This river too was frozen solid like all the others we had crossed…but now the men were tired and cold. A thousand little fires sprang up beside the river with men pushing and shoving to get close. It didn’t help the frostbitten faces and smarting eyes. My lord had found a new foe…winter. This was no war, it was a personal duel and some said that no matter how many fell, he would not call a halt.
But here at Otrar, still months away from China, winter had forced him to stop. There were rumors that he was gravely ill. He had taken refuge in the palace of Amir Beg, one of his underlings. This is where the guards were taking me. The strapping Uzbeks prodded me forward with their spears. I was not worthy of their respect. For not only am I a prisoner, but also an infidel, an Armenian Yehudi…a jew.
This was hardly a palace , lowly court officers lived in better dwellings in Samarkhand. How my lord would have hated to be housed here!
I had last been in Temur’s presence months back . The wrinkled figure that lay shivering in his own sweat looked a ghostly shadow. Nobles and court physicians crowded around him.
“ Why does he summon the Yehudi?” someone whispered.
I went to his bedside and bent low. His booming voice was reduced to a whisper. I had to stoop till my ear was near his face. He suddenly clutched at my tunic with both hands. I was in a sweat myself. I’d never been so close to the emperor. He had shooed the others away. His words were to be private. Blood splattered spittle coated his beard.
“ I’m dying…Yehudi…I know it. I’ve been good to you haven’t I?
His eyes still retained their customary fire.
I was on my knees trembling in his weakening grasp, transported instantly to my native city…Sivas. Thousands buried alive, the blackened streets, the pyramids of heads. Just another typical Temurid conquest. He had slaughtered many but spared me as he did all artisans who could be put to use in his beloved Samarkhand. I had been never more grateful for the magic that resides in my hands. And may God forgive my vanity, but I was the best engraver and calligrapher in all the lands.
“ I need your art….your last task. Engrave a phrase on my tomb….something to warn posterity , to keep those who dared not touch me while I am alive from defiling me when I’m dead. I know there are many who are waiting to settle scores. The words should keep the robbers of tombs away …forever. Make the words terrible and the engraving beautiful. For if my eternal
solitude is disturbed…….I will seek vengeance …from your people…no …all humanity!
The effort was too much, he fell back and with a spluttering sound his bowels voided and the great Temur lay back gasping on his befouled furs.
They hurried me out, swathed me with blankets and found me a good horse and an escort. I had to be kept safe till I reached Samarkhand . I was in a daze as we took the frozen road to Temur’s capital .
He was dying. I couldn’t believe it . Temur the terrible, the scourge of Asia, demon to some , emperor to others….dying!
I didn’t know what to feel. I’d been a captive for too
many years and he was my master.
‘Make the words terrible and the engraving beautiful’ he had said. And that was my lord, terrible and beautiful at the same time. Ruthless killer and ardent
patron of the arts. And besotted lover of his Samarkhand. The city like a greedy mistress had sent him out again and again to conquer more and more. And now he was dying, far from his beloved with no hope of seeing her ever again.
I buried my hands deeper into my blanket. They must be preserved for the task ahead. Though I had never been allowed to carve sacred lines from the Koran, Temur was secular when it suited him . He had me work on the arch at Chinar gardens and his blue palace. The better cut inscriptions extolling the virtues of the emperor were all mine.
The responsibility was overwhelming. What could possibly be inscribed on my master’s tomb to stay the hand of mankind from touching his grave….forever. That’s what he had commanded and I believed him ,his wrath was horrible enough to strike out from the great beyond. But it was not wrath alone for what
I’d just seen in my master’s eyes was…fear. Those eyes seemed to mirror his life’s work, dozens of burnt cities, hundreds of thousands of slaughtered humans and untold misery . The great lord was scared of what lay on the other side, just like any of us. He was a follower of Allah but still nomadic enough at heart to dread the after life and believe in charms and curses. His ancestors, mongol chieftains , had been extremely secretive about their burial places. The secrets were preserved on pain of death. None of their burial sites had ever been discovered. However the Islamic tradition to was to make burials grand, to celebrate greatness or sometimes bestow it by way of pomp and show. Clearly my master was torn between the two loyalties coursing through his blood. And had chosen ….both!
The beards of my fellow riders were frosted over but the chill I felt in my bones was not just from the
cold. I had to ensure that generations to follow were safe from Temurid savagery, the kind that I had seen inflicted on my people and others.
The walls of the magnificent city were in my sight when I got the inspiration. I would use the archaic Uzbek script. I loved it’s stylized appearance, it’s whorls and loops. For a moment a doubt crept in. Would commoners readily understand it? May be I could engrave a second line…a translation. YES!
That’s how I’ do it. And I would use the name of my lord as a threat to all. For what could be more terrifying than Temur himself?
**** **** **** **** ****
I moved towards the heart of the structure into the dark interior of my lord’s last resting place. Hundreds of workmen were occupied in the frantic construction. I made my way to the onyx tiled wall to the spot where koranic inscriptions encircled the wall.
There just above the tomb itself was my work, standing out in it’s sheer artistry. I was now ready to etch out the translation, the second line. Mahmoud Isfahni the royal architect saw me and made his way across the hall .
“ Yehudi….you were commissioned to work just one line. The rest of the wall space is needed for other inscriptions. Gather up your tools and be gone!”
I did not even protest,my protection had died with my lord . Isfahni is a sheikh and I’m still a slave. Before he could really lose his temper…..I was gone.
**** **** **** **** **** ****
Brigadier Igor Antonov took another sip of the over sweetened tea and sighed. It was going to be a long wait.
He stood up from the solid block of masonry and stretched himself up to his full six foot two. They had been camping in Samarkhand for days ,right in the middle of the old quarter , the Registan, in full view of
the cupola of the Gur –e- Amir , the mausoleum of Temur. He had been lucky to wangle a place in the team of the great archeologist Mikhail Gerasimov himself.
Though a full time army man, archeology was his passion and this trip had exceeded all expectations. The
methods of Dr. Gerasimov were a revelation. He was impressed with the way the doctor had researched his subject, history’s greatest mass murderer,the barbarian Temur and then gone about finding his way around the ornately carved façade to reveal the actual tomb of Temur in crypt.
The body had been exhumed and was to be taken to Moscow. Tufts of red hair confirmed the myth of the barbarian’s ‘ blazing countenance’. Dr. Gerasimov wanted to verify that Temur had really been lame and
was related in lineage to that other great Mongol….
Chengez Khan .
The expedition was at an end. Every thing recovered from the area of the tomb was neatly catalogued and packed in wooden cases to be sent to the museum in Moscow. The work was done, all the loose ends covered. All except one that is. The blue and white tiles around the tomb had verses from the Koran cut into
them but just above the other Islamic mosaics , was one line engraved deep and darker than the rest in a beautiful form. Trouble was nobody…not even their expert on Uzbek languages could decipher that script.
It had taken them days to find someone who could
figure it out. It was apparently the ancient Uzbek script, very rare and so old that it had become obsolete even in Temur’s time. They were still in there trying to crack that one line. He was ready to ignore it and walk
away but not Dr. Gerasimov. The doctor was not leaving till it was over…and only the doctor decided when that was.
He lit a cigarette and flipped open a newspaper .It was a copy of the Pravda dated the 20th of june, the papers reached these provinces a couple of days late. It was the same story, crop failures and purges ordered by comrade Stalin…they were targeting the
army top brass now. Stalin’s insecurities were ruining the Red Army. Nobody knew when the goons would arrive to pack one off to Siberia.
He threw down the paper in disgust.
The other reading material at hand was a Red Army study on the comparative performance of tanks. Igor commanded a brigade of T-30 Russian tanks based in the Ukraine. Soon he was absorbed in the report. The
study concluded that though the Russian T-30 was a match against the British Sherman it was woefully inadequate compared to the German Tiger tank. The
report was worrying and Igor was still thinking about it when Dr. Gerasimov walked up with the Ukranian translator and his staff.
The beaming faces told him that they had successfully deciphered the phrase atop Temur’s tomb. One of the assistants held out a sheet of paper. It read….. ‘A fate worse than me will befall anyone who dares disturb me.’
Only later did Igor realize that the coldness in his chest
must have been a premonition. He looked at the other faces…not one registered worry. He read the lines again. Temur had clearly said….A fate worse than me …and not mine. The menace was unmistakable. Why couldn’t the others see it?
The far off sound he had been hearing became an engine beat. They all looked in the direction of the road
and around the mound of rubble appeared a goggled and helmeted figure on a motorcycle. The dispatch rider leapt off the bike and came to attention in front of Igor. He held out a dirt stained message sheet.
“ Urgent message from Moscow, Brigadier.”
Igor was puzzled . His leave was good for another week.
He tore open the envelope.
22nd June 1941
To Brigadier Igor Antonov,
Rejoin your unit with extreme ..repeat extreme urgency. German army formations have attacked across the whole front. Two divisions of Tiger tanks reported to be heading towards your unit .
Army Headquarters, Moscow.
Igor read the message again and sat down …stunned. The lines seemed to blur. Only one message stood out clearly.
“A fate worse than me..” Temur had said.
**** **** **** **** ****
note: Hitler’s attack on Russia codenamed ‘Operation Barbarossa’ killed 25 million people . The highest
casualty figure in any war in history. The Soviet government finally decided to bury Temur’s body back in the mausoleum at Samarkhand. Coincidentally, their fortunes started improving from that moment on.