome. The exterior decoration of the walls consists of the blue, light-blue and white tiles organized into geometrical and epigraphic ornaments against a background of terracotta bricks. The dome (diameter - 15 m, height - 12.5 m) is of a bright blue color with deep rosettes and white spots. Heavy ribbed fluting gives an amazing expressiveness to the cupola.

Yellow and green offset turquoise-blue as light and shade play with mosaic hue. Just as spectacular is the mausoleum interior, reached via the eastern gallery added by Ulug Beg. Hexagonal onyx tiles lend the lower walls a greenish translucencc, topped by Koranic inscriptions carved in marble and painted on jasper. Geometric panels shine with radiating stars, beside niches hung with stalactites moulded from papier-mache painted blue and gold. The inner dome drips an intricate gilded coating around high lattice windows. Enclosed by a marble rail, seven marble tombstones encircle a dark-green slab 1.8 metres long, once the largest piece of jade in the world. Ulug Beg brought it back from Mongolia in 1425 to cover his grandfather's grave. As with other Muslim mausoleums, the stones are just markers; the actual crypts are in a chamber beneath. In the centre is Timur’s stone, once a single block of darkgreen jade. In 1740 the warlord Nadir Shah carried it off to Persia, where it was accidentally broken in two – from which time Nadir Shah is said to have had a run of very bad luck, including the near-death of his son. At the urging of his religious advisers he returned the stone to Samarkand, and of course his son recovered.

Tamerlane lies as requested at the feet of his spiritual adviser Mir Sayid Barakah. In clockwise order are Mohammed Sultan, Ulug Beg, Tamerlane's sons Shahrukh and Miranshah, and two unnamed children.

The plain marble marker to the left of Timur’s is that of Ulugbek; to the right is that of Mersaid Baraka, one of Timur’s teachers. In front lies Mohammed Sultan. The stones behind Timur’s mark the graves of his sons Shah Rukh (the father of Ulugbek) and Miran Shah. Behind these lies Sheikh Seyid Umar, the most revered of Timur’s teachers, said to be a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed.

The horsehair pole marks the grave of a holy man, whose remains were discovered when the mausoleum was under construction. The emblem was a common sight on the hard pilgrimage to Mecca. These tombstones are actually cenotaphs matching the layout of the real graves in the vaulted crypt below, which can generally be visited for a small fee (some visitors have also been allowed into the minarets).

The Soviet anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov opened the crypts in 1941 and, among other things, confirmed that Timur was tall (1.7m) and lame in the right leg and right arm (from injuries suffered when he was 25) – and that Ulugbek died from being beheaded. According to every tour guide’s favourite anecdote, he found on Timur’s grave an inscription to the effect that ‘whoever opens this will be defeated by an enemy more fearsome than I’. The next day, 22 June, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.

In the courtyard stands a great marble block carved in arabesques and known as the Kok Tash. Historians discredit the belief that this was Tamerlane's throne, but from the 17th century it was certainly used as coronation stone by the Bukharan emirs. Prisoners of noble birth served as footstools. Stories claim the nearby bowl was Tamerlane's bath for pre-prayer ablutions or even a gauge of military loss: before battle each soldier squeezed pomegranate juice into it; once the survivors had drunk, the residue determined the number of fallen.

If you're fortunate enough to step inside the mausoleum after dark, the central chamber sparkles as light flickers from the colossal crystal chandelier hanging beneath the dome. The gilt on the ceiling seems to glow, and it feels like you're in a very holy place indeed.

Buried in back yards just southeast of Gur Emir is another Timurid mausoleum, known as Ak Serai (Oksaray, or White Palace), built around 1470, with some bright frescoes and majolica tilework inside. The frescoes were barely visible before being restored in 2008. Still elegant even in ruin, the building's cruciform chamber, arch design, glazed mosaic and kundal gold leaf resembled the larger Ishrat Khana. Stalactites pepper the inner dome and some wall paintings also survive. Archaeologists removed a headless skeleton from the open crypt, possibly that of Abd al-Latif, son and murderer of Ulug Beg.

Following demolition that left the local neighbourhood mosque standing, but without a neighbourhood, a new road marks the paved path that once led north from the Gur Emir to the Rukhabad Mausoleum (dated 1380 and possibly the city’s oldest surviving monument), built by Tamerlane at the same time to honour Sheikh Burhan al-Din Sagarji. Mausoleum is diagonally across the car park from the Gur-i Amir. The grave of this mystic lent the mausoleum its popular name Rukhabad, "Abode of the Spirit". Sheikh Byrhan ad Din Sagarji was a Sufi preacher who spread the message of Islam from central Asia to India and was mentioned by the Arabic traveller Ibn Battuta after they met in the 1340s. Sagarjis son, Abu Said, was Timur's religious tutor. Legend claims a casket of the Prophet Mohammed's hair was buried with him. The classical plan-cubic chamber, octagonal drum, conical dome hairy with grass-plus lack of portal and decorless brickwork give the monument an archaistic look. Only the grand dimensions remind one of its Timurid origin. Rukhobod Mausoleum in fact is  Samarkand's oldest surviving monument. It now serves as a souvenir and craft shop.