The Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum is the the final resting place of Amir Timur, Tamerlane, the brilliant conqueror who dominated central Asia in the final decades of the 14th century up to his death in 1405.
The site of the tomb was originally a khanqah and madrasa endowed by Timur’s grandson, Muhammad Sultan, who was Timur’s heir-apparent. The two buildings of the religious foundation faced one another across a wide courtyard in a qosh arrangement, which Chuvin and DeGeorge describe as the earliest application of this urban planning principle that was later used extensively in Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, and elsewhere.
In 1403 Muhammad Sultan died suddenly at age 27 in the prime of his life. The inconsolable Timur ordered a lengthy period of official mourning and mounted an honor guard to temporarily bury him in near the city of Soltaniyeh (now in northwest Iran). Throughout the following year, workmen labored tirelessly at Timur’s command to construct a grand tomb for Muhammad Sultan at the north end of the religious foundation that bore his name. In 1403 Muhammad Sultan’s body was exhumed and transported for burial in Samarkand, where it was re-interred in the tomb that would-in time to come-become known as the Gur-e-Amir (Tomb of the Leader).
However, for the first two years, the tomb was nothing more than a grand mausoleum built at a scale and expense befitting the world-conquering Timur, who yet lived. The ambitious conqueror breathed his last a mere two years later while striking out on a campaign to conquer China. Although Timur had built himself a tomb at his favorite city of Shahrisabz, the mountain passes leading to the area were impassable in the winter, making it necessary to bury him at Samarkand instead.
Timur was laid to rest alongside his grandson Muhammad Sultan in the shrine’s central chamber. In time, Timur’s own tomb was boxed in by three more graves-those of his spiritual adviser, Sayyid Baraka (1343-1403); his grandson Ulugh Beg (1394-1449), the famous astronomer king; and one of his sons, Shah Rukh Mirza (1377-1447), the second ruler of the Timurid empire. With these additions, along with the graves of several more relatives, the tomb was transformed into the dynastic mausoleum of the Timur dynasty.
Despite the tomb’s hurried construction-which the visiting Castilian ambassador Clavijo claims, rather implausibly, was completed in a mere 10 days at Timur’s orders-the quality of the workmanship is first-rate. In particular, the interior of the tomb chamber is a pièce de résistance of “papier mache” muqarnas vaulting decorated throughout with gilded kundal, a laborious technique involving the application of mortar-like glue covered in polychrome paints and accented with gold plating, lending a three-dimensional effect. Amid this splendor, the small, understated cenotaphs appear to be a mere footnote, though the actual sarcophagi are located deep underground in a hidden chamber whose arrangement of graves mirrors those in the tomb hall.
The outside of the tomb is no less grand than the interior though, regrettably, much has been erased by the passage of time. Even now the site’s exterior appearance is dominated by the high dome and the large entrance pishtaq. Hillenbrand notes that in the late 14th century there arose a penchant to “seize upon a single feature and magnify it to an unprecedented degree” (Hillenbrand, p. 297) when designing grand tombs. For example, the Turabek Khanum mausoleum in Konye Urgench and the Khwaja Ahmed Yasavi tomb in Turkestan (in southern Kazakhstan) both employed monumental pishtaqs, whereas at other costly tombs (such as those of Samarkand’s Shah-i-Zinda) a high drum was used to exaggerate the height of the dome. At the Gur-e-Amir both techniques were used to great effect-specifically, a towering dome marking, like an exclamation point, the site of the tomb chamber, and a brilliantly decorated pishtaq at the front of the ensemble that stands on axis with the tomb.
The dome’s height, mounted as it is on a tall cylindrical drum, was only achievable by means of employing a hidden inner dome and extensive cross bracing to redistribute the outward pressure of the dome, lest it tear the cylindrical drum apart. Such techniques to produce “double shelled domes” were familiar to architects in Iran and other areas conquered by Timur, suggesting Persian conscripts were responsible for the design. Further evidence to this effect is that the name of the architect of the pishtaq, who is known, was a certain Muhammad ibn Mahmud al-banna’ al-Isfahani, whose surname confirms his homeland as Isfahan, Iran.
The ensemble has suffered badly from neglect over the centuries. Old color photographs by the pioneering photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, taken in 1910, show that the high dome was largely intact apart from significant weathering of the polychrome ribs. The grand iwan leading to directly to Timur’s tomb was wholly collapsed with only the side piers remaining. By the 1950s, when Soviet restorationists stepped in, the dome was on the verge of collapse. However, their restoration works were so effective that it is virtually impossible to discern the difference between original elements and restored areas. The conservators focused primarily on the tomb chamber, the entry portal, and the north-facing pishtaq, leaving undisturbed the foundations of the two front minarets an the khanqah and madrasa on either side of the courtyard.