Tamerlane Builds the Bibi Khanum Mosque Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After winning many victories and expanding his empire, the Turkish leader Tamerlane hoped to make his capital Samarqand the most glorious city in the Islamic world. The crowning edifice was to be the Bibi Khanum Mosque.

Summary of Event

Tamerlane, also known as Timur, burst on the Central Asian scene as leader of the Barlas tribe in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. Timur is Turkish for “iron,” suitable for this conqueror, but he is popularly called Tamerlane from the Persian Timur-i-lenk (Timur the Lame), a name that reflected his limp, the result of a wound he received as a young man. The leader of a small Mongolian-Turkic tribe, he created an empire stretching from India to Asia Minor. [kw]Tamerlane Builds the Bibi Khanum Mosque (1399-1404) [kw]Bibi Khanum Mosque, Tamerlane Builds the (1399-1404) [kw]Mosque, Tamerlane Builds the Bibi Khanum (1399-1404) Bibi Khanum Mosque Tamerlane Central Asia;1399-1404: Tamerlane Builds the Bibi Khanum Mosque[3060] Architecture;1399-1404: Tamerlane Builds the Bibi Khanum Mosque[3060] Tamerlane

Born in 1336 in Kesh, south of Samarqand (now in Uzbekistan), Tamerlane was the son of the chief of the Barlas Barlas tribe, one of numerous small Turkish clans in the empire of Genghis Khan (r. 1206-1227), which was divided after his death among his descendants. The Barlas were in the western group in Transoxiana. By the mid-fourteenth century, Mongol control over the area was in name only, and Tamerlane was able to build a following among the other Turks and create his empire.

Tamerlane was a conscientious builder. He would destroy a city and then bring in architects Architecture;Central Asia Central Asia;architecture and artisans to rebuild it. Sculptors, stone masons, stucco and mosaic workers, weavers, glassblowers, and potters came from all over his empire. On one of his buildings, he inscribed the Arab proverb “If you want to know us, examine our buildings.”

He built magnificent buildings in several cities, including the White Palace of Shahr-i-Sabz and Hojo Ahmed Yesevi Mosque of Turkistan, built in honor of the great poet and sheik. However, his capital, Samarqand Samarqand , was the location of most of his structures: secular and religious edifices containing walled gardens decorated in gold and silk and furnished with magnificent carpets. Most of the buildings have not survived, but some remain. Outstanding features of these buildings include the entrance ways, with the characteristic arched ivans (barrel-vaulted openings) copied from the Persian buildings to which Tamerlane looked for inspiration. Timurid structures are also noted for their glazed tile work, an advancement over the earlier Mongolian lead glazes, which oxidized too quickly. Reflecting the advanced techniques of the Timurid period, more durable colored glazes were used. Instead of single-colored tiles, which limited the designs to the shape of the tiles used, the Timurid artisans used inlaid mosaics employing smaller bits of tile.

The Bibi Khanum Mosque was built as a memorial for Saray Mulk Khanum Saray Mulk Khanum , Tamerlane’s wife and the daughter of Chagatai Chagatai Khan, the dependent ruler Tamerlane put on the throne after his conquest of Transoxiana. Its formal name is Masjid-i Jami or the congregational mosque. The mosque continued the Persian architectural traditions and served as a testament to his achievements as a conqueror. He began the work in 1398-1399 and had part of it reconstructed in 1404. Saray Mulk Khanum had ordered the construction of the attached madrasa (school) and mausoleum. Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, Spain’s ambassador to Tamerlane who observed the final stages of the construction, recorded in his memoirs that the ailing Tamerlane was brought on a litter every day to oversee the work. He would supervise construction, having his meals brought to him and tossing the leftovers down into the pits for the workmen. He would also throw coins to the workers urging them on. Construction went on day and night. Clavijo also wrote about disagreements between Tamerlane and his architects, particularly concerning the facade of the mosque, which he wanted to possess a grandeur worthy of his beloved wife.

