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Lying between Kyzylorda and Shymkent, the Silk Road town of Turkestan (Turkistan in Kazakh) contains Kazakhstan's most impressive monument and most important pilgrimage site, the Timurid Mausoleum of Khodja Ahmed Yassaui. The town, now home to some 100-110,000 people, celebrated somewhat arbitrarily in 2001 its 1,500th anniversary. Its origins lie in the settlement of Shavgar, which flourished in the 9th and 10th centuries as a centre for trade and handicraft production. Shavgar appears to have declined in the 12th century, in favour of Yassi, which was probably initially a suburb or satellite town. Yassi's fortunes in turn were linked to the presence here of a revered Sufi mystic, Khodja Ahmed Yassaui, and became a place of pilgrimage on his death.

The town grew further in importance following a visit to Yassaui's decaying grave by Timur, known in the West as Tamerlane, in 1397. Timur ordered the construction of a magnificent new monument befitting a saint of Yassaui's stature: a multi-functional building which would incorporate a vast and ornate mausoleum. The construction was planned on a grand scale comparable with Timur's magnificent creations in Samarkand. His motivation was probably in part philanthropic, but in part also to help promote his rule in the area. Detailed designs were drawn up, and arrangements were also put in place for the funding, through voluntary donations, of a staff comprising a preacher, two Koran readers, a property manager, water carrier, gardener and, mysteriously, a scavenger. Construction began in 1399, but the building was left unfinished on Timur's death in 1405. The main facade was left unfinished and it remains today bare of the beautiful tilework that adorns the rest of the building, with scaffolding poles still protruding from the brickwork, but the building still attains a great beauty through its size, turquoise domes and stunning decorated tilework. Turkistan indeed has no rivals in Kazakhstan for man-made beauty and it’s an easy day trip from Shymkent.

Details of the life of the man on whom Turkestan's importance is based are relatively sketchy. Khodja Ahmed Yassaui was born in Sayram, at that time known as Ispijab, probably around 1103. His father, Sheikh Ibragim, was a well-known local figure, but Ahmed was orphaned at the age of seven, and he moved to Yassi with his elder sister, his only remaining close relative. His teacher was the venerable Arystan Bab, also known as Arslan Bab (both names meaning 'lion'), according to legend a former companion of the Prophet Muhammad. On the death of Arystan Bab, Ahmed moved to Bukhara, where he became a disciple of Sheikh Yusup Hamadani, an important figure in the development of Sufism in central Asia. Ahmed elected to return to Yassi, taking the name Ahmed Yassaui, becoming a highly successful propagator of Islam, based around a mystic Sufi tradition.

Yasaui lived much of his life in Turkistan, dying here about 1166. He had the gift of communicating his understanding to ordinary people through poems and sermons in a Turkic vernacular, a major reason for his enduring popularity. The poetry was much later collected in a book, Divan-i Hikmet, the authenticity of which is doubtful. When Yassaui attained the age of 63, that reached by the Prophet Muhammad, he retired to an underground cell, where he lived in prayer and contemplation, explaining that he had no wish to live a worldly life longer than that of the Prophet. Yasaui’s original small tomb was already a place of pilgrimage before Timur ordered a far grander mausoleum built here in the 1390s.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries Yassi, which became known as Turkestan, became a capital of the Kazakh Khanate. The Kazakh leaders chose Turkestan in large measure because of the spiritual significance of the town; allowing them to claim the Islamic heritage of Khodja Ahmed Yassaui, as well as at least part of the legacy of Timur. Many Kazakh khans and other senior figures were buried here, reflecting the traditional belief that burial close to the grave of a saint would provide protection in the next world. Among the first burials here linked with the khanate was that in 1519 of Amanbike, daughter of Janybek, co-founder of the Kazakh Khanate. The city was also the scene of ceremonies of the elevation of Kazakh khans to their throne, among them that of Ablai Khan in 1771. By tradition the act of coronation involved lifting up the new khan on a white felt mat.

