Beautiful Iroqi Embroidery and the Ak-Saray in Shakhrisabz

Shakhrisabz for us was not about the town but insights into rural life through highly skilled but humble artisans. Much like India. We drove from village to village, stopping at homes some impoverished and some not. The village women are all familiar with the distinctive Shakhrisabz style of embroidery called Iroqi. Originally used for casual clothing for soldiers during the reign of Amir Timur and thereafter including for the Emirs of Bukhara. The name has nothing to do with Iraq but comes from the marching of soldiers and signifies closeness/tightness. The work is quite stunning and unlike other suzanis that use basma (filling satin stitch), biggis (hook stitch) and yurma (chain stitch). The stitch itself is one long thread passed along the length that is couched back upwards to the start. There are two different design directions used often together: counting style which is traditional patterns spaced evenly, and painting style that is free flowing and needs much greater skill.

The artisan homes are made of mud bricks and cow dung mixed with hay on the surface. Each have a patch of land where they grow fruit, cultivate a crop and have livestock. Small cosy rooms are kept warm with angithis and long seating razai type mattresses on the ground.  There is colour everywhere in sharp contrast to the plain brown mud walls. While they do the most beautiful embroidery, their own clothing and furnishings are made of brightly coloured velvet.

Ak-Saray, 1944

Ak-Saray, 1944

While I went to meet one of my previous suppliers, Anaheeta went off to see Ak-Saray with none other than an artist who did his master’s thesis on it! Unplanned and a happy coincidence.  Ak-Saray literally means White (pure) Palace and was built between 1380 and 1404 by Amir Timur. The inscription above the entrance arch is believed to have said ‘ If you have a doubt about our power see the monuments we build.’ And what a monument! All that is left are the pillars to the three arches that indicate a completed height of 72metres. The beautiful majolica, mosaic and terracotta work have been left untouched and add to the mystique of the beauty that once was. The fascinating design ornamentation ranges from kufic calligraphy to complex geometry and talismanic symbolism, all in exquisite shades of azure blue, turquoise, hints of green, white, black and yellow.

Ak-Saray, entrance portal partially restored

Ak-Saray, entrance portal partially restored

Aziz (full name Aziz Ahmedov) shared his research work with us showing us old photographs, current views and the reconstruction he did for his thesis. Over the next five years he hopes to complete a model of Ak-Saray as a tribute to his home town. He has done shows in several countries. His speciality is architectural monuments and his signature is Muhammadi as a tribute to his grandfather who himself was an artist. We now have several of his nicest oil paintings in the Arastan collection.

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