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Map of TarazThe capital of Zhambyl Region, lying to the east of Almaty Region, Taraz is a city of more than 400,000 people lying on the Talas River. Taraz is one of Kazakhstan’s oldest cities, although only limited evidence of this is visible thanks to its near-total destruction by Chinggis Khan. Today it’s a mostly Sovietbuilt place with leafy boulevards, one of Kazakhstan’s biggest, most bustling markets and an excellent museum.

It staked a claim in 2002 to the title of the oldest regional capital in Kazakhstan by commemorating its 2,000th anniversary. This largely rests on the argument that the city can be traced back to the fortress established in the Talas Valley by Zhizhi Shanyu, in concert with the Kangui Union, in the 1st century BC. This formed the basis of the state known as the Western Xiongnu. Zhizhi lost the fortress to invading Hans at the Battle of Zhizhi in 36BC. He also lost his head, which was sent off to the victors.

Regardless of the accuracy of the date, the event was greatly to the city's benefit, and much was built and restored. All houses around the central square were painted pink, giving the city the image of a big box of chocolates on the eve of the celebrations.

A Byzantine note dating from 568 describes this site, located on the Talas River, as a city bustling with traders and merchants. The city is discussed in the context of a visit by an envoy of Emperor Justinian, who was received by the Turkish khagan Dizabul, and hosted for five days with pomp and ceremony. Chinese sources dating from 630 confirm the impression of a rich merchant city with a swirling mix of nationalities.

During the 8th and 9th centuries the Arabs expanded into western Turkestan (as the region was then known); in 751 they were victorious at a battle on the Talas River, which was decisive in their struggle with the Chinese for dominion over the region. But they conquered the Talas region only in 863. The name Taraz comes from Arabic and means scales-the symbol of trade. The Persian Samanids took control of the Talas Valley in the 9th century, introducing Islam to Taraz.

The Karakhanids arrived at the end of the 10th century, and it was under the Karakhanids in the 11th and 12th centuries that Taraz attained its greatest importance.  At that time, Taraz had a land area of almost one square kilometre and included a shakbristan (citadel) of seven hectares. A fortress wall with watchtowers surrounded the city. Several beautiful monuments whose restored features can be seen today in Taraz and its environs date from this period, and the city also boasted a system of underground clay water pipes, an aqueduct and a mint. The power of the Karakhanids weakened in the 12th century, and the city fell to the Khorezmshah Mohammed II in 1210. The rule of the Khorezmshahs lasted only a decade, as Taraz was razed by the Mongols in 1220.

A different version of the story claims that Taraz was first razed to the ground by the Mongols: Zhu-chi (Juchi), Genghis Khan's eldest son, who took responsibility for the conquest, wanted to spare the city on account of its beauty, but his father replaced him with other captains who carried out his order to destroy it. Later, however, the Mongols were to acknowledge their error and founded a new city on this strategic spot, which they dubbed Zhany (new) Taras, and which rivalled its predecessor in wealth. Until the 16th Century, when the Kazakh tribes united in their struggle against the Zhungars, Zhany Taras enjoyed great fame. A warlord in the service of Ablai Khan named Baba is said to have played a key role in it, for which he obtained the title Datkha. Today, his statue stands before the city hall, a place once reserved for the great leader of the Revolution, Lenin.

Following the opening of the sea route to India and the waning of the Silk Road, the city lost its glamour. The Zhungars' raids did the rest, and by the beginning of the 19th Century there was nothing left of its former glory.

The Khan of Kokand had the city repopulated and it is from this period that the Uzbek alleyways in the west of the city date. Under the new rulers of the Talas Valley, a fortress was built on the site of the ancient city of Taraz, around which a new town began to grow. This started out with the name of Namangan-i Kochek, since many of the new arrivals to the town came from Namangan in the Ferghana Valley. In 1856, it was renamed Aulie-Ata, 'holy father', honouring the respected Karakhanid ruler whose mausoleum lay in the town. The Russians, under General Mikhail Chernyaev, took the town in 1864. It became an uyezd capital three years later. In 1936, the name of the town changed again, to Mirzoyan, in honour of Levon Mirzoyan, the ethnic Armenian who headed the Kazakh Communist Party apparatus from 1933 to 1938. Mirzoyan was executed in that year, a victim of Stalin's repression, which meant that the name of the town was hardly likely to stay as it was. Sure enough, in 1938 it was changed again to Zhambyl, honouring the Kazakh poet Zhambyl Zhabaev. Which means that, discounting minor variations in spelling (Zhambyl was for example usually spelt in the more Russianised form Dzhambul during the Soviet period), the city has existed under eight different names. In 1997, the longest lasting historical name, Taraz, was restored to the city.

