The Memoirs of Babur Shah

Scientific Essay 2012 18 Pages

History - Asia



The "Memoirs of Babur" or Baburnama are the work of the great-great-great-grandson of Timur (Tamerlane), Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (1483-1530). As their most recent translator declares, "said to 'rank with the Confessions of St. Augustine and Rousseau, and the memoirs of Gibbon and Newton,' Babur's memoirs are the first--and until relatively recent times, the only--true autobiography in Islamic literature." The Baburnama tells the tale of the prince's struggle first to assert and defend his claim to the throne of Samarkand and the region of the Fergana Valley. After being driven out of Samarkand in 1501 by the Uzbek Shaibanids, he ultimately sought greener pastures, first in Kabul and then in northern India, where his descendants were the Moghul (Mughal) dynasty ruling in Delhi until 1858.

The memoirs offer a highly educated Central Asian Muslim's observations of the world in which he moved. There is much on the political and military struggles of his time but also extensive descriptive sections on the physical and human geography, the flora and fauna, nomads in their pastures and urban environments enriched by the architecture, music and Persian and Turkic literature patronized by the Timurids. The selections here--all taken from his material on Fergana--have been chosen to provide a range of such observations from the material he recorded at the end of the 1490s and in the first years of the sixteenth century. It should be of some interest to compare his description of Samarkand with that of the outsider, Clavijo, from a century earlier.

This translation is based on that by Annette Beveridge, The Babur-nama in English, 2 v. (London, 1921), but with substantial stylistic revision to eliminate the worst of her awkward syntax. I have chosen to use Beveridge's indications of distances in miles rather than confuse the reader with the variable measure of distance provided in the original. An elegantly produced modern translation is that by Wheeler M. Thackston, The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor (Washington, D. C., etc., The Smithsonian Institution and Oxford University Press, 1996). I have consulted Thackston and occasionally used his readings and renderings of the place names where the Beveridge translation was obscure. I would warn readers that my editing of the text has been done in some haste; further work would be needed to improve the style and standardize usages.

Interspersed in the text are illustrations, some being contemporary views of places Babur describes; the others (which may be enlarged by clicking on the thumbnails) [illustration not visible in this excerpt] taken from the miniatures of an illustrated copy of the Baburnama prepared for the author's grandson, the Mughal Emperor Akbar. (The title page is here on the right.) It is worth remembering that the miniatures reflect the culture of the court at Delhi; hence, for example, the architecture of Central Asian cities resembles the architecture of Mughal India. Nonetheless, these illustrations are important as evidence of the tradition of exquisite miniature painting which developed at the court of Timur and his successors. Timurid miniatures are among the greatest artistic achievements of the Islamic world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The main sections of what follows may be accessed directly by clicking on them in the Table of Contents. At the end of each section, clicking on the symbol [Ü ] returns one to the Table of Contents.

Table of Contents:

1. Description of Fergana.
2. Description of Samarkand.
3. Babur leaves Kesh and crosses the Mura Pass.
4. Babur takes Samarkand by surprise, July 28, 1500.
5. Babur in Samarkand.
6. Ali-Sher Nawa'i, the famous poet.
7. Babur leaves Samarkand, July 1501.
8. Babur in Dikhkat.
9. Shabaq (Shaibani) Khan's campaigns; winter conditions and mountain springs.
10. The acclaiming of the military standards according to Mongol tradition.
11. Babur's poverty in Tashkent.


SECTION I. FERGANA. [illustration not visible in this excerpt]

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.

In the month of Ramzan of the year 899 (June 1494) and in the twelfth year of my age, I became ruler in the country of Fergana. [The miniature shows his enthronement.]

[Description of Fergana]

Fergana is situated in the fifth climate and at the limit of settled habitation. On the east it has Kashghar; on the west, Samarkand; on the south, the mountains of the Badakhshan border; on the north, though in former times there must have been towns such as Almaligh, Almatu and Yangi which in books they write Taraz, at the present time all is desolate, no settled population whatever remaining, because of the Moghuls and the Uzbeks.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fergana is a small country, abounding in grain and fruits. It is girt round by mountains except on the west, i.e. towards Khujand and Samarkand, and in winter an enemy can enter only on that side.

The Saihun River commonly known as the Water of Khujand, comes into the country from the northeast, flows westward through it and after passing along the north of Khujand and the south of Fanakat, now known as Shahrukhiya, turns directly north and goes to Turkistan. It does not join any sea but sinks into the sands, a considerable distance below [the town of] Turkistan.

Fergana has seven separate townships, five on the south and two on the north of the Saihun.

One of those on the south is Andijan, which has a central position and is the capital of the Fergana country. It produces much grain, fruits in abundance, excellent grapes and melons. In the melon season, it is not customary to sell them out at the fields. There are no pears better than those of Andijan. After Samarkand and Kesh, the fort of Andijan is the largest in Mawara'u'n-nahr (Transoxiana). It has three gates. Its citadel (ark) is on its south side. Water flows into it [illustration not visible in this excerpt] by nine channels, but, oddly, flows out by none. Round the outer edge of the ditch runs a gravelled highway; the width of this highway divides the fort from the suburbs surrounding it. [The miniature illustrates Babur's siege of Andijan in 1499.]

Andijan has good hunting and fowling; its pheasants grow so surprisingly fat that rumour has it four people could not finish one they were eating with its stew.

Andijanis are all Turks; everyone in town or bazar knows Turki. The speech of the people resembles the literary language; hence the writings of Mir 'Ali-sher Nawa'i, though he was bred and grew up in Hin (Herat), are one with their dialect. Good looks are common amongst them. The famous musician, Khwaja Yusuf, was an Andijani. The climate is malarias; in autumn people generally get fever.

Osh is southeast-by-east of Andijan and about 33 miles from it by road. It has a fine climate, an abundance of running waters and a most beautiful spring season. Many traditions have their rise in its excellencies. To the southeast of the walled town lies a symmetrical mountain, known as the Bara Koh. On the top of this, Sultan Mahmud Khan built a retreat and lower down on its shoulder, in 902 AH (1496), I built another with a porch. Though his lies the higher, mine is the better placed, the whole of the town and the suburbs being at its foot.

The Andijan torrent goes to Andijan after having traversed the suburbs of Osh. Orchards lie along both its banks; all the Osh gardens overlook it. Their violets are very fine; they have running waters and in spring are most beautiful with the blossoming of many tulips and roses.

On the flank of the Bara-koh is a mosque called the Jauza Masjid (Twin Mosque). Between this mosque and the town, a great main canal flows from the direction of [illustration not visible in this excerpt] the hill. Below the outer court of the mosque lies a shady and delightful clover-meadow where every passing traveller takes a rest. It is the joke of the ragamuffins of Osh to let out water from the canal on anyone happening to fall asleep in the meadow. A very beautiful stone, with wavy red and white patterns, was found in the Bara Koh in 'Umar Shaikh Mirza's latter days. Knife handles, clasps for belts and many other things are made from it. For climate and for pleasantness, no township in all Farghana equals Osh. [Osh and its region were open to invasion through the mountains from Kashgar. The miniature shows Abubekr Duglat, the ruler of Kashgar and Khotan, attempting unsuccessfully to take Uzgend, northeast of Osh, in 1494.]

Some 47 miles by road to the west of Andijan is Marghilan, a fine township full of good things. Its apricots and pomegranates are most excellent. One sort of pomegranate, they call the Great Seed ; its sweetness has a little of the pleasant flavour of an overripe apricot and it may be thought better than the Semnan pomegranate. They dry another kind of apricot and after stoning, stuff it with almonds. They call it subhani, and it is very palatable. The hunting and fowling of Marghilan are good: white deer [sheep?] are had close by. Its people are Sarts, boxers who are noisy and turbulent. Most of the noted bullies of Samarkand and Bukhara are Marghilanis. The author of the Hidayat was from Rashdin, one of the villages of Marghilan.

Another town is Isfara, in the hill-country more than 65 miles by road southwest of Marghilan. It has running waters, beautiful little gardens and many fruit-trees although for the most part, its orchards produce almonds. Its people are all Persian-speaking Sarts. In the hills some two miles to the south of the town, is a piece of rock, known as the Mirror Stone. It is some 10 arm-lengths long, as high as a man in parts, up to his waist in others. Everything is reflected by it as by a mirror. The hill country of Isfara district has four subdivisions--one Isfara, one Vorukh, one Sokh and one Uchyar. When Muhammad Shaibani Khan defeated Sultan Mahmud Khan and Alacha Khan and took Tashkent and Shahrukhiya, I went into the Sokh and Uchyar hill-country and from there, after about a year spent in great misery, I set out for Kabul.



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Title: The Memoirs of Babur Shah