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Khodja Ahmed Yassaui Mausoleum complex

Turkistan's fame is inextricably linked to the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahflie Yasawi, an important pilgrimage site in the Islamic world (some claim that this mausoleum is the second holy place in Islam after Mecca, and three pilgrimages to it equal a single pilgrimage to Mecca). The building, constructed on the orders of Tamerlane between 1389 and 1405 in honour of the prophet Khoja Ahmed Yasawi (also Hoddzha Ahmed Yassaoui), is one of the finest and most important works of architecture from the Timurid era. We owe this wonderful building to the generosity that came over Tamerlane after his victory over the Golden Horde and the destruction of their capital-and perhaps some noble feeling that accompanied thoughts of his imminent marriage.

Khoja Ahmed Yasawi was an Islamic prophet, poet and mystic, founder of the Sufi Tariqah order and considered by some the rightful heir of Mohammed. He was born in Sayram in 1094, but at the age of 11 he received the legacy of the Prophet Mohammed from the hands of Aristan Bab and followed him to learn the true teachings of the Koran. At the age of 17 he was already composing verse in Arabic, Turkic and Farsi. Ahmed refined his knowledge of Islam, oriental literature and philosophy during his studies in Bukhara, and following the death there of his tutor, Sheikh Youssouf al-Hamadani, he took the latter's place. After some time he returned to Yassi, surrounded himself with students and taught them the Koran in the Sufi manner of explanation and expansion that he had developed.

He obtained his nickname Yassaoui (Yasawi)-from Yassi-after working for many years in the city. Ahmed's collected poetry, Divan-i Hikmat, (Collected Wisdom) was translated into many languages. At the age of 63, the learned teacher withdrew from secular life as a tribute to the Prophet Mohammed, who had died when 63 years old. He spent the following years meditating in an underground chamber on a hill not far from the present-day mausoleum; in time, his family joined him and then dozens of his students and followers.

Khoja Ahmed Yasawi made the commandments of Allah and teachings of Mohammed more understandable for the common people, by teaching, writing and praying in the Turkic language, Tagachay, rather than in the literary Farsi speech. His poems were learned by heart by commoners and spread far across the borders of the Kypchak Steppe. Yasawi taught unification with God through meditation, patience and asceticism-which tends to explain why he was so popular among the Poor. He turned many-who had to abstain from earthly delights-into true beIievers. Khoja Ahmed Yasawi Islamic creed with elements from shamanism as well as from Greco-neoplatonic and Indian mysticism. These were spiritual missing links for a still very rationalistic Islam at the time. In contrast to many Sufis, who paid with their lives for their beliefs, Ahmed was not only honoured but also declared a saint while he was still alive. This might be due to his high spiritual status, but also reflects that religious fanaticism had much less influence in Central Asia than in the land of Islam's origin.

Khoja Ahmed Yasawi died in 1166 and was buried in great honour and splendour. A mazar, a domed tomb, was built on his grave. Armies of pilgrims turned up, many of them donating treasures. This led to Tokhtamysh, a Khan of the Golden Horde, attacking the city more than once in order to plunder the burial site. The mausoleum that we admire today was built on the site of the old mazar, the unbaked tiles of which were showing signs of decay at the time of Tamerlane's arrival.

It is thought that Lord Tamerlane tarried at Yassi on his way to his bride in 1389, to say a prayer. The poor condition of the mazar depressed him, and he ordered the construction of a grand mausoleum, reportedly drawing up his own detailed design for the building. The strictly proportional measures, the space plan, even the composition of the material for the sacred bronze bowl-all these are claimed to be Tamerlane's work. In the process the ruler provided an endowment in the form of land and irrigation canals (aryks), determined the sources of income for the mausoleum, and chose the people who were allowed to serve there.

