Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!

Burana Tower

Once before on this journey I had examined a column like this, when Evgeni and I had been driving close to the Tien Shan range in Kirghizia and came to the remains of the Burana Tower, which was a little older, not quite as richly decorated, and partially demolished as a result of a nineteenth-century earthquake. I had measured the bricks there and found that they coincided exactly with the wafer-thin bricks that went into the building of Mohenjodaro, the Bronze Age ruins in the lower valley of the River Indus, a thousand miles to the south of the Tien Shan. This may have been fortuitous, but it could equally have had some small anthropological significance. One of the great population theories has always held that a cradle of mankind was somewhere on the great steppe, from which there were simultaneous migrations west towards Europe and south into the Indian subcontinent. The bricks in Kirghizia were not nearly as old as those of the Indus Valley, but there was no reason why they might not have belonged to the same tradition.

In spite of the fact that the Burana Tower was freestanding on the very edge of the steppe beside the mountain wall, it was known to have been built as a religious edifice, for although all traces of any attendant mosque had disappeared from the site there was a Muslim graveyard close by. Yet it would almost surely have had another purpose, as would the Kalan Tower on the edge of the desert in Bukhara. A peculiarity of Central Asia and the adjacent lands to the south and the west is the frequency with which such towers appear in the middle of nowhere. One of the most famous is the Gunbad i Qabus, the great brick decagon which rises to a conical peak not far from the shores of the Caspian in Iran. It was built to accommodate the remains of an eleventh-century king, suspended in a glass coffin high above the ground. Even more eerily alone in the desert of south-east Iran is a nameless tower, truncated like the one I'd seen in Kirghizia and with a certain amount of brick-nogging comparable to the decoration in Bukhara, whose purpose must have been that of beacon for the guidance of caravans travelling great distances across an otherwise featureless waste.

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse

East of Kegeti at the mouth of the Shamsy Valley, 80km from Bishkek, is a 1950s Soviet restoration of the so-called Burana Tower, an 11th-century monument that looks like the stump of a huge minaret. This tenth-century tower is just outside Tokmak, 13 kilometres from the main road, so hop in a taxi or, if you are really short of cash, catch a bus to the village of Burana, just six kilometres from the tower. There is a nominal entrance fee.

Burana Tower is probably the best known monument in the north of Kyrgyzstan, although in a country where historic monuments are in short supply this is not so remarkable. Although the 'tower' cannot compare with any of the reconstructed architectural jewels that might be found elsewhere in the region, Burana is nonetheless worth a visit, both for its architectural merit and for the historical background of its location.

The word 'Burana' is thought to derive from the Turkic word for minaret, munara. Originally the minaret and its accompanying mosque would have stood in the central part of the town. Major archaeological surveys in the 1920s, 1950s and 1970s discovered that the original town covered a total area of some 25-30km. There is a central fortress, dwellings, shops and baths, and a water main delivering water from a canyon nearby. The whole settlement was surrounded by two rings of walls. Now very little else remains except for traces of three mausolea, a large mound that represents the remains of a palace or temple, and around 80 Turkic balbals, stone grave markers dating from between the 6th and 10th centuries that have been gathered here having been collected from all over the country.

The Burana Tower marks the original site of the Karakhanid town of Belasagun, founded in 960. A mound to the northwest of the tower is all that's left of the ancient citadel of Balasagun, founded by the Sogdians and later, in the 11th century, a capital of the Karakhanids, which was excavated in the 1970s by Russian archaeologists.

The loose-knit Turkic Karakhanid empire sprawled over much of Central Asia, covering an area larger than modern India, and had another elegant capital at Mavarannahr, now Ozgon, and a highly cultured and scientific centre at Kashgar. The Silk Routes, splintering through the valley, deposited a flotsam of trade and knowledge at Belasagun and the busy trading town blossomed. Jenghis Khan was so impressed by the settlement that he spared Belasagun and renamed it Gobilik ('good city'). The city was extremely important in its day, but although it flourished for several centuries it eventually declined, and was virtually abandoned by the 15th century.

Excavations of Chinese coins, bracelets of Indian cowrie shells, iron swords, bronze lamps and amulets, and stone Nestorian crosses have confirmed the international nature of the trade routes. The finds can be seen in the small museum, which is open 9am-5pm daily. If the museum appears closed, just call at the house next door as there is always somebody around. By the 15th century the town had dwindled to nothing.

