Wednesday University Lecture 5
© Daniel C. Waugh

[Note: The slides used in the lecture have not been reproduced here; their place in the text is indicated by (*).]

Samarkand and the Silk Road in the Time of the Timurids and Their Heirs

Last time we met the Persian historian Ata-Malik Juvaini, who was conscripted to work for the Mongols and took the opportunity to write a detailed history of Chingis Khan and the Mongol conquest of Central Asia in 1219-1220. Quoting an anonymous poet, Juvaini wrote: "If it is said that a paradise is to be seen in this world, then the paradise of this world is Samarqand" (*). This, a preface to his account of Samarkand's resistance against the Mongols and, in his words, its "complete ruin." He concludes this chapter with a couplet:

O heart, lament not, for this world is only metaphorical;
O soul, grieve not, for this abode is only transient. [Boyle trans.]

Two generations later, in 1331, the famous Arab traveller Ibn Battuta passed through the city which is still a subject for poets and artists (*). As you will recall, he wrote in glowing terms of many flourishing cities under Mongol rule. Samarkand was an exception. What was, in his words,

one of the greatest and finest of cities, and most perfect of them in beauty...formerly [had] great palaces on [the river's] bank, and constructions which bear witness to the lofty aspirations of the townsfolk, but most of this is obliterated, and most of the city itself has also fallen into ruin. It has no city wall, and no gates, and there are gardens inside it. [Gibb trans.]
A generation later though, in 1370, the city would become the capital of Timur (Tamerlane), another of the famous Central Asian empire-builders. Under him Samarkand entered perhaps the most glorious period in its history (*). Samarkand's blessings included natural resources--fertile land, good pasturage, an abundant water supply from the melting snow in the nearby mountains (*)--and control of major trade routes. The city had been a magnet for conquerors even as far back as the time of Alexander the Great. Yet following each invasion, it would invariably revive.

My goal this evening will be to try to draw together around Samarkand some of the threads of our five-lecture history of the Silk Road. We shall look into the city's distant past, in the time of the Sogdian merchants who for centuries controlled much of the Silk Road trade. We shall then spend considerable time on Samarkand as the capital of the Timurid Empire (*). The late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries produced some of the remarkable architecture we can see there today. The city was visited by ambassadors from as far afield as Spain and China. The Spanish ambassador, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, left an invaluable, detailed account of the city at its peak. Tamerlane came to power right at the time when the YŁan or Mongol dynasty in China fell; among the more important of the Timurids' international contacts would be those with the new Ming Dynasty. This is arguably the period of the greatest impact of China on the arts of the Middle East, a topic which we shall explore with Timurid and other examples from the late fourteenth through early sixteenth centuries. Finally, we shall consider the Timurid legacy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where it was very much alive in Mughal India. The road to the Taj Mahal (*) leads through Samarkand.

Let us begin though not in the seventeenth but in the early fourth century. In 313 CE, a Sogdian commercial agent named Nanai-Vandak (*) wrote a letter home from Gansu Province in China. He reported on commercial affairs, on the fate of his fellow Sogdians scattered around in China and on its western borders, and on the recent sack of the Chinese capital Luoyang by the nomadic Xiongnu. "The last emperor," he wrote, "so they say, fled from Luoyang because of the famine, and fire was set to his palace and to the city and the palace was burnt and the city destroyed. Luoyang is no more...!" We know about Nanai-Vandak's world, because, for some reason, the mailbag containing his letter never made it out of Dunhuang in Western Gansu, where it was discovered by Sir Aurel Stein at the beginning of the twentieth century. Dunhuang (*), as you recall, is where the Silk Roads divided to circumvent the Taklamakan Desert.

As it turns out, home for Nanai-Vandak was Samarkand (*) in the region of Central Asia we call Sogdiana (today mostly in Uzbekistan), whose merchants for centuries had and would continue to play important roles in the trade of the Silk Road. We can document their presence in the valleys of what is now Northern Pakistan (*), where they left graffiti on the rocks . We know that Sogdian objects were valued and their designs often imitated by Chinese craftsmen. Sogdian musicians and dancers were popular in the seventh century among the elite during the T'ang Dynasty (*), when we see them depicted in the Paradise images painted on the walls of the Mogao caves.

For those who would wish to learn more about the Chinese connection of the Sogdians, I recommend the catalogue for the recent art exhibit Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China. One of the contributors to that catalogue is Boris Marshak of the Hermitage Museum, unquestionably the leading expert on the history and culture of the Sogdians in Central Asia, who will be speaking about them in our spring series on April 11 in the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

The history of the Sogdians encapsulates the history of the Silk Road, where the commerce and cultural interaction often was in the hands of those who themselves did not create and defend great empires but who thrived under the protection of the empire builders. Sogdiana never of itself became an important state--it was divided into small city states, which would secure the protection of royal patrons--the Hepthalites in the 5th century, the Turks in the 6th and early 7th centuries, even the T'ang Dynasty for a time in the middle of the 7th century, just prior to the Arab conquest of Central Asia.

There is striking evidence of the Chinese connections and the complex religious and cultural syncretism of seventh century Sogdiana in its major urban centers such as Afrasiab (*), now a dusty mound on the outskirts of Samarkand. Soon after the establishment of the T'ang Dynasty, the ruler of Samarkand asked to be placed under its protection. A few years later in early 631, our old friend (*), the Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang passed through the city, leaving us this description:

The country of Sa-mo-kien is about 1600 or 1700 li [one li=430 m.] in circuit...The capital of the country is 20 li or so in circuit. It is completely enclosed by rugged land and very populous. The precious merchandise of many foreign countries is stored up here. The soil is rich and productive, and yields abundant harvests. The forest trees afford a thick vegetation, and flowers and fruits are plentiful. The Shen horses are bred here. The inhabitants are skilful in the arts and trades beyond those of other countries. The climate is agreeable and temperate. The people are brave and energetic... [Beal trans.]

