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Shah-Zindeh mosque in Turkestan

Mosques of TamerlaneINDEX

The Princess Mary Gargarine on the mosques of Tamerlane

Originally published in AR April 1910, this piece was republished online in April 2016

The mosque of Shah-Zindeh, which translated means the “Living King,” is one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, of all those found in Turkestan. It was built by Tamerlane or Tim ur in honour of Kassim-ibn-Abbas, who was the first to introduce Islamism into Samarkand.

The building of this mosque is mentioned in the works of Abou-Taguir-Khodja, in the book called “Samarkand,” translated from the Persian in the following terms: “Of all the buildings existing at the time of Tamerlane, the principal was the mausoleum of Prince Kassim-ibn-Abbas. The most skilful workmen, calligraphers, poets, and ingenious men were summoned to Samarkand for its construction, from Teheran and other towns of distant countries. They adorned the facade and dome of this mausoleum with many coloured tiles-red, white, yellow, blue, and black, and further ornamented the building with inscriptions of the most beautiful calligraphy in Koufi, Moakkali, Sulsi, Korani, and Kitabi characters. These inscriptions proclaim the names of God, prayers, verses out of the Koran, sayings of the Prophet, and the names of queens and their children. In this mausoleum are buried moreover the children and principal statesmen of Tamerlane.”

The name of this building, says a local legend, was given to it because a certain king is hidden under it. This king was so good, and God was so pleased with him, that when the time for dying arrived he descended into some vaults which were on the site of the mosque, the ground gave way under him, and there he lives for ever. A rather ghastly recompense, one should think, and not so very much to be envied. It was in remembrance of this legend that the mosque was called “Shah-Zindeh.”

Mosques of Tamerlane02

Mosques of Tamerlane02

The tomb of Tamerlane’s sister and her three children

The building rises on the heights which cover the ruins of the ancient town of Afroziab (so called in honour of King Afroziab, who, according to local tradition, founded the town now known as Samarkand in 4000 BC), and consists of a whole network of separate constructions, probably built at different times.

There are in all eleven separate divisions, besides many small niches for water-bottles ranged along the sides of an open alley-way some sixty yards long. Chapels, prayer-rooms, schools, niches, end in a round, roofless chamber. Most of them are occupied by tombs of relations and friends of Tamerlane, his nurse, daughters, sisters, wives, nieces, ministers, and generals, as the inscriptions on either the chapel or on the tombstone testify.

Half-way along a gallery a wide flight of steps begins to ascend. Chapels are placed on either hand, then niches for holding water-jars. The incised tile decoration to these buildings is extremely beautiful, having an effect of Oriental splendour.

Higher up there is a bricked-up arch of a pleasant shape; the small door at the left leads to the lodgings of the Mollahs. On the right there is a beautifully carved wooden door, with bronze hinges and a curious iron lock leading through a short corridor to a room in which, behind a screen, two Korans are kept-one six feet by four, and the other about ten inches square, very profusely ornamented with flower illuminations. However, the large Koran is not the original one, but a sixteenth-century copy, which was made to save the older one from the wear and tear of everyday use. The older Koran was taken away, and is now at the Hermitage Museum at St. Petersburg.

Mosques of Tamerlane04

Mosques of Tamerlane04

Detail of the tilework on the chapel built over the tombs of Ichonchown-bin-Aga and of a sister of Tamerlane

Beyond the Koran-room is a small mosque, the floor of which is covered with carpets. A feeble light from a hanging lamp scarcely suffices to show the faint traces of arabesque paintings on the walls. There is in this mosque a large hole in the floor, covered with a wooden lattice, which gives into the tomb of the saint, Kassim-ibn-Abbas, over whose bones the whole Shah-Zindeh was built.

Over the lattice hangs a curious trophy, composed of two flags, one red and one green, and of a wooden hand with the five fingers outstretched, signifying that the saint knew everything as well as his five fingers. To the right of the Koran room there is another, in which is a white marble slab, about seven feet long and half as wide, with another trophy standing above it, composed of many-coloured rags which are brought by the faithful in the hope of getting relief from mental and physical sufferings. On the slab itself are some huge horns of wild goats and of wild sheep. This room serves as a store-room for all the offerings of pious Moslems whose belief in Kassimibn-Abbas brings them to his shrine.

Mosques of Tamerlane03

Mosques of Tamerlane03

An example of ‘restoration’ work

The gallery ends in a round, open building, very dilapidated, but still very beautiful. To the left of this building a small wicket-gate leads beyond the walls of the Shah-Zindeh to the extensive ruins of the dead town of Afroziab. There is reason to believe that this round, once roofed-in building must have been the principal mosque of the Shah-Zindeh.

Eight domes are still standing over the different buildings of the Shah-Zindeh, varying in shape. The most beautiful is the one over the tomb of Shirim-bin-beg-aga, covered with green, blue, and white tiles of different shapes - round, square, triangular, star-shaped. It is a hopeless task to try to describe the beauty and splendour of the Shah-Zindeh - it is a great architectural achievement of the Oriental genius, and to describe it “language has no words, imagination has no colours,” as the Arab proverb says. In its exterior decoration all the colours have been used: the tiles are green, turquoise blue, lapis-lazuli blue, white, red, lilac, rose, black, ruby red, and of all shapes, stars, flowers, geometrical designs mingling with arabesques, marble incrustations, and Koufi inscriptions.

Mosques of Tamerlane06

Mosques of Tamerlane06

Room where the Quran’s are kept

The decorative effect of Koufi writing is too well known to be dwelt upon here. Perhaps what strikes one most are the columns made of the same glazed tiles, moulded to the desired shape, each piece adjusted to the next with perfect precision, and moreover carved and fretted into most delicate and intricate designs, every detail as fine, as finished, as a jewel; for every capital, pedestal, arch, column, angle, a special-shaped tile has been needed, for each a different mould. Some columns bear either the date or the name of the craftsman, carved in a lace-like design; the arches and the tombs bear the name of the founder, or of the dead who rest there, or a text. Texts especially recur continually; the bindings of the domes, the arches, whole walls, are covered with them. Sometimes these texts are worked on to one piece of tile, sometimes they are composed of a quantity of small oblong tiles, forming a network of design which to the inexperienced eye, unaccustomed to the Oriental alphabet, seems a decorative design without any meaning.

These tiles are the distinguishing mark of the Samarkand monuments. The beauty of the colouring is undimmed by age, and the solidity of the material is wonderful. Nowadays the glaze of the best tiles cracks after two or three years’ use and often falls away in scales. The tiles made by these Central-Asian workmen centuries ago have stood triumphantly the test of years of exposure in a climate where the changes of temperature are most violent. Tiles in general are difficult to manufacture, through the uneven degree of expansion produced by the heat of the oven on the clay and the glaze. The skill of the workman consists in hitting on the equal relations of those two parts. It is this that our modern workmen do not attain. The curious part of the matter is that, with such thorough knowledge of chemistry and technique, those workmen of long ago were so profoundly ignorant of architectural laws - they built most of their monuments, including the Shah-Zindeh, without foundations!

The Gour-Emir (“The Tomb of the Sovereign’’), improperly called a mosque, is the mausoleum of Tamerlane himself. It stands not far from the handsome Abramofsky Park, and is itself surrounded with trees, which make a lovely setting for this most remarkable monument. Standing at the junction of the old native and new Russian towns, several fine avenues, bordered with four rows of silver poplars, converge not far from it, and it is through these silver poplars and the darker foliage of the elm that the view is obtained.

