Shah-i-Zinda, which translates as “(the Tomb of) the Living King” is one of the most stunning memorial complexes I have ever seen. Originally built to house the tomb of one of Muhammed’s cousins, it is also one the longest continually constructed building sites in the world. The “living king” is Kussam-ibn-Abbas, the cousin of Muhammed, who came to this area in the 7th century to preach Islam, was subsequently beheaded, and, as the story goes, took his head with him to the Garden of Paradise where he currently lives. Now, although there is a mausoleum and mosque dedicated to him on the site, they were not built until the 16th century. However, this place was the place where he was originally buried, and in the 11th century the first buildings began to be built on this important religious site.
We came here first thing in the morning, and already there were a lot of people here to see the site. Our guide kept us at the base of the stairs to tell us as much as he could before we went up (it’s hard to keep people together when there is such beauty to explore). One of the things he talked about were the superstitions people had, which included counting the steps up into the complex (and then again when you leave). Only the truly pure will count the same number of steps going up and down, but it’s just a superstition with no connection to Islam. Yet, as people were coming or going from the stairs, he would ask them if they were counting them. They all said yes, but when he asked them why, none of them could answer. That said, I think all of counted the steps as we went up! (I think it was 35 or 36).
The first buildings went up in the 11th and 12th centuries (pre-Mongol invasion) and many of the original bases still remain, with reconstructed mausoleums on top of them. Later Timur (Tamerlane) and Ulugbek built the beautiful mausoleums here for the female members of their families. The most beautiful building here is the Shodi Mulk Oko Mausoleum (1372) which was built for Timur’s sister and niece. The tile work has survived mostly intact over the centuries, and has required little in the way of restoration over the years.
As I went through it was almost like I was autopilot taking photos of every doorway, every bit of interesting tile work (and trust me, there was a lot), and just of the site in general. Inside the mausoleums there usually wasn’t much. Most of them were empty, some had a grave inside. Even though these mausoleums are quite grand, not all of them can be reliably connected to a specific person.
We then went into the Kussam-ibn-Abbas mosque (see above) where we were also able to listen to a prayer by the imam (see below). As he began to sing most people were standing, and then there was a big rush to sit or kneel down as the prayer went on. You can see in the video the exquisite detail and colour of the tile work.
Afterwards we were given free reign to explore (about 30 minutes, not nearly enough time!) so I headed to the back of the complex to see if I could get into the modern cemetery that lies adjacent to this site, but all I came across was a fence and locked gates. I saw an old woman climb over the fence but I felt that would be inappropriate for me, so I didn’t do it.
That did give me more time to explore all of the the interesting mausoleums, with their beautiful tile work. I don’t post colour a lot on this blog, but here are a couple of photos that show just a small amount of detail that you can find there:
As I’m used to visiting these types of sites by myself, it was interesting to visit this site and be constantly surrounded by other visitors. Lots of families and groups of men and some foreign tourists were here, and I think all were in awe of the structures here.
In the open courtyards surrounding the mausoleums, there are the graves of what I assume are other important people. The stone and writing on these graves were of a very good quality, even though of course I could not read any of it.
If I ever get back to Uzbekistan, I really hope to revisit this complex again. Even with the crowds, there’s something peaceful and serene about being in a necropolis that was built over 800 years and is still standing to this day.
Monuments: All the amazing mausoleums!
Grounds: There are 36 (!) stairs up to the complex, plus most of the mausoleums have stairs as well. Otherwise it is flat and easily transversed.
Visitors: A lot, but not overly so. People moved around a lot, and most of them were quite friendly.
Notes: Lots of contrast here due to the sun and cloudless sky. I wouldn’t mind coming on an overcast day to get more evenly lit photos of this place.
Site: Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis ( شاه زنده)
Established: There was a shrine to Kussam-ibn-Abbas after his death, but the site that we know today was built over 800 years, from the 11th to 19th centuries.
Notable burials: The female family members of Timur
Location: M-37, just outside Samarkand
Hours: 09:00-19:00 daily