Apart from such verbal descriptions, we have abundant archaeological material ranging from objects of everyday life such as pottery (*) to evidence about the local religion, which in the first instance seems to have been a variant of Zoroastrianism. Some of the homes had fire altars (*)--important in Zoroastrian ritual practice. Here (*) is the reconstruction of a major Sogdian fire temple in another location in Central Asia. Excavations of Sogdian sites have turned up ossuaries (*). An important part of Zoroastrian belief was that dead bodies not be placed in contact with the earth or burned, so as not to pollute the natural environment. So they were placed on platforms to be picked clean by birds and then the bones placed in such ossuaries, which often are decorated with scenes of worship at fire altars. Zoroastrianism, which had originated in ancient Persia, is but one indication of the importance of Persian culture amongst the Sogdians, who, in turn, helped to transmit aspects of it all the way to China. The objects in the Monks and Merchants exhibit provide evidence of Zoroastrian practices among the Sogdian communities in north China, some of which provided generations of officials for the Chinese administration. The Sogdian towns in Central Asia also contain Buddhist remains (*)--here a lotus base for a statue and a stucco frieze--although, as you will recall from a previous lecture, by the seventh century Xuanzang found Buddhism to be a minority and persecuted religion.

Arguably the most interesting evidence from Afrasiab comes from the palace, which contains mural paintings from the mid-seventh century. Their interpretation is much debated--do we have here the celebration of spring and the elevation of the local ruler to a position of higher dignity under his Turkish overlord, or should we date the paintings to precisely the time when the local ruler was serving as a distant official of the T'ang Empire? There are scenes which seem to portray the royal hunt (*). Murals from other Sogdian towns (*) dramatically portray hunting leopards from elephants. Of course the motif of the royal hunt is widespread, for example in Sasanian Persian metalwork (*) which would have been familiar to the Sogdians. The plate here is an eloquent tribute to the reach of the seventh and eighth century trade networks--it made its way up into the Russian forests on the west slope of the Urals.

In one of the Afrasiab scenes for which I do not have a picture, there is a boat with what appears to be a Chinese princess--perhaps she is on her way to be married to the ruler of Sogdia? Turkic, Chinese (*) and other ambassadors are shown in an elaborate scene (*) of a court reception or religious procession. Since the original is hard to decipher, I provide here a modern artist's reproductions (*) to show some of the detail. Heading one of the processions is a figure (*) that some think is the Sogdian ruler himself. Among other features, these paintings document beautifully for us some of the fabrics and garments, their designs (*) reflecting those of Sasanian Persia. Another of those Central Asian silver plates (*) found in the Russian forests helps to document for us royal banquet scenes similar to those depicted at Afrasiab. In the given example, the image combines Sasanian, Soghdian, and (in the carpet), Chinese motifs. It is possible that this striking ewer (*), with a flying camel image, was made in the vicinity of Samarkand in the late seventh or early eight century. It too found its way into the Stroganov family collections, excavated by their serfs in the forests of Russian Perm.

Upstream from Samarkand, along the Zerafshan river which provides its water supply, is the town of Penjikent (*). This was the principal town of the Sogdian ruler Divashtich, who would finally submit to the Arab armies in the early eighth century. The ruins of Penjikent (*) sprawl over a hillside above the river. The city contained several important temples (*) and a palace, reconstructed here (*). As is the case at Afrasiab, mural paintings from Penjikent reveal a great deal about the local culture. There are scenes of people playing games (*), and musicians, including this (*) well-known image of a harpist. Many of the scenes seem to depict religius rituals or deities--here is the very popular four-armed Nana (*), sitting on a dragon, her image probably representing a fusion of Indian and Iranian elements. Here (*) is a drawing reconstructing a ceremonial hall in a private house, where the enthroned figures are surrounded by scenes of worship and many different symbolic elements. The paintings also tell us something of Penjikent as a crossroads of important themes in world literature. There is a cycle (*) portraying the Persian hero Rustam, who subsequently is a central figure in the great epic by Firdousi, the Shahname. Other pictures, which I cannot illustrate here, show scenes from Indian fables which in a European context are re-told by Aesop. One painting shows the Romulus and Remus legend. The ruler of Penjikent, Divashtich, fled further into the mountains when the Arabs invaded his kingdom in the early eighth century. His refuge on Mt. Mug has yielded a whole library of government documents (*), which offer rich insights into the social and economic life of the region before the introduction of Islam.

While the Sogdian cities suffered from the disruptions of invasion, Samarkand seems to flourished in the early Islamic centuries. Here (*) we have a diagram showing the extent of the main part of the walled city on Afrasiab and a modern artist's reconstruction of the upper fortress. We know that the city was devastated by Chingis Khan in 1220. The fortifications were left in ruins (*), some of which are the shapeless mounds one sees today around the perimeter of Afrasiab. This photograph was taken in a large cemetary (*) built around a large mausoleum complex, the Shah-i Zinda, at the edge of the old city. Most of the major tombs date from the time of Tamerlane, beginning in the late fourteenth century. Of particular interest here is an older one (*) (the exterior of its building has recently been rebuilt), considered to be the burial place of one Quthum ibn Abbas, according to tradition one of the close followers of the Prophet Muhammed. The legends connected with the site seem to reflect the struggle between the adherents of the local religions and the Muslims, resistance to the latter often coalescing with prophetic local cults. Even when it became firmly established, Islam in later centuries would frequently be of the Sufi mystical variety, in which the cults of local saints and their shrines would be of particular importance. The veneration of the shrine of Quthum ibn Abbas even today suggests that he has taken on the aura of a Sufi saint. In the early centuries of the development of Shah-i Zinda, a major mosque was located just across from the tomb; some time probably in the 1340s a tomb (*) was erected nearby for one Khoja Ahmad, probably a local Sufi leader. Some of its exquisite original ceramic tile is still preserved. When he visited Samarkand in the fourteenth century, our Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, made special note of the shrine:

