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Ozgon (Uzgen)

Ozgon (Uzgen) is located 55km northeast of Osh, less than an hour's drive, on a cliff-top above the wide plain of the Kara-Darya River. These days the town is visited mostly for its well-preserved 12th-century Karakhanid monuments and for its interesting Uzbek-dominated bazaar.

Ozgon is a town with at least two thousand years of history. It is claimed to be the site of a series of citadels dating back to the 1st century BC; there is also a usual story that the town began as an encampment for some of Alexander the Great's troops. Ozgon is an ancient settlement, mentioned as the town of Yu in the Chinese chronicles of the second century BC. Uzgen's position ensured that it profited from the side shoots of the Silk Road, for the town marked the passage into the Turkic world, a place for pause. Traders would tally up profits and swap their animals here, bracing themselves for the rigours ahead or recuperating from a completed journey. Its position at the head of a narrow valley also made the town a centre for Silk Road taxation.

Uzgen reached its zenith under the Karakhanids, when it was the capital of a loosely knit empire that stretched over both sides of the Tian Shan and incorporated most of the lands of Transoxiana. It is said that the great Ismael Samani was imprisoned in Uzgen before he managed to escape, disguised in women's clothes. After the Ilek Khan had secured a sufficient power base, the capital was transferred to the centralized town of Samarkand and Uzgen slipped a rung to become the residence of the ruler of Ferghana. In 1141 the infidel Kara Khitai Gurkhan defeated the Muslim Karakhanid khan and Uzgen became the home of their dynastic treasury. News of the Turk's defeat by a non-Muslim elder (or Presbyter) called Gurkhan (translated as John) was to filter back to the Levant as Chinese whispers, passing into beleaguered Crusader imagination as the legend of the Christian leader Prester John who, it was said, was en route to Jerusalem to rout the Muslim empire.

The small town nestles on the high bank of the Kara-Darya river, where the Fergana and Pamir mountain ranges converge. The population in the town and surrounding villages is 85 per cent Uzbek; locals say it was about two-thirds Uyghur in pre-Soviet days. Ozgon was known by its ancient name Uzgen until recently, when its designation was changed by the Government to conform to Kyrgyz language spelling rules. The town is known for vicious fighting between its Kyrgyz and Uzbek inhabitants in June and July 1990. Not many people are willing to speak about that violence but it is still fresh in their mind. Coal mining used to provide employment in the Ozgon basin but poverty is now widespread, especially amongst the elderly and unemployed.

Little of Ozgon's ancient history remains intact, apart from a quartet of Karakhanid buildings - three joined 12th-century mausoleums and a stubby 11th-century minaret (whose top apparently fell down in an earthquake in the 17th century), faced with very fine ornamental brickwork, carved terracotta and inlays of stone. The isolated relics of Uzgen's hazy past glories lie a five-minute walk from the bus station and bazaar, one hundred metres from a strident silver Lenin. Standing slightly apart from the bustle of the 21st century, their position amongst the graves of their kings is dramatic against the red earth and the rise of the mountains beyond. As Victor Vitkovich puts it, 'every detail of the architecture is made carefully with the delicate skill of a jeweller as though they were headpieces of ancient Eastern manuscripts'.

The small minaret and three mausoleums that remain are mainly notable because of the rarity of pre-Mongol architecture in Central Asia and for the exquisite quality of the tilework. The complex is said to represent an important step in Islamic art, denoting a shift of emphasis from the interior to the exterior, and is the forerunner of such later architectural high points as the Kalon minaret in Bukhara and the Shah-i-Zinda complex in Samarkand.

Each of the three mausoleum is unlike the others, though all are in shades of red-brown clay (there were no glazed tiles at this point in Central Asian history). The mausoleums are made exquisite with engraving on terracotta slabs, and relief work of up to three centimetres in depth. Over doorways, pillars and facades creep intricately worked terracotta foliage competing with geometric patterns and bold calligraphy. The whole is reminiscent of patterns found on carpets from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

Of the three mausoleums, the central Mazaar of Nasr ibn Ali predates the others by over a century. The portal has been largely restored, but a section of melted girikh to the left still points to its original glory. Tradition associates the tomb with the resting places of the first Karakhanid khan who died in 1012 and also of the great Seljuk leader Sultan Sanjar. The first story is true. The second, however, is not; Sultan Sanjar's impressive Mazaar still stands in Merv, Turkmenistan.

