Our supr-of-the-moment decision to take a side trip to Shakhrisabz turned out to be well worth the extra expense of $50 for the whole day. We met our taxi driver (as I was reminded after erroneously reporting our hotel arranged it) when we arrived at the Samarkand train station. He was waiting patiently well past the mob of eager drivers as tourists disembarked from the fast train from Tashkent. Pro tip…. never take the first driver offering a ride. Prices decrease considerably the closer to the road you get.
The road to Shakhrisabz (the ancient city of Kesh) from Samarkand takes travelers on a two hour trip back in time up and over the Tahtakaracha pass, the same mountain pass that was snowed in and prevented Amir Timur from being laid to rest in his home town. When Timur died in 1405 en route to his final campaign against Ming China, there was an immediate struggle to fill the power vacuum. Khalil Sultan viewed himself as successor and took power for four years, but the vast empire Timur had carved out of Central Asia and Middle East quickly fell apart. Timur’s youngest son Shah Rukh who had been ruling in Herat, modern day Afghanistan, entered the Timurid capital of Samarkand unopposed in 1409 to reclaim the throne of the empire.
Under the leadership of Shah Rukh the fragmented empire normalized relations with Ming China, and stabilized the line of succession ensuring that Timur’s grandson Ulugbek would continue the Timurid dynasty of power in Central Asia. Ulugbek, great patron of the sciences and the arts, astronomer and statesman, is also well known for the monumental works of architecture he commissioned throughout modern-day Uzbekistan. In Shakhrisabz, the Kok-Gumbaz Mosque was built by Ulugbek in honor of the memory of his father Shah Rukh. Built on the 10th century remains of an earlier structure, the mosque was completed in the year 1437.
The name Kok-Gumbaz means “blue dome”, and is the largest cathedral mosque in Amir Timur’s home town of Shakrisabz. Situated on the south end of the unnaturally manicured full kilometer of parklike memorial-complex in the historic center of the city, the Kok-Gumbaz mosque serves as the anchor for the Dorut-Tillavat Memorial Complex which also includes the 13th century mausoleum of a prominent Sufi religious figure, Sheikh Shamsiddin Kulol. So revered was the Sheikh by Timur that he had his own tomb built nearby, though he was never buried there. According to the kosch principle, the mosque was built to be in-line with the Shamsiddin Kulol Mausoleum. As a result, the mosque is not aligned with Mecca
The Kok-Gumbaz Mosque features an impressive 46 meter (150 ft) diameter dome covered in blue ceramic tiles. An inscription wraps around the interior of the dome which reads, “Sovereignty belongs to Allah, wealth belong to Allah.” The interior features rare, but well preserved depictions of palm trees, floral patterns, and geometric designs. As a whole, the memorial complex is contained within walls that today host souvenir stalls catering not only to the few international tourists that make the long journey here, but also to faithful pilgrims and the devout.
Travelers are advised to end their tour of Shakhrisabz at this monument, especially considering the heat of the afternoon sun which by this point becomes almost unbearable. The cool interior temperatures of this 500 year old architectural masterpiece offer sweet relief from the one-kilometer walk from Ak-Saray Palace through Amir Timur’s shade-less memorial park, and before the long drive back over the mountains to Samarkand.