In the outskirts of Samarqand is the tomb of Qutham, son of Al-'Abbas b. Abd al-Muttalib (God be pleased with both al-'Abbas and his son), who met a martyr's death at the time of its conquest. The people of Samarqand go out to visit it on the eve of every Tuesday and Friday, and the Tatars [Mongols/Chagatais?] too come to visit it, and make large votive offerings to it, bringing to it cattle, sheep, dirhams and dinars, [all of] which is devoted to expenditure for the maintenance of travellers and the servitors of the hospice and the blessed tomb.

People (*) such as this elaborately dressed family which I photographed at Shah-i Zinda back in 1969 make pilgrimages there. Although much re-built over the centuries (*), the tomb complex of Quthum ibn Abbas preserves some of the earliest Islamic remains in Samarkand. (*) As one of the inscriptions next to the entrance records, one of the restorations was under the supervision of an architect from Shiraz in Iran. The exquisitely carved doors (*) date from the early fifteenth century. Just inside them is the base of a small minaret (*) probably dating from the twelfth century, in the time when the Karakhanids ruled the area. You may recall from last time (*) that Kashgar in Western Xinjiang was nearly at the center of their world. A very early Quranic inscription (*) carved in wood is on what once had been the outer wall of the main shrine. Inside is a prayer room (*) for pilgrims, which, according to an inscription, was re-tiled in the 1330s--that is, probably soon after Ibn Battuta's visit. One can peer through the exquisitely carved wooden screen (*) to the cenotaph above the saint's tomb.

As I noted at the outset, Ibn Battuta saw in Samarkand a city in decline, its situation probably endagered by the civil strife that was tearing apart the Mongol empire in the first quarter of the fourteenth century. The improvement of Samarkand's fortunes is to be connected to the rise of Timur (commonly known as Tamerlane--Timur the Lame) (*), who has now become a state-sponsored hero in Uzbekistan, replacing Karl Marx (*) in the central park of Tashkent. Born around 1325 in the Mongol Barlas tribe, Timur was not a descendant of Chingis Khan, but he would attempt to lay claim to Chingis's empire by marrying a Chingizid princess. The home territory of Timur was the region around Kesh (today Shahr-i Sabz), which controlled one of the important southern approaches to Samarkand. After his rise to power, Timur would build there a palace (*) whose size can be appreciated today from its surviving fragment, the huge arched entrance gate. Such entrance iwans or arches go back to ancient Persian models and would be characteristic of many of the important Timurid buildings, probably in part because he conscripted many of his architects from Iran. At the same time that the palace in Kesh was being built, Timur commissioned a huge mausoleum complex (*) for the tomb of important Sufi saint Sheikh Ahmad Yasawi in the city of Yas (located at the very south of today's Kazakhstan). It helps us to visualize the now largely destroyed arch of the palace, which caught the attention of the Spanish ambassador to Timur, Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, when he passed through Kesh. He has left us a rather detailed description of the palace, which had a large pool in the outer courtyard.

[The] gateway [Clavijo wrote] is throughout beautifully adorned with very fine work in gold and blue tiles, and over the entrance are seen the figures of the Lion and the Sun, these same figures being repeated over the summit of each of the arches round the courtyard, and this emblem of the Lion and the Sun was, they told us, the armorial bearing of the former lord of Samarqand. [Le Strange trans.]
In other words, perhaps Clavijo saw something like (*) the image of the lion (or tiger) and the sun which strikes us as out of place (for a Muslim religious building) on the facade of the Shir Dor medrese, built on the Registan in the center of Samarkand in the early seventeenth century. Clavijo was so impressed by the tilework of the palace that he admitted "even the craftsmen of Paris, who are so noted for their skill, would hold that which is done here to be of very fine workmanship."

Some of the Timurid family tombs would remain in Shahr-i Sabz--for example that of his father (*), rebuilt in the fifteenth century adjoining the tomb of one of the important Sufi religious teachers with whom the family had close connections. Tamerlane's son Jahangir died on campaign rather early in his father's reign and was buried here (*). Tamerlane prepared what may have been intended as his own tomb nearby.

By 1370, Tamerlane had defeated all his main Central Asian rivals and established his capital in Samarkand. Clavijo describes how Tamerlane

gave orders...that a street should be built to pass right through Samarqand, which should have shops opened on either side of it in which every kind of merchandise should be sold, and this new street was to go from one side of the city through to the other side, traversing the heart of the township.
This (*) is presumably the street one sees stretching from Afrasiab to the Registan in these late 19th-century photos. He wanted results immediately, and those assigned to the task, with their lives at stake,
began at speed, causing all the houses to be thrown down along the line that his Highness had indicated for the passage of the new street. No heed was paid to the complaint of persons to whom the property here might belong, and those whose houses thus were demolished suddenly had to quit with no warning, carrying away with them their goods and chattels as best they might. No sooner had all the houses been thrown down than the master builders came and laid out the broad new street, erecting shops on the one side and opposite, placing before each a high stone bench that was topped with white slabs. Each shop had two chambers, front and back, and the street way was arched over with a domed roof in which were windows to let the light through...At intervals down the street were erected water fountains.

It is precisely in this period that some of the important Timurid tombs were erected in the Shah-i Zinda (*), for clerics close to the royal family and especially for some of the Timurid women. A tomb (*) next to that of Quthum ibn Abbas is possibly that of Qutluq Ata, Tamerlane's first wife. The typical Islamic stalactite muqarnas over the entrance is rendered in exquite deeply incised ceramic tiles. (*) At the other end of the long corridor of Shah-i Zinda are tombs for Timur's sister, aunt and niece. Some two decades ago I stood here early one morning when a prayer service was being held for a group of Uzbek women in one of these shrines to the Timurid women of six centuries earlier. This at a time when, officially, the practice of Islam was still being actively discouraged by the Soviet authorities. A policeman, concealed on the other side of the arch took the mullah to task in no uncertain terms when the service ended. The tomb (*) for Tamerlane's niece, Shad-i Mulk Ata has an inscription indicating it was built in 1372.

By the 1390s Timur's conquests encompassed much of Iran (*). When the Chingizid Tokhtamysh, whom he had chosen to rule over the Golden Horde, rebelled (*), Timur would in effect destroy that longest lasting of all the Mongol Empire's major divisions by decimating its cities in 1395. In part the issue seems to have been control of the East-West trade routes, which Timur wanted to divert from the north. He then moved east through Afghanistan and on to Northern India, where in 1398 he brought down the Sultanate of Delhi.

Before continuing with Tamerlane, I wish to dwell for a minute on the Delhi sultanate. Its story points up for us a very important aspect of our Silk Road history, something of which we are continuing to be reminded by current events. Historically there are longstanding patterns of interaction via the overland routes from Iran through Afghanistan to India and also between India and Central Asia over some of these same routes through Afghanistan. The Afghan mountain tribes could guarantee the safety of the routes, or could interdict them by attacking the caravans. While Afghanistan was often the highway for conquest (witness Alexander the Great [*]), it would also be a core territory for states such as the Kushans (*), who, as you recall played an important role in the spread of Buddhism from the sub-continent up into Central Asia.

Afghanistan was also home to some of the important leaders who would themselves carve out empires along the silk roads. One such dynasty was the Ghurids, who established during the late twelfth century a state encompassing the territory from Herat all the way to Bengal. The Ghurids brought Central Asian Islamic culture to Northern India; their Turkish slave commanders founded the Delhi Sultanate early in the thirteenth century. The most impressive of its monuments is also one of its earliest, the Qutb Minar (*)--a 230-foot high minaret in the large mosque complex which the Ghurid conqeror of Delhi had built in place of a major Hindu and Jain temple. Our ubiquitous Ibn Battuta was much impressed by it; you can read his account and see more pictures on the Silk Road Seattle web page devoted to Sultanate Architecture. The mosque itself (*) is of interest for its evidence of cultural fusion, the architecture mixing Hindu and Muslim forms. A certain amount of Hindu imagery survives in the decorative details, despite the Muslim strictures against display of the human form on a religious building. Tomb architecture (*) of the Delhi sultans would reflect the traditions of Iran, and both they and later the Mughals would continue to foster economic and cultural relations with Central Asia. The Delhi sultanate was in deep decline by the time Tamerlane arrived at the gates of Delhi in 1398. While he quickly returned home, his campaign incorporated virtually all the western lands of the sultanate.

Tamerlane returned to Samarkand to supervise the building of the Bibi Khanum Mosque (*) to commemorate his wife. She was buried in a tomb (*) (now being restored) just across the main road which leads from the old city of Afrasiab to the center of the Timurid city at the Registan. A contemporary chronicler relates that Timur brought in architects from Iran and India for the project and used ninety-five elephants to haul construction material. One of the models for the building likely was the great mosque erected in Sultaniyya by the Ilkhanid (Mongol) ruler ÷ljaytu. Over the centuries the huge Bibi Khanum mosque decayed to a nadir in about 1969, the year I first visited Samarkand (*). Since then it is being rebuilt, as this photo (*) from 1999 shows.

Clavijo visited Samarkand just when it was being completed. The context for his visit was this. The late fourteenth century had witnessed the rise of a new power in the Near East, the Ottoman Turks, who had surrounded what was left of the old Byzantine Empire and now posed a serious threat to Europe. In 1402 though, the Ottoman sultan, Bayezid, made the mistake of marching against Tamerlane, was defeated in the Battle of Ankara, and, according to legend, carted off in an iron cage (*), an incident that served as fodder for later European moralists and playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe. The image here is from a sixteenth-century Russian manuscript. Clavijo's mission was reconnaissance, to determine whether a new threat to the Christian world was in the making. He took fifteen months to travel from Cadiz to Samarkand, including a five-month stop in Constantinople. The last part of the journey was via the tedious overland route through northern Iran. Clavijo spent several months in Samarkand in 1404, where he was lavishly entertained and described in some detail how much of court life (*) took place in the gardens and tent pavilions which dotted the impressive city. Clearly this was one of the great commercial centers of its time.

