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Chupan Ata Shrine

On the hilltop around and beyond the observatory, in the pleasure garden Tamerlane had planted for his infant grandson, Ulug Beg erected a hall of Chinese porcelain and a two-storey summer palace, Chihil Sutun (Forty Pillars), a marvel of fluted, twisted stone columns. The only survivor is a shrine to Chupan Ata (Father of Shepherds), a pre-Islamic figure of legend adopted as patron both by nomads and the city of Samarkand. Built for pilgrims in the 1440s, its high, cylindrical drum still bears a Kufic inscription in coloured tiles, but the tombstone in the mausoleum chamber has no grave below it. A legend connects Chupan Ata with the arrival of Islam. When the first three Arab missionaries reached the city, they rested on this hill to determine their future journeys by cutting up and boiling a sheep. Chupan Ata put his hand in the pot and drew out the head, which gave him first choice; he chose to remain in Samarkand. Another drew the heart and decided to return to Mecca, while the third got the hindquarters and elected Baghdad. Thus Samarkand was called the head and Mecca the heart of Islam (Baghdad wisely ignores the legend). The shrine, visible from the Shah-i-Zindah and the Tashkent-Samarkand road, lies a 45-minute walk from the observatory beside a military installation, so maps omit its location and visitors are discouraged.

On the Tashkent side of the hill, bus passengers may also spot the Zerafshan Arches crumbling into the river downstream of the railway bridge. While popularly ascribed to Tamerlane or Abdullah Khan, another energetic builder, they probably formed part of a chain of water channelling bridges erected by the latter's ancestor Shaybani at the beginning of the 16th century.