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Shahr-i Sabz (Kesh)

With Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo's Description (1403)

Introducted by Daniel Waugh

Click on thumbnails to enlarge them

Shahr-i Sabz (Kesh) became important in the 14th century, because Timur (Tamerlane) was born in a nearby village, and the Barlas tribe to which he belonged controlled the city. After he gained power locally and then extended his conquests Timur considered keeping Shahr-i Sabz as his capital, but then decided to locate it instead at Samarkand, some 80 km. to the north. His “home town” was the location of important family graves—among them those of his father and two oldest sons Jahangir and Omar Sheikh—and Timur had a tomb for himself prepared there, although he would instead be buried in the new family mausoleum in Samarkand, the Gur-i amir.


In Shahr-i Sabz today one can see the grand ruin of the entrance arch to the Ak Sarai, the palace which was built there for Timur at the end of the 14th century and destroyed in the 16th century on the orders of the ruler of Bukhara, Abdullah Khan. The architecture of the palace bears close similarities with that of the mausoleum erected at Timur’s orders to honor Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan City (Kazakhstan). Timur’s father’s grave is located next to that of an important Sufi leader Shamseddin Kulal. Other graves are in the adjoining Gumbaz-i Seidan, its dome being a modern restoration. Across from this complex is the portal of the Kok Gumbaz mosque.

Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo (d. 1412), who was sent as ambassador to Tamerlane by King Henry III of Castile and Leon in Spain, passed through Shahr-i Sabz in 1403 on his way to Samarkand. Clavijo left a very interesting description of the town and its monuments, including the Ak Sarai in all its glory. Clavijo’s text follows immediately below.

-- Daniel Waugh

Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo’s Description of Sahr-i Sabz in 1403

The next day which was Thursday the 28th of August at the hour of mid-day mass we found ourselves come near a great city which is known as Kesh. It stands in the plain, and on all sides the land is well irrigated by streams and water channels, while round and about the city there are orchards with many homesteads. Beyond stretches the level country where there are many villages and well-peopled hamlets lying among meadows and waterlands; indeed it is all a sight most beautiful in this the summer season of the year. On these lands five crops yearly of corn are grown, vines also, and there is much cotton cultivated for the irrigation is abundant. Melon yards here abound with fruit-bearing trees in the adjacent orchards.

The city of Kesh is surrounded by an earthen rampart, having a very deep ditch crossed at the gates by draw-bridges. The lord Timur is himself a native of Kesh and his father [Taragay] also was from here. There are throughout the city many fine houses and mosques, above all a magnificent mosque which Timur has ordered to be built but which as yet is not finished. In this mosque is seen the chapel in which his father's burial place has been made, and beside this is a second chapel now being built in which it is intended that Timur himself shall be interred when the time comes. They told us that when a month or so before the date of our arrival here Timur had entered Kesh [on his way up to Samarkand] he had been much dissatisfied with the appearance of this chapel, objecting that the door-way was too low and ordering that it should be raised: and it was on this alteration the builders were now at work. In this same mosque too is seen the tomb of Prince Jahangir the eldest son of Timur [he having died in the year 1372]. The whole of this mosque with its chapels is very finely wrought in tiles that are of blue and gold, and you enter it through a great court yard planted with trees round a water tank. Here daily by the special order of Timur the meat of twenty sheep is cooked and distributed in alms, this being done in memory of his father and of his son who lie here in those chapels. As soon as we had ridden into this city of Kesh they brought us to this mosque, and here they served us for dinner with meat dishes and fruit abundantly, next carrying us on to a magnificent palace where lodgings had been provided for us.

