48 km northwest of Turkistan stands the best preserved and most atmospheric of all the many ruined Silk Road cities in the Syr-Darya valley. Historians from the 9th Century reported that the city of Sauran had seven protective walls, a mosque and a marketplace. The discovery of underground water canals bears witness to the technological skill and craftsmanship of its inhabitants. The Mongols could not take Sauran by force of arms for many months, and only stormed the walls after they had starved the population. Because of its strategic location not far from the Syr Darya and its significance as a trade centre on a crossroads along the Silk Road, Sauran rebounded from its sacking in the 13th Century, to become the capital of the White Horde, and is the place of burial of the White Horde ruler Sasibuqa.
Tamerlane turned the city into a military stronghold-and again Sauran stood firm. Even the much-feared Zhungars failed to take control of the fortress. Sauran fell into oblivion - in the long run, the sea route to the Indies had a more devastating impact on the Silk Road than all the hostile invasions put together. Today, the ravages of time gnaw into the remains of the circular wall that, with a diameter of just over one kilometre, sticks up out of the steppe. It is only thanks to the dry climate that the fortress, built of limestone bricks, has not disappeared altogether. Though a sign indicates that this site is protected by the state, the lack of proper road signs and the bumpy road towards its location speak a different language.
The city appears to have physically shifted its location in around the second half of the 14th century, to a site approximately 4km north of the original centre. It later came under the control of the Shaybanids. At its peak Sauran was the largest city in the territory of modern- day Kazakhstan, and a major centre of trade and ceramics production. It boasted a sophisticated water supply system based around an underground gallery, known as a kyariz. But Sauran gradually declined in importance, losing ground to Turkestan, and by the 18th century it was virtually abandoned.
Sixteenth century writers described it as a ‘pleasant’ and ‘cheerful’ city with two high minarets and a sophisticated water-supply system. Its circuit of limestone walls, plus remains of some bastions and gates, still stand despite conquerors and the elements. Excavations inside have revealed brick walls and areas of patterned stone paving. Sauran is visible as a long, low mound about 2.5km southwest from the Turkistan–Kyzylorda highway, a little over 40km out of Turkistan and about 13km past the village of Sauran.
To get here, head out of Turkestan on the main road to Kyzylorda. Sauran is not difficult to find, provided you ignore the various signposts to 'Sauran', which direct you towards a modern village of the same name. A few hundred metres after a police checkpoint you will see, on the right-hand side of the road, a curious statue of an ear of wheat inside a large golden ring. Immediately beyond this, on the opposite side of the road, is the turning to Sauran, signposted to the fortress, whose walls are visible from the road. A bumpy track takes you under the railway, to reach the ruins of the city a few hundred metres on.
The site impresses for its ring of walls, reaching a height of up to 8m and enclosing an area of more than 40ha. An entrance gate on the northern side of the fortress is reasonably well preserved, but most of the walls have regressed into an almost natural-looking form, as if they are slowly being reclaimed by the earth. Recently excavated areas within the walls reveal square brick floors and walls of fired bricks. A trench cut through the walls provides a good sense of their massive bulk. The remains of various outlying buildings are visible from the fortress.
The access track goes under the railway that parallels the road here. Closer up, the ruins loom like something out of The Lord of the Rings (but remember: this is Sauran, not Sauron). They are normally unsupervised. Ask for Krepost (Fortress) Sauran to distinguish it from Sauran village.