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Mausoleum of Aisha Bibi

The beautiful Karakhanid Mausoleum of Aisha Bibi is one place you should definitely see as part of any visit to Zhambyl Region. It sits in the village of the same name, west of Taraz. To get here, take the main road out of Taraz towards Shymkent. Aisha Bibi village lies 8km beyond the western gateway to the city. Within the village, take the signposted left turn to the mausoleum, turning left again (also signposted) where the road forks. The mausoleum is about 500m from the main road. It sits in a fenced compound amidst grounds filled with red rose bushes, making this a delightful spot in season. Mausoleum has the tombs of two 11th- or 12th-century women, legendary protagonists of a Kazakh Romeo and Juliet tale.

The main facade of the Mausoleum of Aysha-Bibi is probably the only authentically old building around Taraz. Made of delicate terracotta bricks in more than 50 different motifs forming lovely patterns, the building looks almost weightless. The Mausoleum of Aisha Bibi, the larger of the two Karakhanid buildings in the compound, is a heavily restored square-based building, originally dating from the 11th or 12th century, with a conical roof. The external decoration is stunning: every spare piece of wall is covered with carved terracotta in a wide range of geometric designs. It is the only monument in central Asia fully covered with carved terracotta tilework. The main entrance is on the eastern side of the building, set in a niche. Niches on the other three walls enclose latticed wooden windows. There is a cloth- covered tomb inside.

Aisha Bibi is the subject of a popular legend in Kazakhstan. While there are numerous variations of the story, it runs broadly as follows. When the young Karakhan, ruler of the regions of western Turkestan, undertook a political mission to Samarkand in the year 1050, people rushed to the street in great numbers to watch him and his splendid dzhigits pass by. Karakhan noticed a yoting maiden of extraordinary beauty among the curious crowd. The young girl was Aisha, the daughter of the Lord of Samarkand. Karakhan was smitten, and began arranging secret meetings with her, until he was called back to his home city of Taraz to defend it against invaders from the east. Before he left, Karakhan decided to ask Aisha's father for her hand. The father, however, dismissed the yoting captain with insulting words. Nothing could change his opinion that Karakhan could not possibly offer his daughter a life worthy of her station.

The two lovers bade each other farewell, but not without sealing a secret bond. After waiting for a long time without any word from her beloved, Aisha decided to inform her father about the engagement and to obtain permission for the marriage. Outraged by his daughter's stubbornness, the father cursed Aisha and swore that never while he lived would he give his consent for the union. Aisha's mother, however, was concerned about her daughter's happiness and helped Aisha, dressed in men's clothes and accompanied by her old nanny, Babadzha Khatun, to flee on the best horse available.

The two women travelled for months until they saw Taraz loom on the horizon. On the bank of the River Tasaryk Aisha changed her outfit, took a long bath in the river and put on her wonderful wedding dress, which during the long months of waiting she had made herself. Then, she reached for her saukele, the bride's headdress. She took it out of her saddlebag and put it on her head, but at that moment she collapsed from exhaustion, sickness or snake bite (versions differ, but the one with the snake is mostly spoken). The poison started to work instantly; Aisha collapsed and bade the nanny gallop forth to Karakhan and announce her arrival. But the old woman could not ride fast enough. When she returned in the company of Karakhan, his guards and swiftly mobilised clergyman, there was hardly any life left in the girl. In despair Karakhan acknowledged that he could do nothing to save his beautiful Aisha. Therefore he ordered the clergyman to marry them on the spot, with his companions as witnesses. With mere moments left to her, Aisha signalled with a faint nod that she, Aisha Bibi - or the wedded Aisha-would be the wife of Karakhan. Then she passed away.

Karakhan swore that never in his life would he love or marry another woman-and kept his promise. He lived to 100 years old, and ruled in a wise and just manner, for which he was later dubbed Aulye Ata, or Righteous Father.

Karakhan had a splendid mausoleum built on the spot where Aisha had died. On the ruler's order, only the best construction materials were used, and the best architects engaged. Later, a second mausoleum was built as the last resting place for the nurse. Babadzha Khatun, who survived her mistress by many years, and died in honour at Karakhan's court.

It stands to the right of Aisha Bibi building. Mausoleum of Babazhi Khatun. This is a 12th-century structure which has also been heavily restored. It has a distinctive 'corrugated' conical dome, with 16 sharp-edged ridges radiating out from the top, looking rather like a hat made in a school origami class. The external walls are plainer than those of the Aisha Bibi Mausoleum, though an Arabic inscription runs across the top of the eastern facade, above the arched entrance. There is no tomb inside the building. 

Since the Aisha Bibi monument is associated with the eternal qualities of love, and because it is a beautiful place surrounded by red roses, it is a popular spot for wedding couples to come and be photographed. Both buildings started to suffer the ravages of time, and for this reason they have been restored stone by- stone, and now present a suitably beautiful aspect-in the way Karakhan imagined it in his designs.

Shymkent-bound minibuses from Taraz will take you to Aysha-Bibi or you can hire a taxi in Taraz.