At the southern edge of the Kazakh steppe, in the town of Turkistan five hours northwest of Tashkent, stands the monumental memorial complex Tamerlane built for revered Sufi saint Hazret Sultan Khodja Ahmed Yasawi. The town began life as the caravan oasis of Shavgar in the tenth century. Under Karakhanid rule, the first Islamic Turkic dynasty, it grew into a religious centre and adopted a new name, Yasi, from that of a nearby Turkic tribe. Khodja Ahmed was later called Yasawi to denote where he had preached and died. He was born in Sairam near Shymkent in 1103, but moved to Yasi after losing his father at the age of seven. There his mentor was the famous Sheikh Arslanbob. Legend holds that when Mohammed was dying he called, 'Who will take my amanat [a persimmon stone, the symbol of Islam] and continue my ideas?' Arslanbob, already 300 years old and familiar with 33 religions but now recognizing Islam alone, volunteered and won Allah's approval. As he wandered the steppe 500 years later, Arslanbob met a boy of eleven, who demanded 'Aksakal [white beard], give me my amanat!' He was, of course, young Ahmed.
After Arslanbob's death, Ahmed became a disciple of a renowned Sufic sheikh in Bukhara, earning the right to explain 'the way to the understanding of the truth'. He succeeded his teacher in 1160, before returning to Yasi to develop his own concept of the tariqat, the path to God. Legend also enfolds the close of Yasawi's life, when, aged 63, out of mourning for Mohammed who died at that age, he retreated to a subterranean cell to preach out his days. The small mausoleum erected for him in 1166 drew many pilgrims as dervish disciples of the Yasawiya Sufic brotherhood spread his mystical doctrine and didactic poetry across the steppes, later reaching Persia and Anatolia. The strength of Sufism survived the Mongol onslaught to promote the conversion of Mongol rulers to Islam.
By Tamerlane's time, Yasi's population had expanded with pilgrims, priests, merchants and craftsmen, while the mausoleum's riches attracted frequent looting. The great conqueror ordered reconstruction work in 1394 and, on a 1397 visit, en route to receive a Mongol bride, gave exact instructions for a new building on the magnificent scale of the Ak Serai in Shakhrisabz or Bibi Khanum in Samarkand. His pious action not only won favour by increasing the splendour for pilgrims and revenue for residents, it also set forth a tangible proclamation of Timurid power at the imperial borders. Yasawi's reputation was such that a three-time pilgrimage equalled a trip to Mecca. He was called Hazreti Turkistan, the patron of the land of the Turks, and thus the town received its modern name. In the following centuries Turkistan was both seat and battleground of the would-be Genghis Khans that sparked the genesis of the Uzbek and Kazakh peoples. Many nomad notables joined Yasawi in his tomb.
Once the khan of Kokand took the town in the 19th century, the mausoleum was turned into a wall-wrapped fortress. Before his death, Yasawi is said to have predicted the invasion of an ill-defined enemy in 1864. Right on cue came the Russians and only the mullah's surrender saved the mausoleum from their artillery. Tsarist restoration often meant harmful whitewashing yet the complex still functioned, whereas Soviet methods bolstered the building, but desanctified it into a museum of anti-religious propaganda. Since Kazakhstan's independence, the new republic's major religious and tourist site has been undergoing its latest and greatest facelift from the foundations up, courtesy of the Turkish government, grateful beneficiary of Yasawi's teachings.
Train connections include Moscow, Almaty and Tashkent, but buses are more convenient. One direct bus to Turkistan leaves Tashkent long-distance bus station daily at 7am. Alternatively, take a Tashkent-Chimkent buses (3 hours) and change to a Chimkent-Turkistan bus (2-3 hours). The bus station in Turkistan is beside the bazaar a few kilometres north of the mausoleum and hotels, so ask the driver to let you off. Local buses ferry people in between.
Foreign travellers crossing from Uzbekistan, even on a day trip, require Kazakh visas (ask a travel agent or the Kazakh embassy in Tashkent), and Uzbek double or multiple entry visas, if you wish to return the same way. The Uzbek-Kazakh border is open from 7am to 10pm daily. Banks or private traders will change your Uzbek sum into Kazakh tenge.