Timeline: Timurid {1370-1506}

Central Asian dynasty founded by Timur which flourished from the end of the fourteenth century to the end of the fifteenth.

Timur was born a member of the Barlas tribe and claimed descent from the Mongol Khan Chatagay. By 1370/771 AH Timur had gained control of Samarkand and Balkh after which he spent ten years consolidating his control of Central Asia. From 1381/782 AH Timur extended the range of his operations and managed to gain control of Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Caucasus and Delhi. In 1402/804 AH Timur's excursions into Anatolia brought him into conflict with the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid whom he defeated and captured at the battle of Ankara. One of the results of these wide-ranging conquests was the collection of skilled craftsmen from all over the Middle East who were used to enrich the new capital at Samarkand. Timur died in 1405/807 AH and was succeeded by his son Shah Rukh who ruled the empire from Herat where he had been governor during the reign of Timur. Samarkand was ruled by Shah Rukh's son Ulugh Beg whilst Fars was ruled first by his nephew Ibrahim. By the mid-fifteenth century the western provinces were mostly lost to the Turkmans leaving Herat as capital of a much diminished empire which continued until 1507/912 AH when it was taken over by the Turkmans.    The best preserved Timurid structure in Herat is the shrine of the mystic of Khwajeh 'Abdallah Ansari at Gazur Gah. The complex is built on the plan of a four-iwan madrassa and oriented to the qibla (i.e. east-west) with the entrance in the centre of the west facade. The entrance portal consists of a large iwan, half-octagonal in plan, leading into the rectangular central courtyard. There is a mosque and cells for mystics at the western end, whilst at the eastern end is a shallow iwan set into a tall pishtaq.

The main building material employed for imperial monuments was baked brick although dressed stone was used in Azerbaijan. The standard brick form was square (24-27 cm per side and 4-7 cm thick) whilst cut or moulded bricks were relatively rare compared with earlier periods. Mortar was usually quick-setting gypsum plaster rather than the more common lime plaster. The standard method of exterior decoration was tile revetments which were on a larger scale than in previous periods. Two main forms of tilework were used, tile mosaic, with individual coloured pieces cut to form patterns, and underglaze-painted tiles known as 'haft rangi' (seven colours). The underglaze-painted tiles tended to be of a lower quality but were useful for covering large areas.

A large variety of arch forms were used including round, two-, three-, and four-centre arches, although the most common was the three-centred arch with a high crown, where the height of the arch was more than half the height of the entire opening. A large variety of domes and vaults were employed which displays the wide range of influences in Timurid architecture. One of the most significant vaulting forms employed was based on the use of wide transverse arches spanning between parallel walls. Vaults of various forms were then built to cover the area between each transverse arch to produce a large vaulted area. The vaults used to span the arches included tunnel or barrel vaults, stellar vaults and cross vaults, all of which produce characteristic humps on the roofs of buildings.

Dome forms became increasingly distinctive under the Timurids with the development of double-shell domes where there is an outer dome and a shallower inner dome. The characteristic outer dome form consists of a tall 'melon-shaped' structure set on a high drum and decorated with ribs covered in decorative tilework.

The most characteristic feature of Timurid imperial buildings is their massive scale, emphasized by huge entrance portals and thick minarets covered in tile decoration. Internally the buildings are slightly less well organized and they often have a large variety of smaller rooms whose relationship to the overall plan is not always evident.

The most famous of the Timurid monuments are the shrine of Ahmed Yasavi at Turkestan (Yasi) in Khazakstan and the Masjid Jami' at Samarkand. The monuments are quite similar in their scale and conception with huge portal iwans behind which rise characteristic melon-shaped domes on high collars or drums. The Ahmed Yasavi tomb was built by Timur for his son Jahangir whilst the Masjid Jami' at Samarkand was built to commemorate the Timurid capture of Delhi. Other monumental projects carried out by Timur include the mausoleums at Shahrisbaz (his first capital) for his father Taraghay and the Gur-i-Amir for his son Muhammad Sultan at Samarkand. In addition, Timur undertook massive civil engineering projects including building the towns of Baylaqan, Shahrukhiya and Iryah, the citadels and walls of Ghazui, Balkh and Samarkand.

The later Timurid buildings of Herat in Afghanistan mirror those of the early Timurid Empire, although many were destroyed in the nineteenth century. One of the most celebrated buildings in Herat was the mosque and madrassa built by the architect Qavam al-Din for the wife of Shah Rukh. Little is left of the complex except for two minarets at diagonally opposite corners of the mosque and a minaret and iwan from the madrassa.

Source: Petersen, Andrew. Dictionary of Islamic Architecture. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Additional Resources:

Golombek, Lisa, and Maria Subtelny, eds. 1992. Timurid Art and Culture: Iran and Central Asia in the Fifteenth Century. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Thackston, W. M., sel. and trans. A Century of Princes: Sources on Timurid History and Art. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, 1989.

Golombek, Lisa. 1993. "The Paysage as Funerary Imagery in the Timurid Period". In Muqarnas X: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture. Margaret B. Sevcenko, ed. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Subtelny, Maria Eva. 1997. "Agriculture and the Timurid Chahargagh: The Evidence from a Medieval Persian Agricultural Manual." In Gardens in the Time of the Great Muslim Empires: Theory and Design, edited by Attilio Petruccioli, 110-128. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill.

Timurid Architecture Research Archive - Finding Aid. Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2020.

Necipoglu, Gulru and David Roxburgh. “Timurid Cities in Iran and Central Asia.” Lesson 12/22 presentation developed for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture Education Programme, 2019.

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