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xEurasia Odyssey

Central Uzbekistan Cities: Shakhrisabz, Birthplace of Timur the Great

UZBEKISTAN | Tuesday, 27 August 2013 | Views [1571]


Shakhrisabz: Birthplace of Timur the Great


This was the place where Alexander had Bessus, the Governor, killed because he had murdered his own ruler, Darius III.  As the Macaedonean leader wasn’t successful in conquering the Sogdian people, he married Roxanna to cement the bond between the two cultures in nearby Sarazm, which is now in Tajikistan.


At one time the city was surrounded by a wall with 7 gates and a moat. Shakrhisabz major claim to fame today rests in the fact that this was Timur’s birthplace and he built his Palace here along with what he had planned to be his mausoleum. The Ak Sarai Palace was begun in 1380 and finished in 1404.Only the portal of the Palace and a hamam remain standing. Today reconstruction work is taking place on the facings and decorations of the remaining walls. Blue turquoise tiles were found off to the left and current craftsmen cannot reproduce the bright colors of the Timurid period.  It is seemingly a lost art.  On many of the buildings we have seen it is quite clear which is the reconstructed part, i.e, the faded tiles, and which the original, i.e., the vibrant times. Blue turquoise became the national color symbol for peace and wealth in the 11th C and the Timurids used it extensively in their constructions.


The original cupola was 40m high, the pistok (entrance arch) was 60 m; 50m + 10m for the arch and cupola.  The minarets were 72m. The architect was from Khorasam (Khiva region) and after surveying the ground decided that it wasn’t safe to build a structure as large as Timur wanted.  To save himself, he hung a chain from the top of the dome, and ran away.  He snuck back regularly to take measurements on how much slippage there was in the foundation via the length of the chain.  After two years worth of measurements, he came back and wanted to resume work, but Timur had him imprisoned.  Once he was able to explain to the ruler why he left and what he was doing, he was allowed to continue work on the palace.

 All the turquoise decorations one sees today are original, the yellow spaces would have been filled with gold, but that was stolen long ago.  Suras are inscribed on the inside, as is Timur’s saying: “If you doubt our power, look at our buildings!” 

 The columns on either side of the pistok are split by an octagonal design close to the bottom and the typical round style above.  The octagonal style was only otherwise used at Bibi Khanym’s Mosque in Samarkand.

 When entering the palace one would go from the outer courtyard through the pistok to an inner courtyard complete with fountain followed by the main meeting hall.  Behind the meeting hall were the residential rooms with guest housing.  The entire palace and courtyards were covered with the blue turquoise floor tiles found at the site. Water for the complex was brought from the mountains.  The irrigation system was apparently quite good. In the mountains open canals were built for the water to flow to the city and once it passed by the city walls it was carried through a pipe system.  The Palace area covered 10% of the town’s 10 hectares.  The remaining 9 hectares were for the local population.  There were a number of villages outside the city walls & when invaders arrived the villagers sought protection in town.  The city was sealed when the drawbridges at each of the gates were up. 

 In the 17th C when the Emirite of Bukhara was founded the people of Shakhrisabz didn’t want to join him, so he destroyed the city.  The second time it was destroyed was 1740 when the Iraninan, Nader shah, came. He took the doors from the palace back to Persia before leveling the city.

 Further into the city lies a double complex of mausoleum and mosque w. 15th C minaret.  The Dorut Tilovot is the double domed mausoleum of the Siads. The Saids were descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. The Saids came to Shakhrisabz via Kabul during the Samanid period. They were dervishes who never earned money and promoted moderation in all things. Entombed inside is Timur’s father’s mentor, Shamsiddin Kulal, who was a follower of the Naxbandi order that contrary to the earlier Saids preached: “think of God, keep God in your heart, and work for your living.” He was also considered to be able to foresee the future as he predicted Timur would be a great ruler when he was an infant. The Uzbeki Emirs always had spiritual mentors, who they honored in this life and afterwards. Timur honored both his father and his father’s mentor with the mausoleum.

