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  KAZAKHSTAN International Business Magazine №4, 2005
 The Great Silk Road: Architectural Treasures of the Steppe
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The Great Silk Road: Architectural Treasures of the Steppe
 
The traditional nomadic lifestyles that existed in the Great Steppe for thousands of years gave rise to the general belief that there have been no cities in Kazakhstan, and that the Kazakhs have no national architecture. Only a few people know that the legendary Queen Tomiris to whom Herodotus referred to as the victress of Cyrus the Great, was also called "the queen of a thousand cities". The first dome-shaped roof in human history (circa 200 BC) was discovered by archaeologists in the Syrdarya Valley, Kazakhstan. Strong building skills of the ancient steppe dwellers are also evident from other architectural findings. Now we will tell you about the most important sites located along the Great Silk Road.
 
The Great Silk Road, a Bridge between Two Worlds
For centuries, the West and the East have communicated with each other via the Great Silk Road, which was partially located in what is now Kazakhstan. The so-called Turkic Caravan Path flourished in the 8th-12th centuries AD. Not only had it served as a trade route, but also allowed distant Eurasian peoples to exchange their spiritual and cultural achievements. According to chronicles, this steppe road was perfectly organised: soldiers protected it from bandit raids, numerous wells and caravan-sarai were located along the route, and a Turkic courier service was in place. The thorough planning of the ancient caravan routes is best illustrated by the fact that modern roads coincide with them, even in detail.
 
The first written account of the East-West path was compiled by the Chinese prince and diplomat Jan Xiang, based on his hazardous trip from China's capital to Afghanistan in 138-125 BC. In 945 AD, Kurash Ibn Jafar, an official from Baghdad, travelled and meticulously described the steppe sections of the Great Silk Road. Finally, in 1347-1355, Francesco Pegolotti, an agent for the Bardi trading house in Florence, made a commercial tour from Azak (present-day Azov) to Gamalek (Beijing).
 
All the three authors wrote that the transcontinental road was very popular and well-developed, with an advanced civilisation along the whole route whose remnants are still there.
 
The Sacred Land of Turkistan
For centuries, the Great Steppe received travellers in its cities and villages that were scattered along the Silk Road like oases. One of them is Turkistan (also known as Yasy). Founded in South Kazakhstan circa 4th-6th centuries AD, it achieved its peak of glory in the 12th century AD. At that time the city was diverse and crowded, with rich bazaars and endless caravans. It was famous throughout the Islamic world. In the 16th century AD Yasy was renamed Turkistan.
 
The first capital of the Kazakh Khanate, Turkistan is best known today as a spiritual centre of Turkic peoples. The legendary sufi Hoja Ahmed Yassawi lived and preached in Turkistan in the 12th century. After his sacred dust had been buried there, Yasy started to gain the reputation of the second Mecca. Turki would say: "Mohammed is in Mecca, and Hoja Ahmed is in Turkistan". A pilgrimage to Turkistan is considered a "minor hajj", and visiting the mausoleum three times is considered equal to a pilgrimage to Mecca.
 
Following Yassawi's death, Tamerlane, impressed by his intellect and selfless life, personally drafted the design of the Yassawi mosque and closely supervised its construction in 1385-1405. And so, the finest creation by medieval architects, Yassawi mausoleum, was built.
 
This vast complex of palaces and temples impresses the visitor with its elegant decorations, patterned domes and richly coloured majolica. The dimensions of the mausoleum itself are 46.5 m x 65.5 m. The outer walls are 2-3 m thick and 39 m high, with a foundation of the same depth. The building features a huge portal, a number of domes and more than 35 rooms. 
 
The central hall of the mausoleum is called kazanlyk (in Kazakh, kazan means "boiler", which symbolises the unity and hospitality of the Turkic people). The kazan installed in the mausoleum is second to none in size. It has a capacity of 3,000 litres, a diameter of 2.45 m and a weight of two tonnes. It was cast from an alloy made of seven metals. The kazanlyk has a brick dome with a diameter of 18.2 m (the largest dome in Central Asia).  
 
The walls of the mausoleum are made of burnt bricks, the technology of which was developed to perfection. The facing of the northern portal and the door to the burial-vault with fine ivory incrustation are especially beautiful. The burial-vault of Yassawi occupies the central part of the mosque. The tombstone is made of dark-green jade brought from India. At a distance from the mosque there is a pantheon in which many Kazakh khans are buried.
 
The Yassawi mausoleum is attended by 100-250 people daily, and during religious feasts the attendance increases to 1,000. Most visitors are Muslims from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. In June 2004, the Yassawi mausoleum was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
 
Turkistan features numerous examples of ancient architecture that are associated with the Kazakhs' belief in aruahs (ancestors' souls). Those who revere the memory of their ancestors are protected by them. That is why crowds of pilgrims come to sacred places such as the tomb of clairvoyant woman Domalak-Ana on a hill near Turkistan. In 1998, the old tomb was reconstructed into a modern-style memorial built of white marble. Two stones from the original tomb are considered sacred, and people say that only a righteous person can walk between them.
 
South Kazakhstan was rapidly developing during the epoch of the Great Silk Road. Another evidence of this region's past glory is the ruins of the ancient city of Otrar (4th century BC) that served as a major trade centre until the Middle Ages. The city was famous for its mint, luxurious baths with an excellent heating system, and a large library that ranked among the greatest in the ancient world. Otrar was home to the prominent medieval philosopher al-Farabi. In the late 12th century, Otrar was razed by Mongol invaders, but its ruins rise over the steppe to this very day. Tourists can see ancient streets and structures cleaned up by archaeologists, and imagine the great city that once stood there.
 
There are also dozens of townships and religious structures in the vicinity of Turkistan, and each of them is special in one way or another. For example, the stronghold of Sauran was able to withstand a siege for several months due to its unique water system.
 
The Mysteries of Taraz
Taraz, one of the administrative centres of the Great Silk Road, is more than 2,000 years old. This "city of merchants" attained its peak of power in the 10th-12th centuries AD, at which time it was made capital of the Karakhanid state. A wide network of clay water pipes, the ruins of ancient buildings, pavements and works of art discovered by excavations all suggest that Taraz had been a big and wealthy city. A bath with murals on its walls also belongs to the same epoch. In 1220, Taraz was captured and razed by Genghiz Khan. Life returned to this place only in the late 18th century when a new fortress and a city were founded near the ruins. The importance of Taraz in world culture was acknowledged by UNESCO who sponsored the city's jubilee, which was widely celebrated.
 
The area around Taraz has dozens of historical relics such as the mausoleums of Karakhan and Davudbek, castles of ancient rulers and a number of burial mounds. The mausoleums of Babaji-Hatun (10th-11th centuries AD) and Aisha-Bibi (11th-12th centuries AD) are located 18 km away from the modern city of Taraz, both of which are included in the UNESCO list of architectural rarities.
 
The Babaji-Hatun mausoleum, with a dome of the rarest design, is simple and magnificent at the same time. This nearly cubic structure is crowned with a faceted drum that supports a 16-edge conical dome. The superb brickwork of the facades has niches and rosaces, and an inscription in Arab that can still be read on the frontal parapet: "This is the Babaji-Hatun mausoleum. It was built by..." The name of the architect is lost forever, but not his perfect creation. The mausoleum was so thoroughly built on a massive stone foundation that it easily withstands the destructive forces of time.
 
The Aisha-Bibi mausoleum was built for Aisha-Bibi, a Kazakh saint, and many pilgrims come to this place every year. The mausoleum is the only structure in Kazakhstan totally faced with carved terracotta. The walls, domes, ledges and the styled inscriptions are all decorated with fine carvings. The now extinct technology of the ancient builders and the clay that harbours the soul still delight everyone who comes to the mausoleum. This outstanding example of ancient architecture is a tribute to eternal love: Aisha-Bibi was the short-lived daughter of the poet and scientist Hakim-Ata, who caught a cold and died en route to her loved one, Karakhan.
 
Some 40 km away from Taraz lays a magnificent, mysterious structure called Akyrtas. Since the 19th century scientists have been making attempts to explain the history of this architectural wonder. The time of construction, purpose, and even the name Akyrtas posed a riddle. The rectangular complex with dimensions measuring 205 m x 185 m includes a palace, a complicated system of water pipes and reservoirs, and fortifications on each corner. The total area of Akyrtas is about four hectares. The whole structure is built of huge red sandstone blocks that even exceed those of the Egyptian pyramids in both size and weight. A strong foundation and the perfectly fit wall stones of the fortress were laid at a depth of 3.5-4 m.
 
The builders of that time excelled at mathematical calculations and mastered the techniques of stone dressing and erecting complex structures.
 
The flawless design of Akyrtas clearly allows it to rank among other antique architectural wonders such as the Egyptian pyramids.
 
Valleys of Kings and Rock Paintings
The beautiful foothills of the Zailiysky Alatau are fed by seven mountain rivers, hence the name Semirechye (Russian for "seven rivers"). Apart from natural treasures, it has many artefacts of the nomadic tribes that inhabited Kazakhstan in the 1st millennium BC. In 1970, in one of the Issyk burial mounds near Almaty, the remains of a gold-clad Saka warrior, "the Golden Man", was discovered. His armour includes over 4,000 elaborate golden pieces made in Scythian "animal" style. A number of crockery and wooden and metal plates were also excavated from the mound. Special mention is due to a silver dish with a runic inscription, which has not yet been deciphered. "The Golden Man", an invaluable work of ancient art and an artefact of the first steppe state, has become the symbol of independent Kazakhstan, and the Issyk burial mounds have been turned into an Open-Air Museum, where a visitor can learn about the great Saka epoch.
 
Another important site is the Saka necropolis Besshatyr. It is located in the upper course of the Ili River and has an area of two square kilometres. Besshatyr includes 18 royal burial mounds with diameters of 8-70 m and heights of 2-20 m. Given the fact that the mound in which the "Golden Man" was discovered is 6 m high, one can imagine what treasures might be hidden in the Besshatyr mounds. It was decided to preserve them as a unique historical and natural complex.
 
In the late 1950s, a mysterious sanctuary was found in Tamgaly. Over 4,000 rock paintings of the Bronze, early nomadic and Turkic periods form a breathtaking open-air gallery illustrating the course of history over more than 2,000 years. Sun-headed deities, sacrifices, human and animal images, archery and falconry scenes and other themes all allow us to imagine how humans lived in those distant times, and make us admire the simple and powerful art of the unknown ancient authors.
 
The purpose of the numerous rock paintings scattered throughout Kazakhstan is still subject to discussion. The Tamgaly gallery is indeed an unforgettable spectacle and one of the most enigmatic messages from the past. This unique site was included in the list of world cultural heritages and is protected by UNESCO.
 
The Riddles of West Kazakhstan
The western section of the Great Silk Road in Kazakhstan has a special, mysterious atmosphere. In the Mangistau Mountains, Ustyurt plateau and Emba valley, tourists can see many old fortresses, tombs, mausoleums and underground structures.
 
The oldest one, the underground mosque Shakpak-Ata (circa 9th-10th centuries AD), is totally carved in rock. The entrance has a portal with rock paintings of human hands. This allowed scientists to suggest the pre-Islamic origin of Shakpak-Ata, since Muslims are prohibited from depicting humans or any parts of the human body. In addition, the cave has four cells centred around a circle, which is also very unusual because mosques with such a cross-like layout cannot be found anywhere else. On the other hand, a cross with a circle in its centre was the nomadic symbol of the sun in the Saka period (2,000-2,500 years ago).
 
The centre of the cave's dome has a round window. The walls have narrow niches for meditation in which a person of average build can sit. The total size of Shakpak-Ata is slightly greater than that of a large yurt. The walls are faced with shell rock, and the columns are covered with fine patterns.
 
The mosque was named after the legendary sufi Shakpak-Ata who hid there with his disciples during enemy raids. No reliable account of his life exists; it is known, however, that he received the nickname "Shakpak" (Kazakh for "flint") because his sword sparked in battle, and he himself was always adamant in his intentions. In his final years, Shakpak-Ata became a hermit and never left his cave. Today the Shakpak-Ata mosque, like the mausoleums of Yassawi, Aisha-Bibi and other sanctuaries in Kazakhstan, is a place of mass pilgrimage.
 
The life of Beket-Ata, another prominent sufi who lived in the second half of the 18th century, was studied in more detail. He gained fame in the Islamic world as a clairvoyant and a prophet to whom the Book of Life was open. A number of temples in West Kazakhstan are associated with his name. He was directly involved in the construction of four mosques, including the cave mosque in Oglandy. This underground temple consists of seven cells and is famous for its perfect acoustics. The Oglandy mosque neighbours another Kazakh sanctuary, the Beket-Ata necropolis.
 
In the vicinity of the city of Mangistau one can see a large fortress, Sherkala, the product of the joint efforts of nature and humans. Carved in a huge rock towering over the steppe, it played an important role during the Arab conquest (8th-9th centuries). This mountain, transformed into an unassailable city, initially resembled a lion in shape (sher means "lion" and kala means "city"). Like the other historical sites in Kazakhstan, Sherkala is the scene of many legends, and is still full of mystery.
 
By Arman Nurmukhambetov
 


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