The Kyrgyz tell a different version of history. Long ago there lived a wise and famous king who loved his clever and beautiful only daughter more than anything. Afraid that he would not live to see her bright future, he summoned all the fortune tellers and clairvoyants to reveal his daughter's fate. All foretold a happy life except one, who predicted that before she was 16 the princess would be bitten by a spider and die. The king was angry and built a tall tower that touched the sky; the old fortune teller was thrown into the dark dungeon in the basement, while his daughter lived safely in a bright room at the top. All her servants and food were inspected for poisonous insects. She grew ever more beautiful and intelligent. On her 16th birthday the king brought her a large plate of vines to congratulate her. As she took the plate, she fell to the floor, dead. The king looked at the tray to see the spider which had killed his beloved daughter. He died shortly after, grief stricken.

Belasagun is also famous for the poet Jusup Balasagun, born here in about 1015. His only surviving work is Kutadgu Bilig, roughly translated as 'The Knowledge which Brings Happiness', a didactic poem. It was written in Jusup's native Uighur (Turkic) in Arabic script and won him the favour of the Khan of Kashgar. The poem is a fine example of the high Islamic culture of mediaeval Central Asia and is still popular today. In a rush of nationalism, some academics are endeavouring to discover Kyrgyz roots for the poet.

The minaret when first built would have been over 46m tall, but the present-day version stands at just over half its original height, at only 24m. What you see today is the result of both destruction and reconstruction. A succession of earthquakes reduced the original building almost to rubble - the last was in 1900 when the upper part collapsed and its bricks were utilised by recent Russian settler, in the area. The current building is very much the product of 1970s restoration.

The tower is constructed of banded honey-coloured brickwork in a gently tapering round structure with an octagonal base. Lacking its original cupola, the top of the tower is now a viewing platform that offers views over the Chui valley north to Kazakhstan and to the mountains of the eastern Ala-Too range to the south.

In the surrounding fields stand an interesting collection of about 80 of 6th to 10th-century balbals (Turkic totem-like stone markers) burial stones from the Western Turkic khanate; ancient effigies whose fierce visage depicts either the fallen hero or somebody they have killed. They were brought here from throughout Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan. There is a small museum next to the tower that has a display of artefacts found at the site that include pottery and coins, as well as interesting black and white photographs that document the tower's reconstruction. The museum also has a small gift shop selling postcards and pamphlets.

Visiting the rather sterile reconstruction that is Burana Tower today, it is hard to get much sense of the grandeur that was Balasagun in its prime, especially if your visit coincides with noisy crocodiles of schoolchildren bussed-in from Bishkek. Like the artefacts found at Krasnaya Rechka, there has been enough material evidence found here to indicate that Balasagun was an important Silk Road settlement where culture, language and religion mixed easily in the tolerant atmosphere of commerce - Chinese coins, Nestorian crosses, magical charms and Indian cowries all bear testament to this.

Even if historical sites were not so rare in Kyrgyzstan, the Burana Tower ensemble would still be well worth a visit.

The director of the museum, Anita Shamenova runs a guesthouse about 2km from Burana Tower. To get to Burana on your own, take the frequent 353 minibus from Bishkek's east bus station to Tokmok (45 minutes), from where it's about a 24km round trip by taxi. The minaret could easily be visited enroute to or from Issyk-Kul. To the north, Tokmok has a large Sunday animal bazaar on the outskirts of town. Buses run frequently from the east bus station.

This warm and steamy place, with its noise of gossip and argument accompanied by the animal sounds of food being hungrily consumed, was in the direct line of a succession which may have stretched back, if not a full six thousand years, to times well before the Christian era. Certainly Alexander the Great had passed this way when he was marching on India in 328 вс for the epic confrontation with King Porus and his elephants at the battle to cross the Jhelum. This was a terminal engagement in some ways because, shortly thereafter, Alexander's troops indicated that they had had enough of his obsessive campaign to reach and conquer the ends of the earth; a mutiny which caused him to turn and begin the long trek home to the Levant.

Alexander's was but one of many names that had rung round here at intervals. As intriguing as any of them was that of Prestcr John, the Christian king of medieval mythology, whose home was supposed to have been in those mountains behind the caravanserai, now hidden by the pall of snow.

That, at least, was the belief of the Crusaders as they fought the Turks at the Mediterranean end of the Silk Route and hoped for assistance from this direction. In reality the prince they had heard of was Gur Khan, leader of the Kara Khitai, a Mongol tribe which had adopted Buddhism and, from its strongholds here in the highlands between Issyk Kul and Kashgar, had driven the Turks so far to the west that Bukhara and Samarkand were taken, their mosques converted into temples for several decades of the twelfth century.

