Ak Serai Palace
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“Let he who doubt our power and mugnificence 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 write 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-(215-foot-) high towers, flanking a portal arch 40 metres (130 feet) high and 22 metres (70 feet) wide, into a marble-paved courtyard 100 metres (330 feet) 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.
The complex extended past the modern war memorial up to the Hotel Shakhrisabz. Today visitors must conjure the whole from 38-metre- (125-foot-) high entrance towers and dazzling facades at the base of the arch or climb one of the staircases 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.