Sunday, July 18, 2010

Uzbekistan | Samarkand | Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis

After my pilgrimage to the Tomb of Khazret Khizr, the Patron Saint of Wanderers and Marijuana, I wandered by the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis. Although most of tombs here date to the Timurid Era in the 14th and 15th centuries, the complex was founded in the eleventh century, before the invasion of Chingis Khan in 1220, and I was curious to see what if anything had survived the Mongol onslaught. Since the complex is quite large and I doubted if anything which survived Chingis’s assault on the city would be marked I decided I better hire a professional guide. I was extremely lucky in acquiring the services of Denis Vikulov, who has worked as a guide for numerous professional photographers, reporters, and writers as well as run-of-the-mine tourists like myself. Not only was he already aware of some parts of the complex said to date to before Chingis’s invasion, he also called one of his old college professors who gave him some additional hints as to what to look for.


The entrance to the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis. The south-facing ceremonial gate was constructed by order of Ulugh Beg, grandson of Amir Timur (Tamurlane) in 1434–35.
Staircase, also said to have been built by Ulugh Beg,  leading from the ceremonial gate to the main complex of mausoleums.
More than twenty mausoleums, most of them built by order of Amir Timur, line the narrow walkway through the complex. These include the tombs of Amir Timur’s favorite niece, Shadi Mulk Aga, built in 1372, his sister Shirin Bika Aga, and other relatives and members of the Timurid aristocracy. There is also a mausoleum devoted to well-known scientist and astronomer Kazi Zade Rumi, built by Amir Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg, who had A Thing for Astronomy, in 1434-1435.
Walkway through the complex lined with mausoleums
Front of one of the mausoleums
Detail of one of the mausoleums
Walkway with tombs on either side
Next to Shirin-Bika-Aga Mausoleum is the so-called Octahedron, an unusual octagon-shaped open crypt which dates back to the beginning of the fifteen century.  According to my guide, pilgrims from Azerbaijan who have visited the Shah-i-Zinda Complex (pilgrims come here from all over the world) say that such octagonal crypts are common in their country. Apparently this is the only one found in Uzbekistan. 
The Octahedron
More to the point, however, the base of the Octahedron dates back to the eleventh century, according to local historians, or before the invasion of Chingis. Whatever was originally built on the foundation was destroyed, and later the Octahedron was built on it. Historians claim the stonework of the base is typical of the tenth and eleventh centuries. 
Base of the Octahedron, said to date back to before the Chingisid invasions.
Farther north from the Octahedron is the heart of the whole Shah-i-Zinda complex, the tomb and mosque of Kusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Kusam ibn Abbas supposedly accompanied one of the very earliest invasions by Islamic Arabs of Transoxiana and was killed here in Samarkand. I have been unable to determine if this story is based on an historical incident or if it is simply a pious legend. In any case a whole corpus of legends have grown up around Kusam ibn Abbas and his tomb and mosque here in the Shah-i-Zinda complex. These need not concern us here, although I may return to this at a later date. 
Ancient wooden door at the entrance to the tomb of Kusam ibn Abbas.
Detail of the door. The inscription on the column to the right gives the name of the man who carved the door and when it was made: 1404-05 
Of more interest is the claim that parts of the Kusam ibn Abbas complex date back to before the Mongol conquest. The existing tomb and mosque, reportedly built in the fifteen and sixteenth centuries, as indicated by the door above, is said to have included some structures which survived the destruction of the original complex by the Mongols.  For instance, just inside the main door is the base and entryway to a minaret said to date to the pre-Mongol era. The top of the minaret itself was destroyed by the Chingisids but the base and entryway was incorporated into the now-existing structures. 
 Base and Entryway to Pre-Chingisid Minaret
The Tomb of Kusam ibn Abbas is behind the door at center. The inner tomb room is usually not open to the public. 
 Ceiling decoration in the outer tomb room
Detail of ceiling decoration
Just outside the tomb room of Kusam ibn Abbas is a wooden wall also said to date to before the Chingisid invasion. It survived the destruction of the orginal complex and was incorporated into the now-existing structure. Local historians claims the carvings on the wooden wall are indicative of the tenth and eleventh centuries. 
  Pre-Mongol Wooden Wall
A carved beam also said to date to before the Mongol conquest. At the top right is the carved head of a sheep, with the nose broken off. 
Just outside the outer room of  Kusam ibn Abbas’s tomb is a locked door opening onto a staircase which leads down to an underground chamber where Sufis used to do 40 day solitary meditation retreats. My guide, who over the years has managed to gain access to normally closed places like the underground crypt of Amir Timur, the Inner Tomb Room of Kusam ibn Abbas, and other even harder to enter Holy of Holies, says that he has never been able to get permission to visit this meditation chamber, and it remains somewhat of a mystery what is going on down there. Some speculate that it might still be in use by solitary meditators.