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A sleepy district capital close to the Iranian border at the eastern edge of Ahal Region, Serakhs is the border crossing point for a railway link (freight only) between Tejen and Mashhad in Iran, opened in 1996. The Turkmen authorities frequently depict this railway as a revival of the Silk Route links, and Serakhs in its heyday was indeed an important Silk Road town, owing its prosperity to its position along the route between Nishapur and Merv. Situated in an oasis along the Tejen River, Serakhs has been occupied since at least Achaemenid times, the town somewhat arbitrarily commemorating its 2,500th anniversary in 1993. Its major flowering came under the Seljuks, when the town occupied 120ha and was home to a renowned school of architects responsible for some of the finest constructions of the region, including the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar in Merv and the Ribat-i Sharaf Caravanseray on the road to Nishapur in present-day Iran.

The town fell into decline following the demise of the Seljuks, but a temporary recovery under the Khorezmshahs at the end of the 12th century was dramatically reversed by the Mongol invasion. After this, a minor rally under the Timurids notwithstanding, the once powerful trading town became an increasingly rural backwater. The Russians built their new administrative centre 2km to the north of Old Serakhs, which now has the status of a state historical reserve.

A special permit is required to visit Serakhs, which is reached by road from Tejen. Accommodation in the town is a problem, though Turkmen travel agents may be able to book a guesthouse of sorts, in a building constructed to house Romanian gas-industry specialists, now owned by Turkmen Gas.

Old Serakhs

The main attraction of the Serakhs historical reserve, to the south of the modern town, is the llth-century Mausoleum of Abul Fazl. A highly respected Sufi sheikh, and mentor of Abu Said Meikhene, a mausoleum was built over the grave of Abul Fazl soon after his death in 1023. The mausoleum is a fine example of the skills of the architects of Serakhs during the Seljuk period. Known locally as Serakhs Baba, the mausoleum consists of a square chamber, its walls some 15m in length, above which is a double dome atop a 12-sided drum.

The external walls of the building, which was restored in the 1980s, each contain five blind-arched niches, with decoration provided by the alternations between vertically and horizontally placed bricks. The tall portal, with scalloped decoration beneath the arch, dates from a 15th-century reconstruction under the Timurids. In the interior, the transition between walls and dome is marked with four squinches, separated by niches. The cenotaph of Abul Fazl lies in the centre of the room, covered with sheets. It is possible to climb onto the roof of the mausoleum, via a steep spiral stairway. This offers a good view of the site, including the citadel to the north. Some of the tiles on the roof display a hand print; possibly simply to make the tiles easier to lay.

To the north of the mausoleum, the long low hill covered with pieces of pottery and red brick is the citadel. On the eastern side of this hill a section of wall, including a bastion, has been reconstructed. The main residential areas of Serakhs in its heyday stretched out east of the citadel, and were in turn surrounded by mud-brick walls, whose lines can be picked out from the vantage point of the citadel.

Yarty Gumbez

Leaving the historical reserve, head south, away from the modern centre of Serakhs. Alter 6km, turn left onto a gravel road, then left again after a further 4km towards the now visible ruined mausoleum known as Yarty Gumbez ('Half Dome'). The name is somewhat misleading, as none of the dome now survives. Another casualty of recent decay is an inscription on the east wall of the building, clearly visible in photos taken here in the 1970s, whose text dated the mausoleum to 1098. The north wall is almost entirely absent, and the only remnants of the drum beneath the dome are two elegant squinches, occupying the inside corners of the south wall. Scholars have suggested that this may be the mausoleum of one Sheikh Ahmed Al Khady, based on a 12th-century account which records that Al Khady was buried in one of the villages of the Serakhs Oasis.