Chinggis Khan “visited” Central Asia in the early 13th-century, and left very little of the area’s great cities standing. His imperial descendant Timur, known in the West as Tamerlane, began a grand building campaign in an expression of power and sophistication few rulers anywhere have equaled. His Timurid dynasty ruled over his empire, which gradually split into smaller parts, until the late 15th-century. Most of them embraced Timur’s idea that great building projects, particularly mosques, madrasahs, and mausolea, were integral to a ruler’s legacy. Successors to the Timurids followed suit as long as they were able.
It is mostly the turquoise domes and radiant cobalt mosaics of Timurid-era architecture that draws tourists to Uzbekistan. Samarkand’s Registan, a complex of three major buildings clad in splendid mosaics and topped with domes the color of the desert sky, is probably the most beautiful town square in the world. Nearby are buildings of equal splendor – the Bibi Khanum mosque, and the tomb of Timur and his grandson and successor, Ulug Bek. At the edge of Samarkand is the breathtaking necropolis of Shahki-Zindar, a narrow street of turquoise and blue mausolea leading to a monument to “the Living King,” a relative of Mohammed who, according to legend, still lives under the necropolis.
The common thread running through most extant Timurid monuments is extraordinary talent of that era’s architects and craftsmen. Timur brought the best practitioners of the building arts from his vast empire and set them to work on his projects. Aesthetically, the buildings owe much to Persia, which came under Timur’s rule in the 1380s.
Photographs taken in the area’s Tsarist period, when Uzbekistan was a part of Russian-controlled Turkestan, show romantically disintegrating ruins teetering on the brink of further collapse. Scant remnants of glazed brick and carved tile mosaics remained. Faint traces of fresco work, plaster and gilded details, and precious stone inlay were left to suggest the glories on the past. In the Soviet era, the idea of reconstruction was embraced, and a period of serious study of ancient construction and modern intervention began. Decades of reconstruction give visitors a dizzying invitation to experience a pristine and complete version of the past, especially in Samarkand. Frequently, 80 percent of what the eye sees is not yet fifty years old.
Very close examination (and a helpful prompt from a keen-eyed guide) reveals the subtle differences between old tiles and new. Old tilework, despite centuries of exposure to sun and moisture, is brighter and richer in color, particularly in the blue and turquoise tones. Occasionally, compromises are made to accommodate tight restoration budgets and short deadlines for completion…and a patchwork effect of then-and-now interrupts the eye. Only inside the massive Bibi Khanum mosque can you feel the melancholy character of the ruins prior to restoration. It is a matter of ongoing debate whether splendid reconstructions or evocative ruins are better ways of experiencing history.
One of the renowned artisans to work on the buildings of Samarkand during Soviet restoration was Abdugafur Khakkulov, a specialist in the carved tile mosaic work found on the exteriors of the best buildings. He worked hard to rediscover the glaze recipes and firing techniques of the past and, in spite of his duller blues and turquoises, is rightly cited as an important talent supporting the restoration process. His son, Abdukahor Khakkulov, trained as architect but eventually worked with his father to learn the art of mosaic making and restoration. As he explains the process of restoration, he proudly shares his immaculate preparatory drawings, measured with precision and carefully coded for color and any site-specific requirements. He has restored parts of the Shahki-Zindar complex, and has created mosaics for a vast mosque in Brunei.
His workshop is quiet at the moment, but he shows the few pieces currently underway. It is fascinating to see the hand-shaping of every wedge-shaped tile, each carefully numbered so that they end up in the right place. Once all the elements of a mosaic are tightly in place, face down in a frame, four or five inches of plaster of Paris is poured to form a stable mass with a gorgeous mosaic face. The traditional construction method applies these plaster masses onto the masonry buildings. Plaster is a forgiving medium when it comes to maintenance, and defects or damages are easily repaired.
When asked about the differences between blue glazes of the past and blues of today, Abdukahor acknowledges that “we cannot achieve exactly the colors of the time of Timur and Ulug Bek. We just haven’t found the secrets of the masters of those days.” But he adds, “Mosaic is like embroidery. Every skilled hand achieves its own beauty. And we will keep trying to make things as beautiful as before.”