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The street of the tombs

Outside the town, however, what made the deepest impression on me in Samarkand was Shakh Zinda, the Living King and its street of tombs. Begun in 1326, it is the most ancient of the monuments erected after the Mongol conquest to the memory of Koussame. son of Abbas, Mahomet's cousin.

From the verdurous alleys of a park can be seen the yellow, waste, abandoned, and dried-up monticules of Afro Siab, a vast dead surface covered with tombs. And among them, scattered far and wide over the solitary slopes, the pointed projectile shapes of the domes of a dozen mausolea, on the walls of which still glitter vestiges of enamel.

Below, by the roadside, bearded Uzbeks sit at the foot of the varnished panels of the main door of entry.

Inside appears a wide staircase, above which to the left rises the turquoise-domed mosque of Timur's wet nurse. But when one reaches the white arch at the head of the stairs, one stops in astonishment, for five facades of mosques in miniature stand in line along each side of a paved alley-way.

The riot of colours, arabesques, carvings, and inlay; the exquisite workmanship of the mosaics, the exquisite taste of the contrasting motifs is indescribable. (Personally, I am little inclined to rhapsodize over the products of Persian art, except where carpets are concerned, for their traditional elaborations, warm and velvety, enchant me always.)

To the left the facades of the mosques of the Emir Zade, of Timur's son, and of his first wife Turkan stand in line touching each other. And then suddenly I realize what a Persian carpet really is. It reproduces the miraculous facade of the mosque, the ogival-framed portal, the Iwan-arch as immutable as our cross itself, which is an exact replica of the 'mirhab' that oval alcove shaped like a beehive that serves as the sanctuary, and before which the mullah always kneels, "never weary, it would seem, of his holy gymnastics."

The interior of the Turkan Aka is very fine, and contains many tombstones. The inside of the dome is covered with glowing geometric designs in mosaic. Facing it lie buried the Emir Hussein, one of Tamerlane's sisters, and also a daughter.

The alley-way makes a turn: the walls have lost their facing of enamel. Then come three mausolea, after which follows a second porch near two ancient trees, cuttings from which afford a sovereign cure for all diseases. Then one enters a tiny courtyard, incomparably beautiful. Ultramarine blends with turquoise, sea-green with emerald, cobalt with burnt siena, lapis-lazuli with ochre; the colours seem reflected in each other, and, enhanced by the warm glow of the earthen bricks, leap like a chant of glory towards the blue sky.

The mosques of Kutluk and Nuri, Timur's wife and daughter, face each other. Last of all, blocking the street is that of Saint Achmed. The dazzling pillars of the Kutluk mosque are pure turquoise in colour, and carved in high relief, an art found nowhere but in Turkestan.

The mullah standing under the dome of the portico throws open the incredibly fine fretted door of wood, which by devious dark chambers leads to the mosque of Shakh Zinda, Saint Kassim, also known as Hussan. He converted the whole of Sogdiana to Islam in the seventh century, but then the Nestorian Christians attacked him. His army annihilated, he fled away, and an angel revealed a grotto where he took refuge and is said still to live. As his horse was dying, he flung away his 'kamtcha' (whip), which took root and became the two trees near the porch. It is said of him also that, decapitated by the pagans, he withdrew into a well, carrying his head in his hands, till the moment should come to purge the earth of every infidel.

In the antechamber to the tomb 'buntchuks' stand erect. Horses' tails hang from the poles round which bits of stuff are wrapped, each testifying to some offered sacrifice. The tail is an emblem of might, for the horse made good its escape, leaving its tail in the hands of the man of invincible might. Darkness shrouds the tomb, railed off and unapproachable.

"Turkestan Solo" by Ella Maillart