Not unlike some of the other significant historical monuments in Uzbekistan, it is impossible for a short narrative to do justice to the 900 year history of Sah-i-Zinda, a necropolis on the slopes of the ancient city of Afrosiyob in the Timirud capital of Samarkand. A knowledgable guide is almost mandatory to fully appreciate the complex, so this overview will not be so in-depth, as any attempt to do so would likely fall far short of expectations. In all, the more than 20 mausoleums which date from the 9th to the 19th century represent arguably the world’s greatest collection of islamic architecture found in a single historical ensemble. Of all the sites in Samarkand, the Sah-i-Zinda is the only one to reflect the entire 25 century history of the city, which includes the cultural layers of Afrosiyob on whose slopes the necropolis is constructed.
The entire complex consists of three sections in a straight line upwards from the vaulted gatehouse which was built during the reign of Timur’s grandson, Ulugbek. Visitors then ascend a staircase to reach the two main clusters along a central corridor. The center cluster contains impressive architecture from the time of Amir Timur, late 14th to mid 15th centuries, but the oldest standing structures of the necropolis are located in the third section, and date from the 11th century.
Evidence suggests that the Sah-i-Zinda complex was the preferred burial site for Samarkand’s nobility throughout its history. The center Timirud era cluster of tombs were built for prominent military and religious figures of that time, including members of Timur’s family. The spectacular Shadi-Mulk-aka Mausoleum (Timur’s niece) which dates from the year 1372 is particularly noteworthy, and according to guides required minimal restoration thanks to its durable terracotta construction. Unique among the monuments of the complex is the standout 15th century octagonal mausoleum known as the “Octahedron”, which is situated just past the central cluster of Timirud era tombs walking toward the upper level Qusam ibn-Abbas complex.
The late 13th to early 14th century portion of the complex contains the innermost and holiest shrine of the Sah-i-Zinda ensemble, the tomb of Qusam ibn-Abbas, cousin of the Prophet Mohammed. Qusam ibn-Abbas supposedly brought Islam to this area (when Samarkand was part of Zoroastrian Sogida) in the early 8th century when he accompanied the Arab invasion force under the Umayyad Caliphate. The earlier shrine complex was destroyed during the Mongol invasion in the year 1220, with only an 11th century minaret of an earlier mosque surviving. The entire complex was was slowly rebuilt over the next 150 years, and a new mosque was later completed in the 16th century.
As a whole, the Sah-i-Zinda offers visitors a rare opportunity to view the evolution of Islamic architecture in Central Asia over a period of nearly 1,000 years. Devastated by Genghis Khan, the restoration of the complex during the Timirud era solidified Sah-i-Zinda as a monument for the ages. Further restorations in the following centuries, including the construction of the “new” mosque within the shrine of Qusam ibn-Abbas in the 16th century, and administrative buildings near the entrance gate during the 19th century, demonstrated a commitment to preserving original architectural techniques. In 1945, the Council of People’s Commissars of the Uzbek SSR approved the reopening of the complex after it had been closed following the Russian Revolution.
Today the Sah-i-Zinda necropolis is one of the most beautiful, most visited, and most sacred monuments in Uzbekistan. Pilgrims come from across the region to visit the shrine of Qusam ibn-Abbas, and international tourists come to appreciate one of the richest and most well preserved collections of Islamic Architecture in the world. Renovations by the Uzbek Government in 2005 aggressively restored most of the missing tile-work and mosaics, and the site underwent extensive archeological excavation leading to the discovery of several pre-Mongul mausoleums. Critics say this major project was unnecessary considering the complex had survived in excellent condition for centuries with only minor restoration, and while the end result is nonetheless spectacular, much of it is unfortunately not original.