About Uzbekistan

02 February 2018

While touring through Uzbekistan and planning your trip to Shakhrisabz it might be helpful to learn that the lesser known city was included into the UNESCO World Heritage List even earlier than Samarkand and there was a reason for that. If we would rate the ancient cities of Uzbekistan in terms of their sights and historical significance Shakhrisabz would undoubtedly be №4 (after Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva). Shakhrisabz may well be older than Samarkand and is best known as the small homeland of Tamerlane, who never lose touch with the home town even after getting to the top of power, having built a grand palace and mausoleum there. Nowadays this is a double city - actually Shakhrisabz (pop. 100,000) and Kitab (pop. 65,000), the second largest in Kashkadarya region in the corner of two mountain ranges.

The distance from Samarkand to Shakhrisabz in the direct line is about 50 kilometers, but to get there even by shared taxi will take at least for two hours since the road goes through the pass even though not too high by Asian standards. Kitab that is going to be first on the way is completely unattractive one-story town, the most important object of which is the Kitab international latitudinal station founded in 1928 in exchange for a similar station in Chardjou, which was ruined by the Civil War. There is also Shakhrisabz railway station, located at the junction of two cities, but this hardly can be a place of interest to tourists. Interestingly, the dead-end railway feeder from Karshi was built here in 1924, that is in the times of independent Bukhara Soviet People's Republic, where Shakhrisabz was one of the main cities.

The present Kitab was founded in the 18th century, and its name means not the "book" from Uzbek, but "shoulder of the river" from Tajik. Two cities existed as a double system from time immemorial, and their common ancestor was Gava Sugda, one of the centers of the Achaemenid Sogdiana, where Alexander of Macedon overtook the usurper Bessus ( also known as Artaxerxes V), who had previously killed King Darius III, for which he was executed by the order of Alexander in 329 BC. Under the Greek authority the city was called Nautaka, but it was not able to recover after the war and for the next hundred years it was emptied - now it is an ancient settlement Uzunkir, whose ancient cultural layers are almost 3000 years old. But in Central Asia life often flows from one city to another lying few kilometers aside, because the base units here are not cities, but oases: by the beginning of Common era in the place of the present Kitab there was already the city of Sukhe or Kesh, the center of a small but rich state from which the history preserved even the names of the kings: Dichje, Shish-Pir and Akhurpat. In 699 it was conquered by the Arabs, but this time not by Kuteiba who conquered Bukhara and Samarkand, but by the less famous commander Mukhallab - on the other side of the Zerafshan Range the soldiers of the Caliphate appeared only after several years. And at the end of the same century Kesh became the last stronghold of the insurrection of "people in white robes", followers of Muqanna, who claimed to be a prophet, and founded a religion which was a mixture of Zoroastrianism and Islam. But for Kesh it all ended very sadly: the city was reborn on the site of present Shakhrisabz in only a few centuries, the old place was empty until the 18th century, and the current Persian (Tajik) name of Shakhrisabz (that is translated as "Emerald City") gradually replaced Sogdian "Kesh" - just the language on which it was called so by that time was simply dead.

In 2016 the historical centre of Shakhrisabz underwent major refurbishment.

The third or fourth reincarnation of the city in the corner of the mountain ridges happened about a thousand years ago, by the 12th century it had again become one of the centers of Mavaaranahr, and after the invasion of Genghis Khan Barlas had settled here – they were the descendants of the Mongol guardsmen sent by Temüjin to his son Chagatai, who received these lands in his ulus. Barlas were quickly Turkicized, but the faces of locals is still completely Mongolian and they were very warlike people up until conquest by Russia. So, it's no wonder that Timur was born among Barlas in 1336 in the village of Khodja-Ilgar (present Yakkabag 12 km from the city), and was destined to become one of the greatest conquerors in history alongside Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. At the age of 25 he became the ruler of the Kesh region for helping mogul khan Togoluk-Timur, but a year later due to intrigues he fled to Kara Kum desert, where he met Samarkand emir Hussein, who was ousted by the same Togluk-Timur ... the further events we covered here. Nevertheless, Timur lost his connection with the homeland for a long time, passing through Kesh only during his military campaigns. 

On the north side of the historical centre the fortress wall is being restored:

Behind it, the gigantic portal of Ak-Saray - the White Palace, which Tamerlane began to build in his native land in 1380 only after his empire strengthened. He did not really live here as the construction was completed in 1404 and he died at the beginning of the next year. But was the palace built for this? In any guidebook you will read that above the entrance there was an inscription: "If you doubt our greatness - see our buildings." To assess the scale of the structure here is a small hint - there are people in this photo:

Tamerlane was a very vivid person and unlike the cold strategist Genghis Khan, he was somehow very human, with his impulses and passions. There are a lot of writings that Timur was not a great strategist, he led huge armies with the power of charisma and belief in invincibility, which inspired his warriors, and the correct decisions he mostly made on the spot - but that's why his strikes were always sudden. Power and cruelty combined with completely human passions in him - he named the giant mosque after his beloved but childless wife Bibi-Khanum, he started building the largest palace in the world not in the capital of his huge empire but in a small hometown. He had no plans to move the capital to Shakhrisabz, he just built his house here:

Ak-Saray had the largest portal in history of about 70 meters high and the perimeter of the yard alone (250 x 120 meters) was just under a kilometer. Behind the court, according to the Spanish ambassador de Clavijo, there was a throne room behind unusually high door (would be no surprise if it was dozens of meters in size), and on the roofs of the palace there was a pool, the water from which was pouring down by cascades of fountains. In general, the scale of the building is simply superhuman even by the standards of our days, and not wonder that and masters and slaves from all over the empire from Armenia to India labored to build it. The remaining towers have "only" about 40 meters, which is slightly lower than the Bukhara’s Minaret Kalyan ...

Moreover, unlike Bibi-Khanum, which started crippling apart spontaneously a few decades after Timur's death, Ak-Saray as it turned out was built to withstand centuries - it is believed that it was destroyed in the 16th century by the Bukharian Khan Abdullah II, the strongest of the Shaybanid Dynasty, who even tried to colonize Siberia. According to the legend, when he reached Shakhrisabz, he saw a gigantic building and having misjudged its scale decided that the city was very near, he sent there his best staffette, who as a result strained himself and died; according to another version, the Khan rode himself and drove his beloved horse to death, but in both cases, he ordered an evil palace to be destroyed out of mischief. Иге the more realistic version is that he demolished it deliberately to erase the memory of Timur, to whom he was just jealous of, besides the palace would have collapsed itself sooner or later - there simply was not enough resources in Uzbek khanates to support such a huge building ...

The decoration of Ak-Saray – not clear what is genuine (in those times they knew how to produce "eternal" tiles that were not faded with the time) and what is the result of the restoration.

Portal from the inside, which lost all the decor - there is also a monument to Timur in full length, clearly forming a triptych with a monument at Gur-Emir in Samarkand (where Timur is sitting on the throne) and in the central square of Tashkent (where he is on horseback) .

That’s how the square looks like after the restoration. 

On the other side of the square is the unpretentious Malik-Adjar mosque (1904):

On the left side is a huge madrassah Chubin or Koba (apparently, one word in different languages) of the 16th century, built on the foundation of the Timurid caravanserai, and therefore reminding it by its layout. The facade is clearly a modern replica:

huge madrassah Chubin or Koba (apparently, one word in different languages) of the 16th century

Madrasa from the inside: a wide courtyard, in the corner of which there is a khanaqa with a high dome. A local museum is housed here now.

... After Timur, Shakhrisabz remained a big, rich and, most importantly, wayward city – perhaps due to the glorious memory of a great countryman, or the warlike character of Barlas, but in the Bukhara Khanate people of Shakhrisabz have always been on their mind. After the turbulence of the 18th century, the dynasty of the Kenigas was established in the city, and the Bukhara emirs could no longer completely regain control over the semi-independent Shahrisabz. The culmination came in 1868, when the Kenigas Jurabek moved a considerable army (from 20 to 40 thousand soldiers) to Samarkand, where the Russian army left only a small garrison - possibly hoping not only to relieve the power of Bukhara, but also to seize Samarkand itself. As a result, the effect was strictly opposite: the Bukharian emir Muzzafar, realizing that he could not cope with the Russian army, concluded peace with Kaufman and threatened to move his own army to Shakhrisabz, after which Jurabek withdrew siege from Samarkand and moved forces back to defend his native city, which did not help - in 1870 the Russian army under the command of Alexander Abramov crossed the Zerafshan range and Shakhrisabz was taken by assault. Jurabek fled to Kokand where he was caught and handed out to the Russian administration, but in Tashkent he surprisingly quickly found a common language with recent enemies and served Russia faithfully to the end of his life, helping both to conquer the remnants of Turkestan and to further study the region until in 1906, already a deep old man, was not killed in his Tashkent house by thieves. Shakhrisabz, after the expulsion of Djurabek, in the same year of 1870 was returned to the Emirate of Bukhara, but the city lost its independence and turned into an ordinary town.

On the photo above the center of Shakhrisabz is also visible: the caravanserai and the market on the left, and the remains of the khanaka of the Abdushukur-Ogalyk madrasah and Mir-Khamid Mosque of the early 20th century with a spectacular black dome and beautiful, almost modern carvings:

On the photo above the center of Shakhrisabz is also visible: the caravanserai and the market on the left, and the remains of the khanaka of the Abdushukur-Ogalyk madrasah and Mir-Khamid Mosque of the early 20th century with a spectacular black dome and beautiful, almost modern carvings:

Opposite is the caravanserai of the 16th century:

Same caravanserai with a couple of mosques from the other side. In fact, there are not a lot of caravan-sarays survived until our days. Central Asian merchant hotels, which also served as "overseas" trade rows did not remain in their original form as much as this caravan saray, which still stands aside "in the open field", providing an opportunity to view it from all sides. It is hard to say what for were intended its high walls – to protect foreign merchants from local robbers or keep townspeople away from ideas from foreign lands ...

It is logical that where there is caravan-saray there should also be a bazaar, and on this place it is standing for over 500 years. In the vicinity of the mosque is an impressive Chorsu trading dome, very similar to the Bukhara covered markets and similar Chorsu in Samarkand. "Chorsu" means "four waters", apparently allegorical "Concourse", "Crowd". The trade domes that protect from any weather, but at the same time well-ventilated ones are one of the many technological know-hows of the medieval East. It is significant that the vast majority of them are of the 16th century - then they built in more scale and more reliably than in the Modern Times.

At the edge of the Old Town stand two most luxurious ensembles: Dorus-Saodat ("House of Power") and Dorus-Tillyavat ("The House of Reverence"). Behind bulldozers and excavators the latter is seen:

Same building form the other side, from the square, where refurbishment works had been completed. Behind the galleries of 40 small domes, Kosh-Gumbaz and Kok-Gumbaz of the 14-15th centuries look at each other – translated respectively as the Double Dome and the Blue Dome:

In the galleries there are cells that have become souvenir shops:

Kok-Gumbaz (1434-35) is almost a typical mosque of the times of Ulugbek, built on the site of the Friday mosque of pre-Mongol times:

The most beautiful thing in it is its interior decoration in some very local style:

The double dome is exactly opposite the mosque and is none other than a pair of mausoleums. The two of Tamerlane's "fathers" are buried under the dome to the left: one of them is his biological father Mohammed Taragay of the Barlas tribe and the other is his spiritual mentor Sufi Shamsuddin Kulal ("Potter"). The latter is often confused with Emir Kulal from Bukhara, they even count him as a member of Naqshbandi Order, although to which order Shamsuddin and Tamerlane himself actually belonged there is no exact information - perhaps it was Suhrawardiyya that was established in the same centuries in Baghdad.

The mausoleum of Shamsuddin Kulala initially had entrances from all four sides, but in the 1420s Ulugbek attached to it a mausoleum on the right side, intended possibly as one of the numerous tombs of the Timurid relatives, but eventually became a necropolis of local seids - the theologians-descendants of the Prophet.

Previously, there used to a third mausoleum adjacent to Double Dome, built in the 17th century and disassembled as an extra element during the restoration of the complex in 1954. Behind the mausoleums is the cemetery:

Not only did they put the tiles on the square, they also built a small sardoba (a semi-subterranean water cistern), apparently on the site of some found foundation.

And on the other side of the square are the remnants of the Dorus-Saodat complex, which was intended by Tamerlane as the main family burial vault, the posthumous Timurid palace, the size worthy of the Ak-Saray. The dome, however, belongs to the Khazret-Imam mosque built at the beginning of the 20th century:

Behind a grove of an old plane trees is a gate with a small minaret:

In the corner they sell souvenirs, including local embroidery: Shakhrisabz and Kitab are a major center of folk crafts, primarily embroidery and ceramics

A giant pylon closes from Dorus-Tillyavat the original construction of Dorus-Saodat - the mausoleum of Jahangir, the eldest son of Timur, who died in 1376:

The great conquerors were not lucky at all with elder sons. Genghis Khan at the end of his life was so angry with Jochi that he moved his army to his ulus, whilst Jahangir, Tamerlane's eldest son, simply died at the age of 20 years. The genius of the commander in Timur somehow got along with strong human passions, and according to the legends he really loved Jahangir. They say that from the day of the death of his son Timur never smiled until the end of his days, it is after the death of his son he was obsessed with the cruelty that entered in legends like towers from severed heads or horses stamping babies in the conquered cities. Having lost Jahangir, Timur made his grandson by his line Mohammed-Sultan a heir to the throne, but he also died before his father, and it was for him that Tamerlane erected the Gur-Emir mausoleum in Samarkand, where he himself now rests.

During his lifetime Timur built himself a sepulcher next to Jahangir, and since in those years the Timurid architecture had not yet taken shape, and the Samarkand architects had no experience in building giant buildings, he invited the masters from Khorezm, whose work is evidenced by the tent dome and general composition of "polyhedron on a quadrangle", subsequently through the Golden Horde borrowed by Russia as the basis for the appearance of Russian churches. Most of the buildings of this style are now in hardly accessible by tourists Turkmenistan, so we can only thank Timur for having erected a similar building here.

The door at the photo above leads into the underground crypt, which Timur left for himself. But as already mentioned, the Emir was buried in Samarkand, and a gigantic and heavy tombstone lies over an empty grave.

But what is striking in this crypt is simplicity and laconicism - so, the warlord who had spent most of his life in harsh campaigns should be buried:

And now appreciate that the mausoleum of Jahangir, and the burial vault for Timur, and all this foundation - all parts of the same building. From two crypts to each other in a straight line is 40 meters, that is the sepulcher itself was indeed larger than other palaces for the living.

Going back through the parallel streets of the mahallas, which are not particularly spectacular. But in these mahallas there is clearly a life, slightly different than in Samarkand, Bukhara or even Khiva. Shakhrisabz is still an ancient city with its character and essence, its own crafts and customs.

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