Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Art of the Timurid Period (ca. 1370–1507)

The Timurids were the final great dynasty to emerge from the Central Asian steppe. In 1370, the eponymous founder, Timur (Tamerlane), who belonged to a Turko-Mongol tribe settled in Transoxiana, became master of this province and established Samarqand as his capital. Within thirty-five years, he subjugated all of Central Asia, greater Iran, and Iraq, as well as parts of southern Russia and the Indian subcontinent. To the west, Timurid forces defeated the Mamluk army in Syria and that of the Ottomans at Ankara (1400–1402). In 1405, while preparing to invade China, Timur died. The vast empire he carved proved to be difficult to keep; his son and successor, Shah Rukh (r. 1405–47), barely managed to maintain the empire’s boundaries, and subsequent Timurid princes sought to establish their own kingdoms, weakening the empire with internal strife. Eventually only Khurasan and Transoxiana remained Timurid, and during the remaining years of the dynasty, these were ruled by separate branches of the Timurid family.

By bringing craftsmen from different conquered lands to his capital in Samarqand, Timur initiated one of the most brilliant periods in Islamic art. Timurid art and architecture provided inspiration to lands stretching from Anatolia to India. Though Timur’s extensive empire itself was relatively short-lived, his descendants continued to rule over Transoxiana as leading patrons of Islamic art. Through their patronage, the eastern Islamic world became a prominent cultural center, with Herat, the new Timurid capital, as its focal point. Timurid rulers were sympathetic to Persian culture and lured artists, architects, and men of letters who would contribute to their high court culture. Some of these rulers were also great patrons of the arts of the book, commissioning manuscripts that were copied, compiled, and illustrated in their libraries. Due to the flourishing of manuscript illumination and illustration, the Herat school is often regarded as the apogee of Persian painting. The Timurid period saw great achievements in other luxury arts, such as metalwork and jade carving. This cultural efflorescence found its ultimate expression at the court of Sultan Husain Baiqara (r. 1470–1506), the last effective Timurid ruler.

Many Timurid princes were also prodigious builders—religious institutions and foundations such as mosques, madrasas, khanqahs (convents), and Sufi shrines were the main beneficiaries of their building programs. Major architectural commissions from Timur’s lifetime include the Aq Saray Palace (Shahr-i Sabz, ca. 1379–96); the shrine of Ahmad Yasavi (Turkestan City, ca. 1397); Timur’s congregational mosque (Samarqand, ca. 1398–1405), popularly known as the mosque of Bibi Khanum after his wife, who built a madrasa next to it; and the Gur-i Amir (Samarqand, ca. 1400–1404), Timur’s burial place. Trademarks of the Timurid style were monumental scale, multiple minarets, polychromy tilework, and large bulbous double domes. The Timurid period also witnessed women as active patrons of architecture. Along with their immediate successors, the Shaibanids, the Timurid cultural tradition was also partly carried on by the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires.