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One of the most interesting and important historical sites in Samarkand is the Shah-i Zinde, a mausoleum complex located just northeast of the city on slopes which command a panorama of the Zarafshan valley and snow-capped peaks to the south. While the site attracts tourists and artists, it is significant first and foremost because it contains the most important Muslim shrine in the region. The tomb complex is comprised of some two dozen mausolea and a couple of connected small mosques, placed on either side and at the end of a long corridor that runs approximately north to south. As is typical for many important Muslim mausolea, a now sizeable cemetery has developed around the main buildings of the Shah-i Zinde. The cemetery is now overcrowded, and some of the graves have been vandalized, to the extent that human remains can be seen lying on the ground.


The Shah-i Zinde contains fragments of some of the earliest known Islamic structures in Samarkand, but most of the surviving buildings date from just before Timur's establishment of Samarkand as his capital (i.e., ca. 1360) to about the middle of the following century. There have been continual renovations, some of them very recent, which make it difficult to know original details especially for the upper parts of many of the buildings. Nonetheless, numerous inscriptions, some dated, and the extensive preservation of the ceramic tiles on the buildings provide a unique overview of the architectural decoration for a very significant century in the history of Islamic art in Central Asia.


The earliest part of the complex is at its north end and was located just within the walls of the citadel of Afrasiab in what apparently was a residential area. The northern boundary of the complex was an irrigation canal, along which to the west of Shah-i Zinde was the Potters' Quarter in the 13th and 14th centuries. As the tomb complex grew, it extended south beyond the walls (by that time they had been largely destroyed). The current entrance gate, built by Ulugh Beg in the fifteenth century, is thus well below the main part of the complex, which is reached by ascending a set of steps. We will explore Shah-i Zinde starting at the north end.


The Mausoleum of Qutham ibn Abbas and the Beginnings of Shah-i Zinde

The famous Arab traveller Abu Abdalla Ibn Battuta was especially interested in recording important holy sites and his interactions with Muslim religious leaders. It seems significant therefore that the only Muslim shrine he chose to describe when he was in Samarkand in the early 1330s was that of Qutham (Kusam) Ibn Abbas. Although most of the architectural details in Ibn Battuta's account are no longer extant, it nonetheless is worth reproducing his description here:

In the outskirts of Samarqand is the tomb of Qutham, son of Al-'Abbas b. Abd al-Muttalib (God be pleased with both al-'Abbas and his son), who met a martyr's death at the time of its conquest. The people of Samarqand go out to visit it on the eve of every Tuesday and Friday, and the Tatars [Mongols/Chagatais?] too come to visit it, and make large votive offerings to it, bringing to it cattle, sheep, dirhams and dinars, [all of] which is devoted to expenditure for the maintenance of travellers and the servitors of the hospice and the blessed tomb. The latter is surmounted by a dome resting on four pilasters, each of which is combined with two marble columns, green, black, white and red. The walls of the [cell beneath the] cupola are of marble inlaid with different colors and decorated with gold, and its roof is made of lead. The tomb itself is covered with planks of ebony inlaid [with gold and jewels] and with silver corner-pieces; above it are three silver lamps. the hangings of the dome are of wool and cotton. Outside it is a large canal, which traverses the hospice at that place, and has on both its banks trees, grape-vines, and jasmine. In the hospice there are chambers for the lodging of travellers. The Tatars, in the time of their infidelity, did not injure in any way the condition of this blessed site; on the contrary, they used to visit it to gain blessing as the result of the miraculous signs which they witnessed on its behalf.

The superintendent of everything to do with this blessed sepulchre and the adjoining buildings at the time of our lodging there was the amir Ghiyath Al-Din Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Qadir b. 'Abd al-'Aziz b. Yusuf, son of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustansir billah. He was appointed to this office by the sultan Tarmashirin, when he came to his court from al-Iraq, but is now in the service of the king of India... [Gibb transl.]