Tamerlane modeled the Bibi Khanum on the mosque of the Mongol ruler Uljaytu at Sultaniyya. He imported architects from Persia and India whom he had defeated the year before construction began. Ninety-five elephants hauled the building materials to Samarqand. Two hundred architects, artists, masons, and craftspeople from around the empire and six hundred slaves worked on the building. One observer said, “Its dome would have been unique if not for the heavens and its entrance unique if not for the Milky Way.”

The mosque was exceptionally large: a 182-by-119-yard (167-by-109-meter) rectangle. It had typical Timurid features such as creative use of domes and columns and various styles of tiles and inscriptions. The mosque was built for public use. Saray Mulk Khanum was not buried near the mosque but in a madrasa (school) complex located on the road between the old capital of Afrasiab, north of Samarqand, to the Registan, and the center of Samarqand. Two smaller side mosques were also located in the Bibi Khanum complex. One of the mosque’s notable features was the large Qur՚āan stand—90 inches, or 230 centimeters, long—originally located inside one of the mosque’s alcoves but later moved to the courtyard. At the entrance as well as over the gate to the sanctuary inside, an inscription assigns the building to “the great sultan, pillar of the state and the religion, Amir Timur Gurgan.” At the time, it was the largest and one of the grandest buildings in the Muslim world, designed to boast the ruler’s prowess; however, its very size and grandeur contributed to its ruin as it stretched medieval architectural technology to the limits, which led to its crumbling over time. Eventually, it was destroyed almost completely in a nineteenth century earthquake.

Among the legends that have grown up about the Bibi Khanum is the story of the architect who was so in love with Saray Mulk Khanum that while Tamerlane was on campaign, he refused to work until she allowed him to kiss her. She finally gave in but put her fingers between his lips and her cheek. However, his passion was so great that the imprint of his lips penetrated and remained on her cheek. On his return, Tamerlane went into a rage, but the architect escaped by climbing to the height of the mosque, grew wings, and flew away. Tamerlane had his Indian elephants trample the mosque to the ground and ordered all women afterward to wear veils to hide their beauty. Later generations told this tale to explain the custom of Muslim women wearing veils and the sad state of disarray to which the mosque had fallen.


The Bibi Khanum Mosque successfully fulfilled the goals that Tamerlane set for it. It was the crowning glory of his building projects for Samarqand. It marked him as a great warrior, builder, and champion of Islam for posterity. It continued the architectural traditions of Persia while adding innovations that would influence Islamic architecture. Among the innovations his architects introduced were new designs for domes and gateways and technically advanced glazed tiles. The mosque also made Samarqand one of the major cities of Central Asia, a political and cultural center, for all the generations to follow. The mosque served to unify Tamerlane with people he conquered and ruled. It demonstrated his power and influence as a leader and administrator beyond his role of conqueror, as history mainly regards him. Among the mosques that have used Bibi Khanum as a model are Masjid-i Shan in Isfahan, Iran, and some of the mosques of India built by the Mughals. Although Tamerlane hoped the mosque would be a memorial for him and his beloved wife for the ages, the building did not stand the ravages of time.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan M. Bloom. The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250-1800. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994. An important scholarly study. Chapter 4 covers the mosque.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Golombek, Lisa, and Donald Wilber. Timurid Architecture of Iran and Turan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. Specifically deals with Tamerlane’s and his successors’s buildings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gonzalez de Clavijo, Ruy. Embassy to Tamerlane, 1403-1406, New York: Harper, 1928. An important primary document by Spain’s ambassador to Tamerlane.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knobloch, Edgar. Beyond the Oxus: Archaeology, Art, and Architecture of Central Asia. London: Ernest Benn, 1972. A major contribution to study of Timurid and other buildings in Central Asia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Voronina, V. Architectural Monuments of Middle Asia: Bokhara, Samarqand. Leningrad: Aurora, 1969. A popular book of Central Asia buildings including the Bibi Khanum Mosque.

Categories: History