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Bibi Khanum Mosque

Samarkand, Uzbekistan


The construction of Bibi Khanum mosque was begun May 11, 1399, and it took five years to complete. From his successful Indian campaign he has returned with ninety-seven teams of elephants. For what, other than warfare, can they be used? Immediately the notion of a mosque, bigger and more ornate than anything in his conquered realms, springs to mind. Dedicating it to his senior consort, the emperor of China’s daughter, he has it built next to the new bazaar, sustaining a fertile connection that has long accompanied the spread of Islam.

Descriptions have come down of the old man, aged seventy, just before he died in 1405, Timur personally overseeing the construction and, from his place on the scaffold, tossing coins and scraps of meat to the workers below. Two hundred architects, artists, master craftsmen, and mason assembled from all over the Timurid Empire, aided by five hundred labourers used to drag the materials into place. This immense edifice is the largest structure ever built of unfired, un-reinforced mud brick.

As can be imagined, the work progressed at an unheard-of pace. From the marble quarries forty kilometers away, 480 stone pillars were cut and transported to Samarkand by elephant. In three months, the minarets were erected. During one of his inspections, Timur noticed that the adjoining bazaar was not spacious enough. Up went the new fountain-lined bazaar Clavijo described. Returning from still another campaign, he noticed the central portal lacked authority and set a more imposing one in its place.

The great vault of the mosque’s central dome may not, as one poet put it, have rivaled heaven itself, nor could the central portal have outshone the Milky Way, but the Bibi Khanum was certainly very large. (Its modern replica is about a third smaller.)

Its courtyard is 432 feet long, 338 feet wide, paved with marble slabs, and surrounded by a roofed gallery. The entrance, the high-walled courtyard, is through the great gates with archways, and they have a marble base and tiled facade. The gates are flanked by twin 168-foot high ceramic columns. Each of the corners is four tall minarets. At the far end towers the enormous star spangled portal of Bibi Khanum, crowned by a colossal bright blue dome. A lot of damage was done by Russian cannon shells when they pierced its blue dome during the battle of Samarkand in 1868.

Timur’s grandson and successor in Samarkand, Ulugh Beg, was a major builder in his own right; obviously he made his contribution to the main mosque in the form of the oversized Quran stand which was placed first in the domed sanctuary and then moved to the center of the courtyard.
Did you know?

There are three kinds of mosques: the ordinary mosque for the prayers of every day; cathedral mosques for the Friday gatherings of the populace, and a special cathedral mosque found only in the great cities, such as Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent: these are not generally used, but services are held in them twice a year during the Eid holidays.
Legend of a Kiss

The story goes that the mosque’s Persian architect, as his price for finishing before Timur’s return, insisted on a kiss from Bibi Khanum herself. She, of course, refused. But when word reached her that Timur was in Merv, a week’s march away, and the mosque was still unfinished, she decided to allow the architect to kiss her cheek. His lips left a mark that Timur noticed upon his return.

Arab architect was being pursued to the summit of the minaret in which he had taken refuge, wings appeared upon his shoulders, and he took flight towards Meshed in northwest Iran, the next site, appropriately, of Timurid architecture.

He ordered all women to wear veils so than only their husbands could enjoy what was beneath. Modern Uzbek women, however, usually do not take veil. Mini-skirts and stiletto heils are current fashion in Tashkent, and in the countryside, women mainly wear scarves to block out the sun.

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