During the Soviet period, Zhambyl developed into an important centre for the processing of phosphorous, based around rich sources of phosphates in the Karatau Mountains to the southwest, whose mines at one stage accounted for 60% of the Soviet production of phosphorous. Factories producing yellow phosphorous and phosphate fertilisers became important elements of the city's economy but, like many heavy industries across the Soviet Union, they struggled following its breakup. After bleak years in the 1990s Taraz has staged a comeback based to a large extent on trade and commerce, situated as it is on the most direct route from Tashkent to Bishkek and Almaty.

Taraz today offers only a few reminders of its long history but these include some memorable sights, including the stunning Karakhanid Mausoleum of Aisha Bibi outside the town, and one of Kazakhstan's best regional museums. It makes for an excellent stopover of a day or two on routes between the attractions of Almaty Region and those of South Kazakhstan.

Dostyk Square They do like pink in Taraz. The administrative buildings surrounding the central Dostyk Square, which was named, of course, Lenin Square in the Soviet period, are all painted in a confection of pink and white. They compose an attractive ensemble of buildings from the early Soviet classicist period. The centre of the square is now occupied by an equestrian statue of a local warrior hero named Baidibek, who gazes across at the pinkness of the Kazaktelecom office opposite. The city akimat sits behind the statue, discreet Soviet stars still crowning the half- columns that embellish its facade. East of the square, in front of the drama theatre, is a monument to the writer Baurzhan Monyshuly (1910-1982), who related his adventures in the Battle of Moscow and on other battlefields in the Great Patriotic War in numerous stories and novels. A green promenade opens up behind the row of pink-painted government and university buildings on the square.

The square is the favoured place for locals to come and stroll on a warm summer evening. The stretch of Tole Bi Avenue passing across the square is closed to traffic by the authorities, but navigation can still be hazardous, as you negotiate past tots in toy cars, teens on roller skates and a train whose carriages are model swans. A Russian-language music channel, blared out from a large screen in the centre of the square, provides the musical accompaniment. The most brightly illuminated part of the square on summer evenings consists of a line of Huffy sofas, each set in front of huge toy animals or love hearts, beneath illuminated 'Taraz' signs.

Little is left of the old city of Taraz. A wooded park (working hours 9am-6pm) off eastern Tole Bi contains reconstructions of two small medieval mausoleums and a medieval mosque, and is well worth a look. Both mausoleums contain cloth-covered sarcophagi and all three buildings are Islamic holy sites. The Aulye Ata Mausoleum, also known as the Karakhan mausoleum has lost many of the building's original decorations during its restoration, completed in 1906. New tiles have been put in place on the outside of the structure, which is flanked by minarets; only the inside of the dome and the entrance and window have retained tiles from the time of Karakhan. The mausoleum of Shamsur (Davudbek), a 13-th century Mongol governor with a most gruesome reputation, is situated in the same park. It is said to have been built lopsided in revenge for the man’s infamous cruelty. Behind Dauitbek is a new reconstruction of the 9th- to-12th-century mosque in which Aulie-Ata is believed to have prayed. The dim-lit prayer hall with wooden pillars and a low wooden roof has a beautifully medieval and peaceful atmosphere.

The local history museum on Tole Bi Street offers a rich history of the city and its ruling classes; it is located next to the Kazakhtelecom building, and is open daily except Mondays.

 Just east of here begins Taraz’ Green Market (Zelyony Bazar, Kok Bazary; working hours 9am-6pm Tue-Sun), which stretches for 500m and is a fascinating wander, with as much of a Silk Road bazaar feel as at any market in the country. You can buy anything from a dombra or Chinese silk to a phone or a decorative loaf of nan bread. The heart of medieval Taraz lies beneath this market.

Getting there

Taraz airport, named Aulie-Ata, lies to the west of the town. Heading out of town on the road towards Shymkent, turn left for the airport just to the west of the gate over the road welcoming you into the city. Air Astana operates a daily Taraz to Astana flight.

Taraz is on the main railway line between Almaty and Shymkent. The railway station is in the southern part of town, close to the southern end of Komratov Street. The bus station is a crumbling Soviet-era building on the northeastern edge of town, on the south side of the Almaty road. There are frequent departures to Shymkent, by marshrutka, and departures by both bus and marshrutkn to Almaty. There are a few daily departures to Bishkek. The marshrutkas leave when they are full, rather than work to a specific timetable. This is also a place to pick up taxis serving destinations outside the city.