"Let he who doubt our power and munificence look upon our buildings." Like the rest of Tamerlane's most grandiose project, this inscription survives only in part, yet the ruined entrance towers stand in monumental testimony to an age of power writ large on tiled canvas.
Following his capture of Kunya Urgench in 1379, Tamerlane dispatched its craftsmen to his home town to build his greatest palace, similar in structure to Samarkand's Bibi Khanum Mosque, begun twenty years later, but unparalleled in size and decoration. The name Ak-Serai (White Palace) symbolizes his noble descent, not the dominant colour, for blue, green and gold patterned the vast mosaics.
The slave artisans of Khorezm and Azerbaijan were still at work in 1404 when Spanish ambassador Clavijo passed, wide-eyed, between 65-metre high towers, flanking a portal arch 40 metres high and 22 metres wide, into a marble-paved courtyard 100 metres wide, enclosed by two-storeyed arcades. Beyond another ornate gateway was Tamerlane's domed reception hall, "where the walls are panelled with gold and blue tiles, and the ceiling is entirely of gold work". Clavijo's tour continued through "marvellously wrought" chambers and a banqueting hall for Tamerlane's wives to a garden of fruit trees and water pools, ideal for summer days of mutton, horse flesh and wine. "It is the custom with the Tartars to drink their wine before eating, and they are wont to partake of it then so copiously and quaffing it at such intervals that the men soon get very drunk. No feast we were told is considered a real festival unless the guests have drunk themselves silly." According to Clavijo, the rear courtyard was 300 paces wide (in all an estimated 1.6ha) and the reception halls were painted azure blue and richly gilded. It must have been quite a sight.
Ak-Saray was probably Timur’s most ambitious project, 24 years in the making, following a successful campaign in Khorezm and the ‘import’ of many of its finest artisans. It’s well worth climbing to the top of the pishtak to truly appreciate its height. It’s staggering trying to imagine what the rest of the palace was like, in size and glory.
Envisaging the scale and might of this structure today requires a little imagination. In their attempt to wipe out memory of the Timurids, the Shaybanids destroyed many of the original structures, leaving just 38m of the central gateway intact. This may not sound a great deal, but it still rises dramatically above the surrounding parkland and is visible from quite a distance. Unlike many of Uzbekistan's other historic sites, to date very little restoration work has been done here, and UNESCO's current project seems to focus, quite rightly, more on shoring up the building than touching up its magnificent (albeit time-ravaged) tile work. This approach enables you to appreciate what is original and what is a modern interpretation of the site, far more so than is possible in Samarkand. This crumbling relic blending seamlessly with everyday life will thrill critics of Samarkand’s zealous restoration efforts.
Immediately in front of the gates is Shakhrisabz's new statue of Amir Timur. It's big, it's brash and it probably looks nothing like the man himself, but every bride and groom in the vicinity, plus their inebriated entourages, are clamouring to have their photos taken alongside. If you stray too close, expect to be enveloped into the fold and to have a glass thrust into your hand: foreigners are popular additions to wedding photographs, it seems, even if you've previously never met. It’s not uncommon to see 10 weddings at a time posing here for photos at weekends, creating quite a mob scene.
Today visitors must conjure the whole from 38-metre high entrance towers and dazzling facades at the base of the arch or climb the eastern staircase to golden tiles and swallows' nests. The band of Kufic inscription on the east flank reads "The Sultan is the shadow of Allah [on earth]", while the west abbreviates to "The Sultan is a shadow". Perhaps the craftsman intentionally avoided symmetry-prohibited by the Koran-but legend has the easily insulted Tamerlane pushing him from the top of the masterpiece he had created.
A small section of Shakhrisabz's mud-brick city walls has been preserved just behind the gateway. Originally at least 8m thick and 11m high, and broken up with a tower or archway every 50m, they must have been an imposing prospect for any would-be invader.
For those with a head for heights, a ride on the Ferris wheel behind the park gives panoramic views across the walls and a unique perspective on the Ak Serai site.
The glory of Shakhrisabz, dwarfing all else, gleamed in dereliction above its own parklands. Here the White Palace of Tamerlane had stood on the caravan-route to Khorasan and India, and had left behind a gateway so immense that nothing -not even the Bibi Khanum - could equal it. Such buildings were expressions of political power. The terror and grandeur of their appearance was crucial, for few ever entered them, and their gateways, like awesome warnings or advertisements, were huger, more portentous, than anything inside.
it occupied a megalomaniac dimension of its own. It belonged among those dazing gargantuas of ruin - Karnak, Angkor, Baalbec - which might have been built by another species. Its central arch had long ago collapsed, but on either side a cylindrical tower merged into a nine-storeyed complex of buttresses and chambers, so that each jamb rose in a self-contained citadel 140 feet to a skyline of naked brick. The patina of tiles ripened as the entrance went deeper, edged in bands of peacock blue, packed with white script. Exposed for centuries, they hung precariously in veins of cobalt and gold high up - an inexplicable delicacy of calligraphy and flowers.
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron