In comparison with Europe, Kazakhstan has very little to offer in terms of ancient architectural treasures. That said, a must-see building is the magnificent Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkistan, dating from the time of the Timurids and now recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Its classic Islamic style was used as the template for many of Samarkand and Bukhara's later architectural masterpieces. More or less identifiable remnants of the cities of a northern branch of the Silk Road have been preserved in many places in the south of Kazakhstan.
Throughout the country, graveyards (mazary) and mausoleums can be spotted, some of which have been skilfully sculpted in stone, while others consist of either raw or burnt clay tablets. On the Mangyshlak Peninsula dozens of important necropolis sites unexpectedly pop up in the middle of the desert, scattered with sandstone mausoleums, ornamented tombstones and stelae.
The architecture of Kazakhstan is organically bound up with the nature of this mainly Steppe country, and with the way of life of the tribes and people who have settled in it. Constant mobility was a vital necessity for the nomadic majority of its population.
Starting in the Bronze Age, however, settled villages emerged in the river valleys with a nexus of agriculture. The Bronze Age left us with impressive constructions in central Kazakhstan, such as Begaza, Landybai and Tasmola. These are original places of ancestor worship. Composed of many-tinted stone slabs and blocks, they crown the hilltops and mountain ridges, representing points of orientation in the unbounded expanse of the Steppe. They were a symbol of the authority of the tribes and their leaders.
At that time adobe mausoleums appeared in the south of Kazakhstan, in the valley of the Syrdarya. These memorial buildings, similar in plan to the graves or 'kurgans' of central Kazakhstan, became prototypes for later religious structures of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. They are distinguished by the fact that the architectural mass comes out of the earth's surface and is covered by domes. The mausoleum in Tagisken (dating from the ninth to eighth century ВС) of a central cupola composition with a tent-shaped dome, made up of wooden beams, is probably the first structure of its kind in central Asia.
Eurasian nomadic existence acquired its classical image around the middle of the first millennium ВС in the time of the Saks and the Scythians. It was then that the trappings of this nomadic life developed : a light collapsible dwelling, the prototype of the future yurt, a moving home on a cart, a type of equipment and horse harness, and also typical riding gear - the prototype of contemporary European costume.
The successors of the Bronze Age cattle breeders and metallurgists - the Saks - continued to erect grandiose graves for their dead chiefs made in the form of stone or earth barrows reaching hundreds of metres in diameter and tens of metres in height. Some of the Saks tribes led a half-settled way of life. It was these tribes in particular, living along the old river beds of Syrdarya, who preserved and developed the adobe building traditions. The Balanda mausoleum, dating from the fourth to second centuries ВС, is a shining example of the fruitful development of the central cupola composition theme. The academic S.P. Tolstov, who has researched this monument, considers it to be the first cupola building in Central Asia. The building is round in plan, composed of a central burial chamber covered in a clay dome and enclosed by a round gallery. In this monument the builders employed the basic architectural constructions character-istic of dry and poorly wooded regions of Asia: cupola, vaults and arches. Architectural successes were also achieved in the living quarters and fortified buildings of the Saks of the Syrdarya valley. They would later be assimilated by the successors to the Saks: the Usuns, the Huns and the Turks.
The Turkish tribes not only assimilated the habits of building out of adobe, but also learnt how to make fired brick, and also perfected nomadic mobile accommodation. In about the middle of the first millennium AD the yurt acquired its basic structural parts: a collapsible and folding wooden framework and the system of felt covers.
The spread of Islam in Kazakhstan brought with it new types of buildings: the mosque, medresseh, khanaka. Islam took root most successfully in the south of Kazakhstan, in the agricultural towns and villages along the trade routes. The towns along the Great Silk Route - Ispijab, Taraz, Otrar - had the three part structure typical of the medieaval East: citadel (ark), the town itself (shakristan), and the suburbs (abad). They had a system of water supply, and defensive buildings. The basic mass of inhabited buildings were built closely adjoining one another, single storey houses out of adobe with flat roofs. Above them rose the bulk of religious and courtly structures, and communal buildings. Made out of fired brick and decorated with colourful glazed ceramics and moulded terracotta tiles, they stood out against the background of the monotone residential dwellings.
Although the Mongol invasion held up the development of towns and agriculture, it did not change the course of the development of architecture taking shape in the early Middle Ages. The descendants of Genghis Khan and their retinue adopted Islam, mastered Turkish culture and by the beginning of the fourteenth century were Mongols only in name. They began to erect mausoleums over the graves of the khans, sultans and family members similar to those over the graves of the legendary and real preachers of Islam. Examples of such buildings are the mausoleum of Joshi Khan and Timur Kutluk in central Kazakstan, Kok-kesen and Syrly-tam in the Syrdarya valley. The leading works of mediaeval architecture are the khanaka, built over the grave of the beloved Kazakh preacher Sufi Ahmed Yassavi at the behest of Timur. It absorbed and perfected all the attainments of the architecture of the Islamic east, both in its construction and decoration.
Among the mausoleums erected over the graves of the Kazakh khans, the mausoleum of Alasha-khan - that is a general Kazakh khan exerting influence on neighbouring tribes and people - stands out due to its scale and decoration. Built not far from the mausoleum of Joshi Khan - the founder of the dynasty of Deshti-Kipchak - in terms of its architecture it is recognisably the tomb of a descendant of Genghis Khan, but significantly exceeds it in scale. It seems to announce the birth of a new dynasty - the dynasty of Kazakh khans. Recent investigations of the monument, undertaken in the process ol its restoration, have allowed it to be dated to the sixteenth century, and tor the moment the most suitable 'candidate lor the title might be Khaknazar.
Almaty contains many fine examples of buildings constructed during the earliest phase of socialist development, but you can also find them in rather unlikely places such as Kyzylorda. Many universities, theatres and government administration buildings were built in the impressive Soviet classical style. However, you cannot fail to notice how all Kazakh cities contain an excess of gigantic block-like socialist buildings. One can explain this gruesome homogeneity of many cities by the pressure to urbanize following the establishment of major industries. However, this hardly makes their image any more aesthetically appealing. The only city being completed and modernized according to an overall master plan is Astana. The new capital is the perfect example for those who want to study modern Kazakh architecture. Government buildings feature much glass, exotic curvature and elements in the omnipresent Kazakh sky-blue.
Often, domes such as those on the Presidential Cultural Centre, the Congress Hall and the Palace for State Receptions imitate the roof of a yurt. There has also been a revival of the Emperor Style from the 1950s, of which the new bilding of KazMunaiGaz is an example. A carefree mix of styles can be seen in residential buildings a short distance towards the river from the KazMunaiGaz building stands a new development that could have been transplanted from New York City.
On the river's right bank the Palace of Peace and Harmony, a huge pyramidal structure created architect Norman Foster, has been so well received that Foster's company has been employed to work on another mammoth project named Khan Shatyr, the world's largest "tent", that for its walls uses a plastic compound which absorbs the sun's heat, meaning temperatures inside will be high enough to sunbathe while it is -30'C outside during winter. Astana will soon stand alongside the likes of Dubai, Shanghai and Hong Kong in avant-garde architectural style.