The name Turkistan, which was first mentioned in historical records in the 16th Century, has particular significance, expressing the claim that it represented the lands of the Turkic nations. This tradition remains alive to this day, and is the reason why Turkistan was chosen as the seat of the Kazakh-Turkish University named, of course, in honour of Yassaui.

Turkestan today is a major Sufi pilgrimage centre. By local tradition, three pilgrimages here are considered to equate to one to Mecca, and pilgrims far outnumber tourists.

With one monumental exception, this typical town of the Central Asian steppe seems to have little to offer the tourist: a stroll around reveals the occasional traditional house with intricately carved wood gables, and the bustling and labyrinthine Night Market is definitely worth a visit, more to people-watch than to purchase-the melange of ethnic nationalities going about their business is fascinating. Most shopping is done in the evening, when temperatures are more bearable, and the market serves as a social centre as well as shopping centre.

Orientation & Information - Coming by road from Shymkent, you’ll enter Turkistan from the southeast and the mausoleum will loom into view on your left. The heart of the modern town is the pedestrian Esim Khan Square with its towering modern sculpture; the akimat is here, and the square plays host to public concerts. A pedestrianised stretch of Taukekhan Street heads east from the square along the northern edge of the mausoleum complex. The bus station is about 2km west of the centre, just before the large, busy market in the bustling, down-at-heel, nonmonumental part of town where most people live, and the train station is 3km southwest of there.

Sights - Before visiting the Yasaui Mausoleum itself, it’s worth seeing the recently renovated museum, 250m to its northeast. This has some English-language labelling and helpful English-speaking staff. It contains some archaeological displays but most of the material focuses on Kozha Akhmed Yasaui, Sufism and Islamic learning. There are models of the Yasaui Mausoleum, the Aristan Bab Mausoleum and the Hilvet semi-underground mosque to which Yasaui retired late in life, plus books of his poetry. The main approach to the Yasaui Mausoleum is through a lovely rose garden, past which is a replica of the small 15th century Mausoleum of Rabiga-Sultan Begum (the original was torn down for tsarist building material in 1898).

Rabiga-Sultan Begum was Timur’s great-granddaughter and wife of Abylkayyr Khan, a 15th-century leader of the then-nomadic Uzbeks. It was Abylkayyr who put the finishing touches to the structure (but not decoration) of the Yasaui mausoleum’s facade – note the distinct brickwork at the top of the arch. He was killed in the 1468 feud that split the Uzbeks and effectively gave birth to the Kazakh people.

The Yasaui Mausoleum itself has a slightly museumlike feel despite being a place of pilgrimage. Visitors don’t usually remove shoes though women normally wear headscarves (available at the entrance). The main chamber is cupped with an 18m wide dome, above a vast, 2000 kg, metal kazan (cauldron) for holy water, given by Timur. Around this central hall are 34 smaller rooms on two floors. Yasaui’s tomb lies beyond an ornate wooden door at the end of the chamber: you can view it through grilles from corridors on either side. The right-hand corridor contains the tomb of Abylay Khan, leader of Kazakh resistance to the invading Zhungars in the 18th century. Don’t miss the mausoleum’s carpeted mosque, with its beautifully tiled mihrab. The glorious blue, turquoise and white tiling on the outside of the building merits close inspection. Note the particularly lovely fluted rear dome, above Akhmed Yasaui’s tomb chamber.

A number of other monuments, all with free admission, stand nearby. To the south, on a small hill, are the wood-pillared, 19th century Friday Mosque and, next door, the 12th- to 15th-century Hilvet semi-underground mosque, with the cell to which Yasaui is said to have withdrawn towards the end of his life. Just east of the mausoleum, built into its defensive wall, the Archaeology & Ethnography Museum has material on old Turkistan and some of the many other ancient and medieval settlements in this fertile part of the Syr-Darya valley.