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Legend about Bibi-Khanym and the snake
Much time had passed after the death of the beautiful, kind and wise Bibi-Khanym. Nobody knew about her origin or beliefs; I think she was Russian. She was a gentile and that was known, but nevertheless, she was respected and loved by everybody owing to her kind soul. Emir Timur loved her for that and considered her as a friend.
People say that Bibi-Khanym was once visited by a dervish who predicted she would be killed by spider’s bite. Bibi-Khanym went to see Emir Timur and told him about her predicted death. She said she was not worried and that her soul was strong. Then she asked to be buried not as a Moslem in the ground, but above it, in a coffin.
The Emir was horrified. The sad Timur tried to distract her from the thoughts of death, but Bibi-Khanym, despite his entreaty believed in the greatness of the soul and insisted on her plan. Timur ordered that the required building be constructed. He told the workers to use clay as the main material. During the construction a large vault under the building was dug and the workers invited Bibi-Khanym to examine it. The beautiful empress and her husband went to see her future shelter.
I must say such a beautiful building should serve as delight and pleasure, and not as a house of sad memoirs. Emir Timur was satisfied with the work of the builders. He wanted this wonderful construction to distract his wife from her sad thoughts. How could one think of death, looking at the beauty of the multicolored walls of this building?
The builders were relieved that their work had received the emperor's approval. Then, at the site, a great feast was organized and the workers were given pieces of boiled meat from the emperor. Musicians and singers also played old favourites.
Bibi-Khanym was still examining the building when suddenly a snake crept out of the vault and lay in the sun to warm itself. The workers wanted to kill it immediately, being afraid it might bite somebody. But Bibi-Khanym stopped them:
“Leave the snake alone! It is not dangerous; why kill this creature if nobody knows where it is from nor where it will go?”
The snake got warm in sunlight and allowed Bibi-Khanym to come up to it. The snake tenderly nodded as the empress caressed it, much in the same way as if it had been a tame kitten. Bibi-Khanym said:
“Oh, my little animal! You are not afraid of me, and neither am I of you.”
That moment a muedzin shouted it was "namaz" hour. The snake disappeared and city dwellers forgot about it.
Nobody knows how much time passed after this, but one day Bibi-Khanym was sitting with her maids of honour and putting grapes on a cloth (dostarkhan) spread on the carpet. Suddenly she felt a sharp pain in her hand and saw a big phalanx[RD1] , hidden in a cluster of the grapes. The sting of the phalanx is known to be very dangerous.
The empress asked that Emir Timur be informed of what had happened. He came to her frightened and she said, smiling:
“The wandering dervish was right; I am dying having been bitten by a gunda (phalanx). Now you see his words were true.”
“No, no!” Emir Timur tried to change her mind, “It is just the sting of a spider which is not venomous at all.”
However by nightfall a painful fog had captured the empress. Her Forces left her with the speed of a lightning bolt, the pain increased and, like a destructive earthquake, got into each and every cell of her body.
The last thing she asked was her wish to be buried not in the ground, but in the beautiful building constructed opposite the city’s cathedral mosque.
The next morning Bibi-Khanym's soul moved to the halls of God.
The emperor made her dream come true. He ordered that she be dressed in her most beautiful and expensive clothes. Round her neck he put precious necklaces made of double strings of corals and pearls. Her earrings, studded with rubies and diamonds, were supposed to decorate her eternal loneliness. Then the gravestone cover was hammered to the coffin with golden nails and put in the dark crypt isolated from the sunlight and sounds of the world.
People knew about the treasure buried with Bibi-Khanym. Ten thieves decided to rob the tomb. One dark night they came to the tomb and took the necklaces and golden nails. But as they were leaving the tomb, the snake crept out and killed them at once.
The next morning people tried to understand where those ten bodies had come from. But when they saw the things scattered around they knew who the dead men were and that an unknown force had punished their crime.
The things were put back in the tomb, and nobody dared to touch them in order to avoid being killed like the ten thieves. People threw their bodies from city walls into a dump where they were torn by vagrant dogs and birds.
At last, an old man prayed and took the remaining stolen things to put them back in their place. When he was leaving the tomb, its door suddenly closed and nobody could open it again. The poor old man was buried alive. They say he is still alive in the locked tomb. Angels chose him to keep order. But curiosity has no limit and people still come to the doors of the tomb and hear the silent words of a prayer.
