The Gur Emir (also Gur-e Amir) is the mausoleum of the Asian conqueror Tamerlane (also known as Timur) in Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan). It occupies an important place in the history of Islamic Architecture as the precursor and model for the great Mughal tombs of Humayun in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra, built by Timur’s descendants, the ruling dynasty of North India.
Gur-e Amir is Tajik for “Tomb of the King”. This architectural complex with its azure dome contains the tombs of Tamerlane, his sons Shah Rukh and Miran Shah and grandson Ulugh Beg and Muhammad Sultan. Also honoured with places in the tomb are Timur’s teacher Mir Said Baraka.
The earliest part of the complex was built at the end of the 14th century by the orders of Muhammad Sultan. Now only the foundations of the madrasah and khanaka, the entrance portal and a part of one of four minarets remains.
The construction of mausoleum itself began in 1403 after the sudden death of Muhammad Sultan, Tamerlane’s heir apparent and his beloved grandson. But actually Ulugh Beg, another grandson of Tamerlane, completed the work. During his reign the mausoleum became the family crypt of the Timurid Dynasty.
The entrance portal to the Muhammad Sultan ensemble (see picture) is richly decorated with carved bricks and various mosaics. The decoration of the portal was accomplished by the skilled craftsman (ustad) Muhammad bin Mahmud Isfahani.
Outwardly the Gur Emir (Gur-e Amir) Mausoleum is a one-cupola building. It is famous for its simplicity of construction and for its solemn monumentality of the appearance. It is an octahedral building crowned by an azure fluted dome (see picture). The exterior decoration of the walls consists of the blue, light-blue and white tiles organized into geometrical and epigraphic ornaments against a background of terracotta bricks. The dome (diameter – 15 m (49.21 ft), height – 12.5 m (41.01 ft)) is of a bright blue color with deep rosettes and white spots. Heavy ribbed fluting gives an amazing expressiveness to the cupola.
During the reign of Ulugh Beg a doorway (see picture) was made to provide an entrance into the mausoleum.
Inwardly mausoleum appears as a high and large chamber with deep niches at the sides and diverse decoration. The lower part of the walls covered by onyx slabs composed as one panel. Each of these slabs is decorated with refined paintings. Above the panel there is a marble stalactite cornice. Large expanses of the walls are decorated with painted plaster; the arches and the internal dome are ornamented by high-relief papier-mache cartouches, gilded and painted (see picture). The ornate carved headstones in the inner room of mausoleum merely indicate the location of the actual tombs in a crypt directly underneath the main chamber.
Timur also built a tomb in Shahrisabz for himself. However, when Timur died in 1405 on campaign on his way to conquer China, the passes to Shahrisabz were snowed in, so he was buried here instead. Under Ulugh Beg’s government a solid block of dark green jade was placed over the grave of Tamerlane (see picture). Formerly this stone had been used at a place of worship in Chinese emperor’s palace, then as the throne of Kabek Khan (a descendant of Genghis Khan) in Karshi.
In 1740, the Persian warlord Nadir Shah stole the stone, but it broke in two and he started to have a run of extremely bad luck. His advisors urged that he return the stone to its rightful place immediately. The second time the stone was disturbed was in 1941 when Soviet archaeologists opened the crypt. The sculptor I. Gerasimov was able to reconstruct Tamerlane’s facial features from his skull, and it was also confirmed that he was a giant for his day, well over six feet tall, and would have walked with a pronounced limp. Further historical information about the assassination of Ulugh Beg and the authenticity of the other graves was also confirmed. However, the Soviet archaeologist involved also invoked the curse, as a short time later, the Nazis invaded Russia. The tomb inscription reads: “Anyone who violates my stillness in this life or in the next one, will be subjected to inevitable punishment and misery”.
Next to Tamerlane’s grave lie the marble tombstones of his sons Miran Shah and Shah Rukh and also of grandsons – Muhammad Sultan and Ulugh Beg. Tamerlane’s spiritual teacher Mir Said Baraka, also rests here.
Some consider the Gur Emir (Gur-e Amir), Ruhabad (Rukhobod) mausoleum and Aksaray mausoleum as a combined ensemble because of their closeness.
Rukhobod (Ruhabad) (14th c.) is a small mausoleum (see picture) and is said to contain a hair of Prophet Muhammad. The one storey madrasah now accommodates craftsmens’ shops. There is a functioning mosque next door to the madrasah. All three combine into one good-looking shape (see picture).
The Aksaray mausoleum (15th c.), unrestored, located on a quiet street behind Gur Emir (Gur-e Amir) (see picture).