 There is a wall of cells for pilgrims who visit the Saids tombs on the perpendicular side to the double complex. We saw women praying at the foot of Kulai’s tomb and kissing it while we were there. While revering saints is strictly prohibited in Islam, in Central Asia it appears that many of the earlier traditions sense of worship still prevails, including circling the object of veneration three times. Even the Rulers tried to be buried near the Saids as that way they were closer to the Prophet and hence to Allah. Three types of Saids came to Central Asia: the missionaries, the traders, and the jihadists (military intent on converting everyone). The tombs are from the 10th c and the inscriptions illustrate the biographies of the said.  The four stones are original and many people put water through a hole in the fourth one wait for the imam to say prayers, then retrieve the now blessed water, which is said to be good against tuberculosis.  All of the decorations are from Ulugbek’s era.

 Shakrustan, a follower of Naxbandi, is buried in the tomb room adjacent to Shamsiddin Kulal.

 The Samanids built a mosque sometime during the 10th C, but Ghenghis Khan destroyed it. Timur ordered it rebuilt, but construction was delayed and it wasn’t until Ulugbek that the building was completed.

 The Dorut Saudat is the Blue Mosque, which was destroyed by the Russians in the late 1800s as it was the site for revolutionaries to gather.  The Soviets started to rebuild it and used plaster for acoustical purposes.

 The last mausoleum we visited was the one Timur had originally intended for his entire family, before deciding to have them entombed in Samarkand.  His eldest son, Guhangir who died after falling from his horse is buried here as he died before the change of plans. Timu chose the site because it was a garden and he wanted his family to be in Paradise. Trees were planted in 1390 and three are still growing. Timur’s originally intended tomb is off to one side and underground. The inscription on the sarcophagus says”The world is a caravansarai & we are the guests.” He chose not to use this one as it wasn’t big enough or impressive enough. Nonetheless, it is in perfect condition and the one he chose has had to be reconstructed a few times.  Once his son was buried here, Timur  sent 20 sheep to be sacrificed for the souls of his son and his father each week; the meat was distributed among the people of Shakrisabz. The architect was from Khorasam and used the conic style common for that region, which makes it unique in this one. Inside there are also representational tiles with trees and palms, which was only on the niece’s tomb in Samarkand, nowhere else. 

In the small museum I found a couple of charts that Kamola translated for me about the administrative and governmental structures during Timur’s time.  He needed an organization to run the empire while he was out fighting and conquering.  His dynasty’s organizational structure looked something like the following:










                                         Prime Minister/Vizier






Military Vizier;  Financial Vizier                                          Tax/Land collector,   Religious Vizier


                                                Palace Vizier




                        Primary Advisor                                    Secondary Advisor


                        Treasurer                                    Minister of Culture


                        Scribe/Record keeper                        Comptroller


                        Musicians                                    Harem


                        Messangers                                    Doctors








                        Miltary                                                Secular


                                     \                                    /




                                    /                                    \


                        Soldiers                             |                        Sharia Law




                                       Local Administration


The country had been ruled by Sharia law from the 7th C. to the 1920s. After Independence there was a question of whether the country would follow Sharia law or be a secular country.  The President insisted on the latter, but created a religious structure unique to UZ, the Mufti Organization.  There is one central Mufti (Pope) and all the Imams in the country report up to him. He offers the commentaries on the sacred documents. The muftis have their own offices in each region where the local imams report to them. The principle behind this structure came from earlier times when the ruler would have a spiritual advisor, Imam.


The local Shakhrisabz office of the mufti is in the garden of the mosque by Timur’s mausoleum.


This is a city that today is defined by Timur the Great.  He is the native born national hero.  He was a warlord and conqueror, but he did have a sense of beauty for his buildings even if they are on the grandious magnatude of the Romans.









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