In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Timurid Art and Architecture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Timurid Historiography
  • Anthologies and Edited Volumes
  • Primary Sources
  • Calligraphy
  • Drawing
  • Techniques and Contexts of Production

Art History Timurid Art and Architecture
David J. Roxburgh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0028


The Timurid dynasty (1370–1506) emerged from the confederation of nomadic tribes making up the Ulus Chaghatay in central Asia. In its political and social structure and cultural traditions, the Ulus Chaghatay shared much in common with the preceding regional political entity, the Chaghatay Khanate, first created by Genghis Khan in 1227, which endured until 1363 as one political unit of the Mongol Empire. The founder of the Timurid dynasty, Timur (b. c. 1336–d. 1405) (Timur-i Lang in Persian, Tamerlane in English), grew up within the Ulus Chaghatay and embarked on a series of campaigns in central Asia, the Middle East, and India. A final campaign was directed toward China, but was cut short when Timur died in 1405. While Timur supported many of the political institutions and traditions of the Turko-Mongols—like any other would-be leader Timur was forced to work within a preexisting framework endemically resistant to centralized rule and primogeniture—he was hampered by a line of descent that did not directly stem from Genghis Khan. To remedy this, he cultivated an enhanced bloodline by marriage to women of prestigious Genghisid descent and supported the institutions of Turko-Mongol society. Though his personal charisma and military acumen, as well as specific military tactics, closely emulated attributes and actions of Genghis Khan, Timur’s ambitions were different. Unlike Genghis Khan, Timur showed no interest in establishing permanent presence in the steppe lands of nomadic life, but set out to control the settled lands he conquered. To maintain power, Timur balanced the institutions and political symbols of the Turko-Mongol aristocracy of amirs, military commanders, against those of the settled populations with its bureaucratic, religious, and mercantile structures. Though some of his descendants enjoyed long periods of rule—Shahrukh (r. 1409–1447), Sultan Husayn (r. 1469–1506)—they lacked his strategic brilliance and faced internal challenges from various quarters. Buying favor, for example, through the abuse of the income-free grant (soyurghal) resulted in the depletion of state revenues. Over the 15th century, Timurid hegemony dwindled with a loss of territory to the ascendant Qaraqoyunlu (Black Sheep) Turkmen confederation and the Aqqoyunlu (White Sheep). Ultimately, the Timurid dynasty was eclipsed by the Safavid dynasty of Iran and by the Uzbeks of central Asia in the first decade of the 16th century. From the beginning, the Timurids used art and architecture to enhance personal and courtly life and develop urban infrastructure for the community and its constituencies. Art and architecture enhanced the prestige and legitimacy of the Timurid house in highly self-conscious ways. In forming these objects, buildings, and cultural programs, Timurid patrons were benefited by practitioners of various specializations (visual arts, architecture, literature, etc.) who forged new, innovative artworks and monuments by a studied engagement with past traditions. The collective achievement of Timurid art and architecture, its aura of artistic brilliance and cultivation, defined a new benchmark of excellence that was not lost on contemporary dynasties (Qaraqoyunlu, Aqqoyunlu, and Ottomans). Subsequent dynasties of Iran, central Asia, and India also reckoned with the Timurid achievement and worked through it to find their own artistic voice and dynastic expression.

General Overviews

Most introductory surveys of Islamic art and architecture devote chapters to the art and architecture of the Timurid dynasty. The essays in Blair and Bloom 1994 are among the best, and most engaging, synthetic treatments. Dealing only with the arts of the book and calligraphy, Habibi 1976 gives a good sense through its comprehensive presentation of the scope of artworks and the practitioners who made them (as well as some of their patrons), in a straightforward account of the culture of the book and literature. It is rare for an exhibition catalogue to define a field of study and to maintain its salience decades after the event it recorded has ended. But Lentz and Lowry 1989 succeeds in both. The exhibition assembled a wide range of artworks from the entire period of Timurid rule and explored them through a series of ideas and themes, organizing them under several paradigms that in many ways continue to define the scholarship today.

  • Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan M. Bloom. The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250–1800. Yale University Press Pelican History of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

    This survey of Islamic art and architecture includes two well-illustrated chapters devoted to the architecture and art of the Timurid dynasty. It is especially useful as an introductory text and for general readers because it highlights key artworks and monuments as well as important artistic developments and trends.

  • Habibi, ‘Abd al-Hayy. Hunar-i ‘ahd-i Timuriyan va mutafarra’at-i an. Tehran, Iran: Bunyad-i Farhang-i Iran, 2535 (1976).

    Introduction (in Persian) to Timurid-period arts of the book, calligraphy, and literature. Especially useful are the chapters devoted to calligraphy and bookmaking, and to Timurid manuscripts in collections and museums in Afghanistan. Appendices list names of artists and calligraphers of the period and canonical works of literature.

  • Lentz, Thomas W., and Glenn D. Lowry. Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century. Los Angeles and Washington, DC: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

    Seminal exhibition that spanned the full chronology of Timurid art and architecture, developed many of the organizing concepts that framed the material’s study for the following twenty years, and investigated the relation of Timurid artistic production to their dynastic forebears and the impact of their achievements on contemporary and later dynasties between Anatolia and south Asia.

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