Islamic Realms in Central Asia

Beginning in the 15th century, descendants of Turkic and Mongolian cavalries distinguished themselves as patrons of grand domes and exquisite gardens. Relying on the architectural traditions established several centuries earlier in Persia, they created new monumental settings in the thinly populated regions ranging from western Iran to Uzbekistan and northern India.

First the Timurid dynasty in Uzbekistan, followed by the Safavids in Iran, and then the Mughals in India sponsored shining cities with bulbous domes and towering minarets.

Unlike Europe or china, where printed treatises aided the transmission of architectural type and styles, this Persian renaissance relied on itinerant professionals to design the magnificent new mosques, madrasa, and tombs.

The Persian Renaissance: From the Timurids to the Safavids

From 10th to 13th centuries the Turkish warrior dynasties; Ghaznavids and the Seljuks sponsored monuments based on long-standing Persian traditions without a built tradition of their own. The Seljuks enriched the local building traditions with new programs, including the demand for more articulated public spaces and more prominent funerary monuments. So, they built broad, iwan shaded courts and massive cupolas.

During the 13th century, Genghis Khan and his Mongolian hordes swept through the entire region of Central Asia, destroying much of the architectural patrimony of cities such as Baghdad and Samarkand.

Once settled and committed to Islam, the dynasties, such as the Timurids, the Safavids, and the Mughals, sponsored large cities with magnificent gateways, palaces, formal gardens, and funerary cupolas of colossal dimensions. Islam provided them with conventional programs for building mosques, madrasas, and mausoleums.

Timurids assembled an empire that stretched from Baghdad to Delhi. The ancient city of Samarkand became Timur’s showcase capital.

  • During the first years of the 15th century, Timur commissioned the Great Mosque of Bibi Khanym. Indian elephants dragged hundreds of marble columns across Afghanistan for use in the mosque’s hypostyle prayer hall. Each corner of the outer walls of the Bibi-Khanym complex carried a slender minaret.
  • At the other end of the city, Timur planned his mausoleum. The dome over his tomb, dominated a square court, which had cylindrical minarets at each corner.
  • Most of the significant 15th-century projects in Samarkand, including the completion of Timur’s tomb, were planned by Ulugh Beg. He sponsored the Great Observatory on the outskirts of the city. He also initiated a monumental collection of madrasas.

The Safavid Dynasty in Iran, which claimed genuine Persian origins, tried to keep pace with the monumental achievements of the invaders from the north.

  • Shah Abbas’s projects fit into a highly original urban plan. These projects more than doubled the size of the city, treating it as a single immense garden. The addition included the new imperial palace, a vast maydan, at the end of which were the Shah’s mosque, two new covered bridges, and a garden district for the palaces of the aristocracy.
  • Shah Abbas began his urban renewal by reforming the center of Isfahan, enlarging the Old Maydan or Great Friday Mosque.
  • He also made additions to the Great Mosque, begun in the eleventh century under the Seljuks.
  • He donated a caravansary to serve as an inn and storehouse for thr privileged silk merchants. Its geometrically regular, two-story arcaded court supplied the model for the dozens of new caravansaries.
  • The new palace, Naqsh-i Jahan (The Map of the World), consisted of a series of geometric gardens in a walled compound nearly as large as the existing city.

The Mughal Empire:

The Mughal dynasty in India experienced a parallel history to the Safavids in Iran, between the early 16th and the mid-18th centuries.

  • In their capitals of Lahore, Delhi, and Agra, they erected impressive fortresses, mosques, palaces, gardens, and some of the grandest funerary complexes on earth. The shimmering domes and minarets of their mausoleums, set in luxuriant gardens lined with reflecting pools, geometric hedges, fruit trees, and flower beds offered a wondrous vision of paradise.
  • The grand Mughal projects commenced under Akbar (the Great, r. 1556–1605).
  • The Tomb for Humayun (in Delhi, built between 1562 and 1571), established a new scale and order for Indian architecture. Political goals clearly motivated the large scale of the mausoleum, showing that Babur’s line overshadowed other dynastic claims to India.
  • To defend the Mughal regime against internal and external threats, Akbar constructed a series of fortress-palaces.
  • The wife of his heir Jahangir, Nur Jahan, took command of the government. As a patron of architecture she had no equal at this time. Her most inspired project remains the beautifully proportioned tomb and gardens of Itimur ud-Daulat.
  • The greatest Mughal builder, Shah Jahan took an active interest in all aspects of design. He rebuilt most of the internal structures of the Red Fort at Agra in white marble, and in Delhi founded an analogous Red Fort, known as Shahjahanabad.

Reference: World Architecture: A Cross-Cultural History by Richar Ingersoll.

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