Shahi-Zinda Necropolis is one of the most visually stunning architectural monuments of Amir Temur’s times in Samarkand. Initially the necropolis started at the end of the 9th century in the outskirts of Afrosiab, near the shrine of holy Kusam ibn Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed. Yet mausoleums continued to appear near the sacred site as far as the mid-15th century. Kusam ibn Abbas was killed in a fight with pagans in Samarkand in the 7th century and was buried on the south-eastern slope of the Afrosiab site. Yet the legend says he was not killed, but went down through a well to stay underground and on the appointed day to come back to people. Thus Shahi-Zinda, Kusam’s nickname meaning ‘Living King’, in the later period gave the name to the whole complex. Of the fourteen existing mausoleums of the complex the burial vault of Kusam ibn Abbas is the oldest. The entrance to the necropolis - the portal built by Ulugbek in 1435 on behalf of his younger son Abdulaziz - was the latest construction in the complex. The inscription on the portal said, ‘This majestic building was founded by Abdulaziz Khan, a son of Ulugbek Guragan, a son of Amir Temur’s son Shahrukh”.
Starting almost from the entrance portal, there is a stone staircase leading up the slope to the ancient mausoleums. The upper group of the buildings, surrounding the shrine of Kusam ibn Abbas, was mainly erected before Temur’s rule. The mausoleum over the tomb of Kusam ibn Abbas was built in the 11th century; in the consequent centuries it was repeatedly rebuilt.
In 1334 adjacent to gurkhona-the burial vault there was built a ziaratkhona - a room for praying. By order of Amir Temur a new dome was built over the mausoleum; the complex was supplemented with a chillyakhona - a room for the 40-day fast, and a room for keeping cult stocks. Behind the wooden lattice in the gurkhona stands the splendid multi-step sagana tombstone, made in the 1370s. It is faced with majolica with fine botanical patterns embellished with gold. All the year round numerous pilgrims visit the mausoleum of Kusam ibn Abbas, which for centuries has been considered a Moslem shrine.
Since this part of Afrosiab was a densely built-up area in the 10th century, the mausoleums form a kind of a narrow street. Next to Kusam’s complex stand two domed mausoleums built in the mid-14th century. Their portals are covered with light- and dark-blue glazed tiles. In one of these mausoleums some Hajji Ahmad was buried. As for the other, it is only known that it was built by the architect Ali Nesefi.
For a Muslim it was always honor to be buried close to the grave of the saint, and soon a few mausoleums of Amir Temur’s closest relatives were built there. Of the upper mausoleums the closest to the shrine is the mausoleum of Tuman Aka, Temur’s wife. It is decorated with polychromic mosaic and its walls contain paintings of elegant flowers and stalks; the interior of the dome looks like a blue vault of the heaven with golden stars. The portal still contains the name of the architect: Sheikh Mohammed ibn Hajji Bandgira al-Tugri from Tebriz.
Among the mausoleums of the middle group stands out the faceted dome of the mausoleum of Emir Burunduk, one of Temur’s associates. Next to it there is a nameless mausoleum of an uncommon lay-out - octahedron.
Turkan Aka, one of Temur’s sisters, built here the mausoleum for herself and her daughter Shadi Mulk Aka, who died at an early age. This mausoleum is one of the most beautiful constructions in the complex. It has delicate ganch stucco carvings and its portal is faced with majolica decorations depicting a grapevine. Above the entrance to the mausoleum there still remains the following touching inscription: “This is the garden where the treasure of happiness was buried. This is the tomb where a precious pearl has been lost and where the one who has the figure of a cypress has taken refuge”. This mausoleum of 1372 is believed to be the earliest architectural monument of the times of Amir Temur’s rule in Samarkand.
Opposite Shadi Mulk Aka’s mausoleum there stands the mausoleum of Shirin Bika Aka, another Temur’s sister. Its walls were for the first time ever covered with carved mosaic. Its interior is not typical of a mausoleum: there are windows below the dome to let the light in. Window openings were decorated with composite panjara lattices containing pieces of stained glass to create extraordinary lighting effect. The tiles of the wall panels were covered with very fine golden tracery; the space above the panels still contain the remains of former painting of trees and birds.
The mausoleums of the lower group of the complex are situated at the foot of the stairs. The most remarkable of them is the one with two domes. It is notable for its large size and yet fine proportions. It had been for a long time believed that the mausoleum held the remains of the famous astronomer Qadi-Zada al-Rumi, Ulugbek’s associate. However, the examination of gurkhana crypt of this mausoleum proved that it contained the graves of some women. The folklore ascribes these graves to be those of Amir Temur’s wet-nurse and her daughter.
Though Shahi-Zinda mausoleums were built at different times, they make up one of the most fascinating architectural ensembles in Central Asia, whereas the artistic decor of the tombs provides clear idea of Oriental decorative styles development.