Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan, 2 October 2018.
(Click on any image to see it in a larger size.)
In the distance, about a kilometre away, is what is left of Timur’s Ak Saray Palace.
In the middle is a statue of Timur (Tamerlane), who was born here and was local governor at the age of 25. Behind Timur you can see what appears to be two tall buildings. They are the remains of the monumental entrance arch and reach only about half of the original height (!). Beyond that is the top of a section of the city wall.
I used a very long telephoto, the full-frame equivalent of 525mm and also cropped a little. Perspective compression means Timur’s statue appears much closer to the background structures than it really is. The city wall is also further away from the remains of the arch than it seems.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
(from Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
There is now little to see of Kublai Khan’s summer capital of Shangdu (Xanadu) in Inner Mongolia, visited by Marco Polo in 1275 and described by him in 1300, because remaining materials were pillaged for buildings in a nearby town. The “pleasure dome” Coleridge refers to was a portable bamboo construction and there was also a richly decorated marble palace. This was all on a grand scale but it is an open question how well Shangdu in its prime would have compared with Timur’s Ak Saray Palace in Shakhrisabz in its prime.
Come to think of it, Timur claimed kinship to Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan. (To be precise, he claimed his great x8 grandfather was Genghis’s great x3 grandfather and Kublai’s great x5 grandfather). Timur had quite conceivably read about Shangdu which was sacked by the Ming Army only a year before the start of his reign. He may therefore have had a specific aim to outdo Shangdu. He did want Ak Seray to be the greatest palace of all time and it was on a much grander scale than anything he created in his capital city, Samarkand.
We didn’t actually walk that kilometre down to the remnants of the arch; instead we drove down and are now walking towards it from the other side. This is taken with a wide angle lens, the full-frame equivalent of 21mm, and I’m much closer than the previous image, so the perspective is quite different. You may need to click on the image to see it larger, but the statue of Timur is still in view though now appears much smaller and further away, and in the distant middle right is the blue dome of the Kok-Gumbaz Mosque, near where I took the previous image.
The surviving towers are 38 metres high and you can just see the start of the curve of the inner arch. That’s impressive enough, but the original interior arch was 70 metres high and the towers were 80 metres high. That’s equivalent to a 25-story building. Beyond that, just the inner courtyard was 125 metres wide and 250 metres long. The buildings on each side were two stories high and faced with blue, gold and green tiles and at the end was the grand reception hall. The palace is likely to have included “a mosque, a courtyard for public audiences, a courtyard for private audiences, Amir Temur’s private quarters, a courtyard and a garden of Harem, a sauna, a courtyard with a library and a school, a farmyard with stables, buildings for guards and a kitchen“.
Construction started in 1380 using 50,000 involuntary workers. The arch was finished in 1395 but the palace wasn’t entirely finished in 1404 when Castillian ambassador Ruy Clavijo visited. If the decorations were as sublime as in the mausoleum of Shamsidden Kulol that we saw in the previous post, built by Timur from 1373 to 1374, then it would have been impressive indeed.
The space between the two pillars looks wide and open, for anyone to walk through, but that’s not how it would have been. Obviously, it would have been possible to restrict entry though events on a massive scale would also have occurred. There was a wall around the palace as well as another around the city, and there would have been a gate under the arch and much of that space would have been enclosed. Apart from what remains, the palace was destroyed by Abdullah Khan, ruler of Bukhara, at the end of the sixteenth century.
With a very long telephoto lens, I took photographs of details of the tiling on the pillars as I was walking in. These decorations are unreconstructed, as efforts so far have focused on ensuring structural integrity.
There are even some residents….
Here we have Timur, in the middle of his largely vanished palace, staring out and contemplating how little remains. It reminds me perhaps of this image of Lenin at Pyramiden from this post, or perhaps this image of a moai contemplating the environmental costs of mankind at Easter Island as described in this post.
Perhaps this is the image where we may really get a feel for the monumental scale of what remains of the entrance arch and by inference of the palace that once lay beyond.
There is an inscription on the remains of the arch “If you challenge our power – look at our buildings!”. Though there is no mighty head lying around, this is in turn somewhat reminiscent of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias:
…”And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
There’s not much left of some of the tiles.
One last look at the remains of the lower half of the entrance arch from a different angle.
And here is a glimpse of the city walls, very little of which remains, unlike Khiva.
We continue on our journey to Samarkand, 80 kilometres to the north.
There is a spring beside the road.
I don’t remember the details but I recall there’s something sacred or legendary about the water here.
And a small market at roadside in a mountain pass….
… and from here we travelled on further towards Samarkand….
In the next post I was about to segue seamlessly to Timur’s mausoleum in Samarkand but I have discovered a post from Bukhara I forgot to publish, so that will come first.