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Timur’s entry into Samarkand, page from the Zafarnama

By Dr. Yuka Kadoi
Timur’s entry into Samarkand, page from a copy of the Zafarnama by Yazdi, c. 1436, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper, 25.9 x 13.2 cm, Iran (Shiraz) (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.)
A powerful gray horse strides forth against a background of inlaid tiles, alerting residents to the arrival of a special visitor. The horse carries a male rider adorned in a bright overcoat, colorful trousers, an elaborate hat, and a curved sword hanging at his side. This figure is followed by a courtier on a smaller brown horse holding a parasol above the central figure’s head. Textiles dyed in crimson reds, saffron yellows, vibrant greens, and deep blues hang from parapets and windows above as curious on-lookers steal peeks of the majestic procession below. Who is this figure that rides through a colorful city to fanfare and draws attention from its citizens? What did his arrival mean to those who witnessed his entrance, and why was this scene, real or imagined, made into a work of art?
Detail showing Timur on horseback. Timur’s entry into Samarkand, page from a copy of the Zafarnama by Yazdi, c. 1436, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper, 25.9 x 13.2 cm, Iran (Shiraz) (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.)

Who was Timur?

The central figure in the image depicts the ruler, Timur, also known as Tamerlane. Born in Kesh (later renamed Shakhrisabz in modern day Uzbekistan), an important ancient urban center of
, Timur rose from local tribal chieftain to become one of the most powerful conquerors in global history. He gained prominence as a military leader in his mid-twenties and proclaimed rulership around 1370 over one of the four territories that Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol empire, had divided among his sons. Timur aspired to restore the supremacy of nomadic people from the
that had been achieved by the Mongols in the previous century but had since declined (their empire having fragmented into smaller ruling entities). Timur eventually led his forces successfully across a vast territory between the eastern Mediterranean and the Indian subcontinent, including major parts of the Iranian plateau, then known as Persia.
Timurid Dynasty at its greatest extent (underlying map © Google)
Before dying at the age of nearly seventy years old en route to attack China in 1405, Timur established one of the largest nomadic empires, now called the Timurids, which lasted from 1370 to 1507. The Timurids, like the Mongols before them, were the latest in a long line of nomadic cultures from the Asian steppe who conquered and politically connected broad regions of Eurasia. The period of the Timurid empire was also marked by the flourishing of art and science in Central Asia. This included adopting elements of Persian and Mongol culture as a means to integrate the Timurids into a prior history of Central Asian kingship.
Timur’s entry into Samarkand (detail), page from a copy of the Zafarnama by Yazdi, c. 1436, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper, 25.9 x 13.2 cm, Iran (Shiraz) (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.)

The splendor of Samarkand

In the painting of Timur, his procession evokes his majesty as a ruler and his victorious entry into Samarkand (today in Uzbekistan), the city that he chose as the capital of his new empire due to its economic and strategic importance on the Silk Roads. A column of Persian text to the right narrates this processional episode. The image displays the splendor of this ancient city that he further enriched by capturing talented artisans from across his conquered lands and bringing them to Samarkand. For example, under the Timurids, Samarkand became famous for its beautiful ceramic tilework, such as we see here in this image. This was described by the Arab chronicler Ibn ‘Arabshah, who stayed in Samarkand during the reign of Timur:
"Timur took from Damascus learned men and craftsmen and all who excelled in any art, the most skilled weavers, tailors, gem-cutters, carpenters, makers of head-coverings, farriers, painters, bow-makers, falconers, in short, craftsmen of every kind (…) and he divided these companies among the heads of the army and ordered them to lead them to Samarkand."
from the Arabic Life of Ahmed ibn 'Arabshah [1]
Page of text in Persian describing Samarkand receiving Timur and his troops, page from a copy of the Zafarnama by Yazdi, c. 1436, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper, 25.9 x 13.2 cm, Iran (Shiraz) (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.)

The Zafarnama

This image of Timur on horseback was originally part of a 15th-century manuscript of the Zafarnama (“Book of Victories”), a biography of Timur written in Persian by the scholar Sharaf al-Din Ali Yazdi and the first written text to depict images of Timur’s life and conquests. Having established his dynasty across Eurasia, one of the ways Timur attempted to unify the disparate regions and cultures within his empire was to adopt Persian as the language of administration and literature. Persian had a written history dating back 2,000 years and was already a language of high culture across wide swathes of Asia when Timur rose to power. Persian had also historically been used to document the reigns of kings in West and Central Asia (including by the Mongols). 
Commissioned by Timur’s grandson, Ibrahim Sultan, and completed some 30 years after Timur’s death, the Zafarnama was intended to be viewed and read by political and cultural elites of the Timurid empire rather than by the general public. When Timur died in 1405 there was no clear heir and various male descendants of Timur fought amongst themselves for the right to rule. Ultimately, Ibrahim Sultan's father, Shahrukh, prevailed. Producing the Zafarnama was one way that Ibrahim Sultan helped to legitimize his rule for contemporaries and future generations, connecting himself to his grandfather and father.

Visual echoes of the Shahanama

Like illustrated texts patronized by earlier Mongol rulers of Persia, the Zafarnama asserted Timur’s descendants’ right to rule over a vast and multi-ethnic territory that had been conquered through force. The earlier Persian manuscripts discussing the history of kings often included  images of those rulers engaged in activities expected of them as kings—such as hunting, waging war, or processing victoriously through cities.
While little is known about the painter who created Timur’s entry into Samarkand or the other illustrations in this volume, it is clear that the artist was familiar with the essential visual tropes of Persian kingship that had developed over the course of the previous century, especially for the Shahnama (“Book of Kings”). An epic poem written in Persian by Ferdawsi around 1000 C.E., the Shahnama recounts the history of Persia and its rulers and heroes prior to the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. The Shahnama was copied many times in the coming centuries and began to be illustrated in the early 14th century while Persia was under Mongol rule.
Detail of Khusraw Parviz before Shirin from a Shahnama (Book of Kings), early 14th century, ink, opaque watercolor, gold and silver on paper (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.)
In a copy of the Shahnama produced in 14th-century West Asia under Mongol patronage, an illustration depicts Khusraw Parviz, a Sasanian king from the late 6th and early 7th centuries, riding an athletic black horse while an attendant holds a parasol (chatr) above his head. The parasol had been used for centuries in Persian culture as a symbol of kingship. Khusraw's lover, Shirin, looks out at him from a window above. Drawing on this type of pictorial convention (though perhaps not from this particular copy), the unnamed painter of Timur in the Zafarnama created a similar equestrian image of the ruler from the Asian steppe, echoing that of an earlier Persian king. 
Timur’s entry into Samarkand, page from a copy of the Zafarnama by Yazdi, c. 1436, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper, 25.9 x 13.2 cm, Iran (Shiraz) (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.)

Constructing Timur’s equestrian image

Taken together, the text and image portray Timur not as a savage foreign conqueror from the Eurasian steppe, but as the embodiment of Persian kingship—one who could fight and win but could also rule over beautiful cities. It is possible that Timur’s descendant, Ibrahim Sultan, who commissioned this copy of the Zafarnama required a carefully crafted image of Timur that conformed to existing conventions of kingship in Persian art and literature as a response to criticism. For example, Ibn ‘Arabshah (quoted earlier) described the conqueror in a critical manner, arguing that “he [Timur] destroyed right custom and went forth wicked with insolent swords that moved hither and thither.” [2] Inserting Timur into established visual conventions of kingship developed first in Persia and later adopted by its Mongol rulers in the 14th century transformed the image of Timur on horseback into political propaganda.
While Timur is depicted in the Zafarnama in a variety of ways, including sitting cross-legged on the floor, his equestrian image would have been the most recognizable embodiment of his royal legacy to cultured audiences familiar with such conventions. In Persian culture, the horse was a key symbol of kingship, providing the king with the means to be a fierce warrior but also a stately and majestic monarch. Additionally, for the Mongols and the Timurids—as traditionally nomadic peoples—horseback riding was a way of life, and both cultures were known as master horsemen.
Equestrian statue of Timur Lang [Amir Temur], by Ikhom Jabbarov, 1994, Tashkent, Uzbekistan (photo: Matthew Goulding, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). See another angle of the statue.

Measuring the impact of Timur’s equestrian image

Though his empire fractured into several autonomous states ruled by his successors and went into sharp decline in the second half of the 15th century, copies of the Zafarnama and depictions of Timur on horseback did persist for a short while. [3] Still, after the 16th century, Timur’s legacy quickly vanished within Central Asia, and he was largely forgotten in the wider world until the 1990s. The convention of showing Timur as a majestic ruler on horseback resurfaced in 1991 when the Republic of Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union and took much of the historical territories of the Timurid empire (excepting Iran but including the former capital Samarkand). In 1993, an imposing bronze equestrian statue of Timur was placed in the main square of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, to emphasize a historical link between the glory of the Timurid empire and the recently established nation of Uzbekistan. For Uzbekistan—as a new nation in post-Soviet Central Asia—the 20th-century equestrian statue of Timur offers a visual echo of Timur’s entry into Samarkand from the 15th century, reviving an image asserting political legitimacy into the modern world.
[1] Ibn ‘Arabshah, Tamerlane or Timur the Great Amir, from the Arabic Life of Ahmed ibn Arabshah, trans. by John H. Sanders (London: 1936), p. 161.
[2] Ibn ‘Arabshah, Tamerlane or Timur the Great Amir, from the Arabic Life of Ahmed ibn Arabshah, trans. by John H. Sanders (London: 1936), p. 234.
[3] Of the images of Timur made in the later 15th century, there is a second illustrated manuscript detailing the life and achievements of Timur, the Timurnama (Book of Timur) written by the Persian poet, Hatifi, also included images of Timur as a warrior and general on horseback, including in copies made into the mid-16th century. Subsequently, manuscript images depicting Timur were made outside of Central Asia but continued to be used for political purposes. For example, a version of the Zafarnama was commissioned by the third Mughal emperor Akbar, a direct descendant of Timur, around 1590 in South Asia in order to historicize Akbar’s reign as part of Timurid dynastic lineage
Essay by Dr. Yuka Kadoi

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