Mosques of Tamerlane07

Mosques of Tamerlane07

Exterior of the Tomb of Tamerlane

The upper portion of the cylindrical basement on which rests the dome is simply ornamented with lapis-lazuli-blue tiles on turquoise-blue ones. Save for a few discreet touches of yellow, which only serve to enhance the other two colours, there are no other colours used in this part of the monument. Then comes a wide band composed of the usual four colours: dark lapis-lazuli blue, light turquoise blue, white, and the natural colour of the brick, the design consisting of a colossal inscription in white characters, with a dark blue edge to them, which encircles the whole of the tower and can be easily read from a distance. The dome, covered with splendid turquoise tiles, can be seen from every side, rising above the trees, and is slightly elongated and ribbed liked a melon. To get into the mausoleum you enter into a yard enclosed by a brick balustrade, built by the Russians, massive and low, and insignificant enough not to be offensive. Two side chapels· covered with black marble contain the tombs of several Timouricles, while the central chapel, under the dome, contains the remains of Tamerlane. Round the door inscriptions tell us the name of the architect: “Poor Abdullah, the son of Mahmoud of Ispahan.”

The interior is a square hall covered with sculptured inscriptions and geometrical patterns. Unlike similar ornaments found in Morocco and especially in Spain (in the Alhambra, for instance), these ornaments are not moulded in plaster, but chiselled out of a hard black stone; the other stone used is carboniferous limestone, which is found in the valley of the Zarafshan.

Mosques of Tamerlane10

Mosques of Tamerlane10

A niche with water-bottles

The interior of the dome is about eighty feet high. Eight sarcophagi rest on the floor, surrounded by a charming white marble balustrade; a ninth sarcophagus is outside the balustrade. Tamerlane’s tomb is nearly in the centre, and is made of dark green jade, the “magic stone.” Even now it is highly prized in Central Asia, on account of its power of driving away evil spirits. The size of this tomb is astonishing, for jade is never found in large pieces, and the largest are found in some of the least accessible mountains in the south and extreme west of China, in the Yunnan. In Tibet the most important deposit is situated on the east slope of the Pamirs, not far from Yarkand, so that to the rarity of the stone is added the difficulty of transport. There it is rarely found in blocks larger than a melon, and is mostly used for amulets, jewels, and small curios, patiently and delicately carved by the Chinese.

Imagine, then, how difficult it must have been to realise Tamerlane’s desire to rest through the centuries in a jade coffin! His tomb consists of three pieces, beautifully adjusted and covered with fifteenth-century Persian inscriptions, which have been translated by the late Baron Rosen. The inscription contains first a genealogy of Tamerlane up to Toumanai-Khan; secondly, the genealogy of Tchenguiss-Khan up to Bouzandjar, son of Alankouf; thirdly, the story of the marnage of Alankouf with a sunbeam which penetrated into her tent; fourthly, the exact date of Tamerlane’s death: 14th day of the month of Shaaban, of the 807th year, and an indication that Tamerlane was a descendant of Ali, son of Abou-Talib. Among the other tombs, one more beautiful still is made of pale greyish-green jade, and rests over the remains of Tamerlane’s eldest son, DjehanGuir who died before his father in the year 806 of the Hegira (1403). At Tamerlane’s feet lies Mirza-Ouloug-Beg, the Oriental Marcus-Aurelius, sovereign and philosopher. To the right is the tomb of Shah-Rokh, Tamerlane’s fourth son, who reigned for forty-three years over the vast empire of his father. The south extremity of the hall is occupied by a more important sarcophagus, of grey stone, very much the worse for wear and surmounted by a little cupola, as are those used for the tombs of saints. It is further ornamented with some flags, and he who lies there in the place of honour, and at whose feet Tamerlane expressly desired to rest, is Tamerlane’s professor of philosophy, Said-Mir-Barakhat.

Mosques of Tamerlane11

Mosques of Tamerlane11

A carved wooden door

The remaining tombs are those of Said-Mir-Barakhat’s two children, and the last is that of Tamerlane’s Vizir. These tombs do not contain the bodies, which are buried in a lower hall, each exactly under the stones placed in the upper hall. A short staircase leads to this crypt, where are the real tombs, each body lying in a raised stone sarcophagus.

Although not so lavishly decorated as the Shah-Zindeh, the Gour-Emir has a charm of its own, apart from historical interest (perhaps because it is more complete-perhaps because of its setting of trees), and is, among the monuments of Samar-kand, the one most to be remembered.