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How Tamerlan’s Tomb Was Opened

Tomb of Timur (Tamerlan)

Tomb of Timur (Tamerlan)

On the night of June 20, 1941, soviet scientists opened Timur’s (Tamerlan’s) tomb. Later this event generated all sorts of myths. According to one of the popular quasi-scientific versions, it was the opening of the burial that became one of the reasons why the Great Patriotic War started. Nowadays, it is rather difficult to tell the truth from falsehood in this story, which poses a great interest for archeologists.


The excavations in the area of Gur-Emir mausoleum in Samarkand started in the beginning of June, 1941. There are several versions that explain the reason for the research. According to one of them, the research of the probable burial site of Timur was carried out as part of a large-scale project of exhuming the tombs of famous historic figures. Back in the 1930s, special committees were created for the purpose of identifying the famous historic personages.

Gur-Emir Mausoleum

Gur-Emir Mausoleum

For instance, in 1936, the sarcophagus of Yaroslav the Wise was opened. The research of the ancient tombs was continued after the war. Well-known Orientalists and anthropologists participated in the researches. According to another version, the research of Tamerlan’s tomb was initiated by Joseph Stalin. The finds, gathered in the expedition, had to be displayed at an exhibition devoted to the famous conqueror’s life.

According to one more version, which is no less plausible, the excavations were carried out in search for gold that the Soviet state needed very much at that time. Yet another version states, that the tomb was studied because of the accident that happened during the construction of the Inturist hotel not far from the mausoleum. The water began to penetrate the tomb, which could result in the loss of the remains and other objects in it.

According to several traditions, circulating at that time, Tamerlan’s bones could be located in his native village Kesh (now Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan), or in Samarkand. Both versions were quite convincing. One way or another, the research started in Samarkand in Gur-Emir mausoleum.

At the Excavations' Site

At the Excavations’ Site

The great conqueror, who defeated the Golden Horde, died in February of 1405 during his campaign in China. Timur was 68 years old. According to the sources, his body was embalmed and put in a coffin of black timber, draped in silver tissue. As the scientists found out, Tamerlan was brought to the Gur-Emir mausoleum, the construction of which had not been finished yet at that time. The mausoleum’s construction was started in 1403. It was situated in the south-east part of medieval Samarkand. According to the original plan, an Islamic educational center had to be built here, but later a burial complex was constructed in this place.

Later, it was finished by Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg. Archeologists realized that the research was following the right track when from a marble sarcophagus the remains of the younger son of the conqueror – Shahrukh Mirza, were exhumed. On a significant depth the bones of the oldest son of Timur were found – Miran Shah. After that, they discovered the sepulcher of Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg, who was killed and beheaded. It was becoming clear that this was the family burial vault of the Timurids.

Timur's Facial Reconstruction by Gerasimov

Timur’s Facial Reconstruction by Gerasimov

Several well-known scientists participated in the research of the tomb; among them there were Orientalist A. A. Semenov, anthropologist M. M. Gerasimov. The group also included Tajik writer S. Aini. The expedition was headed up by future member of the academy of Sciences and president of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan, Tashmuhamed Kar-Nijazov. Timur’s remains were lying under a large jade tombstone with an epitaph inscription.

The tombstone was split. According to one legend, the tombstone was brought to Persian commander Nadir shah, who used the slab as a footing for his throne. After that, there was an earthquake in Iran, and the shah himself was overcome by illnesses. Nadir shah decided to put the tombstone back to it place, but while being transported, it was broken.

On the Night of June 20, 1941 Soviet Scientists Opened the Tomb of Timur (Tamerlan)

On the Night of June 20, 1941 Soviet Scientists Opened the Tomb of Timur (Tamerlan)

During the excavations, a thick layer of gancha (alabaster) was found under the slab. Under the layer, five more stone slabs lying next to each other were found. Inside a marble sarcophagus was a wooden coffin, upon which were the fragments of a thick cloth. The cloth was embroidered with gold and silver threads. On some preserved fragments of the cloth ancient characters could be identified.

The coffin was well preserved. Reinforcing boards and supports were found in it. Under the lid of the coffin the skeleton was discovered. It became clear right at that point that those were the remains of Timur. One of his legs was shorter than the other one. His right leg’s knee cap grew into the lower thigh epiphysis. It is known that Timur was lame on one foot. In the Persian sources Timur was nicknamed Tamerlan (The Iron Lame).

The study of Timur’s remains showed that his stature was 172 centimeters. He was a strong, husky man. The exhumation of the burial was finished on the night of June 21, 1941. The skull of the conqueror was ill preserved because of the water present in the sarcophagus, although some hair was still remaining on it. It is interesting that Timur was not buried in a grave shroud, like Shahrukh, but in a coffin, which, according to Gerasimov, matched the shapes of modern coffins.

The poor condition of the remains did not hinder the anthropologist from reconstructing the face of Timur. Tamerlan’s head was put into a wooden box and carried away to Moscow. Concerning any treasures, found in the mausoleum, nothing was told. It is necessary to mention that this was not the first opening of the tomb. The burial was opened in the beginning of the 15th century at the order of his son Shahrukh, and then several years later after the death of Ulugh Beg.


Many myths about the tomb are linked to the name of Malik Kayumov, a cameraman who worked in 1941 at the Tashkent film studio. In 2004, TV film “The Curse of Timur” was produced, in which the Uzbek cameraman told the story of how the tomb was opened. Kayumov maintained that the excavations in the museum caused the beginning of the Great Patriotic War.

According to him, there was a curse of Tamerlan: whoever opens the tomb would start a great war. When Timur’s remains were reburied at the end of 1942, the Soviet troops started to gain the upper hand in the Battle of Stalingrad. Malik Kayumov asserted that the remains were reburied after he spoke about the curse to George Zhukov, who was yet to receive the title of the Marshal of the Soviet Union.

According to one of the legends related to the tomb’s exhumation, during the excavation works several strange things happened. For instance, all of a sudden, the hoisting gear, which was used to lift up the gravestones of the sarcophagus, stopped working; and the lights went out. Kayumov also told about the meeting of the group of archeologists with three elderly men who tried to persuade the scientists not to dig out the tomb, showing them some sacred writings. According to Kayumov, they disappeared without a trace after the burial was opened.

In response to Kayumov’s statement, writer Aini’s son said that he was also present at the excavations site together with his father. In his diary the elders were also mentioned. Aini insisted that Kayumov did not know the Tajik language, and the Tajik language was the one that the elderly people used to speak to the group; therefore, he could not possibly understand what exactly they were talking about with the writer. According to Aini’s son, the elders showed the scientists a book of local traditions called Jangnoma, which had not been put out in the ancient days, but was published in the 19th century.; ARCHEOLOGY. NEWS OF THE WORLD OF ARCHEOLOGY.


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