Construction went steadily ahead, supervised by Persian master builders. The inscriptions left by mosaic artists Haddzhi Hassan and Shems abdul Wahhab from Shiraz indicate the year 1397 as the time the mosaics were put in place. Unfortunately, the construction's benefactor died in the winter of 1405, and the mausoleum was left unfinished. Even today you can see this on the main entrance, the only place not decorated with majolica mosaics. In fact this facade, with its double ivan (brick minarets), was only erected at the end of the Century under Khan Abdulla II, though the plans made by Tamerlane were strictly followed. The facade's side walls were never completed.

The mausoleum dominates Turkistan, and can be spotted from a great distance; it is 44 metres high, and its largest dome has an outside diameter of 22 metres. It is the largest preserved unsupported brick dome in all of Central Asia-the mathematical rules for
creating such huge unsupported vaults were only developed in the 10th and 11th centuries by scholars such as Al-Farabi. In 2003 the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi became the first location in Kazakhstan to be listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, recognizing its significance in the advancement of Islamic architecture-it was used as a template for many of Samarkand and Bukhara's future architectural masterpieces.

The mausoleum is undoubtedly the finest building in Kazakhstan, this complex especially attractive in that it presents hugely differing aspects when observed from different angles: the enormous portal (peshtak) that looks to the southeast is massively impressive, and particularly enjoyable in the golden light of sunrise; the shining majolica domes and the lavish, intricate form of the mosaic borders on the side walls are exquisite, with the northwest facade radiating gorgeous colours as the sun dips towards the horizon. Like other great Islamic works of architectural art such as the Taj Mahal, from a distance it intrigues, from the outer complex walls it bewitches and beckons, and from close up it dazzles the eye with the beauty and scale of its detail.

The towering portal, dominated by the tall central arched niche, faces southeast. Its decoration was never completed and wooden timbers still protrude from square holes in the walls. The decoration of the rest of the exterior is considerably more splendid. The northeastern and southwestern walls are decorated with blue and turquoise tiles, forming geometric designs, with a line of Arabic inscriptions above. The central dome's exterior is glowing a warm turquoise behind the portal. It is placed on an octagonal drum, decorated with tiled Arabic inscriptions. A further dome, smaller and considerably less ornate than the other two, sits close to the western corner of the building, above the mosque. The building was restored in the 1990s with support from the Turkish Government.

Tickets to enter the building are purchased from the brick ticket office near the rose garden in front of the main portal. The building was designed as a multi-purpose structure, known as a khanaka, comprising in total more than 30 rooms. Women without headgear should take one of the white headscarves offered at the entrance.

From the entrance you arrive first into the large central hall, or jamaatkhana. This square-based room impresses for its loftiness, rising up to the huge central dome, which has an internal diameter of more than 18m. It has a 'scalloped' decoration. The focus of the hall is a huge metal cauldron (kazan), known as the Holy Kazakh, cast in 1399 apparently to specifications from Timur himself. It has a diameter of 2.45 metres and weighs two tonnes, but most interestingly-and significantly-it is made of an alloy consisting of seven metals and is considered a symbol of unity: iron, zinc, lead, tin, copper, silver and gold. Water placed in the basin is believed to become imbued with trace metals that are highly beneficial to your health; the basin's capacity of 3000 litres was necessary in order to give every worshipper a sip of the slightly sweet water after Friday prayers. Among the inscriptions on the cauldron is one identifying the craftsman who built it as Abdulgaziz ibn Sharafutdin. The kazan was exhibited in the Hermitage in St Petersburg from 1935, but was brought back to Turkestan in 1989 and is once again proudly displayed in its historical home. Because of its presence, this room is usually known as the kazanlyk. The original 14th-century carved wooden doors are preserved on trestle tables at the side of the hall.

At the back of the hall is a recessed space with an arched roof. The carved wooden doors at the back of it lead to the chamber housing Khodja Ahmed Yassaui's tomb, but are usually kept locked. Due to the proximity of the tomb this space is used for prayers. To see Yassaui's tomb, enter the doorway to the right of this space. It takes you into a tomb-lined corridor. Note on your left the modern tombstone of Ablai Khan, a black marble tomb topped with a grey marble design shaped like a warrior's helmet, surmounted by a crescent moon. Pilgrims kiss the top of this tombstone as they pass it. Just beyond Ablai Khan's tomb is a grated opening, through which you can see the tomb of Khodja Ahmed Yassaui in its domed chamber. The gravestone, which bears no inscription, is a three-stepped structure, faced with serpentine.

