No shortage of conquerors in Uzbekistan. I could have used one to help get a visa. Citizens of twenty countries don’t need a visa to enter Uzbekistan, but those of the U.S are excluded. It may be doubly difficult now that the U.S. is backing Ukraine in its war with Russia, which continues to exercise considerable influence in Uzbekistan. But with a visa finally in hand, I was able to experience as much as anyone the wonders of Uzbekistan, in particular the array of monuments in stunning Samarkand.
In 1399 the great conqueror of Eurasia, Timur, or Tamerlane, as he is often called, decided it was time to pause in the fighting and start to build. He went about it in the systematic way he had destroyed his enemies. With plunder he had accumulated from his conquests, he attracted scholars, artists and architects far and wide to fulfill his vision. Foremost was a very large mosque, its elements forming a fine ensemble, that was dedicated to his wife, Bibi Khanym. In 1399 he presented his design to a notable architect and work began. Unfortunately, the architect took a shine to his wife and was thereby executed, stalling progress. But in four years the mosque was completed for Timur to see before his death.
Despite its opulence, the mosque had a hard time surviving over the years and the centuries. It suffered periodic collapse from marauders, earthquakes and sheer negligence. It was used for storage in the 19th century. If only Timur had been around. But then in the 1970s Uzbekistan’s strong man in charge, Islam Karimov, proved his devotion to Timur by rebuilding the mosque to its original design at the same time that he replaced a statue of Karl Marx in Tashkent with one of Timur. Bibi Khanym was to furnish a guide to the Uzbek past and an inspiration for its future.
Tourist groups come and go and take pictures, but Bibi Khanym takes time. Its various parts, subtly woven together, can be seen and appreciated from different angles, each offering a surprise. One vantage point is up a flight of forty stairs to the adjoining hotel dining area, where in the late afternoon the setting sun casts a luminous glow on the blue tower, a sight quite like no other that seems to say all is well with the world. A moment to savor.
It may seem shameful that such a scene was provided by one of the most murderous of men, but that’s the complexity of life. Beauty is as beauty does. We take Timur for what he was.
A pleasant tree lined, shop filled walkway leads to other notable monuments in Samarkand, the three majestic madrassas that form the so-called Registan in the center of the city. These are not museum pieces but part of everyday life. Bridal couples can be seen wandering through the complex to assure a happy future as school children play around Bibi Khanym. There’s no sign of debris or dismay. Good cheer is the order of the day. A “Tourist Police” doesn’t seem very busy either helping tourists in trouble or keeping them from making trouble. Timor would no doubt be pleased, and so are we.