Trans Eurasia travel

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City of Tamerlane

On first impressions Samarkand was indistinguishable from the other former-Soviet Central Asian cities through which we'd passed. Driving through the sprawling eastern suburbs we followed wide, tree-lined streets, populated by the same battered cars, orange trams and propane-propelled buses. The same uniformed policemen stood at junctions directing the traffic, and on the sidewalks the same skullcapped men and brightly dressed women wandered past the same dour office blocks, technical institutes, kebab sellers and high-rise concrete apartment blocks. As we approached the centre we spotted occasional crumbling, sandstone domes, spangled with tiny turquoise tiles, bulging from the earth like giant poisonous toadstools, but not much else to remind us of the city's glorious past.

It was rather disappointing.

At almost every junction rose billboards depicting the imperious bearded image of Tamerlane. On the surface the sheep-rustler-turned-emperor from Kesh, a small town south of Samarkand, seemed an odd choice as a national hero. A self-proclaimed descendant of Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, or Timor the Lame - so called after an arrow wound left him with a profound limp is known to Western historians as the despot's despot. During his thirty-year reign, which saw his extensive conquests cast a shadow of death over Persia, Syria, Asia Minor, Afghanistan and India, an estimated 17 million people were put to the sword. Stories of his brutality are legendary.

It was only after wandering mesmerised down the shallow steps and across the beautifully patterned tiled floor of the exquisite Registan Square that the other side of this strange, schizophrenic-man appeared. Here lay the centre of Tamerlane's empire, and the paradox of the Emperor's heart. Now restored to its former glory, the Registan is one of most majestic and grandiose works of architecture in all the Islamic world. The shape, style and symmetry of the three madrassahs' facades is extraordinary; the attention to detail absorbing. Tiles, often no larger than a fifty-pence piece, glazed turquoise, gold, navy, purple, deep red and creamy white, cover the imperial walls in stunning mosaics of richly coloured geometric, floral and epigraphic patterns. Sarah and I stood at the centre of the Square, under a clear blue sky, surrounded by the arches, domes and minarets, with mouths wide open, gurgling inadequate expletives.

But as we meandered through the mosques and madrassahs, the question I was grappling with was why should such a vicious butcher of men bother to create so much perfect splendour? Some say Tamerlane was obsessed by his own ugliness and contrived to create the most exquisite city in the world so he could feast his eyes on beauty. Others say that he was motivated by megalomanic pomp and vanity. And there are those that think that he simply wanted a showcase for all his captured treasures. Whatever the motives behind the building of Tamerlane's Samarkand from his Mogul ancestors' ashes, it remains one of the strange and enduring mysteries of Central Asia that a man who spent so much of his life engaged in slaughter and destruction should have expended so much energy creating such beauty.

"Silk Dreams, Troubled Road" by Jonny Bealby