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Gur Emir by Colin Thubron

I crossed the courtyard and found myself in a bare passageway. At its end, on either side of a low door, hung a broken Kufic frieze, huge, as if displaced from somewhere else. 'This is the resting place of the Illustrious and Merciful Monarch, the Magnificent Sultan, the most Mighty Warrior, Emir Timur Kurgan, Conqueror of all the Earth' ran the original inscription; but it had gone.

I peered through the doors and into the chamber. The latticed windows let in diffused sunbeams. High above me, across the whole summit of the dome, fanned a net of gilded stucco, which twined upon itself in mathematic delicacy. It dropped its golden creepers over the enormous spandrels, bays and pendentives, and shed a soft blaze of light on to everything below. Beneath it the walls were coated in alabaster - hexagonal tiles, still translucent - and circled by a jasper frieze carved with the deeds and genealogy of the emperor. Beneath this again, within the low balustrade at my feet, the cenotaphs of his family lay side by side in rectangular blocks of marble and alabaster. And at the centre, stark among their pallor, the grave of Tamerlane shone in a monolith of near-black jade. It was disconcertingly beautiful: the largest block of jade in the world. Its edges were lightly inscribed. A vertical split showed where Persian soldiers (it is thought) had hacked at it two and a half centuries before.

Under the decorated brilliance of the cupola, the simplicity of these gravestones was dignified and rather terrible: a recognition of the littleness even of this man, and the passage of time. Beside him lay his gentle son Shah Rukh; at his head, his minister; under a bay, his sheikh. His grandson Ulug Beg was at his feet. Others were gathered round.

At last the young caretaker, pleased by my interest, ushered me out of the chamber and led me round the back of the mausoleum. He unlocked a tiny carved door. 'Here is the real grave,' he said.

I descended a steep, ramped passage beneath the building. In the blackness I sensed the sweep of vaults low overhead. Somewhere behind me, the man turned a switch, and a bare bulb made a pool of dimness in the crypt. Each cenotaph in the chamber above was mirrored in this darkness by a flat gravestone. They lay secret in their dust and silence. The air was dry and old. I knelt by the emperor's graveslab and touched it. Beneath, wrapped in linen embalmed in camphor and musk, his shrunken body had been laid in an ebony coffin. I could not imagine it. The living man was too vivid in my mind. For a year after his interment, it was said, people heard him howling from the earth.

In the dull light I saw that every inch of the marble slab seethed with carved Arabic, as if even the words were waging a battle across his stone. They traced his ancestry back through Genghiz Khan (a claim he never made in life) to the legendary virgin Alangoa, ravished by a moonbeam, and at last to Adam.

The stone was split clean across in two places; but when Soviet archaeologists opened it in 1941 they found undisturbed the skeleton of a powerful man, lame on his right side. Fragments of muscle and skin still clung to him, and scraps of a russet moustache and beard. An untraceable story warned that if Tamerlane's grave was violated, disaster would follow, and a few hours later news arrived that Hitler had invaded Russia.

But the investigations went on, and from the emperor's skull the Soviet scientist Gerasimov painstakingly reconstructed a bronze portrait-head, before sealing Tamerlane back in the tomb. Under the sculptor's hands there emerged a face of hardened power, compassionless, bitter and subtle. Perhaps some Slavic prejudice heightened the epicanthic cruelty of the eyes; perhaps not. A hint of the emperor's youthful truculence tinges the full lips, but that is all. Cord-like ligaments scoop the cheeks into harrowed triangles. Ancient muscles knot the cheeks, and a heraldic flexion of the brows seems to signal the sack of a city.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron