Date: Fri, 21 Nov 1997 06:50:19 -0800
Tamerlane the Tender Inspires Uzbekistan
By Stephen Kinzer, The New York Times, [10 November 1997]
[S] AMARKAND, Uzbekistan -- Ever since January, when Amrillo Abdullaev became the overseer of the magnificent tomb here in which Tamerlane is buried, he has felt mystic power radiating from the crypt.
"I used to have all kinds of trouble with my back and my legs, but in this place I can feel a powerful spirit working to cure me," Abdullaev said. "I have new strength. It could be that Timur's power is still working."
Tamerlane, who is known here as Amir Timur, or Timur the Great, was one of history's greatest and cruelest conquerors. His Turkish and Mongol army is said to have killed 17 million men, women and children in his 14th century rampage across Asia from the Black Sea to Delhi.
Histories say he cemented whole populations into towers to starve, massacred as many as 100,000 civilians in a day, bombarded ships with human heads shot from cannons and left pyramids of skulls to mark the cities he destroyed.
A play by Christopher Marlowe that both reflected and reinforced his image in Europe as a terrifying barbarian described him "Threatening the world with high astounding terms/And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword."
Much of this, the people of Uzbekistan are now told, is exaggeration by outsiders bent on blackening the reputation of Central Asia. The young leaders of this former Soviet republic, searching for a hero to help rally patriotic pride, have settled not on one of the great philosophers, poets or scientists who have lived here over the centuries and made enormous contributions to knowledge and culture, but on Tamerlane.
Statues, busts and portraits of him have sprung up around the country. New texts describe him as a visionary political leader who forged a vast empire out of feuding kingdoms ruled by petty emirs and khans.
Newlywed couples come to his statues to ask for good luck. Sick men and childless women visit his mausoleum in the hope that his power will help them.
It is a bizarre twist in the legacy of a figure who was once so feared that for a year after his death in 1405, according to legend, he howled continuously from his tomb.
Samarkand, with its magnificent mosques, tombs and dazzling ensembles of ceramic tiles, is still one of the world's most awe-inspiring cities. Built by brilliant architects and artisans abducted by Tamerlane from faraway lands, it remains his greatest monument. The mausoleum where he is buried beneath a 6-foot-long slab of jade has been cleaned and renovated and attracts a steady flow of pilgrims and tourists.
Guides assigned to the mausoleum are taught that Tamerlane was a wise statesman and nation builder, and once a month a historian or researcher comes to lecture on his greatness. The guides are supposed to convey this image to visitors. One guide, Iqbal Kurbanova, said, "In the Soviet period, we were taught that Timur was a bloodthirsty tyrant who killed many people. Now a lot of new research is being done, and we are learning that actually he was a humanist who developed this region and did a lot of good."
Pressed as to which view she believes, Ms. Kurbanova wavered.
"It's difficult to be sure," she said. "Recently we had a visitor from Turkey who is a history professor, and he had a lot of evidence to show that Timur was actually a very bad man. It sounded true, but that is not what we tell tourists. It is our job to believe."
Last year President Islam Karimov opened a museum in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, built to honor Tamerlane and also to tie him to the current government.
The museum is covered with murals showing Tamerlane in battle, at leisure and at his court. There are also large panels carrying quotations from Karimov. One says: "The figure of our forefather Amir Timur surely symbolizes the pride and honor of our people."
The museum will do little to ease fears nearby countries may have of Uzbekistan, a land whose leaders have often been expansionist and which the American scholar Martha Brill Olcott has described as "Central Asia's instinctive imperialist."
One panel has a quotation attributed to Tamerlane asserting that he "conquered the thrones of 27 kings" and "ruled over the kingdoms of Turan, Iran, Rum, Magrib, Shom, Misr, Iraq, Mizandaran, Gilon, Shirbon, Azerbaijan, Fars, Khorson, Jete, Dashti, Khorezm, Khotan, Kabulistan, Bakhtarzamin and Hindustan."
The director of the museum, Nozim Khabibullaev, said he had assiduously searched for a contemporary account attesting to the truth of stories that Tamerlane built pyramids of skulls but found none.
"We do not aim to show him as an ideal person," Khabibullaev said. "Do you know any strong leader who was not cruel? Has there been anyone in history who ruled a great empire without bloodshed?"
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company