Section Icon

The Grave of a Living King

Copied to clipboard!

Shah-i Zinda, the Living King, has ruled over a sea of graves on the hills of the city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for centuries. His current abode is an inaccessible subterranean chamber underneath a shrine that sits amid a series of elaborately decorated mausoleums constructed in the fourteenth century. We have reports of him residing in an older shrine in the same place from the eleventh century onward. Stories about him, retold for centuries, say his proper name is Qutham b. ‘Abbas and that he was a cousin of Muhammad. Stories also say he was present as a child at the time of the Prophet’s death and saw and touched the body as it went into a grave in Medina in the year 632.

After a career as a governor of Medina and Mecca under the rule of his cousin ‘Ali (d. 661), he left Arabia and arrived, and was possibly killed, at the outskirts of Samarkand in 677. Through processes that cannot be reconstituted, and at an unknown point before the fourteenth century, he became regarded as a king of the dead who will live until the end of time. He is expected to emerge just before the apocalyptic end of the world promised in the Quran and other religious literature.

I am interested in Shah-i Zinda, the shrine complex as well as the person, as a site to consider the thematization of death as the only future certain for all human beings. The central figure involved here bridges between life and death, the signposts that define time as bodily experience. Through the extraordinarily long life attributed to him, he also signifies time as duration extending to centuries, which we usually encounter in transmissions via narratives and other forms of material culture. Stories associated with Shah-i Zinda encompass earthly and otherworldly futures, providing a condensed view into major motifs in Islamic understandings of anticipated time.

Detail of a gravestone with Arabic script calligraphy on its side.

Carved grave marker in the courtyard at Shah-i Zinda.


Photo © Shahzad Bashir (2020)

Journey to an Empty Grave

As it exists today, the Shah-i Zinda site is a recently reconstructed version of a vast mortuary complex that took shape during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. One enters the complex from a grandiose doorway with carved wooden doors. On the left side, past a vestibule, is an open air place to pray, usually occupied by religious professionals and visitors who have come to the site for pilgrimage. In front is a steep staircase of forty steps that used to be covered with marble until the nineteenth century. At the top of the stairs, an arch leads into a narrow alley angling to the right and flanked by tall facades that cast a permanent shadow. Once in the alley, there is another large doorway in the distance, immediately beyond which lies, on the right, the chamber that holds the cenotaph of Qutham b. ‘Abbas.

On the way to the main sanctuary, one passes by a series of small chambers with one or more graves. Some of the interred are anonymous, while others are women and men, about half and half, who belong to high-status families connected to Samarkand circa 1300–1500 CE. Archaeological work indicates the presence of about forty mausoleums, although not all of these are still standing. In various open spaces on a large brick platform as well as all around the chambers, there are numerous other graves and partial remains of grave stones and coverings with elaborate calligraphy. Being buried close to the saint mattered to the city’s political and administrative elites. Graves on all the hilly areas surrounding the main complex indicates the continuation of this practice to the present.

To reach the Living King’s chamber, one enters through an ornate doorway into a long passage that is starkly white. Passing through several passageways that often turn at sharp angles, one sees various rooms and a large chamber set up as a mosque. At the end of this process, one enters the main shrine itself, whose walls and high dome are utterly covered with tiles, painted patterns, and squinches. Inside, there are low benches on three sides, usually occupied by religious professionals and visitors ranging between pilgrims and tourists. One wall contains a wooden grill behind which is placed Qutham b. ‘Abbas’s fourteenth-century cenotaph famous for its tilework. Next to the grill is an opening in the wall that leads to a small room with a platform and whitewashed walls. Visitors leave money on the platform as tribute.

I have described the journey to the main sanctuary in some detail to underscore that visiting this site is an affecting experience. The physical setup is such that it takes time and effort to get to the prize. As one moves on foot, the surrounding environment is rich with varied decoration in blue tiles. On the way, it is inviting to peek into the small burial chambers, some of which are stark white and other with walls covered in tiles and paintings. While much of what is seen today is the result of recent restoration, there are many reports where people describe the site as being special even when it was largely in ruins. Although one is surrounded by markers of death, the site’s overall effect is calming rather than morose, together with sensory stimulation due to the colorfulness of the tiles and the paintings. If death is the only future certain for all, the message here is of soothing acceptance rather than existential angst.

Calligraphy in the Arabic script is commonplace in the site’s decorative scheme. Two statements encapsulate the sanctity and potential ascribed to the place. The first is a saying by Muhammad, presented in complex calligraphy above the door leading into the passageway to the shrine: “The Prophet—Arab, Hashemite, Qurashi, Meccan, Medinan, may peace be upon him—said: ‘Qutham b. ʿAbbas is the most similar of people to me in character and features.’” The second noteworthy text is a Persian quatrain carved into a roundel on the wooden screen that is fixed in front of the cenotaph. This reads as the following:

Going around you, darkness vanishes from the heart.
Going around you, the unworthy becomes worthy.
Kings have sunk their heads to bow at your threshold.
Both worlds’ desires are gained through you.

