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Notes on the Geography of Uzbekistan: Samarkand: Shah-e Zende

From pre-Islamic times, Shah-e Zende (other spellings include Shahi Zindah) or "the living king" has long been a pilgrimage site.  The captions here are based very heavily on Tombs of Paradise: The Shah-e Zende in Samarkand and Architectural Ceramics of Central Asia, by Jean Soustiel and Yves Porter (2003).

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Uzbekistan: Samarkand: Shah-e Zende picture 1

There is a formal entrance, but we're coming from the back, which is a large cemetery deliberately located near the tomb of "the living king."  He was Qutham-ibn Abbas, a cousin of Muhammad and--arriving in Samarkand about 677--one of the first Muslims in Central Asia.  Beheaded by a Zoroastrian, he picked up his own head and disappeared down a well, where he survives underground, ruling from under the spot marked now by a mosque. The pilgrimage to his tomb goes back to the 11th century, and so does the tomb itself--but not before.  Pilgrims still come to join the ongoing prayers or (ziarat).

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At the far side of the cemetery, a huge gang of construction workers is moving earth the old-fashioned way.

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It's hard to figure out what's going on, though obviously there's no shortage of tombstones.

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The men are working around a line of tombs that has grown up around Qutham's mosque, which is marked on the right by those incongruous air-conditioners.

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Emerging from the trees at the upper left, we've circled behind the buildings and climbed a low hill.  Qutham's mosque can be seen on the right.  Everything around it was destroyed by the Mongols after 1200. Chatagay, a son of Genghis Khan, then ruled the country, and his descendants were in power for nearly two centuries, until the rise of Timur, or Tamerlane.  Qutham's tomb was one of the few things to survive the Mongols.  Perhaps that's because, as Ibn Battuta says, the Tartars made it an object of their own pilgrimage.  The cluster of surrounding tombs, however, dates from the rise of Tamerlane.  He himself is not buried here, but many of his family members are. Hence the date of most of the tombs, which were built during Tamerlane's reign, from 1370 to 1405. 

Why was Tamerlane so taken with Qutham?  According to a chronicle (quoted by Soustiel and Porter, p. 63), Tamerlane had the well searched, whereupon a subterranean gold palace was discovered.  The young explorer reported: "I saw an ornate throne and on it sat a handsome man from whom emanated an infinite light.."  Who was it?  The young explorer says he was told: "My boy, know that the eminent man seated on the throne is Qutham ibn Abbas... and he is His Majesty the Living King (Hazrat Shah-e Zende)."

This is the northern cluster of tombs, including the octagonal drum of the mausoleum called that of Amir Burunduq (1390), one of Tamerlane's generals.  Its decoration has vanished.  In the middle is the blue dome over the mausoleum of Tuman Aqa (1404), one of Tamerlane's wives.  They're both clustering close to Qutham, but note the avenue that stretches to the left.  Mostly bare ground now, it was formerly lined with tombs, all seeking the beneficence of proximity.  Note the building on the far left, with the vertical bands of turquoise.

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Here it is again, this time on the right.  It's the tomb of an unknown (c. 1385), but the breadth of the facade suggests that it was once one of the largest.  To the left is the mausoleum known only by the name of its architect, Ostad ("Master") Ali Nasafi (1380).  Its modest dome is the inner one of a pair; the outer one is gone.

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The same, seen closer.

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We're turned to the left, where another cluster of mausolea line the same axis.  The high central dome is the mausoleum of Shirin Beq.  Opposite it, and facing it across a narrow alley, is the blue facade of the mausoleum of Shad-e Mulk Aqa. Its dome has lost its tile, revealing the ribbed understructure.

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The same cluster from a different position; on the right is an octagonal tomb (occupant unknown), with a crude new cap replacing the vanished original.

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The same group at a softer time of day.  On the left is the blue dome falsely called the tomb of Qazi-zade Rumi (1425).  In the distance are the Zarafshon Mountains, a northeastern spur of the Pamirs.

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Qazi-Zade Rumi was the tutor of Tamerlane's grandson Ulug Beg, but the tomb actually held the body of a woman, perhaps one of Ulug Beg's wives. The drum carries the hadith: "The tomb is the lesser shelter of the shelters of the Afterlife." 

