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Shakpak-Ata is perhaps the most intriguing of all Mangistau’s underground mosques – a cross-shaped affair with three entrances and four chambers, cut into a cliff close to the Caspian coast. Shakpak Ata is the most architecturally impressive of the underground mosques of Mangistau Region, and this fascinating site deserves to be much better known.

It’s 133km north of Aktau and 37km northwest of the village of Taushik – the final 11km, north from the Taushik–Fort Shevchenko road, is down a stony, bumpy track. If you are coming from Aktau, there is a shorter route to Shakpak Ata which avoids the need to come via Fort Shevchenko. An unsignposted track leads to the right off the main Aktau to Fort Shevchenko road, 71km north of the regional capital. Head towards the twin 'tower'-type mausolea, square-based stone-built structures with tapering walls, 11km away. They are part of a small necropolis named Kusum. After a further 9km the track reaches the crossroads formed where the Fort Shevchenko to Taushik road crosses it. Head straight on for Shakpak Ata. There are however several competing tracks, particularly on the stretch north of the Kusum necropolis, and it is easy to take the wrong turn. A guide is therefore particularly important if you take this route.

This place, built in honour of a local figure named Erzhan Haziret, celebrated for his spirituality, provides basic overnight accommodation (sleeping on the floor) for pilgrims visiting the Shakpak Ata site. There is a one-roomed museum within the building, containing items of clothing worn by Erzhan Haziret as well as, usefully, floor plans of Shakpak Ata and other underground mosques in the region.

Turn right immediately beyond this building, onto a track which runs into the broad canyon in which lies the necropolis of Shakpak Ata, a few hundred metres away. On the side of the canyon, to your left, is the underground Mosque of Shakpak Ata, dated according to the plaque here to sometime between the 10th and 13th centuries. The rock forming the side of the canyon has taken a honeycomb form here, a result of wind erosion. Into the rock are cut several rectangular niches, places of burial. Firestones, shiraktases, stand in front of these. The walls are adorned with deeply incised Arabic inscriptions, sculpted columns, weirdly weathered niches and drawings of horses and hands. The cliff is peppered with burial niches, and there’s a necropolis of similar age below it, with more than 2000 tombs. There is a niched arched portal, covered with etchings of horses, handprints and inscriptions in Arabic. You enter the mosque through a wooden door close to the portal, then climb a few rough steps.

The plan of the mosque, strikingly, takes the form of a cross. The square central space rises to a domed ceiling with a hole in the top for light and ventilation. At each corner of the space is a column, with graceful, flat arches running between them. The chamber to the south has a niched mihrab, with further niches around it. The chamber to the east of the central space is much longer than the others, with further niches along its walls, possibly for books. The walls of the mosque are further enlivened by small holes into which lamps would have been placed, by numerous Arabic inscriptions, and by etched drawings of horses, goats and handprints.

At the end of the longer eastern chamber is a second entrance to the mosque, a flight of steps which brings you up onto the plateau on the side of the canyon. A modern, square-based building with a metal roof has been placed above the roof over the central chamber: while a conservation measure, the structure detracts from the natural beauty of the site. Near this building, cut into the limestone plateau, are two lines of nine egg-shaped indentations: this was a board for the game togyzkumalak.

Beyond the necropolis, the white walls of the canyon, and tamarisk bushes in the valley floor, make for some enticing scenery. You may see flints here: shakpak, in Kazakh, means 'flint'.