The next doorway to the right off the central hall takes you to two further rooms, one containing many tombs, as does the corridor. Some of the tombs are fascinating pieces of sculpture. A comb and mirror are for example inscribed on the tomb of Dana Bibi, rather hinting at a lady who took pride in her appearance. The doorway off the central hall to the left of the recessed space takes you into a corridor leading to, on the right, a domed mosque. The dome is beautifully scalloped, and has 16 small grilled windows running around its base. There is a delightful mihrab of glazed tilework covering an arched niche in the wall. To the left of this corridor is a vaulted library, looking bare without books. The doorway off the central hall further to the left, the one closest to the main entrance to the building, leads to a vaulted canteen, with a large brick oven.

Exiting the main building on the unfinished peshtak side, it's impossible not to turn and look once again; with its two minarets it reminds one of a fortress rather than a sacred building. This is no accident; under the rule of the Khan of Kokand in the 19th Century, the entire south-eastern wall between the minarets was equipped with shooting holes, and the entire building complex protected by a wall constructed of unbaked tiles, in order for the building to serve as a stronghold against Kazakhs and Russians alike.
Miraculously, the mausoleum has withstood the ravages of time, including a few earthquakes, 11 Russian artillery shell holes and even damp in the wooden rafters. Experts in architecture are of the opinion that this is due to the ingeniously simple construction of the building, which is divided into eight independent construction units. This division allowed not only structural stability, but also the possibility of harbouring different functional units within one building: kazandyk, resting-places, a mosque, a library and a balimkbana (dining room for pilgrims).

The buildings in the immediate vicinity of the mausoleum have mainly sacred functions. These include the Friday Mosque on the hill of Kul Tobe, a hundred metres south of the mausoleum, a domed bathhouse for ritual cleansing, a hilwet, or place for fasting prayers during Ramadan, an underground crypt, the mausoleum of Yesim Khan, and the small but exquisite Rabiga Sultan Begim mausoleum directly opposite the main southeaster peshtak. Many of these buildings, including the pentangular shahristan dating from the 13th-14th centuries, have only recently been restored.

As early as 1884, the Tsar's government set up a fund of 150,000 gold roubles to restore the mausoleum. This was a huge sum of money, but most of it, unfortunately, disappeared in other directions. Some improvised repairs were carried out with the remaining funds including whitewashing over all inscriptions, but sadly many majolica tiles disappeared without trace. In 1910, the roof and parts of the walls were restored. Various minor and major repairs were then carried out during the Soviet period; unfortunately- much of historical note that had slowly built up for centuries around the main buildings was lost and destroyed during this restoration work. Most of the real historic atmosphere that must have encapsulated the mausoleum was lost, and as a result the mausoleum stood alone in a void. During the 1990s, however, skilled Turkish workers restored the complex for a relatively small cost of US$20 million.

Today, the mausoleum is separated from the modern city by a high outer wall, along whose ramparts you can walk. There is a museum, where one can learn something about Yasawi's students and Sufism, and a large rose garden separates the holy shrine from an ensemble of small shops, where mainly devotional objects and souvenirs are for sale; most of these, inevitably, fall firmly in the category of kitsch. Northeast of the outer wall is a simple but beautifully carved statue of Al-Farabi, in front of a number of small buildings where traditional craftsmen and women make and ply their wares. Beautiful felt rugs, dombras and ceramics can be bought here.

The mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi receives many thousands of tourists every year, but many more pilgrims, both from Kazakhstan and far beyond its borders. (Three visits to Turkistan are rated as tantamount to a Haj to Mecca.) Still, a visit here feels far more peaceful and authentic than many stops on today's cultural tour circuit; you will find no beggars or T-shirt sales touts dogging your footsteps as you approach the building along one of its stone-paved paths.