The heirs of Timur: Timurid nationalism in Central Asia

Timurid dome and blue tiles in Turkistan, Central Asia
As long as we can remember, our image of Silk Road towns was blue. Blue domes, blue tiles, blue sky.

The bus moves slowly through the desert, it is too hot, and everyone is slumped drowsily in their seats. Suddenly someone stirs and looks out of the window. We are coming to a town. There is a huge blue dome visible from afar in the blue sky. It’s the Timurid Mausoleum of Khodja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkistan. Although geographically in Kazakhstan today, architecturally it belongs to the blue-domed monuments of Samarkand, Bukhara and Shakhrisabz in Uzbekistan.

The Timurid tiles and domes of Central Asia

Statue of Timur in Shachrisabz

A lot of them are buildings of the Timurid Dynasty. Its founder Timur was born in 1336 in a village south of today’s Samarkand. Later he went on to become leader of Transoxania in 1370. At the height of his rule (around 1400) his realm spanned from India to Russia. Due to a limp acquired in battle, he was also called Timur-i-Leng (Timur the Lame), a name distorted to “Tamerlane” in the West. While Timur slaughtered his defeated enemies with excessive cruelty, he spared the best artisans in the conquered towns. Those, he brought to his capital Samarkand to develop the new Timurid style. They built magnificent madrasas (theological universities), mausoleums and mosques.

Tomb of Timur / Gur Emir in Samarkand

In Uzbekistan, Timur’s home country, many of the most beautiful examples of Timurid architecture a
re now restored to their former glory. At the same time, the traditional harsh way of dealing with enemies of the state remains popular. Tanks and machine guns guard the entrance to the Ferghana valley, where civil unrest and demands for independence from Uzbekistan have spread in the past years. Groups of bored militias patrol the streets and metro stations of the capital Tashkent and control passports at random. We have often seen people being led away for no apparent reason. “I have been arrested in the metro twice. Once all the foreigners were evacuated for several weeks to be out of the way for police raids”, a cheerful American working for the UN told us.

Police traffic sign in Tashkent station

Everywhere, locals complain about the arbitrariness of police controls. And of course they have no choice but to pay bribes so often and so openly that even we foreigners notice.

15 years of Timurid independence

This year, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan are all celebrating 15 years of independence after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. In an effort to shape a new national identity based on the glorious past, the new rulers replaced the ubiquitous statues of Marx and Lenin by Timur. Or sometimes, by his grandson, the famous astronomer Ulug Beg or by similar historical figures in the other countries. Gradually, national languages replace Russian, which still remains more than the lingua franca. Kazakh, a Turkic language, is written in a modified Cyrillic script. Even the transliteration of Uzbek, now in Latin letters, is based on the Russian alphabet. As in Russian there is no “h”. For loanwords, usually a “g” (“г”) is used instead. Thus, we read and hear (yes, they also pronounce it like “g”) words like “Golland,” “Gamburger” and “Gipermarket.” “From Berlin?,” a young football fan enquired: “Wow, Gertha!”

Registan madrasas in Samarkand

We are now curious (and a bit worried) to see the historical legacies in Turkmenistan: Timur or Stalin? Our five-day transit visa is valid until 18 September, well ahead of the Independence Day in October. Apparently, Turkmenistan is not issuing any visas for the whole of October in order to keep all foreigners away during the celebrations. As we suppose there are no Internet connections from Turkmenistan, we will (hopefully) be in touch again from Baku (Azerbaijan).

NB: Our travel to the Timurid wonders of Central Asia was not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves.

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