Pilgrims at Shahr-i-Zindah or the Tomb of the Living King, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Pilgrims at Shahr-i-Zindah or the Tomb of the Living King, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Jim Eagles

A perfect resting place

SOFT, rhythmic chanting in Arabic echoed from the passageway leading to the tomb of Qusam ibn Abbas, signalling that some pilgrims were paying their respects to this favourite cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, so I decided to wait until they had finished.

I knew that this was the grave of the man said to have brought Islam here to Samarkand, indeed to all of what is now Uzbekistan, and that it attracted pilgrims from all over Central Asia.

A plaque beside the beautifully carved doors to the tomb underlined the status of Qusam, with a quote from Mohammed that "in his nature and his looks [Qusam] is more like me than any other person".

Because of his status this collection of mausoleums, which slopes up a hillside to a more ordinary graveyard, is the most sacred site in the storied city of Samarkand, known as Shahr-i-Zindah or the Tomb of the Living King.

As local guide Ramil had said, "If you couldn't afford to make the Haj to Mecca, coming here could be seen as the next best thing."

While I waited I gazed around the 40 other mausoleums that had sprung up as the rich and powerful of Samarkand sought to benefit from the aura of holiness emanating from Qusam's tomb.

Just inside the entrance to the burial complex, for instance, is the magnificent mausoleum built by the great conqueror Timur - better known in the west as Tamerlane - for his family's wet nurse.

Further up the hill are the mausoleums of one of Timur's most successful generals, his sister and one of his wives.

Perhaps most beautiful of all, almost next to Qusam ibn Abbas, is the mausoleum of a favourite niece, superbly decorated with delicate mosaics and some wonderful majolica tilework.

As the chanting inside the tomb finally stopped, and the pilgrims began to emerge, most of them elderly women, Ramil explained softly, "You see they come here to venerate not the powerful people, the generals or Timur's family or the wet nurse, but Mohammed's cousin."

While we were talking the pilgrims began to sit on the steps leading to the surrounding tombs and the young turbanned imam who seemed to be leading them rested on the bench next to where I was standing and said authoritatively, "Sit down."

A little startled, I complied, and he promptly began chanting a prayer while the pilgrims gathered around cupped their hands, bowed their heads, sometimes closed their eyes and in some cases even seemed to shed a few tears.

It was actually rather beautiful and quite moving, so afterwards I turned to the imam and said, "Thank you, that was lovely."

His face, hitherto rather stern, broke into a smile and he replied, "You're welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed it."

After the pilgrims moved off I went down the long passageway leading to the tomb of Qusam and after turning several corners and climbing a short flight of steps I found myself in a medium-sized room lined with superb blue mosaics which, apparently, is adjacent to the actual grave.

It was cool and peaceful - the perfect place to sit in quiet contemplation - until some talkative tourists arrived and spoiled the atmosphere with their gushing enthusiasm.

Outside I bumped into Ramil again and commented on what a delightful place Shahr-i-Zindah was, with its mix of opulent tombs, solemn pilgrims and, especially, the grave of such an important religious figure.

"Hmm," said Ramil. "Soviet archaeologists investigated the tomb some years ago and found no remains from the 7th century which is when Qusam would have died. The oldest remains they found were 10th century. So it's not true. But it doesn't matter. It gives people somewhere to come."

Actually, he added, Qusam's grave was found in many places across Central Asia. "I think this dates from the time when Islam spread across the world and many people could not manage the requirement to make the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, because it was too expensive and too far away.

"Tombs like this were encouraged because they became an alternative to going to Mecca which ordinary Muslims could manage."

After decades of being suppressed during the Soviet years, Islam is enjoying a resurgence in Central Asia, and such pilgrimages are clearly on the increase.

Well, I thought, as I wandered back down the hill and past the rows of ornate mausoleums, whether or not Mohammed's cousin was buried there, this lovely, tranquil, unspoiled site was the perfect place to come on a pilgrimage.

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