Shah-I Zinda, Samarkand

The Shah-I Zinda is a funerary complex in the city of Samarkand located on the south side of the hill of Afrasiyab (“Shah-I Zindah”). The name of the complex means “King of Life,” or “Living King,” named for a legend that Qusam ibn Abbas, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousins. After Qusam was beheaded during a battle, he is said to have carried his head to a well near the site and descended underground to reside eternally in a subterranean palace as a “Living King” (“Shah-I Zindah,” Hill 53). Archeological studies show that construction on the site began as early as the ninth century, but most of the present buildings were constructed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (Hill 53).

The earlier tombs from the fourteenth century are clustered around Qusam’s shrine at the top of the hill, while later structures descend down the southern slope of the hill in a linear order (“Shah-I Zindah”). In 1434-35, Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg had a monumental gate constructed on the southern end of the site that functioned as the ceremonial entrance to the site and connected it to the city (“Shah-I Zindah,” Hill 53). Visitors to the site ascend the southern slope of Afrasiyab hill along a 200-meter corridor lined with roughly forty funerary structures. Many of the structures were built to house the remains of female members of the Timurid family, such as one of the principle mausoleums which is dedicated to one of Timur’s nieces, Shad-I Mulk Aka, who died in 1372 (Hill 53).

The architecture at Shah-I Zinda represents a more private type of architecture that emphasizes piety over grandeur. Since these buildings were sponsored by lower members of the aristocracy, they reflect their taste and financial abilities (Hill 54). The typical mausoleum there consists of a square tomb chamber, covered by a double shell dome. The front of the mausoleum faces the corridor with a pishtaq marking the entrance to the building (“Shah-I Zindah”).

Contributor: Marina Schneider


“Aramgah-I Shah-I Zindah,” archnet,

Hill, Derek. Islamic Architecture and its Decoration A.D. 800-1500. London: Faber and Faber, 1967.