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Kunya Urgench (Turkmenistan)

An intriguing excursion can be made from either Urgench or Nukus into the neighbouring republic of Turkmenistan, to the sudden, silent remains oа the ancient capital of Khorezm.

The majority of sights lie scattered in a baked and levelled plain like charred tree trunks after a forest fire, giving the eerie impression that Timur's troops left the still smoking wreckage just a few hours ago.

The first monument reached from the north is the unique Turabeg Khanum Mausoleum, built in 1370 in honour of the Princess Turabeg, daughter of the Golden Horde's Uzbek Khan and wife of Kutluk Timur. The central six-sided chamber merges to a 12-sided transition zone and a 24-windowed drum of twelve metres diameter. The inner dome is inlaid with a starry swirl of unrestored tilework, while the exterior rosettes in blues, yellows and browns point to a cosmopolitan past. The northern room is the burial vault of the Gurganj Sufi dynasty.

Over the road and past the restored 19th century Sayid Akhmed Mazaar, towers the tallest minaret in Central Asia, the 62-metre high Kutlug Timur Minaret (1320-30). The chimney-stack tower contains 143 steps and would have been built by workmen standing on the inside. At the top an exterior wooden platform would have supported a faint call to prayer. Around the minaret lie the remains of a kiln and sardoba; fire and water for the production of local ceramics.

The blue-tiled tent design of the Sultan Tekkesh Mausoleum (1200) rises on 16 sides to commemorate one of the greatest rulers of Gurganj's golden age. The building, known locally as the Sharif Sheikh, used to hold a state library and college.

The holy Forty Mullah's Hill is said to contain the original Mamun Academy of Science, home to ibn-Sina and al-Beruni and the centre of the fiercest resistance to the Mongol invasion, and thus its bloodiest retribution. Tortured skulls protrude from the excavations and add a human dimension to the historical sackings repeatedly endured by the city.

The 12-sided Fakhr-ad-din Razi or Il Arslan Tomb is either named after the father of Sultan Tekesh who ruled Gurganj from 1156-1172 or the local scientist Razi, depending upon your sources. The bricks of its rich eastern terracotta facing were laid on the ground, covered in clay, carved, baked individually and then reassembled to make up the remarkably intense trim.

The base of the Mamun II Minaret lies anchored in the ground to the south like a tree stump that the Mongols failed to uproot. Shards of tilework and an inscription examined in 1952 date the pre-Mongol minaret and Friday mosque to the year 1011. The minaret was paid for by Khoreznrshah Mamun himself "in humility toward religion, and to approach God, may his mention be great, and with the desire for recompense in this world and the hereafter." (as inscribed on the minaret), it is even conjectured that al-Beruni, court vizier at the time, may have influenced the construction with the idea of using it as an astronomical observation lower.

Further south lies the gate portal of the Tash Kala Caravanserai, site of the reluctantly resettled 16th century town, and to the southeast lies the 13th century Ak Kala fortress, a prime example of what happened to fortresses that stood against the Mongol fighting machine. To the east lies the popular holy tomb of Divan-i-Burkh.

Back in the modern Turkmen town, the twin Najmaddin Rubra (1321-33) and Sultan Ali (1580) Mausoleums lie separated by the holy shade of a karaman tree. The intense floral and girikh tilework and inscriptions of ultramarine rank alongside the most beautiful m Central Asia. Kubra (1145-1221), an important figure in the intellectual development of Sufism and founder of the Kubrawiya sect of dervishes, was born in Khievak in 1145, travelled widely in Egypt, studied in Tabriz and settled in Gurganj. The Islamic martyr was killed waging a jihad against the Mongol forces after he had decided not to make the city invisible to the enemy. He is famous for his saying that the 'ah' in Allah' forms the very sound we make with every breath. Khorezmshah Sultan Ali was the ruler of Gurganj when Jenkinson visited the town in the mid-16th century.

The unassuming tomb of Piryar Vali is said to hold the father of Pakhlavan Mahmoud and the nearby Tash Mosque and Madrassah (1903-08) house a local museum.

Some 50 kilometres west, along the legendary former route of the Oxus, lies the ruined medieval city of Devkesken (old Vezir), visited by Anthony Jenkinson in 1558, when it was one of a ring of rich cities skirting the southern fringe of the Ust'urt plateau and its trade routes to Russia. Residents abandoned the city to the desert in the 17th century when the Amu Darya shifted from its course, veering north to empty into the Aral Sea instead of Sarykamish Lake. Colin Thubron visited the site in 1992:

I walked through its gate without expectation, and the outer vallum fell behind us. Then, in one of those moments which snare the unguarded traveler, there unfurled before us the ramparts of a phantasmal inner city, whose towel's bulged from their battlements, eight to each side, between chalk-white walls. It stood stupendous in its solitude...

Thubron, Colin The Lost Heart of Asia, 1994

A fortress, mosque and two mausolea remain but the site is close to a disputed border so you will probably need to register with the local Turkmen army base. Check with local travel agencies whether a visit is still possible.


The spontaneous day-trip from Urgench/Khiva is a faded memory. Both day trips and longer forays into the Republic of Turkmenistan now require full Turkmen visas, best acquired in Tashkent with a travel agency's help, plus double-entry Uzbek visas if you wish to come back the same way. Turkmen regulations currently require you to travel with a guide during your time in that country. To cross the border at Shaval (Shobot, not far from Khiva) and transfer via Dashogus (Doshkhovuz) city to Kunya Urgench may require official permits from frontier authorities. Marginally easier may be the crossing from Nukus, via Khojeli (Xojayli). Seek professional advice in Tashkent and Urgench.

Taxis (shared or chartered) to and from the border are cheap and the most convenient mode of transport. Agree costs for petrol, fines and detours before you set out. An early start is essential. Public buses do not cross into Turkmenistan.

Kunya Urgench (Turkmenistan)