Trans Eurasia travel

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Timurid miniatures

"However, I knew very little about the real Amir Timur and the role he had played in the creation of Timurid miniatures. I discovered that when he wasn't massacring large swathes of his enormous empire, Timur focused his efforts on transforming his capital, Samarkand, into a breathtakingly opulent demonstration of wealth and grandeur. The city was built by slave-artisans, the only survivors of his many conquests, and they brought with them a variety of artistic traditions. Here, in the series of tombs known as the Shah-i-Zindah, are the most exquisite tiles in Central Asia, and again the same naqsh or patterns found in Timurid carpets weave their way into the ceramic tiles, which are also 15th-century. This still didn't explain Timur's interest in miniatures. He was, after all, a man who liked to think big, whether building or butchering. According to legend, he was once approached by the master calligrapher Umar Al-Aqta, who had devised a minute 'dust' script that allowed the entire Koran to be written on a book the size of a signet ring. Timur was unimpressed. The calligrapher, keen to impress the Amir, realised that it was all about size. He returned some time later with a cart groaning under the weight of a huge Koran, the like of which had never been seen before. Now he was talking the tyrant's language and was promptly welcomed into the court and lavished with favour. What made Timur a champion of miniatures was his desire to leave a narrative mark and a written history of his mighty conquests. During his lifetime he had fostered an enormous personality cult. Still, the largest mosques and palaces and towers of skulls wouldn't ensure a legacy unless it was written down. He recognised the lasting importance of the written word and poured resources into his royal kitabtkhana, literally 'book room', ensuring that the finest vellum-makers, leather-workers, book-binders, scribes, calligraphers and min- iature-painters were put in his employ. Manuscript workshops became an integral part of Timurid expansion, and after Amir Timur's death his sons continued this tradition. Most notable was the kitabtkhana run by his son Shah Rukh in Herat, where many of the miniatures we were now using had been painted. As I familiarised myself with the history of miniatures, I realised that books were no match for the original miniatures themselves. Many of the books were unable to capture the sheen of gold-leaf and failed to display the detail of the originals. I discovered that two simple but elegant miniatures came from the same manuscript and were now in the Royal Asiatic Society in London, so I decided to visit their library. Unsure about protocol, I arrived without a letter of introduction, armed simply with a workshop photo album. I was obviously too clueless to be a manuscript thief and, after enthusiastically showing my photos to the librarian, was offered a seat while their Timurid manuscripts were sent down."

Christopher Aslan Alexander "A Carpet Ride to Khiva" 2010