The Shakhi Zinda Complex is a large group of mausoleums—some as early as 11th or 12th Century, others from the 14th Century. Many important people are buried here, including a cousin of the Prophet. It is a holy place and a pilgrimage site for Muslims.
Note: This is not a place for anyone who has trouble climbing stairs--The complex is on a small hill, and there are a lot of steps up to it.
The entrance stairway at the Shah-i-Zinda leads the visitor up to a narrow street lined on both sides with mausolea. They are in varying states of repair and restoration and by the time you have visited all of them your eyes are quite dazzled and confused by the colour and decoration so that it is hard to remember which tomb is which and what you have actually seen. However, apart from the tomb of the Living King himself - at the far end of the complex, there are two mausolea of particular note - the Shadi Mulk Aka and the Shirin Bika Aka, built to hold the graves of female relatives of Temur. The first of the buildings here of that era, they are also regarded as the finest by far.
The Shadi Mulk Aka (1372) contains the tomb of Temur's niece and one of his sisters. Here the tiles are almost like lace - they are so beautifully carved in deep relief. A second mausoleum opposite holds the tomb of another sister of the ruler. This is the Shirin Bika Aka, built in 1385, the portal showing an entirely different style - one that was to become the pattern for future decoration everywhere. True mosaic and incised patterns allow for elaborate and exquisite calligraphy and floral designs.
Both are notable for retaining their original decoration and both are just as beautiful inside as out.
This is an avenue of tombs, covered with beautiful majolica tiles. The innermost is supposed to be the grave of Qusam-ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed. The others belong mainly to members of the family of Timur.
Try to avoid visiting in the middle of the day - climbing up through the tombs in the heat can reduce your ability to appreciate the archictecture.
According to legend, the prophet Kusam ibn Abbas, first cousin of the Prophet Mohammad, came to the Afrasiyah hill north of Samarkand's current location. The legend relates that Kusam, a holy man who had allegedly brought Islam to the area, entered a well and is alive still in an underground palace. The site bears his name, Shah-i Zinda, meaning 'the Living King'.
This Mausoleum of Kusam ibn Abbas is the oldest in the Necropolis Shah-I Zinda. Pilgrims from near and far still come to worship and pray at his tomb. As it was very auspicious to be burried at the side of such a holy man, the whole area became a big graveyard with many beautiful mausoleums and also smaller tombs. Still the people try to get burried on this graveyard even though it is very expensive.
Non-Muslims and strangers were not allowed to enter the necropolis until the beginnings of the 20th century. Today it is known, that Kusam ibn Abbas never came to Samarkand.
The chortak’s eastern door (1405), though stripped of gold, silver and ivory, retains exquisite carving framed by calligraphy welcoming the true believer to paradise, for 3 pilgrimages here equal one to Mecca.
Just inside is a section of 11th century minaret whose top peers out of the roof. Built in brick reminiscent of the Samanid mausoleum in Bukhara, it is Samarkand’s only fully preserved pre-Mongol structure. A vaulted corridor leades to the Kussam-ibn-Abbas mosque (1460), a three-domed rectangle with blue-tiled mihrab.
The final &i“chortak”&i connects Kussam’s shrine on the east with the northern courtyard. To the left is the mosque and mausoleum complex (1404-1405) built by and for Tamerlane’s favourite young wife Tuman Aka. Beneath a sky-blue dome the chamber portal carries valish mosaic faience, though the geometric designs and violet-blue are new. Calligraphy above the finely carved door reads “the tomb is a door and everybody enters it”.
The inner cupola paints a blue night with golden stars above delicate landscape murals.
Closing the street is Khoja Akhmand mausoleum (1350), second oldest in the ensemble and prototype for the rest – a domed cube with an elaborate façade. Samarkand master Fakhri ali signed its carved and glazed terracotta portal. The adjoining mausoleum (1361), popularly linked to Tamerlane’s wife Kutlug Aka, reveals similar decoration and motifs.
The nearby 15th century octagonal mausoleum, an open-air rotunda faced in glazed brick, remains anonymous in history, as do the next 4 mausoleums on the left.
