Tamerlane and
Towers of Skulls
Samarkand is intensely blue; it is the color of sky and water...It is inspired, abstract, lofty, and beautiful; it is a city of concentration and reflection; it is a musical note and a painting; it is turned toward the stars.

Erkin told me that one must look at Samarkand on a moonlit night, during a full moon. The ground remains dark; the walls and the towers catch all the light; the city starts to shimmer, then it floats upward, like a lantern.

H. Papworth, in his book The Legend of Timur, questions whether the miracle that is Samarkand is in fact the work of Timur, also known as Tamerlane. There is something incomprehensible --- he writes --- in the notion that this city, which with all its beauty and composition directs man's thoughts toward mysticism and contemplation, was created by such a cruel demon, marauder, and despot as was Timur.

But there is no denying the fact that the basis of Samarkand's fame was born at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and hence during Timur's reign. Timur is an astonishing historical phenomenon. His name aroused terror for decades. He was a great ruler who kept Asia under his heel, but his might did not stop him from concerning himself with details. Timur devoted much attention to details. His armies were famed for their cruelty. Wherever Timur appeared, writes the Arab historian Zaid Vosifi, "blood poured from people as from vessels," and "the sky was the color of a field of tulips." Timur himself would stand at the head of each and every expedition, overseeing everything himself. Those whom he conquered he ordered beheaded. He ordered towers built from their skulls, and walls and roads. He supervised the progress of the work himself. He ordered the stomachs of merchants ripped open and searched for gold. He himself supervised the process to ensure they were being searched diligently. He ordered his adversaries and opponents poisoned. He prepared the potions himself. He carried the standard of death, and this mission absorbed him for half the day.

During the second half of the day, art absorbed him. Timur devoted himself to the dissemination of art with the same zeal he sustained for the spread of death. In Timur's consciousness, an extremely narrow line separated art and death, and it is precisely this fact that Papworth cannot comprehend. It is true that Timur killed. But it is also true that he did not kill all. He spared people with creative qualifications. In Timur's Imperium, the best sanctuary was talent. Timur drew talent to Samarkand; he courted every artist. He did not allow anyone who carried within him the divine spark to be touched. Artists bloomed, and Samarkand bloomed. The city was his pride. On one of its gates Timur ordered inscribed the sentence:

If you doubt our might
Look at our buildings.

and that sentence has outlived Timur by many centuries. Today Samarkand stiII stuns us with i'ts peerless beauty, its excellence of form, its artistic genius. Timur supervised each construction himself. That which was unsuccessful he ordered removed, and his taste was excellent. He deliberated about the various alternatives in ornamentation; he judged the delicacy of design, the purity of line. And then he threw himself again into the whirl of a new military expedition, into carnage, into blood, into flames, into cries.

Papworth does not understand that Timur was playing a game that few people have the means to play. Timur was sounding the limits of man's possibilities. Timur demonstrated that which Dostoyevsky later described --- that man is capable of everything. one can define Timur's creation through a sentence of Saint-Exupéry's: That which I have done no animal would ever do. Both the good and the bad. Timur's scissors had two blades --- the blade of creation and the blade of destruction. These two blades define the limits of every man's activity. Ordinarily, though, the scissors are barely open. Sometimes they are open a little more. In Timur's case they were open as far as they could go.

Erkin showed me Timur's grave in Samarkand, made of green nephrite. Before the entrance to the mausoleum there is an inscription, whose author is Timur:

Happy is he who renounced the world
before the world renounced him.

He died at the age of sixty-nine, in 1405, during an expedition to China.

--- From Imperium
By Ryszard Kapuscinski
©1994, Granta Books

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