Uzbek Saturday mood in Shakhrisabz

The use of urban space in the early 2000s before the start of the tourism boom

The more than 2000 year old city was a stage of the old Silk Road, which connected China and Europe via the Middle East. In 2000, it was declared a World Heritage Site, not least for its many exceptional buildings, its ancient structures, mausoleums and mosques. The tomb of Timur, built with white marble, is without doubt one of the most beautiful mausoleums in Central Asia. It seems as if time has stood still in the narrow streets of the old town.

Assel Kipchakova (2016)

Shahrisabz is located 80 km from Samarkand in the valley of the Kasha Darja. It is reached directly from Samarkand, following the old Silk Road, over the Takhzakaracha Pass at 1780 meters above sea level. For the new Uzbekistan, which emerged after 1990, it is of such great importance because Shahrisabz, the „Green City“, was the birthplace of Amir Timur under the name Kesh. He initially wanted to develop Kesh, not Samarkand, as the capital of the Timurid Empire (cf. Wallasch 2014).

Scenes from the road to Shahrisabz from Samarkand over the Takhzakaracha Pass

From the northeast, you reach the city, which was probably already founded in the 3rd century B.C. At Rigestan, the central square, Timur had a huge palace built, of which ruins are still preserved today. Two pylons of a huge portal that spans 22 metres and rises 38 metres above the ground still make an overwhelming impression today. The large-scale brick patterns of glazed and dull bricks form ornaments and a writing band with letters laid out in white, which proclaims from afar: „God prolong the days of the Sultan“ (cf. Pander 2005, p. 235 f.).

From the outset, the space was built to last for a period of time that would outlast the life of the ruler who had ordered its construction.

Restorers from all over the world contribute to the work in Shahrisabz: In 2014 the square of the Ak Saraj Palace, one of the most beautiful places in the old town, was rebuilt in cooperation with French restorers. This 800,000 euro project has restored almost 200 square metres of glazed ceramic tiles covering the palace, which was built in the 14th century and destroyed in the 16th century. The palace is famous for its inscription: „If you doubt our strength and power, look at our buildings“, says the historian Nabi Khushvatov.

Assel Kipchakova (2016)

Accordingly, it was obvious that with the foundation of the new Uzbekistan after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the attained independence a re-politicization of the old town of Shahrisabz took place. With reference to Timur (14th century), myths and images from the collective memory of pre-Soviet times were revived in Uzbekistan and supplemented by reinterpretations of history. (Franke-Schwenk 2013, 2)

„The preservation and restoration of unique historical monuments created by the Uzbek people and being national property is an important part of our spiritual program“.

President Karimov at the first meeting of the High Council after independence in 1990

Accordingly, in the early 2000s, visits to the buildings erected under the Timurids were an integral part of people’s practices, within which they mutually assured each other about their identity and belonging. The old town of Shahrisabz was thus a public space in the sense that Uzbek nationality and ethnicity were celebrated as a public identity. Accordingly, the Registan and the adjoining alleys of the old town with its teahouses and restaurants were full of wedding parties on weekends and thus an integral part of Uzbek everyday culture.

The staging of the ’national heritage‘ as the core of ’national identity‘ was thus connected with the handing over of the built, in this case urban space, to the people in a new way. At the same time, however, this national and thus exclusive cultural space was an inter- or transnational space due to the fact that it was designated a world cultural heritage site. Thus, in a sense, the space also belongs to those who do not see themselves as Uzbeks and demand its use. This in turn gives rise to questions about the management of access to the urban space of Shahrisabz.

The goals of monument preservation are formulated […] from current ethical, aesthetic or even political motives, which are a result of historical developments in the respective cultural area. That is why monument preservation cannot be measured by the same standards everywhere. What is methodologically good and recognised in Europe […] does not necessarily have to meet with the same positive response elsewhere, such as in Uzbekistan.

Wallasch (2014), p. 5

The use of the area for tourism therefore had to lead inevitably to enduring changes in the urban space. These unavoidably led to conflicts between the expectations of UNESCO, those of international visitors, the goals of Uzbekistan’s political leadership and the needs of local people.

At the beginning of the 2000s, inhabitants of the old town still liked to play with the tourist gaze.

On the occasion of the 680th anniversary of Timur’s birth in 2014, many traditional houses have lost their authenticity due to extensive construction work. As a result, UNESCO placed the city on the list of endangered world heritage sites.

Mass tourism as the most important industrial sector of the late modern period will probably not be able to be stopped here either. Possibly the Covid-19 conditional breaks, which will probably extend over two full years, will create room for negotiations and pauses for reflection here – not only in Uzbekistan. Is a declaration of World Heritage rather a flight or a blessing? This question has been discussed for several years now, using many examples.

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Photos: © Stefan Applis & Jürgen Renner (2002, 2009)


Franke-Schwenk, A. (2013): Helden, Väter und Beschützer der Nation. Überlegungen zur Selbstinszenierung zentralasiatischer Präsidenten. [Heroes, fathers and protectors of the nation. Reflections on the self-staging of Central Asian presidents] Zentralasien-Analysen Nr. 67-68., 2-5.

Kipchakova, A. (2016). Shahrisabz, ein bedrohtes Erbe in Usbekistan. Novastan. (15 August 2020)

Pander, K. (2005). Zentralasien. Dumont Kunstreiseführer. Ostfildern.

Wallasch, S. (2014). Kommt und staunt! Denkmalschutz und Identitätsstiftung an
Monumentalbauten in Usbekistan [Come and marvel! Monumental buildings in Uzbekistan – protection of historical monuments and identity foundation]. Zentralasienanalysen 74, p. 2-6. (15 August 2020)

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