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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Amir Timur Museum

Amir Timur.

Museums are the direct descendants of the cabinets of curiosities that became popular in Renaissance Europe.  In the 19th century as countries emerged as nation-states they exhibited a need to establish a paternity.  A collection of cultural artifacts did much toward this end.

Uzbekistan did not exist as a national idea until the Soviets created it in the 1920s, and the nation itself did not officially come into being until 1991 (with the dissolution of the Soviet Union).  It is one of two doubly landlocked countries in the world - a landlocked country in the middle of landlocked countries.  (The other is Liechtenstein.) Sometime in the 15th century, a tribe within the Golden Horde emerged as a distinct ethnic group, calling themselves Uzbeks, who headed south in their desire to leave behind the nomadic lifestyle and adopt a more sedentary one along the Silk Road.  They took over the area of the Timurid dynasty, which was founded by another interloper, Amir Timur.  Establishing an identity in this case is difficult. The only way to do it is by geography, claiming anyone who once lived here - which includes the Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and Russians.

Map courtesy of www.lonelyplant.com.

A 14th century conqueror and ruler of Central Asia whose capital was in Samarkand, Amir Timur, made the Uzbekistani  province of Mawarannahr into a cultural center by gathering scholars and artisans from the lands he conquered.  He initiated the exchange of knowledge with neighboring countries.  His grandson, Ulugh Beg, was a great astronomer and mathematician, especially noted for his contributions to trigonometry and spherical geometry.  His great-great-grandson was Babur, who founded the Mughal dynasty in India.  Timur's motto was "Rosti Rusti" - "Strength is in justice".

Forensic facial reconstruction of
Timur by M. Gerasimov, 1941.

Timur (1336-1405), also known in the West as "Tamerlane", was the founder of the Timurid Empire and the Timurid dynasty.  Although he is often mistakenly referred to as a direct male descendant of Genghis Khan, in actuality he was associated with the family of Chagatai Khan through marriage, rendering him unable to assume the "Khan" title.  He was a contrary figure in his own time and remains so.  He wished to bring back the Mongol Empire, yet fought against the Tatar Golden Horde (Mongol Khanate).  He was an urbanite, not a steppe nomad, and preferred city life.  Although he was a great patron and promoter of the arts, his campaigns destroyed much of what he came across.  He was lame from a battle injury to his foot, and hence was called Tīmūr-e Lang, "Timur the Lame" in Persian, which led to his westernized name of Tamerlane.

Statue of Timur in his birthplace
of Shahrisabz (formerly known
as Kash) in Uzbekistan.

The talented artists from other conquered lands were given free latitude to create, and much of the architecture that he commissioned is still extant.  Perhaps it's for this architectural legacy that modern Uzbekistan has chosen to honor him as a national figure and hero.  In 1996, the Amir Timur Museum opened in Tashkent, commemorating the 660th anniversary of his birth.  The blue dome and ornate interior are typical of Islamic architecture in Central Asia.  

Image courtesy of Jiri Planicka.

The museum's collection consists of items contemporary to his rule, including a 14th century Syrian Quran.  There are paintings, engravings, ancient manuscripts, musical instruments, military attire, weaponry, and jewelry.  Timur's military career is depicted.  Of course, his bloody destruction is overlooked.  This is an obvious attempt to venerate Timur and create a national legacy.  Let's ignore the fact that Timur was from a Turko-Mongolian tribe, and not of the Uzbek Khanate, which eventually took over after the fall of the Timurids.  We will also ignore that he slaughtered tens of thousands of Kipchaks - the forefathers of the modern Uzbeks. This is a prime example of national myth-making.

Quran photo courtesy of Tenil.
Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi, Nasin
Al-Din Mahmu Tughluq, winter of 1397.

There is also an exhibit in the Museum for Islam Karimov, who has served as the first president of Uzbekistan since 1990.  Karimov has repeatedly extended his presidency through a series of elections that have been called unfair by virtually everyone, even the U.S.  In December of 2007 he was elected for a third term despite a two-term rule. The Karimov administration has been critized internationally on human rights issues and freedom of the press.  The United Nations revealed that torture is rampant in the justice system, and Karimov has been deemed one of the world's worst dictators.

Mural from the museum with Timur north of center, and
Karimov bottom left.

Due to an absence of reliable historical documents, as well as their nomadic nature, it is difficult to trace the early history of Central Asian peoples.  After centuries of migration and invasion there has been a lot of ethnic intermingling of Turkic and Mongol (related to Turkic) tribes.  Situated along the Silk Road, the region itself gained much importance.  However the Uzbeks arrived rather late on the scene and appropriated many aspects of Central Asian culture that technically don't belong to them, claiming all to be Uzbeks by virtue of their living in the area now called Uzbekistan.  Thus, when you have little to choose from, you go with what you can, which makes the Amir Timur Museum an ironic piece of cultural identity - foreign invasion, war, torture, and tyranny.  But then again, maybe that's appropriate.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.


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