Here is some of what Clavijo reported:

The richness and abundance of this great capital (*) and its district is such as is indeed a wonder to behold ... This land of Samarqand is ... rich ... in manufactures, such as factories of silk both the kinds called Zaytumi and Kincobs, also crapes, taffetas and the stuffs we call Tercenals in Spain, which are all produced here in great numbers. Further they make up special fur linings for silk garments, and manufacture stuffs in gold and blue with other colours of diverse tints dyed, and besides all these kinds of stuffs there are the spiceries. Thus trade has always been fostered by Timur ... During all his conquests wheresoever he came he carried off the best men of the population to people Samarqand, bringing thither together the master-craftsmen of all nations. Thus from Damascus he carried away with him all the weavers of that city, those who worked at the silk looms. ... also the craftsmen in glass and porcelain, who are known to be the best in all the world.
... The population ... must amount to 150,000 souls. Of the nations brought here together there were to be seen Turks, Arabs and Moors of diverse sects, with Christians who were Greeks and Armenians, Catholics, Jacobites and Nestorians, besides those [Indian] folk who baptize with fire in the forehead, who are indeed Christians but of a faith that is peculiar to their nation.
... The markets of Samarqand further are amply stored with merchandise imported from distant and foreign countries. From Russia and Tartary come leathers and linens, from Cathay silk stuffs that are the finest in the whole world, and of these the best are those that are plain without embroideries. Thence too is brought musk which is found in no other land but Cathay, with balas rubies and diamonds which are more frequently to be met with in those parts than elsewhere, also pearls, lastly rhubarb with many other spiceries. The goods that are imported to Samarqand from Cathay indeed are of the richest and most precious of all those brought thither from foreign parts, for the craftsmen of Cathay are reputed to be the most skilful by far beyond those of any other nation; ...From India there are brought to Samarqand the lesser spiceries, which indeed are the most costly of the kind, such as nutmegs and cloves and mace with cinnamon...

Of particular interest for us are the connections with China. In fact a Chinese ambassador was there at the same time as Clavijo, for a crisis was brewing in the relations between the two states. Curiously oblivious to what had been going on in the Middle East, the new Ming Dynasty had managed to insult Tamerlane. Soon after Clavijo went home, the ageing ruler would set off to conquer China, only to die along the way.

He was buried in this tomb (*), the Gur-i Mir, which had been erected for one of his grandsons and had just been completed at the time of Clavijo's visit. Its architectural models are those of Iran. Somewhat controversial restorations of recent years have resulted in the rebuilding of the minarets (*), the re-gilding of the interior (*) and restoration of the inlay (*). It is rather interesting to note the hanging of a horse's tail on a pole over one of the tombs (*), a practice common amongst the islamicized peoples of nomadic ancestry in Central Asia. Tamerlane's grandson Ulugh Beg, who would rule in Samarkand during much of the first half of the seventeenth century, installed a large block of green-black jade as the cenotaph over Tamerlane's tomb (*), but the real burial place is in the basement crypt (*).

Unlike his grandfather, Ulugh Beg (*) was unsuccessful as a ruler. He lived most of his life in the shadow of his father, who had moved the real center of the empire to Herat, and when he finally gained sole control of the Timurid realm in the middle of the 15th century, within two years he would be deposed and assassinated by his son. He was buried at his father's feet (*). We remember him for his cultural projects--major public works, such as the erection of the imposing entrance gate (*) to honor those buried in the Shah-i Zinda and the commissioning of a gigantic manuscript copy of the Quran for the Bibi Khanum, the size of which can be appreciated by the carved book stand on which it would have rested (*). Above all, we remember him as a learned mathematician and astronomer, who founded an important school on the central Registan square (*) and hired the best scholars to man his new observatory (*) on one of the hills outside the city. The scientific, if not architectural, model for this observatory was the same one to which Khubilai Khan had turned when erecting an observatory in Beijing (*) a century and a half earlier--that is, the observatory built at Maragha in Northern Iran by the Ilkhanid ruler HŁlegŁ. Ulugh Beg's observatory had a variety of precision instruments. Most were portable, but for the giant sextant (*) or quadrant, part of whose track has been preserved. The calculations of the movements of the heavenly bodies performed in Samarkand under Ulugh Beg would remain the most precise ones anywhere until the invention of the telescope at the turn of the seventeenth century. His astronomical tables were published in England in the 1660s even though the observatory itself did not survive more than a generation after Ulugh Beg's death two centuries earlier.

Those of you who have been to Beijing naturally will have visited the Forbidden City (*), that glorious complex of courtyards and palace reception halls which in many ways is emblematic of everything we imagine about China (*). The building of the Forbidden City dates to the first quarter of the fifteenth century, the reign of Zhu Di, the Yongle Emperor. This is precisely the time when Ulugh Beg was ruling Samarkand. Although from a later perspective we think of the Ming period as one when China turned inward, that was not the case under the Yongle Emperor. There was active trade with the nomads along the Inner Asian routes involving the exchange of silk and now tea for Central Asian horses. Embassies were exchanged with the Timurid courts, repairing the breach in relations at the end of Tamerlane's reign. At least one of these Chinese ambassadors in fact has left us a rather interesting description of the Timurid capital Herat (*). Perhaps most importantly, this was a period when between 1405 and 1433 seven huge Chinese treasure fleets sailed into the Indian Ocean, reaching as far as the Persian Gulf and East Africa. This map (*) shows the itinerary of the last of these expeditions. The fleets were huge not simply in terms of numbers of ships and their personnel (up to three hundred vessels and some 28,000 men in just a single expedition), but also in size of ships, as you can see from this drawing, placing Columbus's 85-foot Sancta Maria against the backdrop of one of the 400-foot Chinese behemoths (*). Chinese maritime technology was far superior to anything in Europe. It is interesting to speculate on what would have happened had China continued to send its fleets to Africa, rather than leave the way open for the penetration of the Indian Ocean from the West at the end of the fifteenth century.

What is important for our purposes here is the impact of this massive influx of Chinese goods into the Middle East. One of the major export wares was the familiar blue and white porcelain (*), which was much sought after by Middle Eastern rulers. In fact the two greatest collections of it outside of China itself are in northern Iran and in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. Makers of ceramics in the Middle East began to imitate the Chinese designs. (*). Here we see how the Chinese floral designs were copied and gradually transformed on Islamic soil. (*) And here we see the different treatment of bird motifs.

