Trans Eurasia travel

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Sights

Nejameddin Kubra Mausoleum & Around - The sacred Nejameddin Kubra Mausoleum is the most important of a small cluster of sights near the middle of the town and is the holiest part of Konye-Urgench. The simple Konye-Urgench Museum (admission 11.40M; h8am-6pm Wed-Mon) is housed in the early-20th-century Dash Mosque, just before the main mausoleum complex. It includes some ancient Arabic texts and a few interestingly labelled artefacts from Old Urgench (eg ‘blue polished eight-cornered thing’). Note the Christian symbols carved onto some of the stone pieces. Off the medressa courtyard are several rooms containing ethnographic displays of Turkmen culture, including a pottery workshop and carpet looms.

To one side of the mosque is the Matkerim-Ishan Mausoleum, which is also early 20th century. The path past here leads to the Nejameddin Kubra Mausoleum on the left, and the Sultan Ali Mausoleum facing it across a shady little courtyard. Nejameddin Kubra (1145–1221) was a famous Khorezm Muslim teacher and poet who founded the Sufic Kubra order, with followers throughout the Islamic world. His tomb is believed to have healing properties and you may find pilgrims praying here. The building has three domes and a tiled portal that appears on the brink of forward collapse. The tombs inside – one for his body and one for his head (which were kindly separated by the Mongols) are quite extraordinarily colourful with floralpattern tiles. 

Southern Monuments - The city’s most striking monuments (admission 11.40M, camera 5.70M; h8am-6pm) are dotted like a constellation across an empty expanse straddling the Ashgabat road, 1km south of the main town. Turabeg Khanym Complex, opposite the ticket office, is still the subject of some debate. Locals and some scholars consider this a mausoleum, though no-one is too sure who is buried here. Some archaeologists contend that it was a throne room built in the 12th century (it appears to have a heating system, which would not have been used in a mausoleum).

Whatever its function, this is one of Central Asia’s most perfect buildings. Its geometric patterns are in effect a giant calendar signifying humanity’s insignificance in the march of time. There are 365 sections on the sparkling mosaic underside of the dome, representing the days of the year; 24 pointed arches immediately beneath the dome representing the hours of the day; 12 bigger arches below representing the months the year; and four big windows representing the weeks of the month. The cupola is unusual in early Islamic architecture and has its equal only in Shiraz, Iran.

Crossing the road to the side of the minaret, the path through a modern cemetery and the 19th-century Sayid Ahmed Mausoleum leads to the Gutlug Timur Minaret, built in the 1320s. It’s the only surviving part of Old Urgench’s main mosque. Decorated with bands of brick and a few turquoise tiles, its 59m-tall minaret is not as tall as it once was, and leans noticeably.

It’s interesting to note that there is no entrance to the minaret – it was linked to the adjacent mosque by a bridge 7m above the ground. Since that mosque was destroyed, the only way into the minaret is by ladder. There are 144 steps to the top, although you can’t climb it now. 

Further along the track is the Sultan Tekesh Mausoleum. Tekesh was the 12th-century Khorezmshah who made Khorezm great with conquests as far south as Khorasan (presentday northern Iran and northern Afghanistan). It is believed that he built this mausoleum for himself, along with a big medressa and library (which did not survive) on the same spot. However, some scholars theorise that the building had earlier existed as a Zoroastrian temple. After his death in 1200 Tekesh was apparently buried here, although there is no tomb. There are recent excavations of several early Islamic graves near the entrance to the building. Nearby is the mound of graves called the Kyrk Molla (Forty Mullahs Hill), a sacred place where Konye-Urgench’s inhabitants held their last stand against the Mongols. Here you’ll see young women rolling down the hill in a fertility rite – one of Konye-Urgench’s more curious attractions.

Continue along the track to the Il-Arslan Mausoleum, Konye-Urgench’s oldest standing monument. The conical dome, with a curious zigzag brick pattern, is the first of its kind and was exported to Samarkand by Timur. Il-Arslan, who died in 1172, was Tekesh’s father. The building is small but well worth a close look. The conical dome with 12 faces is unique, and the collapsing floral terracotta moulding on the facade is also unusual. Further south lies the base of the Mamun II Minaret, which was built in 1011, reduced to a stump by the Mongols, rebuilt in the 14th century and finally toppled by an earthquake in 1895. At last you’ll arrive at the so-called portal of an unknown building. The structure is now thought to have been the entrance to the palace of Mohammed Khorezmshah, due to its ornateness and the thickness of its walls.


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