Taken together, the two texts highlight the site as a median between the past and the future. Muhammad’s statement makes Qutham b. ‘Abbas a replica of him. The genealogical markers and place names attached to Muhammad’s name are important because they are shared between the Prophet and Qutham. The Persian verses make the place a venue of transformation: darkness dissipates with light, the unworthy become worthy, and the king bows his head in supplication. The last line brings in wishes for the future, both material and for the afterlife. A visitor’s passage, from the bottom of the hill to the screen with the verses, maps as well a temporal transition from the past to the future.

Decorated celing with shades of blue and white, a large hanging chandelier, and the honeycomb-esque (muqarnas) indentation in the walls.

Inside of dome in the main sanctuary at Shah-i Zinda.


Photo © Shahzad Bashir (2020)

Escape to Eternity

Literary sources pertaining to Qutham b. ‘Abbas are scanty, and it is uncertain as to when, how, and why a man who might have died during a siege of Samarkand in 677 turned into the Living King. Aspects of the eventual legend (discussed below) correspond with stories of heroic figures in Buddhist, Manichean, and Islamic lore. Moreover, the story bears a close resemblance to the figure of the Shi’i Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who was born in the ninth century, went into occultation in 874 in Samarra, Iraq, and is expected to reappear at the end of time. Like Muhammad’s statement on Qutham quoted above, the Twelfth Imam is also supposed to look like the Prophet. It seems likely that Qutham’s identification as Shah-i Zinda came about through a coalescing of strands of ideas pertaining to expectations of long-lived holy persons. The composite then became especially meaningful for Islamic identities in Samarkand, a major Central Asian city, circa 950–1050 CE.

The contents of stories concerning Shah-i Zinda are more interesting than their indeterminable genealogy. A long narrative in a work entitled Qandiyya that is focused on the shrines of Samarkand is especially illuminating. The dating and authorship of this work are vague. The best we can guess, based on the language and style and the personages mentioned, is that it was composed circa 1450–1600, although the currently available recension dates to the early twentieth century. Whatever the time and reasons for transcription, we can be sure that the work presents Shah-i Zinda in the form that has mattered for socioreligious and political life in Samarkand for at least the past six hundred years.

The Qandiyya presents two stories containing competitions between kings. In both, Shah-i Zinda is one party, while in opposition are, in the first, a king named Zabur Shah placed in the seventh century and, in the second, the conqueror Tamerlane (d. 1405). The first story explains the shrine’s origins, while the second affirms its status seven centuries later in conjunction with describing how the physical setup facilitates the possibility of otherworldly journeys.

The work states that Qutham had arrived in Samarkand with an Arab/Muslim army and was appointed the new governor upon conquest. Zabur Shah was the defeated non-Muslim ruler, who began plotting to take the city back from Muslims. Seeking advice on how to accomplish this, he was accosted by Satan in the guise of an old man, who told him that the best thing would be to attack Muslims during the communal prayers during the Festival of Sacrifice. This would be efficient because all the city’s Muslims would be together and unarmed. Moreover, their concentration in prayer was such that they would not notice that enemies were present all around, dispersed in the crowd. Zabur agreed to the plan and it was executed, with special instructions to all that killing Qutham was essential since that would dispirit the Muslims. During the close range battle that followed, Qutham was surrounded by enemy soldiers, whom he could dispatch with ease until Zabur ordered that he be attacked from afar, using arrows. In this situation, Qutham beseeched God to come to his aid.

As Qutham’s appeal went out, a man appeared and told him to look at the ground. This was the legendary figure Khizr, an ever-living Prophet who is associated with water sources and the color green. Qutham saw that a well had opened where he was standing, into which he jumped based on Khizr indicating that that was God’s command. When Zabur Shah saw this happen, he ordered his soldiers to pile stones and garbage into the well so that Qutham would be killed. But unbeknownst to them, God had appointed an angel in the well with the job of taking whatever was being pelted and chucking it away to protect Qutham.

When the enemy looked into the well and did not see Qutham, Zabur asked for a volunteer and one man offered to go down to check. But as soon as he was lowered, he wanted to come back. He reported that he encountered a fire-breathing dragon down at the bottom, who would have incinerated him if he had not managed to get out immediately. From then onward, Qutham was supposed to be living down the well until the end of time, when Jesus would reappear in his Second Coming. He would then come out, rule for forty years, and then all would be destroyed in the world’s apocalyptic end (Anonymous, Qandiyya, 24–32).

Journey to Paradise

The Qandiyya states that Qutham’s presence in the well was known to all in Samarkand and attracted Tamerlane’s attention once he conquered the city and made it his capital. When he offered vast rewards for someone to volunteer to go down to check, one of his commanders agreed. He was lowered into the well and found that there was a doorway at the pitch dark bottom. Going through this doorway, he stepped into a beautifully verdant landscape, filled with all manner of trees with flowers and fruits, all in bloom without reference to season. As he was about to pick a piece, someone appeared to forbid him with a severe warning.

