Some 15km east of Shymkent, Sayram today is a small agricultural town of about 40,000 people, with low-slung buildings and a somewhat chaotic road system. The population of the town is dominated by ethnic Uzbeks, and Sayram is indeed often known locally as 'Little Uzbekistan'. You are more likely to hear Uzbek rather than Kazakh spoken here, and are unlikely to overhear any Russian at all.
This busy little town of Sayram was a Silk Road stop long before Shymkent existed: in fact it’s one of the oldest settlements in Kazakhstan, dating back possibly 3000 years. Kozha Akhmed Yasaui was born here, and Sayram is a stop for many pilgrims en route to his mausoleum at Turkistan.
It receives a mention in the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism. The people of Sayram were converted to Islam in the 8th century by a preacher named Iskak-bab, whose supporters defeated the existing Christian Nestorian community in combat. Local historians believe that the mosque built in Sayram by the victorious Iskak-bab, which has not survived, was probably the first constructed in the territory of modern-day Kazakhstan.
Sayram's status today as a place of pilgrimage largely rests on its associations with the Sufi mystic Khodja Ahmed Yassaui, who was born here around 1103, at a time when the town was named Ispijab. The mausolea of Yassauis mother and father lie in the town, and are visited by pilgrims as part of a route which also takes in the Mausoleum of Arystan Bab, and culminates in a visit to Yassaui's mausoleum in Turkestan. Like other settlements of the area, Sayram changed hands many times: ruled by the Mongols, Timurids, Uzbeks of Abulkhair Khan and the Khanates of Kokand and Bukhara, and then coming under Russian rule in the 1860s. A relative decline in the towns importance in recent centuries has given it a distinctive feel, a small rural town packed with mausolea, minarets and other reminders of its distinguished past.
Sayram is easy to visit from Shymkent: frequent marshrutka minibuses make the trip, and you can also travel here in more comfort by hiring a taxi in Shymkent or booking through one of the Shymkent-based travel agencies.
Most of the main monuments can be seen in a walk of about 1,5 hours starting from Sayram’s central traffic lights. Walk up Amir Temur, away from two mosque domes, and take the first street on the right. About 100m along, in a small fenced field on your right, is the circular, brick-built Kydyra Minaret, about 15m high and probably dating from the 10th century. You can climb up inside to view the Aksu-Zhabagyly Mountains away to the east.
Return to the central crossroads and continue straight ahead, passing the bazaar on your left. Just after the bazaar, on the right, is the 13th-century Karashash-Ana Mausoleum, where Akhmed Yasaui’s mother lies buried beneath the central tombstone. Continue 200m, passing the modern Friday Mosque on your right, to the large Mirali Bobo Mausoleum, where a leading 10th-century Islamic scholar lies buried. Now turn back and take the street to the left, Botbay Ata, before the Friday Mosque. Fork right after 150m, and the street ends at a larger street, Yusuf Sayrami. Head left here and you’ll reach a green and yellow sign marking the spot where, according to legend, Kozha Akhmed Yasaui’s mentor Aristan Bab handed him a sacred persimmon stone, given to Aristan Bab by the Prophet Mohammed (the gap of five centuries between the lives of the Prophet Mohammed SAV and Akhmed Yasaui is spanned by the belief that Aristan Bab had an extremely long life). About 200m past this spot, turn left into a cemetery to the threedomed Abd al Aziz-Baba Mausoleum. Its occupant is believed to have been a leader of the Arabic forces that brought Islam to the Sayram area way back in AD 766. Pilgrims come here for help in averting misfortune and the ‘evil eye’. From here head back to the central crossroads, where you can take a taxi to the small 14thcentury Ibragim Ata Mausoleum on the northern edge of town, where Akhmed Yasaui’s father lies. A modern mosque and medressa are attached. Several chaikhanas around the central crossroads serve inexpensive shashlyk, tea, soups and plov. Marshrutkas to Sayram leave from Shymkent’s Ayna bus station about every 15 minutes or so until around 7pm.