Photo: Tim Dirven
Photo: Tim Dirven

from Issue 4

Steppe 4 Cover

Snapshot: Waiting for Godot

Porters wait for clients at the edge of the Afrasiyab Bazaar (not visible in the photograph) in the centre of Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Today the large, spacious, partly open-air Afrasiyab Bazaar (named after the ancient city of Samarkand, destroyed by the Mongols in 1220 ad) lies at the heart of ‘new’ Samarkand. Row upon row of produce brought to market by local farmers fills the aisles, comprising dried fruits and nuts, herbs, spices, a colourful array of fresh fruits and vegetables including gigantic juicy melons, plus Samarkand’s famous thick lepioshka (round flatbread), freshly butchered meat and a vast display of household goods.

As the porters wait for business, their backs are turned to the magnificent Bibi Khanum Mosque, commissioned by Timur in 1398 as a jama-e-masjid (Friday Mosque) following his victorious campaign in Hindustan. The mosque was named after Timur’s favourite wife, Sarai Mulk ‘Bibi’ Khanum, whose mausoleum lies opposite the imposing iwan (entrance portal) on the eastern side.

Ruy González de Clavijo, a Spanish traveller to Timur’s court, described the Bibi Khanum Mosque – one of the largest buildings of its kind in the Islamic world – as ‘the noblest of all those we visited in the city of Samarkand’. However, according to de Clavijo, Timur was dissatisfied with its size and progress, wishing it to be both grander and larger. Ultimately the building was erected so hastily, and made so large, that not long after completion it began to crumble. The main iwan and the three domed structures within were restored from a ruinous state in 1974 by the Soviets.

Visible here, the remains of the external decoration attest to a varied and imaginative treatment incorporating mosaic faience, haft rangi tiles (tiles painted in seven colours), carved stone and hazarbaf (decorative) brickwork including girikhs (geometrical shapes) and gigantic Kufic inscriptions. Also visible is the domed chamber on the northern side (mirrored on the southern side), with a large, conical, ribbed dome decorated with the blue tiles for which Samarkand is famous. A third dome, just visible behind this one, stands at the western side of the mosque, providing cover for the mihrab (the niche indicating the direction of Mecca).

Despite its convenient position next to the bazaar, today the mosque is merely a shell – a monument to Timur and his architectural splendour.