To the left is the Jalal Ad Din Al Hussein Mausoleum, built in 1152. Beautiful foliated Nakhshi calligraphy above the arch contrasts with the less ebullient plaited Kufic above the door and the two are separated by a fine incised terracotta girikh design underneath the arch. The circles to either side of the arch may be an echo of earlier Zoroastrian beliefs.

The most obviously beautiful and eye-catching designs, however, are reserved for the southern mausoleum (1186), whose incised terracotta plaques and inscriptions cover every arch and concave of the facade like some monotone trial run of the Shah-i- Zinda, which it predates by over 200 years.

All three buildings are visited by pilgrims, especially women, who use the tombs as mosques, touching the walls and rubbing their faces as they leave. Mostly, however, the tombs lie deserted, quietly reflecting the pinkish hue of the ground whence they came.

The tenth-century Uzgen minaret stands divorced from its long-destroyed mosque to the north of the mausoleums. The structure rises 20 metres from an octagonal base of fired brick, through five main bands of decorative brick, to a crenellated top crowned with a brick hat, indicating that in the past a second section continued on from here. The bands are broken by thin rings of brick circles and embroidery designs. Elements of the design can be traced through to the later Karakhanid minaret masterpieces in Bukhara and Vabkent. The cupola was built in 1923-24 to top the truncated structure. Ruins of a medieval madrasa have been found nearby. You can ascend the minaret for a small fee.

If the complex already seems strangely familiar it is because the three mausolea adorn the reverse side of the Kyrgyz 50som note. There are good views of the Kara- Darya River valley from the complex, and even better ones from the top of the minaret.

To find the mausoleums, leave the market through the tiled gateway, walk down the road towards the bus station, past chaikhanas on the right, and take the first left. When you come to a silver Lenin and a row of Soviet heroes you will see the site to your right. Look for the minaret behind the town square.

Today the town is mostly an agricultural centre with sunflowers, tobacco and especially rice all being important crops. Ozgon has a university, a brewery and a distinctive bazaar that is very Uzbek in character. Apart from the architectural attractions, Ozgon's bazaar is indeed an interesting place to wander around, particularly if you haven't seen much of Uzbekistan.

Getting There & Away - The most frequent connections are from Osh (one hour), plus services from Jalalabad. The sights are best visited as a day trip from Osh. Shared taxis to Jalal-Abad lurk down a side street, a block east of the bazaar near Restaurant Almaz. There are also fairly regular minibus and shared taxi services to Bishkek.

The day before we crossed into the Pamirs, Oman and I drove north through poor Kirghiz hamlets to the little town of Uzgen. At roadside police barriers brutal-looking officers flagged down anything that passed, but viewed me with hospitable surprise, and let us go unsearched.

Uzgen clustered below a pass of the Tienshan in a green valley; and here, beside a field damp with poppies and clover, all that was left of an early capital of Mavarannahr lay mouldering in the sun. Three mausoleums and a minaret, raised in the confident simplicity of patterned brick, marked the site of a city whose empire had straddled Central Asia. For a century and a half, between the year they overran the Samanids in 999 and the time they vanished under Mongolian invaders, the obscure Karakhanids ruled here in unreachable splendour at the antipodes of the world. Who they were, I scarcely knew: a Turkic people, I had read, whose loose-knit federation was constantly in flux. Yet their dominions spread huger than India.

I waded through grass to the mausoleums. They appeared to have been restored, and then abandoned. Their portals were scooped from a single facade: tall frames of decorative brick flanked by engaged pillars. Within them, the doorways to the chambers were encrusted with bands of terracotta foliage and colonnettes, from which the colour had long ago been washed away. Columns, friezes, vase-shaped capitals - all were covered with the same perforated blanket of relief work: dry, subtle, exquisite.

One doorway, in particular, stood almost free of restoration, and in that desolateness shone with a honeycomb intricacy. Under a whole gallery of geometric patterns carved foliage oozed and crept, and a sensuous wriggle of calligraphy overswept half the gateway. But the arches led from nothing to nothing. Their dead had gone. Outside, from the ruin's height above the valley, I imagined the capital poised schizophrenically between cultivation and wilderness. For the Karakhanids were the first of the Turkic dynasties in Central Asia - hesitant precursors of the waves to come - and their site looked pastoral and impermanent even now, cramped on its hill beside the graves of their nomad kings.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron