Suitcase and World: A Cold and Windy Visit to Kunya-Urgench.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Cold and Windy Visit to Kunya-Urgench.

The Mausoleum of Sultan Ali in the background.  Passing under the ribbon covered wishing branch.

We arrived into Daşoguz early this morning via a flight from Ashgabat.

Flashback to Ashgabat.  With Pat as the time keeper, we are never late so we had several minutes to spare before Jabbar showed up in the hotel lobby at 3:30a.  He and our driver (it wasn't Dolat) drove us to the airport and Jabbar accompanied us in.  He helped us with getting our luggage through security, getting us checked in and then assisted with us going through customs.  As my rug had caused some issue with arrival into Turkmenistan, I think he was concerned I would have issue with taking it out of the country.  He exchanged a few words with the customs officer and indeed there was an issue, albeit a very minor one, with the rug.  They asked to keep my copy of the customs declaration form, that I had filled in on entry, as proof that I had indeed brought the rug with me.  Since we wouldn't be returning to Turkmenistan on this trip, I didn't see any issue with relinquishing the form so I gladly handed it over.  Whew!  I am now safely out of Turkmenistan with this rug.  I remembered to note it on the Uzbek customs declaration form so hopefully, all will be okay re-entering that country.

After we cleared customs, we bid Jabbar goodbye and thanked him for his services.  I made sure to add a bit extra to his tip as a thank you for all that he did to help us actually make it in and out of this country.

There was a very short wait before we boarded the plane for the 50 minute or so flight to the northern border city of  Daşoguz.

It was so windy, it was hard to even keep her eyes open!
It was an uneventful flight.  As we made our way towards baggage claim, a slender, blond haired woman approached us.  Her name was Kseniya and she was our guide.  Her English was quite good and although a bit reserved when we met us, I was certain she would warm up in no time and we would enjoy our visit with her.

Our luggage claim quickly and we followed Kseniya out of the terminal.  It was barely 8a and cold, cloudy and windy morning in Daşoguz.  Although I already had my fleece jacket on, I was prepared to take out my down jacket, if need be.

We met with our driver.  Kseniya introduced us but unfortunately, I didn't get his name.  He put our luggage in the back of the car and we all piled inside.  It would be nearly a two hour drive from the airport to the Kunye-Urgench.  The landscape was arid desert, punctuated by the occasional field and the shabby village buildings.  The views were much the same as what we had seen before on so many of our previous road trips except it was made more gloomy no thanks to a heavy cloud laden sky.  It looked like it would rain down any second.  It was a good time to just get lost in my own thoughts.

Having read up on Kunye Urgench before coming on this trip,  I could easily recognize a few of the ruins as we neared them.  Kunye Urgench is of the most important archaeological sites in Turkmenistan and therefore, is a *must see* place for anyone coming to this country.

In ancient times, Kunye Urgench was the capital of the Khorezm region, part of the Achaemenid Empire.  The city used to be situated on the banks of the Amu Darya river until the river changed course.  When that happened, its ts inhabitants deserted the in order to develop a new settlement.

The UNESCO inscription is proudly displayed.

The site at Kunye Urgench contains a series of monuments mainly from the 11th to 16th centuries, including a mosque, the gates of a caravanserai, fortresses, mausoleums and a 60 meter (197 feet) tall minaret.  Today, the few ruins that remain were inscribed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in 2005.

The exact dates when Kunya-Urgench was founded remain uncertain, but archaeological finds at the Kyrkmolla Hill (one of the main fortresses of the site) reveal that the town already had a strong structure in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Some of the earliest records show that Khorezm was invaded by the Arabs in 712. The city rose to prominence between the 10th and 14th centuries as the Khorezm capital, and as an important trading center on the Silk Road.

In 1221, Genghis Khan destroyed the city in the Mongol invasion of Central Asia and then it was yet again devastated by Timur in his campaigns against Khwarezm, between 1372 and 1388. This, coupled with the sudden change of the Amu-Darya River's course, signalled the beginning of Kunya-Urgench's decline until the 16th century, when it was replaced as a regional capital by Khiva and was ultimately abandoned.

*Kunye* translates *old*.  This there is a new town of Urgench - which was developed to the southeast, in present-day Uzbekistan.
Visiting Kunye Urgench is easy because  there's a foot path that links the monuments.

We started our visit at the Mausoleum of Turabek Khanum, the wife of Kutlug-Timur who ruled Khorezm from 1321 to 1336.   The mausoleum was constructed in the 14th century.

The original building was composed of two chambers: a large domed hall and a smaller one behind it.  Today, only the domed hall remains.

The large chamber is twelve-sided on the exterior and hexagonal on the interior, being preceded by an entrance portal and a vestibule.

The wind was whipping up something fierce as we stepped out of the car.  I was keen to rush on in!  But before we even made it to the front entrance, we were intercepted by a group of Turkmen women who guessed it!  Our photo!  We gladly posed for them first and then they returned the favor.  I loved their colorful outfits though I was wondering how they were bearing the cold.  As you might expect, the younger gals were extremely friendly....the one older woman, a bit more reserved. Looking at here, I thought to myself, that we're likely very close in age though she looks much older because she's had a much more difficult life than I have.  I am very blessed and lucky to have been born into my station in life!

Inside as a large, cavernous space. Though the much of the decoration was faded from time, you could easily imagine how lovely the room was when it was originally built.  As we looked around, Kseniya gave us some information about the place.

For me, the most impressive architectural feature of the mausoleum was the circular dome covering the main hall.  The surface of the dome is covered in a colorful mosaic which forms intricate ornamental patterns consisting of flowers and stars - it's suppose to create a visual metaphor for the heavens.   It is beautiful to gaze up at.

From the side, you can see the part of the dome that is missing.   You can still make out its original grandeur.

It was much too cold and windy to walk to our next stop so we wimped out - we got back in the car and were driven there.  It was a short drive.  I was out of the car for no more than 15 seconds before I decided I needed to go back and get my down jacket.  No point being miserable.  Pat even whipped out her headscarf and was bemoaning the fact that she had packed away her gloves.  It really was that kind of a cold and miserable day.  Where's spring??

Our next sightseeing stop was to Kutlug-Timur minaret which you can see for miles away thanks to the flat landscape of the region.  The minaret dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries.  It measures 60 meters (197 feet) in height and has a diameter of 12 meters (39 feet) at the base, tapering to 2 meters (6.5 feet) the top.

On the basis of its decorative brickwork, including Kufic inscriptions, the minaret is thought to be an earlier construction, only restored by Kutlug-Timur around 1330.

Kutlug-Timur Minaret on the left,  Mausoleum of Turabek Khanum on the right.

All we could do was stand and look at the minaret so it was a quick stop for us.  Back in the car we went.  Along the way, we passed the same group of women we had met up with at the mausoleum.  Unlike us, they were bearing the cold and walking.  I felt even more wimpy.  Poor Kseniya - she was having to dart back and forth along with us.  But it was she who had seen how cold and miserable we were and had suggested to the driver to take us around rather than having us walk.  That was very thoughtful of her as she was appropriately dressed for the weather and could have easily made her way around on the foot circuit.

Next, it was the Tekesh Mausoleum, which is presumed to be the tomb of Sultan Ala al-din Tekesh, the founder of the Khorezm Empire and its ruler between 1172-1200. It has been identified as a mausoleum due to the tradition that each ancient Central Asian building is dedicated to a historical or mythical personage.

If there was any building that stood out in my memory, it was this one.  You can't forget the uniquely shaped conical roof.

The building is made of bricks and consists of a square hall with walls that are just over 11 meters (36 feet) high and a conical roof with an inner dome hidden under it. The dome is connected to the square walls it rests upon by an octagonal belt.

The external conical dome is built of horizontal layers using the technique of a false vault. From the inside, it is strengthened with 12 buttresses standing upon the internal dome.  Overall, the roof is considered to not be in bad condition - only the top is destroyed, and the blue majolica decoration slightly damaged.

Inside, it was just an empty space; no sign of a tomb.  Some research has given rise to speculations that the Mausoleum of Tekesh might have been surrounded by several other buildings. Thus, certain scholars have put forth the contention that the building served a different purpose from that of a mausoleum e.g., as a government administration building or perhaps even as a palace.

Back in the car and on to the next stop - Il Arslan, also known among the people as the Mausoleum of Sultan Kho-Rezmshah II Arslan, who ruled from 1156 to 1172.  The mausoleum, dating to the 12th century, is the oldest standing monument in Kunye Urgench.  Sultan Kho-Rezmshah II Arslan was the father of Sultan Ala al-din Tekesh so it's no wonder that the mausoleums of father and son, which are located near one another, also bear a striking resemblance to each other.

Though no single patron can be identified, most scholars date the mausoleum to the early thirteenth century.

The structure is noted for its simplicity of form, influence on Khorezm funerary architecture and its emphasis on roof silhouette and color. The mausoleum consists of a twelve-sided conical shaped dome and drum, atop a tapering brick cube. Small arched niches with stone grille openings articulate the unadorned brick facades of the square chamber.

The exterior brick facade is simply decorated but very beautiful.  There's a motif relief displaying variations of an arabesque pattern and a frieze containing an inscription written in beautiful script.


The geometric design of the conical dome is executed in turquoise glazed blue brick tiles.

Next stop was to a place that the archeologists seem to know nothing about.  It was just referred to as *The Portal of an Unknown Building*, built sometime between the 11th and 12th centuries.

We just did a quick look see.

By now, less than an hour had elapsed since we had begun our visit to Kunye Urgench. Thanks to the cold, windy weather, we were on our way to setting the land speed record for shortest amount of time taken to tour Kunye Urgench! :-)

The last stop on our visit of this ancient city was to the Architectural Complex of the Mausoleums of Najmuddin Kubra and Sultan Ali.

Najmuddin Kubra was a 13th-century Persian Sufi from Khorezmia, the founder of the Kubrawiyya or Kubraviyah Sufi order of Islam. Kubra was considered to be a pioneer of Sufi tradition and his work spread throughout the Middle East and Central Asia where it flourished for many years, until it gradually was taken over by other similar more popular ideologies and Sufi leaders.

The Mausoleum of Najmuddin Kubra.

The Mausoleum of Najmeddin Kubra Mausoleum is considered to be the holiest spot in Kunye Urgench.  His tomb is believed to have healing properties and so it is a popular place for pilgrims to come and pray. The building has three domes and a beautiful, unrestored, tiled portal.

In silent prayer.

The Mausoleum of Najmuddin Kubra.

The Mausoleum of Najmuddin Kubra on the left, the Mausoleum of Sultan Ali on the right.

Located just opposite to the Mausoleum of Najmeddin Kubra Mausoleum is the Mausoleum of  Sultan Ali.  

The Mausoleum of Sultan Ali has a remarkably plain exterior - there are no intricate Arabic inscriptions or nor walls and portals, decorated with majolica. This is because the building was never completed. However , these days the Sultan Ali Mausoleum is among the most visited tourist sites in Turkmenistan, mainly due to the vicinity of the Mausoleum of Najmuddin Kubra, a place of pilgrimage of Muslims from all over the world.

We had indeed wrapped up our visit to Kunye Urgench in record setting time.  So much so, that we had a lot of time to kill before we had to make it to our final destination in Turkmenistan - the border with Uzbekistan.  So, off we went for lunch and a visit to a local market!