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The beautifully tiled tombs at Shah-i Zinda © Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare
With its turquoise and lapis lzuli blue tombs, this hilltop complex is the real star of Samarkand’s show.
The Registan may be Samarkand’s poster child, but for us the real star of the show is the line of blue and turquoise tiled tombs known as the Shah-i Zinda. We have always entered through the graveyard and come into the complex at the top of the hill, which gives a strange sense that you are walking back through time, a thousand ghosts your guides through the long grass and headstones. The main entrance and ticket booth are actually at the bottom of the hill by the street.
The name Shah-i Zinda translates as ‘Living King’ and it is a reference to Samarkand’s patron saint, Kusam ibn Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad who came to Uzbekistan to preach Islam but was wounded, crept beneath the city walls and, so they say, lives there to this day. Regardless of whether he died or not, one of the mausoleums within the complex is dedicated to him: the 11th-century (and predictably named) Mausoleum of Kusam ibn Abbas. Excavations have revealed there is a body inside (that of a middle-aged man), but his exact identity is unknown. The tombs at the Shah-i Zinda are loosely grouped. The earliest tombs are those at the north of the site, which date from the second quarter of the 14th century when the site was revived following the city’s sacking by the Mongols. The tiles used here are made from a terracotta base that has been painted blue–green or blue–grey prior to being glazed and fired. The same blue–grey tiles were used 70 years later to decorate the neighbouring tomb of Tumanaga, a wife of Amir Timur.
The sapphire blue tombs are part of the necropolis built for Timur’s female relatives. These mausoleums also feature painted majolica tiles. The most attractive are those of Timur’s niece, Shadi Mulk (d1372), and his sister, Shirin Bek Ata (d1386), the decoration of which includes a quote from Socrates. The central group of tombs date from the 1380s and 1390s and are built atop an earlier (11th century) madrassa. Look out for the 16-sided tomb of Amir Burunduk, the slightly later octagonal mausoleum built by Ulug Beg, and the glorious Alim Nesefi Mausoleum with its relief majolica tiles, eight-pointed stars and the inscribed names of the 12 Shi’ite imams.
The latest group of tombs are to the south of the site. These were built at the time of Ulug Beg and include the tomb of Timur’s nurse. Excavations have shown there was also a medieval bathhouse here (a strange choice of location, one would have thought). The summer mosque and small madrassa either side of the entrance gateway are from the 19th century, so relatively recent additions.