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Shah-i-Zinda Ensemble

In 1434-35 Ulug Beg built the grand pishtak (entrance portal) as a finishing touch to the southern end of Shah-i-Zinda. Behind it is the first of three chortak, domed transit halls, here flanked by a mosque and prayer halls, leading to the 1910 wooden iwan of a 19th century mosque opposite the Davlet Kushbegi Madrassah (1813). Halfway up the steep Staircase of Sinners ahead rise the twin blue domes of the Qazi Zadeh Rumi mausoleum (1420-25), the largest in the complex, though the skeleton beneath was female, perhaps Tamerlane's wet nurse, rather than his grandson Ulug Beg's astronomer-tutor. Through the second chortak at the top are the brick-ribbed domes of the Emir Hussein mausoleum (1376) to the right and opposite the Emir Zade (1386). The former is also called Tuglu-Tekin, after the mother of Tamerlane's general Hussein, while the latter commemorates an unknown emir's son, yet their finely worked facades bright with colour pale beside the adjacent pair of mausoleums-the Shadi Mulk Aka and the Shirin Bika Aka.

The left-hand Shadi Mulk Aka (1372) was the first Timurid structure in Samarkand and takes pride of place in Shah-i-Zinda. The inscription "This is a tomb in which a precious pearl has been lost" describes Tamerlane's beautiful young niece, buried and later joined by his eldest sister Turkhan Aka. The plain brickwork on its melon-shaped dome and three external facades highlights the brilliance of its lace-like portal. From the stalactite vault over the entrance to the filigree corner columns run panels of carved and glazed terracotta and majolica, exhausting the turquoise-blues and floral motifs of the age. An octagonal star crowning the tiled interior divides the dome into eight sections pierced by a teardrop medallion, a jewel in the cosmos of the cupola, for each tear conceals a sun and six planets.

Opposite, the Shirin Bika Aka Mausoleum (1385), ascribed to another sister of Tamerlane, also boasts its original decor. The later date explains the first appearance of true mosaic tilework in Samarkand, for the conqueror had abducted craftsmen from Iran and Azerbaijan. Instead of relief carving, the entire portal is faced with incised majolica mosaic in calligraphic inscription and scrolling floral patterns. Other innovations include a tall, 16-sided drum, tiled cupola and interior murals in gold paint. Panjera windows with coloured glass illuminate traces of landscapes and mythical beasts suggesting chinoiserie.

The nearby 15th century octagonal mausoleum, an open-air rotunda faced in glazed brick, remains anonymous to history, as do the next four mausoleums on the left. The second preserves the name of architect Ustad Alim Nasafi, creator (c. 1385) of a vibrantly coloured star design tightly bound in epigraphic straps, such as "There is no creation that does not disappear; there is no friendship except in sleep". Stalactites and multi-coloured majolica coat the interior. The portal fragment of the third mausoleum, named after an Ulug Sultan Begum (c. 1385), shows stellar patterns in blue, red and gold. Last is the large, unfinished mausoleum (c. 1390) attributed to Tamerlane's general Emir Burunduk.

The final chortak connects Kussam's shrine on the east wiLh the northern courtyard. To the left is the mosque and mausoleum complex (1404-5) built by and for Tamerlane's favourite young wife Tuman Aka. Beneath a sky-blue dome the chamber portal carries lavish mosaic faience resembling Shirin Bika, though the geometric designs and violet-blue are new. Calligraphy above the finely carved door reads "The tomb is a door and everybody enters it".

The inner cupola paints a blue night with golden stars above delicate landscape murals. Closing the street is the Khodja Akhmad Mausoleum (c.1350), second oldest in the ensemble and prototype lor the rest-a domed cube wi th elaborate facade. Samarkand master Fakhri Ali signed its carved and glazed terracotta portal. The adjoining mausoleum (1361), popularly linked to Tamerlane's wife Kutlug Aka, reveals similar decoration and motifs, while features like the stalactite hood serve as a model for the later Shadi Mulk.

The chortak's eastern door (1405), though stripped of gold, silver and ivory, retains exquisite carving framed by calligraphy welcoming the true believer to paradise, for three pilgrimages here equal one to Mecca. Just inside is a section of 11th century minaret whose top peers out of the roof. Built in brick reminiscent of the Samanid mausoleum in Bukhara, it is Samarkand's only fully preserved pre-Mongol structure. A vaulted corridor leads to the Kussam-ibn-Abbas Mosque (1460), a three-domed rectangle with blue-tiled miluah, before the brightly tiled ziaratkhona (room for pilgrimage), rebuilt in 1334 on 11th century foundations-an original wooden frieze of grapes and Arabic nestles beside the doorway and underground lie chillyakhona cells for 40-day fasts. Visible through a wooden trellis is the focus of every visit, the gurkhona (grave chamber) housing Kussam's four-tier tombstone (c.1380), a blaze of majolica richly coloured and gilded in floral styles and Koranic inscription: "Those who were killed on the way of Allah are not to be considered dead: indeed they are alive."

A walk around the adjacent cemetery provides a panorama of Shah-i-Zinda's varied cupolas and proof of the popularity of sacred proximity, from simple Muslim graves to striking Soviet memorials. Count the steps on your way down the Staircase of Sinners. If the number dilfers from your ascent, your penance is to climb them a further 40 times on your knees. That is the step total, a holy number for many religions, expressed locally by hair plaits and mourning schedules.