Walking past the garden, he came to a grand palace in which many people were milling around. On a throne sat a man of great radiance flanked by two others. He asked about the identity of these and was told that at the center was Shah-i Zinda, accompanied by the prophets Khizr and Elias. These three were men were to remain alive until the end of time. The rest were great spiritual persons of the past who had died in their earthly lives and were now part of a society of “men of the unseen” that interacted with people in dreams and trance-like experiences. They spread out through the world to do the jobs God assigned them but congregated in front of Shah-i Zinda every day.

As the commander was learning all this, a commotion went up because the presence of an ordinary living person had been detected amid the dead and the ever-living. He was taken in front of a livid Shah-i Zinda who objected strongly to the incursion. When he tried to blame this on an order from Tamerlane, the Shah replied that he knew that he had come down voluntarily to get a reward. When he asked for mercy, Shah-i Zinda told him that he would be released but was not allowed to tell anyone what he had seen. If he were to do so, he would lose his sight and all his future descendants would be born blind. When he protested that Tamerlane would certainly not let him be silent, the Shah told him that that would then be his burden to bear. He was then expelled from paradise and returned to the external world via the well.

As expected, Tamerlane would not accept the commander’s claim that he had not seen anything when he had gone down. Put under the threat of death, he told Tamerlane his dilemma and that he and his descendants would be blinded if he were to say anything. Tamerlane decided to provide advance compensation for the debilitation: he had a madrasa built for the future blind descendants, put substantial property in the city in a trust for the family, and allowed the man to take as much land as he could cover by riding a horse until the animal stopped. Enriched by these rewards, the man then told Tamerlane the story.

At the very end of his account of encounter with Shah-i Zinda, the commander expressed sorrow about his impending blindness. Shah-i Zinda responded with the following:

Do not grieve, because the unseeing have a very high status. They do not carry out deceptions of the eye. When ‘Azra’il [the angel of death] comes to take them, they do not see him and are spared his torture and terror. When they are interred in graves and are questioned by [the angels] Munkir and Nakir, they answer easily because they are not made afraid by their terrifying forms.

On the day of resurrection, the blind are raised blind from the dust of their graves, so they are saved from experiencing the tumult and anxiety of the time. They are blind when the accounts are taken, the scales are set up, and the worth of their actions is read out. When it comes to the moment of seeing God, then their blind eyes open. The first entity they see is the inexplicable, incomparable, and indubitable God, the exalted (Anonymous, Qandiyya, 45).

Death's high visibility here allows an escape from the material world that appears alive but is always in the process of dying. Shah-i Zinda, the person as well as the shrine, melds durative time into paradisaical stillness through concentration on death.

As the man finished his description, two black tears flowed from his eyes, and he went blind. His descendants were then also all born blind and were expected to remain so until the end of time.

Virtues of Blindness

Tamerlane’s commander’s tale of the encounter with Shah-i Zinda is an artful summation of major aspects of Islamic eschatology. Reading this story, we would know that death occurs through a terrifying angel confiscating the spirit, followed by questioning in the grave. Then one waits in the grave until the end of time to be resurrected, judged, and, if one is fortunate, rewarded with seeing God. The description of Shah-i Zinda’s abode matches the usual narrative of paradise where everything is perfect in an eternal present. The greatest among the spiritual elect already live in this paradise, while the more middling humans may make it there after resurrection.


The glorification of blindness that comes at the end is unusual. The sight versus blindness dichotomy maps to the visible versus hidden realms of human experience. The story indicates that the two realms and their sensory counterparts are opposable. Living in the material world means being blind to the hidden realm, which is topped by paradise. If one gets to see paradise, then one’s physical vision is dissolved. But physical vision is double-edged: while allowing competent worldly action, it exposes one to corruptions and terrors that they are sure to face in the future.

To go blind, then, is a kind of relief. In the story, blindness is manageable for the man and his descendants because their material wants are all taken care of due to what Tamerlane grants him. Most blind people would not have such provisions to overcome the handicap. During all this, Shah-i Zinda still lives in his underground paradise that is reflected palely in the colorful surroundings of the necropolis built and maintained by ordinary mortals over the well that saved him hundreds of years ago.

The story presents facing the future as a kind of blindness that can be overcome through access to the hidden realm. Earthly kings rule over the living, who are all on the certain path to death. The Living King rules over the spiritually elect among the dead, who are alive after their physical deaths. For human beings in the middle, the abode of Shah-i Zinda, an empty grave surrounded by full ones, is a kind of crossing point. Death’s high visibility here allows an escape from the material world that appears alive but is always in the process of dying. Shah-i Zinda, the person as well as the shrine, melds durative time into paradisaical stillness through concentration on death.

Related Sections in Other Chapters