The hearsay that had increasingly fascinated me concerned an ancient meeting place of caravans somewhere along this stretch of the Silk Route. This was first reported by a Macedonian trader named Maes Titianus, and was written down by one Marinus of Tyre, whose account was subsequently incorporated by the Greek Ptolemy midway through the second century in Geography, his massive and authoritative study of the known world. According to Ptolemy, Maes Titianus had not himself travelled in the region but had collated all the information possible on the Silk Route by listening to what his agents in the field had to tell. They had mentioned the existence of a Stone Tower, where caravans coming from China would exchange silk and subsidiary goods - in this case apparently spices, ink and steel - for the gold and silver that Rome had to offer. It must have been a scene of enormous activity even if no community of any size was attached to this legendary entrepot, as was evidently the case. Some details of the surrounding landscape had been passed on by Maes Titianus's agents, who made it sound a pretty godforsaken place, but the only other clues to its location were ambiguous in the extreme. Marinus, himself twice removed from field work on the topic, reckoned that it took the Chinese seven months to reach the Stone Tower and then to return to their base at Ch'ang-an; from which he calculated a distance of 36,200 stades, or 4,140 miles, compared with a distance of 26,280 stades, or 3,020 miles, for caravans coming in the opposite direction from the River Euphrates. Historians and geographers who, ever since, had been trying to identify the place where the Stone Tower had been built, struggled on in the knowledge that these figures could not be relied upon for accuracy. It was well known that travellers at this time, about ad 120, were apt to overestimate distances generously, perhaps because it made a better tale to relay later to the stay-at-homes.

The problem was further complicated by the fact that, in Turkic, Stone Tower translates as Tashlcurgan; and in the great wedge of Central Asia that formed the target area there were no fewer than four Tashkurgans to consider as alternative possibilities. One, on the River Yarkand, was known to be a halting place for caravans traversing three different routes, from Kashgar, from Bactra, and from India by way of the Indus Valley. Another was in Uzbekistan, a little to the south of Samarkand. A third was on the River Khulm in Afghanistan. The fourth was in Kirghizia, not far from the present boundary with China. Whichever was the Stone Tower that had seized Ptolemy's imagination, it had to conform with his information that, from Bactria northward up the ascent of the hill country of the Comedi, and then inclining somewhat south through the hill country itself as far as the gorge in which the plains terminate... This Stone Tower stands in the way of those who ascend the gorge, and from it the mountains extend eastward to join the chain of Imaus...

The chain of Imaus was the Pamirs, running north from India.

It was the Hungarian-born and naturalised British archaeologist and explorer Mark Aurel Stein who arrived at a conclusion that, since he published it in 1933, has been generally accepted as the likeliest location of the Stone Tower. Any description of Stein himself ought, in the interests of veracity, to add that he was one of the most ruthless pillagers the Western world has ever let loose, in the name of scholarship, on the East. Even the bland pages of the Dictionary of National Biography admit that, during each of his several expeditions into Central Asia "he brought back to India and England many hundreds of cases of valuable objects". His most dramatic act of plunder was to extract, by bribing an unsophisticated monk, no fewer than 500 works of art, 3,000 rolls of printed material and 6,000 other documents from the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, a holy place near Tunhuang on the edge of the Gobi desert. The greatest single item in this haul, the Diamond Sutra of ad 868, the world's oldest printed book of proven date, may be inspected still in the British Museum; illustrations and calligraphy in black ink on a long scroll of greying paper, so that the effect is of rather inferior newsprint.

Stein was persuaded that the mythical Stone Tower was in Kirghizia. Everything in his view pointed to it: topography, climate, local wherewithal. The site obviously had to be in some place where caravans could meet, where camels could graze while the merchants discussed the exchange of their goods. It also had to be somewhere along the Silk Route's main axis, not on one of its tributaries. He believed he had found what he was looking for along the Karateghin valley, which breaches the great natural barrier of the Pamirs and runs from east to west, with the Alayslciy Khrebet range forming its northern side. When Stein was investigating he found the way was wide and easy from the moment the westward road out of Kashgar reached the saddle of the Pamirs, and continued thus for another twenty miles to the Russian frontier post of Irkeshtam, which is now known as Sary Tash, though it has had no official function since the frontier with China was closed in 1960. The valley then continued for another seventy miles to the Kirghiz settlement of Daraut-Kurgan, in a climate less harsh than anywhere in the surrounding mountains, with good and plentiful grazing as a result. At intervals along this valley Stein found traces of roughly-built stone dwellings, but in the end his attention was fixed on a spot about three miles west of Daraut-Kurgan. Here, he wrote, was the village of Chat: with a large well-cultivated area and a ruined circumval-lation of some size occupied during the troubled times preceding the Russian annexation of Turkestan. It is a point well suited for a large roadside station, and it is in this vicinity that we may safely locate the famous Stone Tower... 

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse