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Shakhrisabz (75,000) is a small, un-Russified town south of Samarkand, across the hills in the Kashkadarya province. The town is a pleasant Uzbek backwater and seems to be nothing special - until you start bumping into the ruins dotted around its backstreets, and the megalomaniac ghosts of a wholly different place materialise. The modern highway to Samarkand overlies a much older route through the mountains to Samarkand, but though it was a well-situated trading post, it would never have come to tourist notice if it were not for the city's most famous son: the 14th-century emperor, Amir Timur. This is Timur's hometown, and once upon a time it probably put Samarkand itself in the shade. It's worth a visit just to check out the great man's roots.
The cities of Shakhrisabz and Termez, in Surkhan Darya and Qashqa Darya respectively, are both equally rich in history and provide an insight into Uzbekistan's past that is largely devoid of the gloss applied to Samarkand and Bukhara. It is for this reason that you can justify spending several days travelling south to visit them.
There has been a settlement here, in the upper reaches of the Qashqa Darya River, lor at least 2,700 years. The home town of Central Asia's foremost conqueror was the Sogdian town of Kesh when Chinese Buddhist traveller Xuan Zang passed through in the early seventh century. After the Arab invasion, it assumed the Muslim urban pattern, but fell into semi-dereliction during the Samanid period as Bukhara and Samarkand prospered.
The Mongols faced little resistance here in 1220. By 1336, the year of Tamerlane's birth, Kesh and its dependencies were ruled by the Barlas clan, Mongols of the Chaghatai khanate, turkicised by their long sojourn in the fertile Kashkadarya valley. It was a place of relatively little importance until the birth of Timur-i LengTimur was born on 9 April 1336 into the Barlas clan of local aristocrats, at the village of Hoja Ilghar, 13km to the south. Ancient even then, Shakhrisabz (called Kesh at the time) was a kind of family seat.
Tamerlane used his Barlas lineage to gather a band of followers with whom he progressed from sheep-rustler to lord of the valley by the age of 25. A decade of struggle later and he was lord of Transoxiana. While Samarkand was better suited to become the jewel of his empire, Tamerlane paid great effort to strengthen and beautify Kesh. As he rose to power, Timur gave it its present name (Tajik for 'Green Town') and turned it into an extended family monument. He fortified the town, enlarged his family burial ground and began to construct the fabulous Ak Serai (White Palace), whose magnificent gateway remains unrestored but virtually intact to this day. Most of its current attractions were built here by Timur or his grandson Ulugbek. The inner town was surrounded by high walls and a deep moat, crossed by drawbridge. The family cemetery was enlarged and, towering on a scale all its own, Tamerlane's White Palace took shape. Timur hoped to be buried in Shakhrisabz in a simple crypt but his relatives had other ideas and he was eventually interred in the sumptuous Gur-i Amir in Samarkand. Though Tamerlane's dynasty would crumble like the buildings he commissioned, Kesh took from its golden age a new appellation, Green Town, after the spring verdure of its many gardens.
Abdullah Khan of Bukhara destroyed much of the Timurid legacy in the late 16th century - local stories claim he was furious at losing his favourite horse from exhaustion on the approach to the city. Yet Shakhrisabz retained semi-independence from Bukhara into the 19th century, when it resisted Emir Nasrullah for over thirty years. On the ruler's surrender in 1856, Nasrullah abducted his recently married sister, only to have her executed beside his deathbed four years later. The city won a last decade of autonomy before General Abramov stormed it in 1870, to avenge an attack on a tsarist tax collector. The American diplomat Schulyer, visiting in 1873, found the city comprised two towns surrounded by one wall: Kitab and the larger Shaar, with 90 mosques and three madrassah. He noted his reception warmer than elsewhere; unlike Bukhara, slavery was never allowed and "from motives of humanity, they usually cut a man's throat before hanging him".
While the Soviet era brought great change to the people and appearance of Shakhrisabz, the town preserves a rich store of history in legend and architecture and enjoys a relaxed, thoroughly Uzbek atmosphere in its mosques, teahouses and winding mud lanes of traditional homes. Shakhrisabz celebrated its 2700th anniversary in November 2002.
Though Tamerlane built lavish mausoleums for his relatives, in Shakhrisabz he made himself but a simple crypt and, with his last breaths, requested: 'only a stone, and my name upon it.' Instead he lies beneath Samarkand's sumptuous Gur Emir and a giant slab of jade. A modern tribute stands across from the Hotel Shakhrisabz Orient Star in the form of a new imposing statue, raised in 2003. His wish for simplicity is fulfilled only at his birthplace, Khodja Ilgar village, where a small brick cairn quietly marks the entrance of the 'Terror of the World'.
Amir Timur dominates Shakhrisabz, and quite rightly so. Join the throngs of wedding goers in Amir Timur Park to have your photo taken with the modern bronze statue of the great man himself and, more importantly, to see what's left of the Ak Serai, his once mighty palace with its unrestored medieval tilework. Head then along the main street to the Dor at-Tilyavat and Dor as-Siadat for the Timurid mosque and family necropolis.
You can easily see all of Shakhrisabz as a day trip from Samarkand. There are a couple of sleeping options for those who want to linger and absorb the city's easy-going provincial vibe.
Shakhrisabz is 90km from Samarkand and the drive across the mountains takes around two hours and considerably more if there is snow on the pass. Minibuses between Samarkand and Shakhrisabz take two hours and require you to change at Kitab. They cost US$4 and leave from the long-distance bus stand.
Minibuses run directly between Tashkent and Shakhrisabz (8hrs; US$6). Shared taxis also operate this route; they're faster but about twice the price. To reach Bukhara, go first to Karshi and then change there. The total journey takes five hours (excluding waiting around for your connection) and costs US$12-13.
Once you've reached the city, Shakhrisabz is best explored on foot; all the major sites are within ten to 15 minutes' walk of one another along Ipak Yuli. Amir Timur Park and the Ak Serai are at the northern end of the road, the bazaar is in the middle, and the Dor at-Tilyavat and Dor as-Siadat are slightly further south. As you traipse between them you'll have the chance to take in the sights and smells of a place that wears its heritage lightly, entwining the past and present effortlessly.
"Let he who doubt our power and munificence look upon our buildings." Like the rest of Tamerlane's most grandiose project, this inscription survives only in part, yet the ruined entrance towers stand in monumental testimony to an age of power writ large on tiled canvas.
Following his capture of Kunya Urgench in 1379, Tamerlane dispatched its craftsmen to his home town to build his greatest palace, similar in structure to Samarkand's Bibi Khanum Mosque, begun twenty years later, but unparalleled in size and decoration. The name Ak-Serai (White Palace) symbolizes his noble descent, not the dominant colour, for blue, green and gold patterned the vast mosaics.
Ak-Saray was probably Timur’s most ambitious project, 24 years in the making, following a successful campaign in Khorezm and the ‘import’ of many of its finest artisans. It’s well worth climbing to the top of the pishtak to truly appreciate its height. It’s staggering trying to imagine what the rest of the palace was like, in size and glory.
Envisaging the scale and might of this structure today requires a little imagination. In their attempt to wipe out memory of the Timurids, the Shaybanids destroyed many of the original structures, leaving just 38m of the central gateway intact. This may not sound a great deal, but it still rises dramatically above the surrounding parkland and is visible from quite a distance.
Today visitors must conjure the whole from 38-metre high entrance towers and dazzling facades at the base of the arch or climb the eastern staircase to golden tiles and swallows' nests. The band of Kufic inscription on the east flank reads "The Sultan is the shadow of Allah [on earth]", while the west abbreviates to "The Sultan is a shadow". Perhaps the craftsman intentionally avoided symmetry-prohibited by the Koran-but legend has the easily insulted Tamerlane pushing him from the top of the masterpiece he had created.
A small section of Shakhrisabz's mud-brick city walls has been preserved just behind the gateway. Originally at least 8m thick and 11m high, and broken up with a tower or archway every 50m, they must have been an imposing prospect for any would-be invader.
The glory of Shakhrisabz, dwarfing all else, gleamed in dereliction above its own parklands. Here the White Palace of Tamerlane had stood on the caravan-route to Khorasan and India, and had left behind a gateway so immense that nothing -not even the Bibi Khanum - could equal it. Such buildings were expressions of political power. The terror and grandeur of their appearance was crucial, for few ever entered them, and their gateways, like awesome warnings or advertisements, were huger, more portentous, than anything inside.
it occupied a megalomaniac dimension of its own. It belonged among those dazing gargantuas of ruin - Karnak, Angkor, Baalbec - which might have been built by another species. Its central arch had long ago collapsed, but on either side a cylindrical tower merged into a nine-storeyed complex of buttresses and chambers, so that each jamb rose in a self-contained citadel 140 feet to a skyline of naked brick. The patina of tiles ripened as the entrance went deeper, edged in bands of peacock blue, packed with white script. Exposed for centuries, they hung precariously in veins of cobalt and gold high up - an inexplicable delicacy of calligraphy and flowers.
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron