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Turkmenistan: Konye-Urgench

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Konye-Urgench | Turkmenistan | Asia

[Visited: June 2010]

After a dusty drive from the south, we arrived in Konye-Urgench in the afternoon. We started walking from the northern side, which meant that we started with what turned out to be one of the most beautiful sights of the country: the Turabeg Khanum complex. From the outside, it looked like a mausoleum: a high portal and a domed main hall. Part of the green-tiled dome was gone. But once inside, we were at once struck by the incredible beauty. High up on the ceiling of the cupola, we saw a dazzling tilework in dark blue, brown, yellow, and green tiles with white lines. There are said to be 365 sections (I did not count them!), one for each day of the year. In fact, the entire building represents a gigantic astronomical calendar: there are 24 arches below the cupola, representing the hours of the day, while below those, there are 12 wider arches for the months of the year. Then, there are four big windows for the seasons. Doves were flying in and out of the building through one of the many open windows, but our eyes were glued to the spectacle above us.

Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Representing an enormous astronomical calendar, the ceiling of the Turabeg Khanum complex

Actually, the function of this building is still not known - it might have been a mausoleum, but the fact that there are a lot of windows, and the suggestion of a heating system, might suggest it was used as a throne room. Whatever its function, and why it holds the astronomical reference, to me the hall of the Turabeg Khanum complex was probably the most impressive sight in Turkmenistan. From here, we entered the Konye-Urgench area proper, and while we walked through a modern cemetery, our guide started telling us about the tall minaret we saw ahead of us, Gutlug Timur. This is the tallest medieval structure of Central Asia, even though it has been shortened a little to make it more secure. The slim tower is twelve metres at the base, but only 2 at the top, which would have held a wooden balcony in its original state. It has many bands with decorative elements, including some surviving tiles, and inscriptions, in Kufic. The mosque it used to serve, has disappeared, and it is currently impossible to enter the minaret, even though there is a ladder leading nowhere. Oh, how much would I have loved to climb all the stairs to the top! When walking around the dizzyingly high minaret, it was easy to see how it was leaning. According to legend, the builder of the minaret was supposed to be killed by the ruler of Konye-Urgench, so he continued building and was intent on making it so high, that Bukhara could be seen from its top. He was killed anyway. But the age of the minaret has not been established beyond doubt, currently, it is believed to have been built in the 11th century. Some claim the tall tower also served as a lighthouse for caravans crossing the Karakum desert.

Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Minaret with a story: the leaning Gutlug Timur

From the minaret, we visited the mausoleum of Sultan Tekesh, for one of the main leaders of Khorezm in the late 12th century who made the region strong and important after it had already become one of the prominent Islamic centres in the 11th century. During that period, it was one of the prime centres for scholarship. But as the barren plains testify, the history of Konye-Urgench would not be easy. It was totally destroyed by the Mongols, and later Timur who saw the again flourishing city as a rival of his own Samarkand, before the Amu-Darya river changed course, sealing the fate of Konye-Urgench. From the Sultan Tekesh mausoleum, we went to the Kyrk Molla hill, where we saw lots of human bones and even teeth loose in the earth. On top of it, again a fertility cult: pieces of cloth and lots of miniature cradles with happy couples. Apparently, women come to this hill to deposit something on this shrine, and then roll off the hill to increase their chances to become pregnant. We just missed a woman doing that, and wondered how they would do so anyway, considering the rocks on the way down. After Kyrk Molla, we saw yet another mausoleum, the Mamun minaret - much smaller than the Gutlug Timur, a huge portal which was the gateway to a huge caravanserai, before we returned to the modern town where we visited the mausolea of Nedjmeddin Kubra and Soltan Ali. Like Konye-Urgench, this place was virtually empty, adding to the feeling of lost grandeur of the place. Nedjmeddin Kubra was a Sufic scholar, who was killed here by the Mongols in 1221. Actually, his tomb is supposed to consist of two parts, one for his body, the other for his head that was severed by the Mongols. Unfortunately, the door in the heavily leaning portal remained closed so we could only appreciate the beauty of these modest mausolea from the outside. We had a relaxing time, sitting in the late afternoon sun, enjoying the peaceful surroudings and the silence. We only had a short drive back to Dashogus ahead of us for our last dinner in Turkmenistan.

Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Nedjmeddin Kubra mausoleum in the late afternoon sun
Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Arches in the Turabeg Khanum complex
Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Mausoleum of Il-Arslan seen against the sun
Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Caravanserai Gate seen from below
Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Il-Arslan mausoleum in Konye-Urgench
Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Detail of the portal of the mausoleum of Nedjmeddin Kubra
Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Soltan Ali and Nedjmeddin Kubra mausolea
Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Turabeg Khanum complex
Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Detail of grave near Sultan Tekesh mausoleum at Konye-Urgench
Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Mascottes to stimulate fertility of Konye-Urgench
Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Ceiling of the mausoleum of Turabeg Khanum
Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Fan and other items in a mausoleum in Konye-Urgench
Picture of Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan): Human bones in a hill of Konye-Urgench

Around the World in 80 Clicks

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