The second mausoleum preservers the name of architect Ustad Alim Nasafi, creator of a vibrantly coloured star design tightly bound in epigraphic straps. Stalactites and multicoloured majolica coat the interior.
The portal fragment of the third mausoleum, named after an Ulug Sultan Begum shows stellar patterns in blue, red and gold.
Last is the large, unfinished mausoleum attributed to Tamerlane’s general Emir Burunduk.
Shirin Bika Aka (1385) is ascribed to another sister of Tamerlane, and boasts its original décor. The later date explains the first appearance of true mosaic tile work in Samarkand, for the conqueror had abducted craftsmen from Iran and Azerbaijan. Instead of relief carving, the entire portal is faced with incised majolica mosaic in calligraphic inscription and scrolling floral patterns.
Other innovations include a tall, 16-sided drum, tiled cupola and interior murals in gold paint. &iPanjera&I windows with coloured glass illuminate traces of landscapes and mythical beasts suggesting chinoiserie.
Shadi Mulk-Ata (1372) was the first Timurid structure in Samarkand and takes pride of place in Shah-i-Zinda. The inscription “This is a tomb in which a precious pearl has been lost” describes Tamerlane’s beautiful young niece, buried and later joined by his eldest sister Turkhan Aka. The plain brick work of its melon-shaped dome and 3 external facades highlights the brilliance of its lace-like portal. Form the stalactite vault over the entrance to the filigree corner columns run panels of carved and glazed terracotta and majolica, exhausting the turquoise-blues and floral motifs of the age. An octagonal star crowning the tiled interior divides the dome into 8 sections pierced by a teardrop medallion; a jewel in the cosmos of the cupola, for each tear conceals a sun and 6 planets.
In 1434 – 1435 Ulug Beg built the grant entrance portal as a finishing touch to the southern end of Shah-i-Zinda. Behind it is the first of the 3 chortak, domer transit halls, here flanked by a mosque and prayer halls, leading to the 1910 wooden twan of a 19th century mosque.halfway up the steep “staircase of Sinnners” ahead rise the twin blue domes of Qazi Zadeh Rumi mausoleum, the largest in the complex. Though the skeleton beneath it ws that of a female, perhaps Tamerlane’s wet nurse, rather than his grandson Ulug-Beg’s astronomer-tutor. Through the second &i”chortak”&i at the top are the brick-ribbed domes of the Emir Hussein mausoleum (1376) to the right and opposite the Emir Zade (1386). The former is called Tuglu-Tekin, after the mother of Tamerlane’s general Hussein, while the latter commemorates an unknown emir’s son, yet their finely worked facades bright with colour pale beside the adjacent pair of mausoleums – the Shadi Mulk Ata and the Shirin Bika Ata.
The Necropolis is build on an old part of the mighty city wall. It seems to be on a small mountain overlooking the city. stepping up the hill you pass many of the newly renovated Mausoleums. The fassades gleam with blue, green and yellow ornaments. Th einside decoration is also overwhelmingly beautiful.
From the top you have a great view of the city with the blue cupola of Mosque Bibi Hanim (see pic 5). If you step aside and walk through the more recent tombs you can see many tombstone with Russian script and more recent pics.
Visit the necropolis in early morning, when the air is still fresh and not so many tourgroups have arrived. Later you won't be able to see the Mausoleum of Kusam ibn Abbas from inside.
As you walk up through the Shah-i-Zindah complex the “street” widens and you’re able to stand back from the structures to get a different perspective. This photo shows two of the mausoleums in this group, Alim Nasafi (11) and Ulug Sultan Begum (12), both dating from around 1385 (photo 2 also shows Alim Nasafi Mausoleum).
Finally you reach the upper end of the complex, and a group of buildings including the Tuman Aka Mosque (16) and Mausoleum (15, photo 3), and the mainly 15th century Kussam ibn Abbas Mosque (21). The Tuman Aka buildings are dedicated to Tamerlaine’s favourite wife – the calligraphy above the entrance reads: “The tomb is a door and everybody enters it.”
The Kussam ibn Abbas Mosque (photo 4) is well worth devoting some time to. You enter along a corridor to find yourself in a series of small rooms, including one with brightly coloured tile-work. As you enter this room look to your right to see a carved wooden frieze from the earlier 11th century mosque that once occupied this site. You can also peer through a wooden grille to see the four tiered tomb of Kussam ibn Abbas himself, in the adjacent mausoleum, decorated with ornate majolica and the focus of every pilgrim’s visit.
By the time you reach this point in the complex your eyes will be saturated with colour and splendour, and you will certainly feel the truth of Els’s words: the Shah-i-Zinda is indeed almost too much for your eyes to take in. Find a spot in the shade to sit for a while to contemplate the wonder of this place, and also the reverence with which these tombs were constructed. This was the spot where I decided finally that on balance the Soviet restoration of Uzbekistan’s wonders, which some consider to be over-done, was in fact justified; thanks to them we are able to see this place as its builders intended and marvel at their achievements.
[The numbers in bold relate to the plan I’ve included as picture 5 in my earlier Shah-i-Zindah tip]
Halfway up the Staircase of Sinners is the Qasi Zadeh Rumi Mausoleum, dating from 1420-25 (17), the first of Shah-i-Zinda’s treasures. Its twin blue domes (photo 2) seem to soak up the colour of the sky and throw it out again even more intensely. This is the largest mausoleum in the complex, and perhaps surprisingly is the tomb not of a great ruler but of Tamerlaine’s wet nurse. A wet nurse was however considered as a second mother and loved as dearly, which makes it a little less surprising.
Passing through the next chortak you are assailed by the sheer scale and splendour of the complex. A complete street of mausoleums, many of them restored and gleaming with an intense blueness, stretches in front of you. The first four are immediately in front of you; two pairs facing each other across the “street”. These were the group that made the most powerful impression on me, because of their proximity to each other – they seemed almost to topple over us (I tried to capture this impression in photo 3).
The first on the left is the Emir Zade Mausoleum, dating from 1386 (10), and on the right the Emir Hussein Mausoleum, 1376 (9). My main photo shows the latter as seen from the former, and photo 4 a detail from the former’s tile-work . The next pair are the Shadi Mulk Aka Mausoleum from 1372 (8) and Shirin Bika Aka from 1385, (14). Both of these house tombs of Tamerlaine’s sisters; the first has an inscription which reads “This is a tomb in which a precious pearl has been lost”. Photo 5 is of the ceiling of this mausoleum.
Beyond this group and to the right is an unusual 15th century octagonal mausoleum (20). This is anonymous, as are the four unrestored ones on the left. This lack of restoration here is almost a relief, as it allows you time to recover your breath, and your senses after the riches that have gone before.
continued in next tip …
[The numbers in bold relate to the plan I’ve included as picture 5 in my previous Shah-i-Zindah tip]
For me the greatest impact of the Shah-i-Zinda was the sheer multitude of wonderful structures, many of them glowing so richly with the incredible tile-work, and also the sense of awe and sanctity it exudes. However, some parts and some individual buildings do stand out in my memory so I’ll try to do them justice. The numbers in bold relate to the plan I’ve included as picture 5 here. You can also find this plan at this website: http://www.pagetour.narod.ru/samarkand/Shakh-i-Zinda4.htm.
After passing through Ulug Beg’s dramatic pishtak (18), the first structure you’ll see on your left is a relatively recent (19th century) mosque (19), and beyond it a wooden iwan (25). Here when we visited an imam was greeting pilgrims and praying with them (photo 3). In a courtyard on the right (23) a girl was butchering meat (photo 4), a strangely prosaic sight in this holy place.
The mausoleums are arranged in three groups, separated by gateways known as chortaks, with steps connecting the lower and middle groups. These steps are known as the Staircase of Sinners (photos 1 & 2), and it is said that you should count them on your way up and your way back down. If the two numbers coincide you are sinless – mine did, which probably just proves the legend wrong ;).
continued in next tip …
Or Southern group, that ends at the main entrance, winter mosque and summer mosque. It was built during rule of Ulugbek. At that time double-dome mausoleum was already built, according to the sources, which was the tomb of Amir Timur's nurse. Near to this dome are located the well-known stairs, the number of stages, according to a legend, could count correctly only true believing person...