When you step through the entrance portal of Shahi Zinda, a world full of legends and mysteries opens up before you. Right at the beginning of Shahi Zinda complex, visitors see the 40 steps representing the path from purity to prayer. The legend associated with it is still alive in people’s hearts. Every visitor to Shahi Zinda, whether a believer or a traveller, inevitably starts counting the steps leading up and down. Legend has it that a person can be absolved of their sins if the number matches as they ascend and descend. Today, an outsider can watch with interest as numerous visitors from Shahi Zinda diligently count the 40 steps. But not many are aware that they are following a deeper spiritual tradition.
In the Middle Ages, the tomb of Qutham ibn Abbas was a place of pilgrimage – a kind of Mecca of Central Asia. During this time, the ladder, a symbol of the great transformation of the human spirit, appears in the mausoleum. Pilgrims had to recite verses from the Qur’an and meditate on Allah as they climbed each step of the staircase. Some made a similar journey in their souls while sitting under the roof of the Aywan at the foot of the stairs. It was not until the 40th day that the believer could climb the stairs to the top mosque of the complex and the main mausoleum.
All this took place during the day. At night, the pilgrims were relieved by Muslim mystics, the Sufis, who performed their chants – concentrated references to the names of Allah – on the stairs. Depending on which spiritual school they followed, this jubilation was quiet, spoken to themselves, or loud with shouts.
According to legend, the spiritual leader of the most important Naqshbandīya Sufi order, Baha-ud-Din Naqshband, held his 40-day prayer service at Shahi Zinda. Thinking of Allah daily and climbing the high stairs step by step, he soon reached the top platform. At the same moment, he saw a rider on a white horse coming quickly towards him. For a moment the Sufi thought he would be trampled by the horse, but the rider, eyeing the Master’s face, just as suddenly stopped the horse and asked the great Sufi something.
The astonished pilgrims watching the incident from below saw the unknown rider turn the horse around and disappear in the direction from which he had so suddenly appeared. According to legend, it was Qutham ibn Abbas himself who decided to test the great master at the summit of his journey.
Afterwards, the mausoleum attracted even more pilgrims who performed their prayers on a Thursday evening. They chanted prayers that echoed under the ancient vaults and arches.