Nobody went into Bibi-Khanym's crypt again. And thanks be to Allah! Why disturb the rest of righteous people?
Legend about Bibi-Khanym and the architect.
My respectable listeners! The divana (mad man) sitting in the street under an old mulberry tree reminded me of another forgotten tale of history. He sits on the pavement in the dust and dirt. He is admitted neither into a chaykhona (café), nor into noble society. He says he is a scientist and architect, but everybody can name himself as he wishes. He says that Bibi-Khanym was old when the great cathedral mosque in Samarkand was under construction! Madman! Bibi-Khanym was always young and beautiful, and everybody knows that. Her real name was Sarai-Mulk-Khanym, and she was Emir Timur's favorite wife. Would the world’s greatest conqueror love a silly old woman?
I shall tell you what is written in truthful annals. On the fourth day of the blessed month Ramazan 801, Emir Timur (May his soul rest in peace!) chose the best place in his capital to build the main mosque. Well-known masters, builders and architects were brought to Samarkand from the whole world and together designed and built this majestic building using big stone blocks.
However, urgent problems arose in the empire that forced Emir Timur to begin a new campaign. He could not live without wars! As he left, the conqueror did not know that he would not return to his capital for five years.
Sarai-Mulk-Khanym did not wish to upset her husband and decided to finish the mosque he dreamed about. The empress did not know when her husband would be back, therefore she hurried the construction. The workers toiled diligently day and night. Among them there was a young architect who was in charge of the project. He was the most talented architect in Timur's empire.
One day Sarai-Mulk-Khanym visited the building site. A playful breeze blew off her veil and the architect saw her incomparable beauty; even the moon could not compete with it. One look at her was quite enough to fall in love.
The architect, Muhammad, had come from Isfahan, where men knew and appreciated a woman's beauty. The best Eastern poets of love lived in Isfahan. Muhammad was amazed and captivated by Sarai's beauty. He felt sick with love and was not able to work any more.
The wisest tabibs (doctors) could not cure him. Muhammad did not eat or drink. He repeated her name in a painful fever. The construction stopped and very soon and the empress was informed of it.
Sarai-Mulk-Khanym came to the building area and asked the architect:
“What is your illness, young man?”
“I am ill with an incurable illness,” the architect whispered, “I am in love!”
“Yes,” Sarai-Mulk-Khanim said, “I know myself that this illness is not treated by medicine. Only the woman you love can save you. And who is she, my architect?”
“I love you, my empress!” exclaimed Muhammad.
“Well,” she said, “love makes you crazy! But know this, I love only my husband, and your torments are destroying the gift I am going to present him. My architect, I do not believe in such love that can hurt your own passion.”
Having said this she left the dying architect.
The next day Sarai-Mulk-Khanym was told that the architect was ready to continue his work, but asked her to come and talk to him. Sarai visited the building area every day, so she decided to see Muhammad.
“What do you need to continue the work?”
“I want you to give me one kiss, and for that I shall construct the best buildings in all four parts of the world.”
“You really have lost every crumb of your mind!” Sarai exclaimed in anger, “You think about vile things while building a house where people will be speaking to Allah!”
“You are right my empress,” the architect answered, “I may lose God's blessing forever, but I want just one kiss! I shall construct such buildings, that people all over the world will see how the Paradisemansion of Allah looks!”
Sarai-Mulk-Khanym thought about this deeply. She really wanted to give a truly majestic building to the husband. Sarai was afraid she would not have time to finish the main cathedral mosque in time for his return. It's just a kiss, she thought, and nobody will know.
“Listen to me, crazy slave.” Sarai-Mulk-Khanym exclaimed, “You are not worthy of this conversation. However, if you create a building that will make the sky "bite its finger" out of surprise, and make people know pastures of Heaven I will probably kiss you. But remember, I will check whether you are as talented and fast in your work as you say. Then I will kiss you through a veil, because I am married.”
After saying these words the empress left for the palace. The enamoured architect was captured with unprecedented pleasure. The construction continued, and Muhammad worked like a magic spirit. Within a day they did what had taken them a month before.