On the following morning which was Friday they came and took us to see another great palace that was being built; and this palace they told us had been thus in hand building for the last twenty years, for though continually thus working day after day the builders were still at their work upon it. This palace of which we are now speaking had an entrance passage constructed to be of considerable length with a high portal before it, and in this entrance gallery to right and to left there were archways of brickwork encased and patterned with blue tiles. These archways led each one into a small chamber that was open having no door, the flooring being laid in blue tiles. These little rooms are for those to wait in who are in attendance on Timur when he should come here. At the end of this gallery stands another gate-way, beyond which is a great courtyard paved with white flagstones and surrounded on the four sides by richly wrought arches, and in its centre is a very large water tank. This courtyard indeed may measure some three hundred paces in its width, and beyond it you enter through a very high and spacious gateway the main buildings of the palace. This gateway is throughout beautifully adorned with very fine work in gold and blue tiles, and over the entrance are seen the figures of the Lion and the Sun, these same figures being repeated over the summit of each of the arches round the courtyard, and this emblem of the Lion and the Sun was they told us the armorial bearing of the former lord of Samarqand [whom Timur dispossessed]. We were assured that it had been Timur himself who was the builder of this great palace, but I imagine in truth that some part of it must have been built by that lord of Samarkand who lived before the time of Timur's sovereignty; for the Lion and the Sun which we saw here set up are the emblems of this former sovereign.


The special armorial bearing of Timur is the Three Circlets set... to shape a triangle, which same it is said signifies that he Timur is lord of all Three Quarters of the World. This device Timur has ordered to be set on the coins that he has struck, and on all buildings that he has erected, and it is for that reason, as I opine, that those buildings [bearing the emblem of the Lion and the Sun] were built by a lord who reigned before the time of Timur. These three circlets which, as said, are like the letter 0 thrice repeated to form a triangle, further are the imprint of Timur's seal, and again by his special order are added so as to be seen patent on all the coins struck by those princes who are become tributary to his government.


From this main portal of the courtyard just described you enter a great reception hall which is a room four square, where the walls are panelled with gold and blue tiles, and the ceiling is entirely of gold work. From this room we were taken up into the galleries, and in these likewise everywhere the walls were of gilt tiles. We saw indeed here so many apartments and separate chambers, all of which were adorned in tile work of blue and gold with many other colours, that it would take long to describe them here, and all was so marvellously wrought that even the craftsmen of Paris, who are so noted for their skill, would hold that which is done here to be of very fine workmanship. Next they showed us the various apartments where Timur was wont to be and to occupy when he came here with his wives; all of which were very sumptuously adorned as to floors and walls and ceilings. Many were the various grades of workmen still at work on building and adorning these palaces. We were shown in one that we visited a great banqueting hall which Timur was having built wherein to feast with the princesses, and this was gorgeously adorned, being very spacious, while beyond the same they were laying out a great orchard in which were planted many and divers fruit trees, with others to give shade. These stood round water tanks, beside which there were laid out fine lawns of turf. This orchard was of such extent that a very great company might conveniently assemble here, and in the summer heats enjoy the cool air beside that water in the shade of these trees. But such indeed was the richness and beauty of the adornment displayed in all these palaces that it would be impossible for us to describe the same adequately without much more leisure than we can here give to the matter. The mosque aforesaid and these palaces are a work that Timur has begun and is yet perfecting, all being in the first place wrought to do honour his father's memory who lies buried here, and next, as we have said, because he Timur is a native of this city of Kesh.


Though indeed Timur was born here, yet he was not by descent a citizen of Kesh, being in truth a nomad of the Chagatay clansmen. These are Tartars who originally had their abode in Tartary, but who migrated hither when their countryside was overrun in past times and conquered [by the Mongols under Chingis Khan]. All this we shall explain to you more in detail presently, and the Chagatays who have been frequently mentioned in our narrative are so named as belonging to this clan. The father of Timur was a man of good family, allied by blood to the clan of Chagatay, but he was a noble of small estate, having only some three or four riders to his back, namely his personal followers. He lived at a village not far from the city of Kesh, for gentle-folk of his sort have ever preferred the country to the town. His son Timur was in the beginning no more than he had been, and only able just to keep himself, having of his following some four or five horsemen. [Local oral history of Timur's youthful exploits follows here.]....


More pictures from Shahr-i Sabz:



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© 2006 Silk Road Seattle.
Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington. Additional funding has been provided by the Silkroad Foundation (Saratoga, California).