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Old Urgench

Three mausoleums stood among the dunes of dead, far apart. They were almost all that remained of ancient Urgench, capital of a sultanate which had eased loose from the Seljuk empire after 1092. This remote kingdom of Khorezm had stayed independent and powerful for more than a hundred years, and early in the thirteenth century embraced all Central Asia. But in 1221 the armies of Genghiz Khan fired the capital with naphtha; a hundred thousand citizens were marched into slavery, and the rest massacred. Then the Amu Dariya dykes were opened and the city submerged.

The Elizabethan envoy Anthony Jenkinson, who reached Urgench in 1558, found its four-mile walls encircling ruin. By then it had revived under the Golden Horde, been razed by Tamerlane, sown over with barley, then built again. But in 1575 the Amu Dariya changed its bed and the depleted city was abandoned. Only in the last century was a canal cut and a hesitant new settlement arose, whose Turcoman inhabitants lived beyond the hillocks to the north, and whose dead were buried in the cemeteries around me.

I struggled to the 170-foot minaret. Its pinnacle of lightly decorated brick tapered into a wind which screamed unimpeded across the wastes. Its uppermost bands of script had been chipped away by storm, and its top snapped off like a factory chimney opening into the sky. Whatever mosque or mausoleum it attended had utterly gone.

Beyond, raised on a twenty-foot brick plinth, was the tomb of the martial sultan Tekesh. Its circular body, pierced with bays and crowned by a squat steeple, floated pavilion-like over the wilderness. Tiles still clung to its spire, which had broken open on an inner cupola, curved below like a skull beneath a helmet. The strange, Assyrian shape of this desolate sepulchre found its echo in the Seljuk tombs of Anatolia. Its builders were restless warrior-kings. Tekesh, the sixth sultan of Khorezm, absorbed the Seljuk power in Persia at the end of the twelfth century, before being laid in his steppeland grave, and this, with the smaller cenotaph beyond it, still gave an illusion of nomad imperma-nence, although it has stood here eight hundred years.

By the time I reached the last of these early tombs, I was craving its shelter. It had been built as a communal royal mausoleum, it seems, but named from Turabek, a Mongol princess. The north wind moaned through its doors. My ignorance of these dreamlike rulers, so powerful in their day, made me doubly a stranger here. I recalled no monument precisely like this one. A tall, twelve-sided sanctuary, it encased a hexagonal tomb-chamber, and was richer, even in decay, than anything in Khiva. Under its blind arches, the honeycomb decorations massed in dense clusters, tiled with a soft brilliance of campanula and grape blue, and a muted, opal green. Exposed and apparently fragile, they hung there in enigmatic strength, while above them the shattered dome cast a shard of turquoise into the sky.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron