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About 150km northwest of Shymkent lie the ruins of Otrar, the town that brought Chinggis Khan to Central Asia. Much of the rest of Asia and Europe might have been spared the Mongols if Otrar’s Khorezmshah governor had not murdered the great khan’s merchantenvoys here in 1218.

The city whose name is closely linked with the folly which precipitated the bloody arrival of Genghis Khan's Mongols into central Asia lies in the Otrar Oasis, a fertile agricultural area at the confluence of the Syr Darya and Arys rivers. Settlements emerged here some 2,000 years ago, at the time of the Kangui alliance. The mounds which can be seen today across the territory of the oasis, sites such as Kok-Mardan and Altyntobe, represent former towns. But the largest and most important settlement was Otrar itself, its site marked by the mound of Otrartobe. The oasis lay at the junction of important caravan routes: west to Khorezm and the Volga, south along the Syr Darya towards cities such as Merv and Nishapur, and east along the Arys to Taraz and beyond.

Otrar flourished. It was also known us Farab (some scholars suggest that Otrar and Farab may initially have been separate settlements, whose names merged), and many authorities believe that the great philosopher and scientist of the Islamic world, Al-Farabi, was born here around AD872. The medieval historian Ibn Khallekan for example refers to Al-Farabi as having been born to Turkic parents in the village of Wasij, near Farab, but there is not full academic agreement about Al-Farabi's origins. Those scholars who believe his roots were Persian, not Turkic, tend to place his birth either in Faryab in Khorasan or in the region of Faryab in present-day Afghanistan.

Otrar's prosperous existence was shattered in the early years of the 13th century. At that time the oasis fell under the rule of the Khorezmshahs, whose then leader, Mohammed II, saw himself as a latter-day Alexander the Great. Mohammed II's great error was to thoroughly both mishandle and underestimate Genghis Khan. When the Mongol leader likened Mohammed II to one of his sons, the Khorezmshah raged that this suggested a relationship of subordination. When a caravan sent by Genghis Khan arrived at Otrar in 1217 its governor, Inalchuk, had the merchants arrested on spying charges. Mohammed II ordered them to be put to death and their goods seized. Genghis Khans response was the conquest of the lands of the Khorezmshahs. He paid particular attention to Otrar, which the Mongols reached in 1219. They took the city after a five-month siege. Inalchuk was executed, and the city razed to the ground. A thriving Silk Road town at the hub of a fertile agricultural area, it was mercilessly trashed by Chinggis’ forces in 1219 in reprisal for the envoy outrage.

It recovered sufficiently to be grand enough to welcome Timur in 1405: he may have done better to stay away as he died of fever in the town. It was rebuilt afterwards but eventually abandoned around 1700 after being trashed again by the Zhungars (Oyrats). At its height the city comprised a hilltop central fortress and shakhristan, with an area of some 20 ha, surrounded by a fortified suburban area, or rabad, where the ordinary dwellings and craft industries of the town were located, which covered a further 170 ha. The decline of the Silk Road routes and the predations of the Dzhungars, however, led eventually to the collapse of the irrigation system on which Otrar and the other towns of the oasis depended. By the end of the 18th century Otrar had been all but abandoned.

Today it’s just a large dusty mound, known locally as Otyrar-Tobe, 11km north of the small town of Shauildir, but recent excavation and conservation work have revealed some interesting bits of what lies below the surface. En route from Shymkent, stop at the good little Otrar Museum in Shauildir. At Otyrar-Tobe you can inspect low walls and pillar stumps of the 14th-century Palace of Berdibek (where that other great pillager Timur died, en route to conquer China, in 1405), along with the palace mosque and a bathhouse, and a small residential area and a section of city wall from the 10th to 12th centuries.

In its heyday Otrar spread over nearly 10 times the area of the mound where these remains have been uncovered. Two kilometres from the ruins is the Aristan-Bab Mausoleum , the tomb of an early mentor of Kozha Akhmed Yasaui. The existing handsome, domed, brick building here dates from 1907 and is a stop for pilgrims heading to Turkistan. 

Otrar is situated off the main roads of the modern world. In its halcyon days, it was ideally located in an oasis at the foot of a chain of hills, close to the point where the Arys flows into the Syr Darya. To get there, follow the road from Shymkent to Turkistan, turn left beyond Tortkol, cross the Tashkent-Orenburg-Moscow railway line and drive to the village of Shaulder. Here, there is a museum dedicated to the history and archaeological works of Otrar. The actual excavation site is located some 20 kilometres to the north of Shaulder, beyond Kogam aul and 1.5 kilometres off the road.

Buses (2,5 hours) and marshrutkas (two hours) to Shauildir leave about hourly, 8am to 6pm, from Shymkent’s Samal bus station. From Turkistan, Shymkentbound marshrutkas can drop you at Tortkol, where you can pick up a Shauildir-bound marshrutka (45 minutes) or taxi. A taxi from Shauildir to Otyrar-Tobe, Aristan-Bab and back shouldn’t cost more than round trip. You can also take trains from Shymkent or Turkistan to Timur, 7km east of Shauildir, and a taxi from there.

The road from Otrar to Shymkent through Arys and Badam provides many minor spots worth stopping to explore. As in so many parts of South Kazakhstan, every aul has something special to offer: a mosque, group of barrows or the ruins of old settlements. The road leads along the Arys River and crosses it three times. In the town of Arys the track bends left towards the east. Some 20 kilometres further down, not far from where the Badam flows into the Arys near the aul of Karaspan, are the walls of a city that stood here in the 9th and 10th centuries, as well as many barrows from various periods. The eldest among them dates from the 4th Century BC, the latest from the 10th Century AD.

Six kilometres beyond Badam is the hamlet of Ordabasy, part of the protected area of historic and cultural monuments of the same name. It was here, early in the 18th Century, that the Kazakhs united in their struggle against the invading Zhungars.