Samarkand to Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan

The ruins of Timur’s “White Palace,” Ak-Saray

Formerly known as Kesh or Kish (“heart-pleasing”) and “the Green City” and more than 2,700 years ago, Shahrisabz is one of Central Asia’s most ancient cities. Zokir at Silk Road Destinations had arranged for our first full day “in Samarkand” to be spent on a daytrip to Shahrisabz. Despite the lure of mystic Samarkand, I wasn’t disappointed. I’d been listening to an audiobook biography of Timur (a/k/a Tamerlane) during our travels and this trip to his birthplace and original capital intrigued me. We know about Ghengis Khan in the west, but we don’t learn much (if anything, at least in American schools) about Timur who ranked with Alexander the Great in conquests. Timur ruled a vast empire stretching from modern-day India to Iran to Russia with its heart in Uzbekistan. Never defeated, he is a figure of national pride in modern Uzbekistan despite the bloodthirsty methods and ruthlessness of his times. He killed or enslaved millions, demanding surrender and fealty and dealing mercilessly with those who opposed him.

Our driver Umid drove us and our guide, Amin, south out of Samarkand. We stopped at a small roadside parking lot with a big billboard for a 1973 German movie called “Apachilar” (Apache) which was filmed on the rocky hillside just above us. A few souvenir stalls offered snacks and trinkets reflecting the movie. Distinctive rock formations mark the area, particularly a large one with a heart-shaped opening that featured in the film and is now covered in graffiti and visited by Uzbek lovers of the movie. Umid and Amin seemed a little disappointed that we’d never seen the movie, apparently not thinking that Americans are more likely to watch American westerns filmed in, well, the American West. We climbed up to the signature rock to admire sweeping views of the hazy valley ahead, declining the offer to pose for photos of a gap-toothed faux Apache in straight black wig and fake buckskins. Apparently, roadside kitsch is a thing the world over.

We passed over low mountains to get to Shahrisabz, pausing at a high point for a dramatic view towards the city before continuing on. Manicured grounds and wide walkways lead to the main site, the ruins of Timur’s spectacular Ak-Saray Palace. [top photo above] Although once covered in colorful tiles and topped by blue domes, it was also known as the “White Palace” because of the way it looked in the moonlight to caravans approaching. Construction of the White Palace began in 1380. Only remnants of its gigantic 72 meter gate-towers survive, parts still adorned with intricate blue, white and gold tiles. Above the entry of Ak-Saray are words meaning: “If you challenge our power – look at our buildings!” The message, the ruins and the large statue of Timur nearby called to mind Shelley’s poem Ozymandius.

We walked through the gates and palace ruins to the Timur statue, down a wide walkway flanked by more garden greenery towards the mausoleum Timur had built for his eldest son. Beyond the greenery on either side, large empty hotels and restaurants lined the way. The Uzbek government had been so excited to promote a Timur-focused Shahrisabz as a tourist destination and UNESCO-designated history site that they razed a two-kilometer, 70-hectare swath of medieval residences that once surrounded the palace ruins and were also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The destruction began in 2014 and continued despite some attempts to stop hotel construction. The modern construction replacing the medieval “mahalla” districts including the broad boulevard, parking lot and long plaza were described by UNESCO as a “modern theme park with tourist kiosks.”

A bridal couple at the Timur statue on a portion of the wide green area that now replaces the old medieval mahalla districts

Clearly the “if we build it, they will come” attitude of the Uzbek government did not pan out. It was sad to see that the destruction of a historical area resulted only in empty buildings and scattered vendors with few customers in sight. The Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), an intergovernmental organization to promote development, trade and investment opportunities in Asia, has selected Shakhrisabz as its tourism capital for 2024, so maybe that will help boost business.

