Second to Ghengis Khan, Timur was the greatest uniting figure for central asian nomadic tribes. In Europe, he was known as Tamerlane - he was made lame by two battle injuries from his youth.
Samarkand and Bukhara were the twin crowning jewels of the Timurid empire. However, Samarkand is more truly Timur's city than Bukhara, which seemed to belong to the trade of the Sil Road more than any individual ruler. Aside from the three great classical Madrassas that horseshoe the central square, the great monuments of the city are his mausoleum and those of his extended family, and Mosques built in his honour. In the 14th century, Timur threw a long and terrifying shadow over Central Asia, his armies ransacked the richest cities of the region and returned the wealth to the center. His name is still spoken with contempt across Iran, Iraq and China for the monumental and cultural destruction his armies wrecked on these centers of high development.
Here's a wonderful story that portrays this man and his cities. Upon hearing certain verses of the famous Sufi poet Hafez, he fell into a fury and summoned the poet for retribution.
The concerned verse translates as
'Belle of Shiraz, grant me but love's demand,
And for your mole - that clinging grain of sand
Upon a cheek of pearl - Hafiz would give,
All of Bokhara, all of Samarkand.'
“With the blows of my lustrous sword,” Timur complained, “I have subjugated most of the habitable globe…to embellish Samarkand and Bokhara, the seats of my government; and you, miserable wretch, would sell them for the black mole of a Turk of Shiraz!”. Hafez, so the tale goes, bowed deeply and replied “Alas, O Prince, it is this prodigality which is the cause of the misery in which you find me”.
Timur shocked but pleased witty this witty response, he sent the poet away with caravan of treasures, presumably telling him to be more cautious with his newfound wealth this time.
On the domestic front in Samarkand, we were the debut guests of the brother’s Laziz and Aziz, at their newly opened B&B. Remarkably, Laziz had spent 15 years in the UK, most of them in Bournemouth of all places. A city that has coloured much of my school days, and is home to half of my friends in the UK. It was refreshing and rather novel to hear the positive fanaticism Laziz had for the UK and it’s people: Radio 2 echoed round his walled garden, he eulogised about ‘manners’, he was up to date with Downton, and we had ‘mostly full’ english breakfast every morning of our stay.
However, he had also been anglicised on a much deeper level: he had met his Slovakian wife Lucy and their daughter was born there, in hard times their British friends had helped them get back on their feet and racing again, and to crown it all he had returned to Uzbekistan to found the first British school in the country. As hosts they were impeccable, but the real luxury of our time there was the relatability we could share. The kernel in each conversation could be brought out and shared, with or without the flow of the nigh invincible Russian Vodka.
I hope we didn’t overstay our welcome in Samarkand, as our progress was frustrated by the digital question mark hanging over our e-visas for Tajikistan. The official turnaround time was 24 hours, but we had internet forum reports of people waiting for 20 days. Eid festivities were likely a problem, as was a high profile economic conference in Dushanbe. Apparently, tourist bookings were being scrubbed in hotels, and the government wasn’t keen on the two groups mixing. We were on day 4 of waiting for the visa, and considering an altenate route to the North, bypassing one of my most anticipated countries on the tour.
Our wild moment of relief erupted in the centre of a harry potter themed cafe, the reaction was in keeping with the wild overacting of the young cast in the first film. Our saviour seemed to be a faceless official in the Tajik Consulate, in the murky depths of a Caravanistan forum I had discovered his direct email, a couple of hours later the visas popped up in the inboxes.