The Silk Road was a widely traveled set of routes throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. It allowed many people from many different empires and lands the opportunity to trade commodities, cultures, and religion. Many things were influenced by the people who traveled on the Silk Road. One aspect in particular, architecture, was greatly influenced by the trade of commodities and ideas throughout the Silk Road. Many Islamic lands are adorned with beautiful and majestic mosques, palaces, and tombs that stretch high into the sky. Each has a semblance of cultural influence from near and distant lands. Three in particular: The Taj Mahal, a tomb for an emperor’s wife in Agra, India, The Tomb of Tamerlane in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and the Ulugh Beg Madrasa, located in Bukaha, Are all decorated with characteristics from the influence of the Silk Road.
After Islam entered India, many of the people who inhabited the subcontinent converted to the religion. It’s rulers were no exception. One ruler in particular, Shah Jahan, commissioned the Taj Mahal to be built as a tomb for his late wife, whom he loved dearly. Some elements of the complex show heavily influence of Islamic trends in architecture and culture. It also shows bits and pieces of different cultures from all around Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Taj Mahal was constructed with Red sandstone was brought from Fatehpur Sikri, jasper from Punjab, jade and crystal from China, turquoise from Tibet, lapis lazuli and sapphires from Sri Lanka, with coal and carnelian from Arabia and diamonds from Panna.
The central dome of the Taj Mahal stands at a great height of 240 feet. It is surrounded by four smaller domes, or minarets, which Muslims climb to signal the call to prayer for their congregations. In accordance with Islamic tradition, verses from the Quran were inscribed in calligraphy on the arched entrances to the mausoleum, in addition to numerous other sections of the complex. This display of wealth and grandeur was generally not accepted as an Islamic religious depiction of sorrow. Islam requires that their believers trust in the will of God, and overt displays of mausoleums for the dead is generally thought to be an infringement of this belief.
There is also a hadith, or religious tradition, which states the prophet Mohammed’s disapproval for any “ostentatious” building because it assumes too much of a man’s wealth. The tension became a matter of debate at an Indian court, because as humans they also valued the political and symbolic power of grand architecture. Some have suggested that the Taj Mahal is exempt from this religious requirement due to the archways that are present in the structure. Therefore the tomb isn’t technically a building, as there are no doors but simply entranceways.
Cultural practices in use by the Taj Mahal can also be attributed to Islamic influence. When a body is enshrined in the tomb, it enters with the head facing north so that the body can be turned westward to face Mecca. The west side of the building also contains the mihrab, a niche to face Mecca. The other three sides of the building are open to accommodate the hadith explained above. You are to enter on the south side of the building, by the feet of the buried person.
The Tomb of Tamerlane also shows significant Islamic influence its architectural structure. Tamerlane was a Mongol ruler, also known as Timur, who led a series of conquests between Anatolia and India. After amassing great wealth, he had an opulent capital in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Although he was a brutal leader, his dynasty, which ran from 1405-1507, genuinely patronized Islamic, Persian, and Turkish art and culture.
Timur used his riches he obtained from the conquest of the Golden Horde in northern Asia to construct many Islamic style buildings throughout his realm. His tomb would be the grandest of all. Constructed in the usual mosque form of the time period, it is covered by an ornate dome. His sarcophagus lays underneath the ground of an octagonal shaped room. There are many kufic inscriptions throughout the building, which displays inlays of jasper. Stained glass windows allow light to filter through. Timur is buried next to his son and high priest, keeping with the Islamic tradition of being buried with family members as well as important aids.
When Soviet archaeologist Michael Gerasimov went to visit the tomb to see what he could find, he discovered a skeleton shrouded in Timur’s favorite color, blue. This color can also been seen throughout the tombs structure, as well as in many other pieces of Islamic architecture and art. They are also usually aligned with blue tiles throughout. These blue and white tiles are usually attributed to the Chinese Ming dynasty, showing that Islamic architecture borrows techniques from different cultures. The Ming dynasty is known for his lots of blue and white porcelain. The floors of many mosques, including the tomb of Tamerlane, are covered with carpets of blue and gray material.
Cultural syncretism that can clearly be seen is in regards to the Ulugh Beg Madrasa. Located in Central Asia, the Iranian Muslim dynasty known as the Samanids incorporated many Buddhist traditions in the architecture of the madrasa. It contained a four archway plan leading into the building. It can be stated that the very idea of the madrasas themselves came from Buddhist teaching, because Islamic madrasas first appeared in Buddhist parts of the world.
Although it took longer, the same patterns can be seen further east in Asia. Aurel Stein, the legendary excavationist and explorer from the 20th Century, found a Turkish Muslim shrine in the Tarim Basin, which was thought to be the tomb of four different Islamic imams. Stein determined that it was actually a Buddhist monument.
The Ulugh Beg Madrasa is highly influenced by Timurid architecture, which was discussed earlier. Their development of techniques in the sizing and presentation of buildings made it so there was little to no distinction between a madrasa and a mosque, as many schools were contained inside of these monumental buildings which also held worshippers. The Ulugh Beg Madrasa contains a mosque as well as a lecture hall. It is said that Islamic architects did this to portray how important education, whether it be religious or secular, was to the Islamic people.
Islamic architecture was greatly influenced by aspects of the Silk Road. After the introduction of the Islamic religion to lands such as India and Samarkand, mosques and madrasas, or schools, were built to accommodate Muslim scholars and believers who were in these areas as a result of merchant trade. Tombs were also built to house the dead, like in the case of the Taj Mahal or the Tomb of Tamerlane, with strict and sometimes not so strict adherence to Islamic law. Elements of Tibetan art adorn the decorative aspects of mosques and madrasas all along the Silk Road. The most dramatic aspect of this cultural syncretism comes from the blue color used in the mosques and tombs, equating to the Muslim people’s affinity of Chinese porcelain. They wished for their buildings to display immense wealth to those who visited.