En route to the mausoleum, we dropped into the gallery of Aziz Akhmedov, artist and historical architect. For his thesis, he created a masterpiece model of the White Palace with intricately placed miniature tiles to mimic the work and research he has done on the real palace. He proudly told us about his years of study of Ak-Saray, pointing out the details of his maquette. Many of his paintings adorned the walls and we ended up buying one depicting a caravan camped at night outside a city.

Aziz Akhmedov’s model of the White Palace gates in their prime

The Hazrat-i Imam mausoleum complex contains the Dorus-Saodat, the tomb Timur had built for his eldest and favorite son, Jehangir, who died in battle in his twenties. When his second son, Umar Shaikh, also died young before the tomb of his half-brother was complete, Timur planned to buy Umar Shaikh there as well but the location of his actual interment is lost to time. The small adjacent mosque is said to house the tomb of a revered 8th century imam, too, and was busy with worshippers on the Friday we visited.

Behind the Hazrat-i Imam is a bunker with a door leading to a small underground chamber, discovered by archaeologists in 1943. One stone grave occupies most of the space and inscriptions indicate that it was intended for Timur, but he was buried in Samarkand. When opened by the archaeologists, this tomb was found to contain two unidentified corpses.

From Hazrat-I Imam, we walked back across the wide green space leading to the White Palace, past a wide pool and between long hedges of lush green and purple basil. Women gardeners were trimming the hedges and the smell of basil filled the air. Basil is used to flavor ayran, a popular drink made from sour milk, spring water and herbs, and sold from carts in the area. Our guide, Amin, assured us the drink is refreshing and cooling on a warm day, but we passed on sampling it. As we approached the large Kok Gumbaz Mosque / Dorut Tilovat Complex we could hear the singing of prayers. This “Friday mosque” was bustling with worshippers who overflowed the mosque to fill a large terrace. The mosque, capped by a large blue dome, was built in 1437 by Ulugh Beg (Timur’s grandson and a great astronomer and mathematician) in honor of his father. Behind the Kok Gumbaz Mosque is a lovely tiled mausoleum built by Ulugh Beg as well, but never used for burials.

Beyond the pool are basil hedges lining the walkway to Kok Gumbaz Mosque/Dorut Tilovat

Just as we finished up our time in Shahrisabz, services at the mosque let out and it was a traffic free-for-all (of mostly white Chevrolet sedans) in the parking lot. Amin managed to coordinate by phone with Umid who had been waiting for us and we jumped in as soon as he pulled up to avoid provoking more horn blasts in the melee.

Even though it was already early afternoon, we all agreed that it made no sense to try and fight the after-mosque hordes for a spot at a restaurant in town and Umid had a place in mind back up in the mountains anyway. We enjoyed a leisurely meal lounging on a mountainside topchan, the fresh mountain breeze a welcome respite from the heat in Shahrisabz.

Topchans at our lunch restaurant

Afterwards, Umid drove us to another such spot he’d shown us video of days before. This restaurant was a little more downmarket than our lunch spot, but still pleasant and absolutely packed with diners. Umid told us the restaurant cooked 100 lambs per day, 200/day on holidays! The lamb carcasses are butchered on site and marinated overnight with local pine and spices, then cooked four at a time in big clay tandoor ovens. The lambs are hung on hooks in the woodfired ovens, which are then covered with cloth and packed with dirt. Once again, it seemed Umid had friends everywhere. He took us behind the scenes to watch the cooking, pulling off a crusty piece of meat for us to try. It was delicious! When he suggested we buy some to takeaway for a meal in our hotel room with one of my birthday wines, we jumped on the idea.

Tandoor ovens covered with cloth and packed with soil while the lambs cook

While we waited for our order, we walked up to a dining deck and saw lots of topchans there and at other levels down the mountainside, full of diners or people napping between meals. Umid said this place was well known and people from Samarkand liked to spend the day here, arriving for breakfast and never leaving, just lounging an sleeping on a topchan until it was time for another meal. Judging by what we saw, he got this bit of local information absolutely right.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.