Shah-i-Zinda in the UNESCO-listed city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan is an incredible complex of mausoleums, mosques and madrassahs. Some of the buildings of Shah-i-Zinda have undergone significant and controversial renovations and reconstructions.
The most important of these shrines, alluded to by the name “Shah-i-Zinda” meaning “living king”, is what is thought to be the mausoleum of Kusam ibn Abbas, cousin of the Prophet Mohammed.
With the Arab invasion of Samarkand in the 7th century came Qutham ibn Abbas – the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad. Qutham ibn Abbas preached Islam and was consequently beheaded. However, according to legend the beheaded ibn Abbas did not die and his head went into the deep well of the Garden of Paradise where he lives now.
The Shah-i-Zinda was built around the story of Qutham ibn Abbas from the 11th century. These early buildings’ foundations and headstones were built upon in the 14th and 15th centuries by Timur – the Turco-Mongol emperor and conqueror – comprising the Kusam-ibn-Abbas mausoleum and mosque.
The cool and quiet rooms were decorated from top to bottom with stunning Timurid tile-work of rich blues and yellow ochre. Particularly beautiful are the portal-domed Shodi Mulk Aga and Shodi Bika Aga Mausoleums built in 1372 as the resting places of the sister and niece of Timur.
Later, in the 15th century, Ulugbek also buried his favourites near the original sacred shrine of Qutham ibn Abbas. The scientist and astronomer Kazi Zade Rumi was entombed in a mausoleum comparable with those of the royal family. Under Ulugbek, the main entrance gate was also built between 1434 and 1435.
With only minor touch-ups because of the super quality of the construction, the tombs at Shah-i-Zinda underwent controversial restoration in 2005.
As a result of the aggressive modern restorations, much of the mosaic and terracotta detailing you see today is not original. However, the magnificent domed and blue-tiled mausoleums tower high into the blue skies, testifying to the great skill of early Islamic architects.
Open from 9am to 7pm, visitors should be considerate of Shah-i-Zinda’s status as an important Islamic pilgrimage site and should dress conservatively and enter with respect. Ultimately, the religious significance and serenity of the site provides a welcome peaceful opportunity to explore the beautiful architecture.
Getting to Shah-i-Zinda
The Shah-i-Zinda complex is located along Shah-i-Zinda Street in Samarkand, just off the M37, and is a 19 minute drive from Samarkand’s International Airport.