Photographer: Pavel Gospodinov/Getty Images
Photographer: Pavel Gospodinov/Getty Images

Visit This Ancient City Before It Collapses on Itself

Shakhrisyabz, Uzbekistan is the site of the Temurid Empire’s summer palace; it has endured war, earthquakes, and flooding. It might not survive the tourists.

The silk road city Shakhrisyabz in what is now southern Uzbekistan reached its cultural and architectural peak in the 14th and 15th centuries, when Amir Temur, founder of the Temurid empire, chose it as the site for Ak-Saray, his massive summer palace.

At the time, the city (pronounced shah-ree-shabz) was one of the main hubs of the most expansive military power in the world, with an empire stretching from the Mongolian steppe to modern Turkey. Temur’s palace reportedly had a pool and fountain on its roof, with towers more than 230-feet tall. 

Today, only the palace’s monumental gates remain, but they’re accompanied by an elaborate funeral complex built for Temur and his family that includes a mosque, prayer hall, and tomb. For the last 500 years, these unparalleled examples of Islamic architecture and design have survived dozens of wars relatively unscathed. What might bring them down, finally, is a combination of urban sprawl and neglect.

Tourism, also, is a point that stands out in a 2016 Unesco report (PDF): “Old residential areas, historic urban layers and buildings from the 20th century have been demolished and replaced with tourist kiosks and a modern ‘theme park,’” it reads. “These interventions have brought about irreversible changes to the original appearance of the historic centre of Shakhrisyabz, the setting of the architectural monuments, and the overall historical town planning and traditional houses. ”

The organization has been chronicling the city’s decay since 2000, when it was declared an official Unesco World Heritage Site. After an inspection in 2002, the organization found that “the rise in ground water and weathering (rain and frost), were persistent issues threatening the structures, in addition to the major cracks which resulted from large scale earthquakes in the past.”

Shakhrisyabz lies about a two-hour drive south of Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s better-known beacon of Temurid architecture. Hotels in the city aren’t exactly luxurious, though several, including the Hotel Shakhrisabz, were built fairly recently. Before you plan your trip, check out some of the ancient city’s highlights below.

Statue of Temur
Statue of Temur

A view of a monumental statue of Temur, with the palace gates in the background.

Photographer: Pavel Gospodinov/Getty Images

The Ak-Saray Palace Gates
The Ak-Saray Palace Gates

A tour group stands near the gates of the Ak-Saray palace, which was built between 1380 and 1404. Gates are all that remain of the structure. Clad in blue-glazed tiles, they're an indication of the splendor commanded by the Temurid empire.

Photographer: Yulia-B/Getty Images

The Dor-ut Tilovat Memorial Complex
The Dor-ut Tilovat Memorial Complex

This gracious compound was formed after the death in 1370-1371 of Shamsiddin Kulal, the religious leader and a tutor of Temur who is credited with advancing Sufism, the mystical form of Islam, throughout the region. 

Photographer: Pavel Gospodinov/Getty Images

The Mauseoleum of Shamsiddin Kulal
The Mauseoleum of Shamsiddin Kulal

Also set within a funeral complex, Kulal’s mausoleum contains elaborate mosaics and marble paneling.

Photographer: Pavel Gospodinov/Getty Images

The Ceiling of Shamsiddin Kulal's Mausoleum
The Ceiling of Shamsiddin Kulal's Mausoleum

The impetus to build the entire Dor-ut Tilovat complex is said to have sprung from Kulal's death in 1370.

Photographer: Pavel Gospodinov/Getty Images

Kok Gumbaz Mosque
Kok Gumbaz Mosque

Kok Gumbaz Mosque, the main mosque in Shakhrisabz, was built in the Dor-ut Tilovat Memorial complex roughly 60 years later, in 1435-1436. The inscription on the portal announces that the mosque was constructed by Ulugbek (Temur’s grandson) on behalf of his father.

Photographer: Pavel Gospodinov/Getty Images

The Chorsu Covered Bazaar
The Chorsu Covered Bazaar

Built in 1602, the covered bazaar is in the center of the city. The building was once one of many covered marketplaces in the city; it’s now the only one.

Photographer: Pavel Gospodinov/Getty Images

The Mausoleum of Jakhongir
The Mausoleum of Jakhongir

The city once held multiple stand-alone mausoleums containing Temur’s relatives, but this—a crypt that holds the remains of his eldest son, who died at the age of 20—is the only one left.

Photographer: Travel Ink/Getty Images/Gallo Images

The Complex's Exterior
The Complex's Exterior

The complex, along with much of the historic city center, is structurally endangered by previous earthquakes and a rising water table.

Photographer: Pavel Gospodinov/Getty Images

The Mosque of Khazrati
The Mosque of Khazrati

The multi-chamber mosque of Khazrati Imam, which contains a domed hall and a painted ayvan (raised verandah), was built next to the complex in the mid-19th century. 

Photographer: Pavel Gospodinov/Getty Images

The Rear of the Ak-Saray Palace Gates
The Rear of the Ak-Saray Palace Gates

The gates were used to support a massive entrance arch that spanned more than 72 feet. 

Photographer: Pavel Gospodinov/Getty Images

A View of the Historic Center
A View of the Historic Center

The historic center is now threatened by development. Here, you can see the site surrounded by more contemporary buildings.

Photographer: Pavel Gospodinov/Getty Images