The holiest site in Samarkand is a necropolis of mausoleums climbing back in time from the northeast fringe of Tamerlane's capital over the old city wall and onto the southern slope of ancient Afrosiab. This is Samarkand’s most moving and beloved site, the stunning avenue of mausoleums (working hours 8am-7pm Apr-Oct, 9am-5pm Nov-Mar) contains some of the richest tilework in the Muslim world. In the 14th and 15th centuries, it developed into an architectural testing ground whose celebration of ceramic art, unrivalled in Central Asia, makes this street of the dead perhaps the most visually stunning sight in a city of superlatives.
The name, which means ‘Tomb of the Living King’, refers to its original, innermost and holiest shrine – a complex of cool, quiet rooms around what is probably the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed who is said to have brought Islam to this area in the 7th century. Legend traces its history back to 676, when Kussam-ibn-Abbas arrived to convert Zoroastrian Sogdiana to Islam. The success of his preaching provoked a gang of fire-worshippers to behead him whilst he was at prayer. It appears the Arabs established Kussam, who probably never saw Samarkand, into the cult of Shah-i-Zinda (the Living King) by adapting a pre-lslamic mythical ruler, maybe Afrosiab himself, reigning beyond death beneath the earth. The Mongol conquest flattened the surrounding complex but left Kussam's grave alone, as Moroccan traveller ibn-Battuta reported in 1333: "The inhabitants of Samarkand come out to visit it every Sunday and Thursday night. The Tartars also come to visit it, pay vows to it and bring cows, sheep, dirhams, and dinars; all this is used for the benefit of the hospital and the blessed tomb."
A shrine to Qusam existed here on the edge of Afrosiab long before the Mongols ransacked it in the 13th century. Shah-i-Zinda began to assume its current form in the 14th century as Timur and later Ulugbek buried their family and favourites near the Living King. Excavations at mausoleum of Kusam ibn Abbas have revealed there is a body inside (that of a middle-aged man), but his exact identity is unknown.
The Timurid aristocracy continued the tradition of building mausoleums near the sacred site, often on earlier remains. These works display the creative wealth of the empire in surprising harmony, for no mausoleum repeats another. Their modest size permits an intimacy impossible in more grandiose projects. When American diplomat Schulyer visited the saints grave in 1876 he heard of "a prophecy that he was to appear in f 868 to defeat the Russians; but Samarkand was occupied, and Shah Zindeh appeared not, so that his fame has of late somewhat fallen off." Worshippers still flocked to the necropolis until Soviet conversion into an anti-religious museum forced visitors to cloak their beliefs with secular trappings. Independence has restored sanctity to the street, holy men to its mosques and pilgrims to its tombs.
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.
The most beautiful tomb is the Shodi Mulk Oko Mausoleum (1372), resting place of a sister and niece of Timur, second on the left after the entry stairs. The exquisite majolica and terracotta work here – notice the miniscule amount of space between the tiles – was of such exceptional quality that it merited almost no restoration.
One can enter 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.
If you can tear your eyes away from the tombs themselves, it is worth popping Inside the tiny museum. Some pre-restoration tiles are on display and, more informatively, photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries showing how the Shah-i Zinda looked before the restoration work was done. Though the extent to which renovation should be done is frequently a contentious issue, there can be little doubt here that drastic measures were required before the tombs disappeared forever.
Though its not actually part of the same complex, if you have time you should walk across the modern graveyard alongside the Shah-i Zinda to the Hazrat Hizr Mosque. Named in honour of a mythical saint, its position atop Afrosiabs Hill gives superb views across the city. There have been several buildings on this site. It was first a Zoroastrian temple, but was sacked and converted into a mosque soon after the Arab invasion. The present mosque dates from 1854 and has finely painted ceilings and plasterwork.
Shah-i-Zinda is an important place of pilgrimage, so enter with respect and dress conservatively.