The Bibi Khanum Mosque, Samarkand

The monumentality and superb craftsmanship of the Bibi Khanum Mosque inspired one medieval chronicler to write, “its cupola would have been unique, had it not been for the heavens, and unique would have been its main arch, had it not been for the Milky Way” (Hill 52). This comparison of the mosque to the heavens indicates the awe that visitors felt when visiting the structure.

The Bibi Khanum Mosque was built by Timur in Samarkand between the years 1398 and 1405 in memory of his wife, the Great Khanum, or Sarāy-Molk Khanom (O’Kane). During his rule, Timur aspired to recreate the Mongol Empire and to be recognized as a primary ruler of the Islamic world. As part of these goals, Timur constructed monumental buildings such as the Bibi Khanum mosque that visually spoke to his vision of grandeur. In additional to the size of Bibi Khanum, Timur also imported foreign labor from his military campaigns to help build these monuments. For example, he brought stone masons from a campaign in India to carve 480 marble columns used to support the domes in the mosque’s arcade (Paskaleva 82).

The layout of the mosque follows a four iwan plan, with each iwan signifying one of the cardinal directions. Iwans are arched gateways associated with holy gates that transported the individual from the temporal realm into a divine realm (Paskaleva 83). The use of an iwan at the entrance to a mosque symbolized the transition from the everyday world to a spiritual space. In the center of the complex is an open courtyard. On three sides of the courtyard are three domed sanctuaries. The sanctuary with the largest dome, containing the main mosque, is on the west end of the complex. The two smaller sanctuaries, which are understood to be winter mosques, are on the north and south sides of the complex. All three mosques follow a square cruciform plan with a domed interior. The complex has a total of eight minarets, four of which are placed around the exterior corners of the complex. The entrance gate and the gate to the main sanctuary are each flanked by two buttress-like minarets, which signify their importance. It is suggested in the history of Timur’s rule written by Ibn Arabshah (1389-1450), and in documents from the Spanish ambassador to Tumur’s court, Ruy González de Clavijo (d. 1412), that construction on the Bibi Khanum Mosque was never completed (Paskaleva 81).

There are a number of visual parallels between the Bibi Khanum Mosque and the Oljeytu Mosque, an Ilkhanid monument built in Sultaniyya, Iran. The kosh ensembles built by Timur and Oleytu both consisted of a mosque with a four iwan plan; the main sanctuary of the mosque complex is located along the longitudinal axis; and the entrance to each mosque makes use of an arched portal flanked by two formidable minarets (Paskaleva 88). Sheila Blair has also argued that the eight minarets used throughout the Bibi Khanum complex may reference the eight minarets around Oljeytu’s Mausoleum (Blair 72). By referencing Ilkhanid monuments such as Oljeytu’s mosque and mausoleum in his own architecture, Timur reinforced his claim as heir of the Mongol Empire by connecting himself and his capital to earlier dynastic architecture.

Works Cited:

Blair, Sheila. “The Epigraphic Program of the Tomb of Uljaytu at Sultaniyya: Meaning in Mongol Architecture.” Islamic Art 2 (1987), pp. 43-96.

Hill, Derek. Islamic Architecture and its Decoration A.D. 800-1500. London: Faber and Faber, 1967.

O’Kane, Bernard. “Bībī Khanom Mosque.” Encyclopædia Iranica Vol. IV, Facs. 2, pp. 197-198.

Paskaleva, Elena. “The Bibi Khanum Mosque in Samarqand: Its Mongol and Timurid Architecture.” The Silk Road, 10 (2012), pp. 81-98.