Soon people heard that Emir Timur was coming back from his campaign. The empress went to examine the construction of the cathedral mosque. The building amazed her so much that she could not say a word. The yard looked like a paradise garden and was built up with three mosques, portals and minarets that were so high, that one could touch the heavenly arch from their top. From the top of the main dome all the borders of Timur's empire could be seen. Colourful tiles, carvings and snow-white ghanch (plaster moulding) adorned the building and were a terrestrial embodiment of the divine verses left by God on the pages of the Koran. The flowers drawn on the walls of the mosques smelt like the flower beds in the Paradise garden. When Sarai-Mulk-Khanym was walking along the walls, the flowers bowed to her with love. The stars and the moon represented on the walls of the buildings were many times finer than natural ones which no longer appeared in the skies as they were ashamed of their own looks. But people did not notice this, because the beautiful creations of the architect shone above their heads day and night.
“Well,” Sarai-Mulk-Khanym said delighted, “only your mad love could be embodied in this magnificent beauty!”
“One kiss! Only one!” the enamoured architect exclaimed.
“Yes, you are worthy of this prize.” the empress agreed, “You may kiss my cheek now.”
The trembling young man kissed the empress with boundless tenderness through the veil of her cape. The heat of his enamoured heart was very strong. It burnt Sarai's cheek and left a sign on it.
The next day Emir Timur came back to the capital from his long campaign. All the city’s inhabitants met him and congratulated his army on their great victory. Relatives and friends showed their gifts and achievements to the returning heroes. Sarai-Mulk-Khanym decided to show her gift - the cathedral mosque.
Timur, together with his wife, visited the miraculous mosque. He tried to examine the mosaic and figures on the walls but a solar beam was blinding his eyes. The beam continued blinding him inside the mosque. He finally understood, it was not the sun that shone so brightly. It was a sparkling sign of a kiss on Sarai's cheek.
“What is this?” He exclaimed. “Whose lips have left it?”
Emir Timur returned to the palace and sent for his Vizir (prime minister). The Vizir was frightened and told him everything he knew: About the construction, Sarai, the architect and the kiss. Sarai-Mulk-Khanym repeated the Vizir's story and tried to convince Timur that she had done it to make the talented architect built the mosque faster.
Timur would listen to nobody. He ordered that the builders be killed, as well as the architects of the big mosque, and they were killed immediately. A few minutes later the executioners brought their heads to Timur's throne. Emir Timur looked at Sarai's cheek, then at the heads of the unfortunate builders and asked:
“Where is the head of the lips which left this sign? I do not see it among these slaves.”
The executioners counted the heads. Then the Vizir examined them and saw that the senior architect's head was not in the heap. The soldiers and executioners ran to the cathedral mosque again to catch the architect. Muhammad realized he could not avoid Emir Timur's anger. He climbed up to the top of the big dome, took the wings he had made of cane, and when the executioners approached he bravely jumped down.
A stream of the wind caught him up and carried above Samarkand. He made a farewell loop above Timur's palace, saying goodbye to Sarai. Everybody was surprised by the flying architect who shortly afterwards disappeared.
The escape of the architect angered the emperor much. Emir Timur ordered his army to search for Muhammad all over the world, instead of resting after their long campaign. Timur's army tried to catch the young man for a year, but could not find him.
A trading caravan came to Samarkand from far away China. Timur called the merchant and asked him to tell about the strange things and customs of far countries. The merchant told him about the many wonders of the world and then told him about the Chinese emperor who had initiated a big construction project.
“Master of the world!” said the mechant, “In the capital of China they are constructing a house, the grandness and beauty of which can compete with the Throne aivan (height) of God. That house is constructed by an ingenious architect who arrived one year ago on his wings from the skies!
“What?!” Emir Timur screamed, “That slave found his refuge in China? He will never build the house! I shall catch him myself and punish him adequately!”
The next day Timur's army left for a campaign against China. Timur took his grandsons, princes, ministers, wives and servants with himself. The emperor ordered Sarai-Mulk-Khanym to accompany him as well. Timur wanted her to see him conquering China and killing the impudent architect.
Oh how our plans differ from divine providence! God did not wish Emir Timur to reach China. In the noteworthy city of Turkestan the great conqueror finished his terrestrial life to the crying of the heavens and the howl of a blizzard (may God comfort his soul!).
Some years later Sarai-Mulk-Khanym opened the Book of Eternity to read the pages of Destiny. Her terrestrial ashes found their haven in the most beautiful madrasah built opposite to the cathedral mosque of Samarkand. It seemed that Sarai wanted to admire the beauty and greatness of this monastery of the prayers and aspirations of all righteous people. In memory of the empress the people named the mosque Bibi-Khanym.
Destiny wrote much in the book of life of the ingenious architect Muhammad whose love was stronger than the near fatal tortures. But that is another story...