The curse of Taimur that gave Joseph Stalin grief

Was it for real? Or was it, like the curse of the Pyramids, merely a set of eerie coincidences?

 |  3-minute read |   24-12-2016
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By now, of course, everybody seems to know all about Taimur – or at least they think they do. But there are many things about the Mongol king that people don’t know. And one of them is the famous curse of Taimur.

In 1405, Taimur, who had created an empire that extended all the way to Turkey and Iran in the West, turned eastward to invade China, but he died along the way. His body was embalmed and brought back to Samarkand, his capital, where it was ceremonially buried. Over the centuries, however, the exact location of his tomb was lost.

In 1941, Joseph Stalin sent the eminent Russian anthropologist, Mikhail Gerasimov, to exhume Taimur’s body in order to do a scientific study of it, and to create a replica of what he looked like in real life, based on the contours of his skull. When the local people of Samarkand heard about this Russian plan, they were terrified, and warned Gerasimov’ steam of anthropologists that there was a terrible curse attached to Taimur’s grave. The Russian anthropologists, of course, dismissed this as superstitious mumbo-jumbo.

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taimurtomb2_122416050744.jpg Today, Taimur’s tomb — the Gur-i-Amir — now extensively restored, still stands at Samarkand, where it is an important tourist attraction.

On June 19, 1941, the anthropologists finally located Taimur’s grave, based on historical clues, and they broke it open and exhumed his body, still smelling of the exotic fragrant oils that he had been embalmed with four centuries ago.

When they broke open the grave, the anthropologists also found a strange curse inscribed inside. The wording of the curse translated approximately as:

  • "Whomsoever opens my tomb
  • shall unleash an invader
  • even more terrible than myself."

The anthropologists naturally ignored this curse as more medieval superstition, removed Taimur’s body and took it back to Moscow for their research.

Three days later — on June 22, 1941 — Hitler launched his surprise attack on Russia, and began the unprecedentedly bloody invasion that would cost an estimated 30 million Russian lives.

As the Germans advanced unstoppably, Gerasimov reportedly became worried about what they may have inadvertently unleashed by exhuming Taimur’s body, and he tried to send a message to Stalin.

Finally, in the winter of 1942, he managed to get through to Stalin, and Stalin, himself a deeply superstitious man, arranged a special aircraft in to fly Taimur’s body back to Samarkand, where they decided to give it a reverential re-burial.

Thus, in November 1942, Taimur’s body was re-buried, and the tomb was carefully re-sealed. A few weeks later, as it happened, the tide of the German invasion suddenly turned, when the Russians managed to snatch a victory at the Battle of Stalingrad. (According to one apocryphal version, the aircraft carrying Taimur’s remains from Moscow back to Samarkand had deliberately taken a major detour over Stalingrad along the way.)

Today, Taimur’s tomb — the Gur-i-Amir — now extensively restored, still stands at Samarkand, where it is an important tourist attraction.

But what about the so-called curse of Taimur?

Was it for real? Or was it, like the curse of the Pyramids, merely a set of eerie coincidences, combined with overactive human imaginations?

That, ultimately, is up to you to decide.

But it’s interesting to recall that an eminent scientist like Mikhail Gerasimov who, having first dismissed talk of the curse as superstitious mumbo-jumbo, finally decided that it might be prudent not to mess around with the unknown, and to quietly re-bury Taimur, with all the necessary rituals and rites.

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Anvar Alikhan Anvar Alikhan

The writer is an advertising professional and social historian

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