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The view now includes the formal entrance, or pishtak, built by Uleg Beg about 1435.

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Nothing like a map.  The formal entrance is at the bottom.  There's a flight of stairs up to the angle where the alley turns.  The large rectangle at the upper left is a now-vanished mosque from A.D. 1066. The customary division of monuments recognizes a lower group (at the base here), a middle group at the top of the stairs, and an upper group.

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The alley, seen looking from Qutham's mosque toward the dome of Shirin Beq.

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The alley again, with the middle group's mausolea of Shirin Beg Aqa on the left and Shad-e Mulk Aqa on the right.

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Looking back toward the upper group from those two mausolea.

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Chahar-Taq, the entrance to the upper group.  The dome is part of the mausoleum of Tuman Aqa.  Forced by one of Tamerlane's grandsons to remarry, she was widowed again and taken to Herat.  She commissioned this tomb, in short, but was not buried in it; one of her daughters may be.

 

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Dome detail.

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We've come up to the very end of the alley.  The mosque of Qutham imb Abbas (c. 1460) is on the right.  Straight ahead is the mausoleum of Khwaje Ahmad, 1350.  On the left is the mosque of Tuman Aqa.

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Coming a bit closer to Khwaje Ahmad.  The brick up top is recent, as is the base. (Old photos show the ground level higher than at present.) "Khwaje," by the way, is equivalent to Haji.

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Detail of  Khwaje Ahmad.  The large inscription in white reads: "may this tomb be that of the light, the garden of good fortune of Khwaje Ahmad, who had no equal in beauty."  The Persian poem wrapping the arch reads: "If you were the Shah of Iraq and the King of China, Your end would still be under the earth./ Why bind the heart to this temporal world,/ For inevitably it shall come to an end?"  Between these two inscriptions is a third, in squarish Kufic script, with the repeated and formulaic "The kingdom is God's" and "The wisdom is God's."

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Marble drain.

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Also in the upper group: this tomb of an anonymous woman, from 1360.  The outer inscription repeats "Wisdom is God's and "The kingdom is God's."  The inner inscription in large cursive letters is the so-called Throne Verse (Sura 2: 255): "There is no other god besides Him, the Living, the Eternal...  He is most high, most great."  The partially collapsed muqarnas once rose to the front of the arch, which was hidden behind them. 

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Leaving the upper group and walking down the alley to the tomb known by the architect's name: Ostad ("Master") Ali Nasafi  (1380). The external dome is missing, though a lower one (not visible here) survives.

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Shad-e Mulk, the tomb of a niece of Tamerlane. From about 1372, it's the oldest of the tombs of the Timurids.

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Detail of entrance.

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Shad-e Mulk Aqa.  The door-frame inscription reads "This is the garden where rests a treasure of felicity: this is the tomb where a rare pearl was lost..." Above it is another inscription, reading: "This ceiling covered in muqarnas and this ornate arch are expressions of beauty; they remind us that all the decoration and the art that you see in this world exists only by the grace of the Creator, the Almighty."

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Shad-e Mulk Aqa cupola.  Ribbed into eight sections with four different compositions--two of hexagonal stars and two of checkerboard squares  The medallions in the ribs and at the summit show six planets around a sun, which itself has six satellites around a central point..

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Another view.

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Glazed tiles from the wall panels of the funerary chamber.

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In a moment we'll see the contrasting style that soon developed.

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Shirin Beg Aqa, a sister of Tamerlane (1385-6). Unlike the plate-like glazed tiles of Shad-e Mulk, this mausoleum is decorated with mosaics composed of small tiles.  The inscription (brown letters on cobalt) reads: "This is the tomb of the great and noble queen Shirin Beq Aqa, daugher of Taraghay, (may) the light of God (be upon) her spirit, AH 787/AD 1385-6."

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Detail of mosaic ornament.

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The exterior of the dome of Shirin Beg Aqa.

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Inside, a twelve-sided drum supports a double dome. Soustial and Porter observe that the decoration is (p. 125) "a pale reflection of what it must have been."


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