Phoenix Cities of Central Asia

Architecture of Samarkand, II
By Eileen K. Gunn
  |  Gorp.com
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The Shah-i Zinda Mausoleums

This city of the dead, a complex of 16 richly decorated royal mausoleums, dates mostly from the 14th and 15th centuries. Laid out along a path and stairway that goes up the side of a hill near the site of ancient Afrasiab, the complex is called the Living Prince, Shah-i Zinda, in honor of Qasim ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the prophet Mohammed who reportedly is buried there. The portal at the entrance was built by Ulugh Beg, but much of the complex is older, and features elaborate carved majolica tile that is among the most beautiful in the world. The shrine is still quite active, and local men and women of all ages come to pay their respects to Qasim and others buried (or at least honored) here, including Ulugh Beg's teacher, the renowned Turkish astronomer Kazi Zade Rumi, and a number of Timur's female relatives: two wives, several of his sisters, his niece, and possibly even his wet nurse.

As early as the 12th century there were mausoleums here, but most did not survive the Mongol depredations of 1220. Of those that remain, the oldest, and also the largest, is the mausoleum and mosque of Qasim, dating from 1334 to 1335. The door at the entrance once was encrusted with gold, silver, and ivory — there is nothing left but plain carved wood. A prayer niche, or mihrab, remains, made of dark green and bright blue incised tile. Some of the foundations date from the 10th century, and the grave itself from the 11th.

In the center of the complex are the dazzling facades of the buildings that commemorate Timur's niece Shadi Mulk Aka and sister Shirin Bika Aka. These well-preserved mausoleums, in which many different techniques and designs for majolica have been brought together, were probably created by craftsmen brought by Timur from Azerbaijan.

The Bibi Khanum Mosque

In 1398, newly returned from despoiling northern India, Timur vowed to build the largest, most beautiful mosque in the world. It is said that, as usual with his buildings, he was dissatisfied as soon as it was built and had the entrance torn down and redone. Clavijo reports that Timur himself directed some of the labor, even though he was sick with what turned out to be his final illness and could not stand for very long. He had himself brought in a litter to the building site, and stayed there most of each day. His servants brought large amounts of cooked meat, which was thrown to the workmen at their jobs in the foundations,"as one should cast bones to dogs in a pit." Timur, Clavijo says, even tossed some of the meat himself.

The building was of immense proportions — the iwan arch is 90 feet high, the inner court is 270 by 180 feet, the outer walls formed a rectangle of 500 by 330 feet. It undoubtedly was one of the largest buildings in the world at the time. Artistically, the Bibi Khanum mosque represents a synthesis of the Eastern architectural styles of the time, and foreshadowed the design of the smaller Gur Emir. However, because it was built so hastily, and because the technical details for supporting so large a building were not fully understood then, it began to fail within a short time after being completed. There are many stories about Bibi Khanum, reputed to be a Mongol princess and Timur's favorite wife — she supposedly supervised the building of the mosque while Timur was away on campaign, and is said to have received from the mosque's architect a kiss that left an imprint on her cheek to tell the tale. Most of the stories, apparently, are untrue, though it is quite possible that Timur's chief wife, Shadi Mulk Aka, who may or may not have been called by the title Bibi Khanum (Eldest Queen), did supervise the design and construction.

Other Buildings of Interest

Khodja Akrar madrassah: This is an ensemble of funeral mosque and madrassah, several miles south of the Registan, that was built around the grave of the leader of the Nakhshbandi dervish sect, the dominant political figure in Transoxiana after Ulugh Beg's death. Its portal tiles, depicting striped lions chasing does, are similar to those of the Shir Dor madrassah — these images defy the Islamic prohibition on figurative art.

Khodja Abdi Darun shrine: Dedicated to a 9th-century Arab jurist, this shrine was built up over the 12th to 19th centuries, a bit at a time. The original shrine was rebuilt by Ulugh Beg in the 15th century. A mosque and madrassah were added in the 19th century.

Chupan Ata shrine: This is a shrine to the legendary patron of shepherds, Chupan Ata, who is also a patron of the city of Samarkand. It was originally set in a pleasure garden that Timur had created in the 1440s for his grandson Ulugh Beg. The building itself takes the form of a mausoleum — a cube-shape building with a high, narrow drum and a cupola — but nobody is buried there.


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