The impact of the arts of China can be seen in other ways, even prior to the era of the treasure fleets. The incised tile work which so impresses us in the Timurid tombs in Samarkand in the fourteenth century (*) and carved objects ranging from doors to Koran stands (*) to boxes (*) (this one apparently having belonged to Ulugh Beg) probably were influenced by Chinese lacquerware (*) such as this early Ming table top. We are talking here not only of obvious motifs such as the dragon but of the style and techniques of the deep carving.

Some of the most interesting evidence for this Chinese influence can be found in Middle Eastern painting. The proscriptions regarding images of living beings on religious buildings did not apply to Islamic miniature painting. The Timurid court at Herat became one of the great centers of Islamic miniature painting, which, alas, I cannot illustrate tonight for want of time and the right slides. I will, however, show examples from several albums of Middle Eastern miniatures (their exact origins are not clear) now kept in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. Probably they date from the fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries. We are talking here not simply about the introduction of Chinese motifs (*), such as the cloud or wave pattern forming the background to this archer, but the adoption of images which in the Chinese context had a clearly religious significance. You will recall the famous Buddhist bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara (*), shown here in that elegant seventh-century T'ang image from the Mogao caves. And you will remember how Avalokiteshvara continues to be venerated, increasingly represented in female form (*), as Guan-yin, an example being this modern statute in the temple high on the mountain opposite the Mogao caves. Avalokiteshvara/Guan-yin was the patron saint of those in distress, the hearer of the world's sounds, whose miraculous interventions are described in the Lotus Sutra.

Here (*) is a YŁan-era painting of Guan-yin, probably the work of the early fourteenth century the Chinese artist Chao Peng-mu. The image is that of Guan-yin with a fish basket. It depicts a Chinese Buddhist legend which in one of its variants goes as follows:

...There was a painter named Ho...An ardent worshiper of Kuan-yin, he occupied himself in painting pictures of the deity. One day a beggar brought to his house some carp in a basket and asked for a picture in exchange. Ho, who abstained from ill-smelling foods (meats, fish, onions, etc.) told the beggar to depart; whereupon the latter remarked that the pictures by Ho were far from truthful representations of Kuan-yin and that he (the beggar) possessed a perfect model of that deity. Upon learning this, Ho had a room cleaned and invited the beggar to enter it. The latter suddently turned into Kuan-yin and then vanished. Inspired by the vision, Ho was able thereafter to paint Kuan-yin with great accuracy.

Now it is exactly images such as this YŁan one which seem to have served as models for Middle Eastern miniatures in the Topkapi album (*). The woman on the right is Guan-yin with the fish basket. Presumably the original religious connection had been entirely lost in the transmission, and, to the artist and patron, the figures were simply those of beautiful and exotic women. The figure on the left is also of interest since she holds a pomegranate, a symbol of fertility. Chinese images of Guan-yin often show her holding a willow spray; we can only speculate that replacement of it with the pomegranate reflects the importance of the fruit in the symbolism and beliefs of the Middle East where in much earlier times it had been connected with the Goddess of Fertility, Anahita, known in her Hindu guise as Hariti. The possibilities here for interpreting cross-cultural religious interaction are numerous.

Two other paintings (*) in the Topkapi collection connect in a very different way with Chinese tradition These take us back to the beginning of the Silk Road, which, as you recall, occurred in the context of the interactions between Han China and the nomadic Xiongnu. The Han guaranteed good relations with the Xiongnu by sending them huge quantities of silk and often royal princesses as brides. Sometimes Chinese women were taken as booty, and, in any event, their fate was to be unwilling spouses for the nomadic rulers. These tales, full of personal tragedy, were re-told in the Chinese annals and in poetry, some of it attributed to the women themselves. Princess Wen-chi was captive of the Xiongnu for twelve years, bore the ruler two sons, but then was ransomed, having to leave her children behind. Her tragic tale became the subject of a widely known T'ang-era cycle of poems known as the "Eighteen Songs of the Nomadic Flute," and it in turn inspired narrative paintings. A similar tragic tale involved Chao-Chun, a court concubine who was shipped off to the nomads because she had failed to bribe the court painter to paint her a flattering image. This inspired a famous T'ang poet Li T'ai-po to write

Lady Chao brushes the saddle inlaid with pearl
She mounts her palfrey and weeps,
Wetting her rose-red cheeks with tears.
Today a high-born lady in the palace of Han,
Tomorrow in a far land
She will be a barbarian slave,
The moon above the palace of Han
And above the Land of Chin,
Shedding a flood of silvery light,
Bids the radiant lady farewell...
She will return nevermore.
On the Mongolin mountains flowers are made
Of the long winter's snow.
The moth-eyebrowed one, broken-hearted,
Lies buried in the desert sand.
Living, she lacked the gold,
And her portrait was distorted;
Dying she leaves a green mound,
Which moves the world to pity. [Shigeyoshi Obata trans., cited in Sugimura]

While I do not have the examples of the Chinese paintings for comparison, here you can see rather obviously I think the depiction of the Chinese princesses taken into the flowering steppes, in one case traveling at night with lanterns, in the company of Inner Asian nomads shown by the artist with what presumably he thought were barbaric visages. In the picture on the left, the nomadic yurt is in the background, and a cart loaded with, yes, Ming blue and white ware, very precisely reproduced, is accompanying her as her dowry. As in the case with the Guan-yin paintings, there is a great deal of room here for interpretation of how these paintings might have been understood in the Islamic world where they originated, but their Chinese models are quite clear.

So we have come full circle, Persian miniatures painted more than a millennium and a half after the beginnings of the Silk Road bringing us back to those origins, via the literature and paintings which themselves were among the products of that historic interaction between the steppe and the sown and across the steppes, deserts and mountain passes of Inner Asia.

In conclusion, we might ask, did the Silk Road as we have studied it really come to an end? Most accounts speak of its demise as a consequence of the opening up of the sea routes by the Europeans and the rapid ascent of European dominance of the Asian trade. In fact, of course, history is never that simple. Overland routes continued, and Asian merchants who in fact had been the main movers of the trade continued to operate through their diasporas whose operations probably resembled closely those of the Soghdian merchants of a millenium or more before. The longevity and success of these networks is quite striking; our appreciation of their operations down to modern times is growing with a number of new studies which deliberately try to avoid the biases of a Eurocentric perspective.

If I could point to one area where I find this continuation of the Silk Road to be of particular interest, the focus would be on the overland trade at whose center are Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan and India. There are a number of key players in this--first the Uzbek khanates in Central Asia, who take over historic cities such as Samarkand and Bukhara (*). It was under them that the Registan in Samarkand took the form that we see today. Then we have the Safavids in Iran, who reach a peak under Shah Abbas in the early seventeenth century. He and his immediate successors gave Isfahan (*) the reputation of being "half the world" for the beauty of its mosques. One of his great concerns was the promotion and control of the native Iranian silk industry, the trade being in the hands of important Armenian families who had been re-settled to a suburb of the Safavid capital. It is one of these Armenians, a man named Hohvannes, who left us a unique document of the Silk Road, his diary and account books encompassing his activity over many years on the routes from Safavid Iran through Mughal India and even up into Tibet.

The last of these players in the Silk Road redux of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the Mughal Empire. It was founded by Babur, descendant of both Chingis Khan and Tamerlane, who grew up in and always fondly remembered the Ferghana Valley (now Uzbekistan). (*) The image shows his enthronement there. He briefly held Samarkand, lost it, took refuge in Kabul, and finally, toward the end of his life conquered Northern India. We have a particularly vivid image of Babur, because he was a product of the highly educated court circles of the late Timurids and left us a revealing autobiographical memoir, which has come down to us in versions lavishly illustrated by his successors. (*) Here we have the traditional nomadic ceremony of sprinkling the military standards with kumiss, and (*) the royal hunt for rhinos in India. He would be buried in Kabul. The final chapter of Mughal rule in India would be written only in 1857.

His son, Humayun, lost most of what his father had conquered and spent much of his life in Middle Eastern exile, ironically having to rely on the good will of the Safavids, who had helped to drive his father out of Central Asia. Humayun made it back to Delhi just in time to be buried there; his wife erected over his grave one of the first major Mughal architectural monuments (*), whose inspiration is in the Islamic mausolea of the Timurid Middle East and Central Asia, even though it shows as well Indian features. This syncretism of the Indian elements with Middle Eastern Islamic ones can be seen in the buildings of the subsequent Mughal rulers of India. (*) We are always impressed by the polished white marble and carved screens of these family tombs. See the Silk Road Seattle web site for more images.

Perhaps the greatest of the Mughals was Akbar, under whom the power and wealth of the empire grew to astounding levels. Akbar built but then soon abandoned a whole new capital at Fatehpur Sikri. Here (*) we can see the imposing entrance gate to the main mosque, which contains the tomb of an important local Sufi preacher whose prayers had helped Akbar's wife conceive his long-sought son and heir. Akbar was known for his eclectic cultural and religious interests. The Jesuits established themselves in India under his protection. This was a time when we find French and English merchants and ambassadors beginning to frequent the Mughal empire and writing often very rich descriptive accounts which provide valuable insights into the operation of the trade routes.

At Fatehpur Sikri we can see evidence of the cultural syncretism of Akbar's court. One of his reception halls (*) was in this curious building, the Diwan-i Khass, whose exterior appearance is Indian, but whose central pillar, at the top of which the emperor would sit, is decorated with a kind of Indianized Islamic muqaranas and middle-eastern arabesques. (*) Other buildings at Fatehpur Sikri have panels (*) with Chinese motifs and (*) carving of plants that clearly reflects the Persian decorative arts.

The city of Agra was one of the Mughal capitals. There Akbar built the Red Fort (*) overlooking the Yamuna River. His son and successor Jahangir would hold court from this throne (*) on the parapet. Jahangir's son would try unsuccessfully to overthrow him and, ironically, in turn be overthrown by his son and imprisoned next to this throne. Thus, the great Akbar's grandson, having erected down the river the most famous building the world has ever known, would be obliged to view it from afar with the fading eyesight of old age.

A contemporary miniature (*) shows Jahangir contemplating an image of the Virgin Mary--as in his father's time the Jesuits still were well received at court. Perhaps of greatest interest to us is the fact that Jahangir made a serious effort to emphasize his Timurid heritage by erecting various public monuments with inscriptions and by encouraging Central Asian religious and literary figures to attend his court. Contemporary poets likened the Emperor to a second Timur; a writer from Samarkand recorded conversations with Jahangir in 1627 in which the Emperor inquired about Timur's tomb, the Gur-i Mir, and then promised to pay for its upkeep.

Jahangir's wife, Nur Jahan, erected in Agra a magnificient tomb (*) to honor her father, Itimad al-Dawla, whose spirit still walks in (*) in the central chamber. The tomb is remarkable for its elaborate use of carved marble (*) and a technique probably learned by the Mughals from Italians, pietra dura--the creation of mosaic designs by using polished pieces of semi-precious stones. This technique would be used to perfection in a rather better known white marble tomb in Agra, one which, unlike the Itimad al-Dawla, was clearly inspired by Timurid models.

