The modern town of Konye-Urgench (from Persian ‘Old Urgench’) woth a population of 15,000 people is a rural backwater with empty plazas, wandering livestock and back roads that end in agricultural fields. Yet centuries ago, this was the centre of the Islamic world, not the end of it. It certainly has not had the easiest of histories, destroyed both by the Mongols and by Timur, but enough monuments of strong architectural and historical interest remain to make Konye-Urgench one of Turkmenistan's most important tourist sights.
Our knowledge of the early history of settlement here is sketchy. Following the Arab invasion of Khorezm in 712 the town, known as Gurganj, gradually developed in importance thanks to its favourable position on trading routes between China and the Volga. It became the capital of Khorezm in 995, taking over from the city of Kath, following the triumph of the Emir of Gurganj against the last ruler of the Afrighid dynasty. The latter was murdered, the Emir of Gurganj took over his title of Khorezmshah, and Kath was destroyed by the capricious waters of the Amu Darya. Gurganj, in contrast, thrived. In the first part of the 11th century, under the reign of Ma'mun II, it became one of the major centres of learning and culture in the Islamic world, the home to scholars such as Avicenna and Al-Biruni. Gurganj then briefly fell under the control of the Ghaznavids, but, following the latter's defeat at the hands of the Seljuks in 1040, became a remote outpost of the Seljuk Empire.
Khorezm fell to the all-conquering Seljuq Turks, but rose in the 12th century, under a Seljuq dynasty known as the Khorezmshahs, to shape its own far-reaching empire. Indeed, in a reversal of fortunes, Gurganj now controlled Merv. This was a golden age for the city, known by the Turkic peoples as Urgench, with trade routes flourishing, especially the western route to the Volga. The Khorezmshah, Mohammed II, saw himself as a latter-day Alexander the Great, and set about further expanding the boundaries of his empire. With its mosques, medressas, libraries and flourishing bazaars, Gurganj (the Persian name for Konye-Urgench) became a centre of the Muslim world, until Mohammed II moved his capital to Samarkand after capturing that city in 1210.
This period of prosperity came to an abrupt end at the hands of the Mongols. Genghiz Khan reportedly began with some ostensibly favourable gestures towards Mohammed II, including by sending to him a lump of gold said to be the size of a camel's hump. But Mohammed took offence at Genghiz Khan's reported comment that he was ready to treat the Khorezmshah 'as he would his sons', since this seemed to imply a relationship of subordination. When the Khorezmshahs intercepted a caravan sent by Genghiz Khan at the frontier settlement of Otrar, they murdered the merchants. This was not, perhaps, tactically wise. Genghiz Khan launched an assault against Mohammed II in 1219, first razing Otrar to the ground.
Old Urgench withstood the siege for six months, and even after the Mongols broke through the city walls the residents fought them in the streets. The Mongols, unused to cities, burnt the houses but the residents still fought from the ruins. In the end, the Mongols diverted the waters of the Amu-Darya and flooded the city, drowning its defenders. The Mongol generals went in pursuit of Mohammed II who eluded them for months until he finally died of exhaustion in 1221 on an island in the Caspian Sea. The tombs of his father, Tekesh, and grandfather, Il-Arslan, survive and are two of Old Urgench’s monuments.
In the following period of peace, Khorezm was ruled as part of the Golden Horde, the huge, wealthy, westernmost of the khanates into which Chinggis Khan’s empire was divided after his death. Thanks to its favourable geographical location, Urgench recovered importance relatively quickly, becoming the capital of the eastern province of the Golden Horde. Rebuilt, Urgench was again Khorezm’s capital, and grew into what was probably one of Central Asia’s most important trading cities – big, beautiful, crowded and with a new generation of monumental buildings. The Arab traveller Ibn Battuta, visiting in the 1330s, found it again a great city. But history was to repeat itself.
The ascendant Timur, known in the West as Tamerlane, was concerned about the challenge posed by the Sufi dynasty which now controlled Urgench. He pillaged the city in 1379, and then completed the job in 1388, razing Urgench to the ground and ordering that barley be sown over the site. The city was never to recover. Subsequent centuries brought unfavourable shifts in the course of the Amu Darya.
In the 17th century the Uzbek Khan Abulghazi shifted the water-starved population to a new location in the east of the oasis, close to Khiva. Thus was born the new town of Urgench, in present-day Uzbekistan. The old capital became known as Konye-Urgench ('Old Urgench').
Konye-Urgench made a minor rally in the 19th century, thanks to the construction of the Khan Yap irrigation canal by the Khans of Khiva, and gradually settled into the agricultural centre it is today.
Today, most of Old Urgench lies underground, but there is enough urban tissue to get an idea of its former glories. Its uniqueness was acknowledged in 2005 when UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site. The modern town is somewhat short on tourist facilities and most travellers overnight in Dashogus.
Getting There & Away - The town’s bus station, where taxis, marshrutki and buses meet and pick up passengers, is opposite the Gurgench Hotel and a taxi ride from the town centre. Frequent buses and marshrutki go to Ashgabat (28M, seven to eight hours) and to Dashogus (15M, two hours). Taxis leave for Ashgabat (seat/car 30M/120M) and Dashogus (seat/car 5M/20M) at all times of day. Those not in a hurry can take the daily 5.40pm train to Dashogus (1.50M, 4,5 hours). A taxi to the border with Uzbekistan (20km away) should cost 5M and can be picked up anywhere.
The railway station is south of town, just beyond the main archaeological park on the Ashgabat road. Since it offers just one slow train daily to each of Dashoguz and the agricultural town of Saparmurat Turkmenbashy, it is unlikely to be of use. The Uzbek border crossing point between Konye-Urgench and Hodjeyli is 13km to the north of town.
Getting Around - The main sights of Konye-Urgench are spread out so it’s best to use a car. There is no public transport as such, but you can flag down a taxi on the main roads or by the market. The trip to the southern monuments and back, with waiting time, is 6M.
The sights of major interest are grouped in two main clusters. There is a small knot of monuments in the centre of town, including the museum and the Mausoleum of Nedjmeddin Kubra. It makes sense to visit these first, as the museum provides useful background on the site. The remains of the city proper lie a kilometre or so south of town, on the Ashgabat road.