The Curse of Tamerlane

On 16 June 1941, a group of scientists – led by anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov – began excavating the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Their expedition had horrible consequences for Russia and the whole world… So goes the infamous legend of Timur’s curse.

Gur-e-Amir was the resting place of Tamerlane, a Turko-Mongol war commander and the founder of the Timurid Empire. Tamerlane is one of history’s most feared conquerors, whose death toll is said to be as high as 17 million.

Forensic Recreation of Tamerlane by Mikhail Gerasimov (1941).

Timurid’s empire stretched from Russia to India, from the Mediterranean to Mongolia. On his final days of glory, he was set to conquer China’s Ming Empire. His campaign came to an abrupt halt, due to one of history’s most severe winters. In 1405, Tamerlane died of influenza in Otrar, Kazakhstan. He was 69 and had 35 successful years of constant campaigning behind him.

Gur-e-Amin in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photo by Wiggum (2006).

Curse of Tamerlane

During excavations, Mikhail Gerasimov and his team were unaware of the curse of Tamerlane, which was issued as a warning on his tombstone:

“When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble”
“Whosoever disturbs my tomb will unleash an invader more terrible than I am”

– Tamerlane

Knowing the excavation team was there, there was panic among local Uzbeks. They feared a war would commence three days after Timur’s tomb opened, as prophesied in several Islamic books. In fact, some of the local Uzbeks tried to warn the expedition’s cameraman, but to no avail.

Opening of the Tomb

The leaders of the expedition – Tashmuhammed Kari-NiyazovMikhail Gerasimov; a poet Sadriddin Aini; and an orientalist, Semyonov – first opened the tombs of Ulugh Begh’s and Timur’s sons, Miranshah and Shahrukh. After they were positively identified, their bones were placed in a box for further investigation.

On 18 June the tomb of Ulugh Begh – Tamerlane’s grandson and a the famous astronomer – was opened.

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Finally, on 19 June the time had come to focus on Timur’s tomb. Because Joseph Stalin had personally commissioned the expedition, it was impossible to not proceed.

First, the team had to remove the cover stone from the grave. They discovered that the stone was broken, which corresponded with the legend from the 17th century that the Persian King, Nader Shah – who idolized Timur – had taken his tombstone as a trophy. It is said that, immediately after taking Timur’s stone, Shah experienced great misfortune. In an effort to restore his fate, Shah attempted to return the stone to Samarkand, and accidently broke it along the way.

On 20 June, the team opened the coffin and found Tamerlane’s skeleton inside.

Great Patriotic War

On 22 June 1941 – two days later – Nazi Germany attacked Russia. History’s most horrifying war followed, seeing Russia lose a total of 26.6 million men and women.

And Timur’s curse came to being: Hitler was a more terrible invader than himself.

Fortunately, the course of the war began to change in November 1942. The Soviet Union managed to stop the Germans at Stalingrad, and Operation Uranus was a success that turned the tables for the Allies.


Mikhail Gerasimov With the Forensic Recreation of Ivan the Terrible

It was later learned that, in November 1942, Stalin had ordered the remains of Tameralne to be returned to Samarkand and reburied with full honor, according to Islamic tradition.


Tamerlane’s tomb (black) today



All stills from the Russian documentary “Strange Affairs. The Curse of Tamerlane.” (Странное Дело.Проклятие Тамерлана.)

Wikimedia Commons


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