Marauding through Central Asia in the 13th century, Genghis Khan either failed to notice or ignored a small, squat structure in Bukhara, an ancient Silk Road city in what is now Uzbekistan. Even as he destroyed Bukhara, he left standing the little mausoleum built for the grave of Ismail Samani, a member of the Samanid dynasty (819-1005)—a Persian clan that made Bukhara a celebrated center of Islamic culture rivaling in glory the caliphate in Baghdad, from which it was largely independent.
From a distance, the Samanid mausoleum does seem underwhelming. Beige in color, it's a slightly tapered cube—a reference to the Kaaba at Mecca—measuring about 33 feet on each side and topped by a dome, which symbolizes the heavens. But up close the tomb's exquisite brickwork, both inside and out, is unusually beguiling. The building, probably begun around 892 and completed by 943, breaks architectural and engineering ground, too; it's also a prototype for later Islamic tombs. And it is "the best surviving example of 10th century architecture in the whole Muslim world," Unesco says.
Luckily, in addition to surviving the Mongol invasions, the mausoleum withstood the area's numerous earthquakes. Over the centuries, it had gained protection from flooding and other shifts of nature that buried most of it in dirt and sand until 1934, when a Soviet archaeologist rediscovered it and began excavating.
The walls of the symmetrical structure he unearthed, nearly identical on all four sides, are faced with a basket-weave pattern fashioned from baked brick—in contrast to the stucco surfaces that were prevalent at the time. The cube is surrounded at the top by a decorative (and therefore inaccessible) arcade of 10 arched niches per side, each one flanked by columns and set in a rectangular frame. The niches match in shape the large, recessed arches below, at ground level, that pierce each side of the mausoleum like doorways—though only one functions as an entryway to the inside. The small niches follow the design of the arches, but in a simplified version.
At each corner of the mausoleum is a three-quarter column, also covered in the basket-weave pattern and slightly tilted inward to act as a buttress. Above the gallery arcade, hugging the inset dome, are four little beehive-shaped cupolas, one near each corner.
The exterior walls are punctuated with decorative designs. Most notably, a row of brick circles frames the arched portion of the four recessed "doorways" and surrounds the top of the arcade. Scholars have suggested that they refer to the sun—a symbol common in Zoroastrianism, which was the religion practiced by much of the local population before the Arab conquest of Central Asia in the seventh and eighth centuries. For Zoroastrians, the sun was the visible manifestation of their highest god, fire was a symbol of purification, and paradise was a place of light. The circles thus may represent a weaving of two religious cultures—and perhaps a slightly subversive reference to earlier times.
Compared with the glittery insides of many later Islamic mausoleums, such as the Taj Mahal, the Samanid tomb's interior is restrained. The brickwork is patterned—plain basket-weave up to the top of the doorframe, then incorporating circular and diamond-shapes. But it's all cream: no color, gilt or inlays.
Yet this interior is noteworthy for its engineering and architectural features. This was the age of Al-Khwārizmī (c. 780-c. 850) and Al-Farabi (c. 870-c. 950), renowned Islamic mathematicians whose work helped to beget the first major school of mathematicians in the Islamic world. Their algebraic and geometric advances found practical applications in the work of contemporary engineers and architects.
Here, they used that knowledge to gradually transition from the cube space into the dome above. First, atop the cube sits an octagonal structure with arched squinches angled across each corner. From there, the structure grows upward with ever more sides until it becomes a circle.
Brick squinches, here decorated with windows and patterns mimicking those below, are not unique to the Samanid mausoleum. But this form, with its fractured spaces, would later evolve into the often gloriously gilded or brightly painted, three-dimensional honeycomb building corners that are known as muqarnas. Sometimes called "stalactite vaults," muqarnasembellish many palaces, madrassas and mausoleums in the Muslim world and do seem to be unique to Islamic architecture.
Inside the mausoleum, Ismail Samani, who died in 907, is not alone in eternity—in fact, no documents have been found saying that his remains actually rest there. The tomb, which contains three unadorned graves, was possibly conceived initially for his father, Ahmad, and finished by his grandson, Nasr II. But Nasr's is the only body identified as being there, by a wooden plaque.
Today the mausoleum, spanking clean with no sign of its buried past, sits amid a park in Bukhara. It can't help but charm visitors (who remain scarce) with its harmony and grace.