Shakhrisabz and the birth of a nation

Last modified 09.03.2022 | Published 13.06.20142010's, North, Central and East Asia, Travelogue, Uzbekistan

Est. reading time:

A nation was born in Shakhrisabz. This is rule number 1 in nation building: Go back in history and find an epic figure, mythical or real, and gather enough evidence of his exploits to rally a sense of national pride around him.

This is part of a series of articles from a journey to the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in June 2014.



Timur the Great (1336-1405), or Tamerlane, was in fact not a mythical character, nor were his accomplishments meagre. He managed to conquer large parts of Asia and created the royal dynasty called the Timurids. And he was born here, right here in the rather obscure town of Shakhrisabz – once known as Kesh.

We are in Uzbekistan, roughly 80km south of Samarkand and on our way to Bukhara, two of the greatest cities on the Silk Road.


Timur and the World Heritage Site

He was born here (actually in a village outside), he made Samarkand his capital, but built his largest palace in his home town. Timur was a home-grown hero of present-day Uzbekistan. The country has over the last decades put up an enormous effort to restore the cities of its days of glory, the ones that became immensely rich from about the 13th century and for the next 2-3 hundred years.

At the centre of the nation building process is the highlighting of Timur’s importance. They have rallied the support of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee into making Shakhrisabz a World Heritage Site. The authorities are in the midst of developing the city centre into a presentable place. Streets are being made wider at the cost of former residents who, according to our guide, had been given new housing elsewhere. And so on.

In Uzbekistan the official language is Uzbek and Islam is the predominant religion. As a result of Russian domination since the late 19th century, and Stalin’s forced migration policies (to mix ethnic groups) and weird drawing of borders, there is also a number of Russians, Koreans (!), Kazaks, Tajiks and others living here.

The Uzbeks constitute around 85% of the population. I would hope that the sense of national pride, and the nation building process that has been expanding since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, does not come at the expense of majority repression. There is a danger though, for “Uzbek” is very much the name of the game. Uzbekistan has also been involved militarily with its former Soviet neighbours, behaving quite aggressively.


The Aq-Saray Palace

Timur’s great palace, the Aq-Saray Palace, is however not much to boast of. It is a shadow of its former self. The story goes that the emir of Bukhara destroyed the city after the fall of the Timurids. Anyway, the palace today consists of the remains of a 65m high gate with these words on: “If you challenge our power – look at our buildings!”

The gate is impressive, and I have no doubt that the restoration effort will make a lot more out of it. I am only concerned about how much free fantasy will be employed in the effort. Hopefully UNESCO will keep an eye on how things develop.

Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo was the Spanish ambassador to Timur. He passed through the region on his way to Samarkand. According to this source, this is how he described the palace in 1403.

“From this main portal of the courtyard just described you enter a great reception hall which is a room four square, where the walls are panelled with gold and blue tiles, and the ceiling is entirely of gold work. From this room we were taken up into the galleries, and in these likewise everywhere the walls were of gilt tiles.

We saw indeed here so many apartments and separate chambers, all of which were adorned in tile work of blue and gold with many other colours, that it would take long to describe them here, and all was so marvellously wrought that even the craftsmen of Paris, who are so noted for their skill, would hold that which is done here to be of very fine workmanship.”

The other important attraction is this:


The Kok Gumbaz Mosque

This mosque was built as a Friday mosque by the great Ulugh Beg, king in the Timurid dynasty. It contains a mausoleum as well.


And the rest?

Well, we were on the way from Samarkand to Bukhara, and made only a short stop here. There was a market across the street from the mosque which looked genuine and interesting, but we had unfortunately no time for it. There is also another mausoleum built for Timur, but he was buried in Samarkand instead.

The drive from Samarkand to Shakhrisabz and on to Bukhara was quite interesting. Samarkand is situated on a large plain south of which rises a mountain range, quite impressive as well. Beyond the mountains there were more plains, quite dry but occasionally a river would cut across the land providing a source for irrigation activities.


A visit in 1403

Let me again quote what the Spanish ambassador wrote in 1403, about 611 years before I arrived:

“(Kesh) stands in the plain, and on all sides the land is well irrigated by streams and water channels, while round and about the city there are orchards with many homesteads. Beyond stretches the level country where there are many villages and well-peopled hamlets lying among meadows and waterlands; indeed it is all a sight most beautiful in this the summer season of the year.

On these lands five crops yearly of corn are grown, vines also, and there is much cotton cultivated for the irrigation is abundant. Melon yards here abound with fruit-bearing trees in the adjacent orchards.”


Back to my visit

We made a stop at a roadside farm, and so did other tour groups, and met this lady. Gold teeth are quite common in Uzbekistan, in fact it is the fashion even today. Young people even deliberately crack their teeth in order to put on a gold tooth or plate the old one.

Notice the building this lady is standing in front of. Adobe style, made of mud and straws – an ancient technique of course.

That aside, the bus ride to Bukhara was quite alright. The main roads were not bad, the smaller roads are not very good and there are small villages and farms everywhere. From here on, and for the next few days going west, there would be only flat plains and deserts.

Later we would return east to the mountains of Tian Shan and Pamir, where snow and rain becomes the mother of all life on the plains of Central Asia. That’s in chapter 7 of this travelogue.


The map

This is part of a series of articles from a journey to the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgizstan in June 2014.

On the map below Leg 1 goes from Tashkent (A) west to Khiva (E) in Uzbekistan. Then a flight back to Tashkent (A) before Leg 2 to Bishkek (F) in Kyrgyzstan.


Read more

The chapters:

(1) In search of the ancient Silk Road

(2) The monumentalism of Tashkent

(3) The road to Samarkand

(4) Shakhrisabz and the birth of a nation

(5) The Emir of Bukhara and the lost camels

(6) The magnificent oasis of Khiva

(7) The fertile Fergana Valley

(8) Nomadic life on the mountain passes of Kyrgyzstan

(9) Bishkek and the valley of Ala Archa

In addition the World Heritage Committee has appointed five sites on its list. The following article is my special entry from Shakrisabz.

WHC List #0885 – Historic Centre of Shakhrisyabz


Images from this day