While the cult of Qutham ibn Abbas described here (and documented earlier in sources from the 12th century) calls to mind analogies with the veneration of Sufi saints in so many places in Central Asia, it seems likely that the early history of the shrine has nothing to do with sufism. A near contemporary of Muhammad's, according to local Samarkand legends repeated by Ibn Battuta, Qutham ibn Abbas died a martyr's death at the time of the first Arab siege of the city in 676/77 CE. Alternatively, he escaped death by hiding in a niche or jumping into a well and living on underground (hence the name of Shah-i Zinde, the "Living King," which specifically referred to him). His veneration initially seems to have begun under the Abbasid caliphs (after 750 CE), whose roots were in Khorasan. However, there is no evidence that the shrine in Samarkand existed before the 11th century. The location may initially have been revered as a pre-muslim religious site, co-opted as a way to combat the other faiths at a time when Islam was still struggling for the allegiance of the local population. Qutham came to be venerated as a "slayer of the Infidel, an immortal, the patron of the waters and the protector of virtue," and he aguably is a "syncretistic figure" embodying qualities of Avestan and Soghdian deities who would have been worshipped locally in connection with phenomena in the world of nature. In considering the history of the spread of Islam in the region, it is worth remembering though that conversion of some of the Mongol and other local rulers occurred quite late. Tarmashirin, who is mentioned by Ibn Battuta, came to power in 1322 and was the first local Muslim ruler after a rather substantial hiatus.

One can see today the remains of an eleventh-century minaret just inside the entrace to the tomb complex; it is likely that the cult initially was promoted by the Karakhanid rulers of Samarkand, the first of whom, Tamgach Bughra Khan, apparently constructed a very large madrasa (Muslim school) just opposite the tomb (the building is no longer extant). In addition to the early minaret, some substantial wood carvings (not shown) remain from the pre-Muslim structures on the site. The photographs here are of a carved Kufic (Muslim) inscription which runs along the outside wall of the ziyaretkhana (the antechamber to the tomb), at the east end of the mosque. Remains from mausolea dating to the twelfth century have been unearthed adjoining the foundations of the madrasa, suggesting that a significant Muslim complex developed at the north end of the Shah-i Zinda over the first century or so of its existence. There are unanswered questions as to why tombs that were added later to the complex did not group more closely around that of Qutham Ibn Abbas, if in fact it was the main focus of the site.

The connected structures of the tomb complex as seen today largely date from the 14th and 15th centuries. Its entrance is in a 14th-century archway that spans the main corridor of the Shah-i Zinde (in the photo, the view is south; the tomb entrance would be on the left). The tile work over the door is probably from the fifteenth century; inscriptions have been preserved to the right of the door, attributing one stage of the renovations to a craftsman from Shiraz in 1404/05. The doors themselves apparently date from the fifteenth century.

After passing the base of the old minaret just inside the door (see above), one enters a fifteenth century mosque, the only tile decoration of which has been preserved in the mihrab (the niche which indicates the direction of Mecca).

Beyond is an antechamber (the ziyaretkhana) for pilgrims who would pray at the shrine, rebuilt in 1334/35, a date inscribed on the tile work of its ceiling. The squinches (at the corners under the dome) contain excellent examples of tiled muqarnas (stalactite) decoration. Just to the left of the entrance to the ziyaratkhana can be seen one end of the carved wooden inscription mentioned above.

The "tomb" itself can be seen through an elegantly carved fourteenth-century wooden screen. There is some disagreement as to the date of the current cenotaph over the burial. Whether it dates from the 1330s might be questioned, since the appearance is very different from what Ibn Battuta described; alternatively, it is considered to date to the 1380s.

Expansion of the Shah-i Zinde in the Fourteenth Century

By the fourteenth century, it seems that a road from the west intersected the Shah-i Zinda at its north end and provided the main entrance to the site just in front of one of the new mausolea, that of Khwaja Ahmad (a Sufi?), which dates to the 1340s. While by the sixteenth century its dome and walls apparently had collapsed, apparently the tile work around the entrance is original and is certainly some of the most striking of the whole complex. Here we see examples of the deeply incised glazed terracotta that continued to be popular into the Timurid period (see below concerning possible artistic influences).

Adjoining the mausoleum of Khwaja Ahmad on the east is the tomb of an unidentified woman, dating to 1361. At least one source indicates that one of Timur's first wives, Qutlugh Ata, was buried here. Whether or not that is true, one would assume someone really important is buried here, given the location between two of the most important shrines of local religious figures and positioned so that the road from the west would lead a person directly to its entrance. The entrance preserves striking terracotta-decorated muqarnas and a variety of calligraphic styles.

Although the entrance from the west continued to exist (and in fact came to be flanked by additional tombs which have not been preserved), further building in the early fifteenth century created the sense of an enclosed courtyard one feels today at the north end of the Shah-i Zinde. A mausoleum (dated 1404/05) and an adjoining mosque (possibly earlier), attributed to one of Timur's later wives, Tuman Aqa, were built on the west side of the corridor over part of the site of the former madrasa, which apparently was already in ruins by the fourteenth century. Here we can see the facade of the mausoleum and a detail of the tile over the adjoining entrance.

Walking south through the arch and past a series of anonymous tombs brings one to the interesting central group of mausolea, at least some of which also are connected with the women in Timur's family. We can see them here from outside (the view is looking southeast), where the highest dome is that of the mausoleum of Shirin Biqa Aqa (1385/86), built on Timur's orders for his sister, possibly by architects he brought back after his conquest of Tabriz and Azerbaijan. Across from her mausoleum are those of Amirzadeh (1386) (the farthest dome on the right) and next to it the strikingly well preserved mausoleum of Shad-i Mulk Aqa (Timur's niece) built for her in 1372 by her mother Turkan Aqa, who may also be buried there.

Here are two views taken from in front of those two mausolea--one to the south (the facade of the Amirzadeh mausoleum is on the right and the domes of the Qazizadeh Rumi mausoleum are in the background) and one looking back north along the corridor. The details below show the tile work of the Shadi-i Mulk mausoleum, including the inscription to the right of the entrance and some of the exquisite terracotta tile within the archway. Comparison of this tile work with the style of late YŁan and Ming lacquerware suggests possible influence of such objects from China. Carving of the dozens of layers of lacquer produces the kind of deep relief that is so distinctive in the Timurid tiles in a relatively narrow chronological window represented by a few of the tombs at Shah-i Zinde. The interior dome of Shad-i Mulk's tomb also preserves its tile, something that is unusual given the fact that so many of the mausoleum domes collapsed within a century or so of their being built.


As the Shah-i Zinde complex was further expanded in the fifteenth century, a second archway was built at the top of the stairs leading down to the new, monumental entrance erected by Ulugh Beg in 1434/35 with an inscription suggesting that the main focus of the whole complex was still the tomb of Qutham Ibn Abbas, way at the other end. Ulugh Beg also seems to have presided over the construction of the mausoleum which tradition (probably erroneous) has it is that of Qazizadeh Rumi (d. 1436), the first director of his observatory. Located part way up the steep slope, this building has two domes, the higher of which is elevated on a elongated drum to bring it up nearly to the level of the domes of the existing mausolea built at the top of the slope. In the background are the madrasas of the Registan.

None of its monuments is precisely oriented with regard to direction of Mecca and their orientations differ considerably from one another. The origins of the site may have little to do with Islam, and, as Ibn Battuta relates, even non-Muslims or those whom he perhaps suspected of being less than serious Muslims (e.g., recently converted Mongols) worshipped there. There are many examples in the world of how worship by one faith was superimposed on an existing cult, but then the shrines continued to be venerated by more than one group of believers. At the same time though, the significance of the Shah-i Zinde specifically for Muslims was obviously substantial, not only in its early centuries, but down through the Soviet period. In 1969, I observed a family probably attired for a special occasion such as a religious holiday enter the Shah-i Zinde and spend some time there, presumably praying at the shrine of Quthum Ibn Abbas,before leaving. A decade later, early one morning, I observed a prayer service in the Mausoleum of Amirzadeh, where, but for the imam reciting the prayer, all in attendance were women, some of them quite young. The acoustics of the mausoleum, his resonant voice, and the poetry of the Arabic made this an inspiring experience. A policeman had been observing this from a distance, and at the end (he made no effort to interrupt the service) upbraided the imam, possibly because a foreigner had been watching, and at least ostensibly, one imagnes, for having the temerity to hold a prayer service in a public "museum" space. Undoubtedly such services, while officially discouraged, were common even in the worst days of official atheism. In particular, we know that for Muslim women, who might not attend a service in a mosque, prayer at a local mazar or shrine is important. The shrine at the top of the "Suleiman" mountain in the now Kyrgyz city of Osh, dedicated to an important Sufi holy man, is a good example of this. We are told that even the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, made a pilgrimage there several years ago, specifically because local tradition has it that to pray there will ensure the birth of a healthy child.


-- Daniel C. Waugh


1) N. B. Nemtseva, "Istoki kompozitsii i etapy formirovaniya ansamblya Shakhi-zinda ('The Origins and Architectural Development of the Shah-i Zinde')," translated, with additions by J. M. Rogers and 'Adil Yasin, Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies, XV (1977), 51-73.

2) H.A.R. Gibb, tr., The Travels of Ibn Battuta A. D. 1325-1354, vol. III (London: Hakluyt; Delhi reprint, 1993), pp. 567-569.

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