Monday, May 20, 2019

Retracing the Silk Road in Uzbekistan

In bygone day, the great silk way
Sowed temples and towers and gold.
Now brambles mass 'midst waving grass
On the once well-trodden road.

By the time of Amir Timur's death in 1405, his Timurid Empire had conquered its way out from his native Central Asia and present-day Uzbekistan to the coast of the Black Sea in the west and northern India in the east. Its multi-ethnic armies had rained blood upon the peoples of Persia and Mesopotamia and wiped out an estimated 5% of the planet's population in brutal campaigns of conquest. Timur's successes had been born of his capacity to successfully blend the mobility of the steppe nomads with Mongol tactics, Islamic law and Persian traditions. He is said to have possessed an unparalleled knack for military strategy and political intrigue. Although one of the most feared and ruthless conquerors of his time, he is regarded in Uzbekistan as the country's defining national hero. His ornate mausoleum, in which rests his black marble tomb, is one of the jewels of modern-day Samarkand, the old capital of Timur's sprawling empire.

According to legend, the inscription on his tombstone reads “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble." In June of 1941, a Soviet research expedition ignored the ominous warning and had the tomb opened. The inside allegedly revealed a second inscription, one even more dire than the first: “Whosoever disturbs my tomb will unleash an invader more terrible than I." Two days after the tomb was opened, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union with the largest invasion force of all time. Beginning to believe that the curse was real, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered the remains of Timur reinterred with full Islamic rights in December of 1942. A little over a month later, the Nazis were defeated at the Battle of Stalingrad, the largest and bloodiest battle in history.