In the ancient city of Kesh, just 100km to the south of Samarkand, stand the remains of Timur’s summer palace. On the ruins of the impressive gateway the phrase “If you challenge our power – look at our buildings!” can still be made out. The Ak-Saray Palace, ironically, is nothing more than a crumbling ruin today, but the remnants of Timur’s impressive legacy across Central Asia still standing speak volumes to the might of the once great Timurid empire. His architectural masterpieces in Samarkand, Bukhara, and beyond, are still awe inspiring to visitors more than seven centuries later.
The birthplace of Amir Timur, Hoja Ilghar, is just 13km to the south of modern Shakhrisabz. Timur chose the city as the location for his “White Palace” which at the time was one of the major cities of Central Asia. Today the population is just around 75,000 with a remnant historic center that attempts to maintain some of its original character despite half of it being recently bulldozed to make way for an expanded Timur themed memorial park connecting all the historical landmarks of the city. The city itself, it seems, was not deemed worthy of preservation.
Approaching from the north, the direction of Samarkand, the suburbs give way to the remains of the old city wall. Rising behind the wall is the only remaining piece of Ak-Saray, the spectacular 35m (115 foot) tall ruin of the palace gatehouse, half its original size. The distance between the two gatehouse towers stretches 50m (164 feet) wide which was until 200 years ago spanned by the largest archway in Central Asia.
The scale of the palace was apparently so impressive that Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, Spanish ambassador to the court of Timur in 1404, left a detailed description of it. Scholars and archaeologists were able to use his account, along with extensive excavations, to estimate the main courtyard of the palace alone was at least 125m wide and 250m long, exceeding 30,000 square meters in area. Contemporary descriptions of the palace indicate the interior courtyards were richly landscaped with fruit trees, pools, and fountains, maintaining a pleasant park-like atmosphere and cool microclimate even
during the brutal Uzbek summers. Shaded alcoves with tile floors provided cool comfortable waiting areas for those awaiting an audience with the king.
The most recent guidebooks will tell you that the crumbling palace blends seamlessly with everyday life in Shakhrisabz, unlike the disneyfied Samarkand. Unfortunately our visit in October 2015 was too late to appreciate this ancient silk road aesthetic. The crumbling gatehouse of the hometown palace of the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia is now the anchor of his memorial park.
In the center of what once were the palace grounds now stands a new statue of Timur. Unprotected from the sun, visitors linger just long enough for a picture before making their way to the city’s other Timurid monuments. It’s considered good luck to have wedding pictures taken in front of Timur so don’t be surprised to see several wedding parties congregate for obligatory photos before moving on.
Nothing remains of the White Palace except the remnant gatehouse. The recent landscaping “improvements” made to the park around the palace do at least achieve the goal of making the ruin look more impressive. Gazing upon the shimmering trademark blue tiles and unrestored mosaics, visitors can imagine how grand this palace must have been when the Spanish envoy passed through these gates 700 years ago. Walking a full kilometer through the expansive modern park beyond, passing the statue of Timur en route, you can also visit the tomb the great conqueror had built for himself, only to be interred instead in Samarkand.