Itimad al-Dawla had a granddaughter, Mumtaz Mahal, who married Jahangir's son, Shah Jahan. At her premature death in 1631, he might well have recalled the verses about Samarkand which I quoted from the history by Juvaini:

O heart, lament not, for this world is only metaphorical;
O soul, grieve not, for this abode is only transient.
He chose, however, to erect a lasting monument, where, to borrow Juvaini's other quotation, "a paradise is to be seen in this world." (***)

Thank you.

Sources and Recommended Reading:

I. Primary Sources

  • Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, Clavijo: Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406, Guy Le Strange, tr. and intr. (Harper, 1928). A remarkably perceptive descriptive account of travel to Central Asia and what Clavijo found there.
  • The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor, Wheeler M. Thackston, tr. and ed. (Freer and Sackler Galleries; Oxford UP, 1996). Elegantly produced and expert translation of one of the most famous of all memoirs. For excerpts from an earlier translation, click here. Thackston's translation of Mughal Emperor Jahangir's memoirs has recently appeared in a similarly elegant edition.
  • Conversations with Emperoro Jahangir By "Mutribi" al-Asamm of Samarqand, Richard C. Foltz, tr. (Mazda, 1998). Fascinating glimpse into the culture of the Mughal court in 1627 and the continuing interest of the Mughals in their Central Asian heritage.
  • W. M. Thackston, tr. and ed., A Century of Princes: Sources on Timurid History and Art (Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Harvard U., 1989). A very valuable anthology published in conjunction with an Exhibition on Timurid court art. Included is a fascinating account of the visit by the Timurid Ambassador to Beijing in 1419.
  • Morris Rossabi, "A Translation of Ch'en Ch'eng's Hsi-YŁ Fan-Kuo Chih," Ming Studies, 17 (1983): 49-59. The description of Timurid Herat by the Chinese ambassador.
  • Ma Huan, Ying-yai sheng-lan: "The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores" (1433), tr. J. V. G. Mills (Cambridge, 1970). The descriptive account by the "chronicler" of Zheng He's treasure fleets.
  • II. Secondary readings

  • For a nicely illustrated introduction to the Timurids and Mughals, see the Islamic history web pages created at the University of Calgary.
  • Web pages on Samarkand and its monuments are located on the Silk Road Seattle website and connected pages.
  • Beatrice Forbes Manz, The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane (Cambridge UP PB, 1991). Detailed political history.
  • Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom, The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800 (Pelican History of Art) (Yale UP, 1994), esp. chs. 4, 5, 14, which include a nicely illustrated summary of important Timurid architecture; for the Delhi Sultanate, Ch. 11; for the Mughals, Chs. 18, 19. This volume received glowing reviews when it appeared. Web pages on the architecture of the Mughals and the Sultanate of Delhi may be found on the Silk Road Seattle website. More will be added soon. For some of the best museum web pages featuring Islamic art , see those written by Dr. Linda Komaroff for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
  • Guitty Azarpay, Sogdian Painting: The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art. With contributions by A. M. Belenitskii, B. I. Marshak, and Mark. J. Dresden (UCalif Pr., 1981). Good introduction to the paintings at Afrasiab and Penjikent.
  • Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China, Gansu and Ningxia, 4th-7th Century (Asia Society, 2001). Includes fascinating material on Sogdians in China, one item being the famous Sogdian letter (in Nicholas Sims-Williams' translation). For a nice sampling of material from this exhibition, go to the Asia Society website.
  • Aydin Sayili, The Observatory in Islam and Its Place in the General History of the Observatory (TŁrk Tarih Kurumu, 1960), esp. chs. VI (on the Maragha observatory) and VIII (pp. 260-289) (on Ulugh Beg's observatory).
  • Felicia J. Hecker, "A Fifteenth-Century Chinese Diplomat in Herat," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, ser. 3, 3/1 (1993), 86-98. Analysis of Ch'en Ch'eng's largely accurate observations, including his transcription of Persian.
  • Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433 (Oxford UP, 1996). Appealingly written and broader than the title suggests.
  • Morris Rossabi, "The Tea and Horse Trade with Inner Asia During the Ming," Journal of Asian History, 4/2 (1970): 136-168.
  • Toh Sugimura, The Encounter of Persia with China: Research into Cultural Contacts Based on Fifteenth Century Persian Pictorial Materials (National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, 1986). Islamic world paintings and their Chinese sources. Of particular interest, the way Buddhist religious painting was "secularized" in a Muslim context.
  • Yolanda Crowe, "Some Timurid Designs and their Far Eastern Connections," in Timurid Art and Culture: Iran and Central Asia in the Fifteenth Century, Lisa Golombek and Maria Subtelny, eds. (Brill, 1992), pp. 168-178. Of particular interest, the relationship between Chinese lacquerware and Timurid incised tiles.
  • Margaret Medley, "Chinese ceramics and Islamic design," in The Westward Influence of the Chinese Arts from the 14th to the 18th Century, William Watson, ed. (=Colloquies on Art & Archaeology in Asia No. 3) (London), 1-10. Good overview, with reference to trade.
  • G. A. Bailey, "The Dynamics of Chinoiserie in Timurid and Early Safavid Ceramics," in Golombek and Subtelny, eds., loc. cit., 179-190. Middle eastern interpretations of designs on Chinese porcelain.
  • John F. Richards, The Mughal Empire
  • (The New Cambridge History of India, I/5) (Cambridge UP, 1993). Good introduction to political and economic history.

    Last revised March 16, 2002

    The Wednesday University is jointly sponsored by the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington and Seattle Arts and Lectures and hosted by the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington.