Remnants of Silken Glory
Updated: Apr 1
Contrary to popular belief, the Silk Road was not a single road but a series of routes connecting China to Europe used by traders from the 1st Century B.C. to the 15th Century A.D. and they were not simply trading in silk either.
Aside from this, goods such as trade animals, tea, precious stones and minerals, exotic spices, and ivory made their way through these routes. Goods were not the only important commodity these traders carried; with them came innovations in Science and Medicine, marvels of Engineering such as paper and gunpowder and ideals that shaped Religion, Education and Politics to this day.
From all over the old world came artisans and philosophers whose works continue to shape and influence how human civilization works to this day.
One can only imagine the struggles and hardships these people had to endure in order to make their arduous trips through varied climates to get to their appointed destinations. They had to protect themselves from wild animals and bandits, even the elements themselves.
It was not all bad though. There were respites along the way and one of the greatest cities they ever built now lies in a mostly abandoned site 7 hours from Turkmenistan’s capital of Ashgabat called Konye Urgench or Kunya Urgench.
Khwarizm, the Capital of a Thousand Wise Men
Once dubbed as the Capital of A Thousand Wise Men and the Heart of Islam, the city was a very important trade centre on the Northern branch of the Silk Road leading to the Caspian Sea and as far north as Russia. The city was built on the crossing of two major caravan routes running from the south to the Volga in the northwest and from the west to China in the east.
The exact date when it was founded has since been lost to the annals of history but archaeological finds located at the Kyrkmolla Hill (one of the main fortresses at the site) show that it already had a solid structure in the 5th century BC.
The 14th-century berber traveller Ibn Battuta refer to Konye Urgench, which was then called Khwarizm, a capital of the first Persian Empire, as the largest, most beautiful and most important city of the Turks. It has fine bazaars and broad streets, a great number of buildings.
The city did not enjoy an entirely peaceful existence though. As was common at the time, it had its fair share of tumult in the form of war and invasion. In his latter writings about the city, Ibn Battuta described how Genghis Khan razed it in 1221 and orchestrated what is regarded as one of the bloodiest massacres in history as he was he leading a Mongol invasion of Central Asia.
The city recovered and thrived after that only to be attacked twice more by Timur the Great, also known as Tamerlane. He saw the splendid city as a rival of his Samarkand. He led attacks on the city in 1379 and again in 1388 when he finally destroyed the Capital of a Thousand Wise Men.
In an act of pure destruction, Tamerlane ordered the annihilation of the city’s entire population, destroyed the city's irrigation system, and had barley planted over the ground much like when Rome salted the Carthage. This began the decline of the city ultimately leading to its people abandoning it in the 1700s.
And If these Monuments Could Talk…
In 2005, Konye Urgench was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Given that the individual monuments on the site are in variable conditions, most of the principal monuments retain a substantial amount of original material, representing what the UNESCO deems a reasonable level of authenticity.
Like Chichen Itza in Mexico, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Tikal in Guatemala, in its heyday, Kunya Urgench enjoyed popularity and recognition amongst the peoples who were lucky to have gleamed its visage. It was a prolific school of construction masters which is still evident in the ruins it has left behind. Its influence spread across the Muslim world throughout the centuries and can be recognized in structures both within Turkmenistan, and in regions such as Uzbekistan and as far away as India.
Here you can sample a variety of methods and décor of Islamic architecture of Central Asia. Constructs made from burned bricks and adobe, plain dome constructions with structures consisting of complicated compositions. These monuments demonstrate the highest perfection by the then local masters. One of the best monuments here, the Turabek Khanum Mausoleum, is known for its decorativeness.
The site also serves as a popular place for pilgrims.
Within Konye Urgench, you can visit varied sites of import. Perhaps the most striking is the The Kutlug Timur minaret. At 60 meters in height and a diameter of 12 meters at its base, and 2 at the top, it is very hard to miss.
Near the minaret lies the aforementioned Turabek Khanum Mausoleum which was named after Turabek-Khanum, the wife of Kutlug-Timur who ruled between 1321 and 1336. This mausoleum is known for its elegant design and stunning tile decoration. The most impressive features of the mausoleum is the circular dome in the main hall which is covered in colourful mosaic that forms intricate ornamental patterns consisting of flowers and stars, in itself a haunting substitute for the beauty of the heavens.
From here, you'll see smaller mausoleums such as the Takesh Mausoleum and the oldest one in Konye Urgench , the one dedicated to II Arslan.
Three other structures of note lie on another part of Konye Urgench. The first of which is the mausoleum of general Ahmed Ibn Omar Najm-Ad-Din al-Kubra, the founder of the Kubrawiya Sufi order. Other than being a general, he was also regarded as a philosopher, painter, physician, and chess master. Piryar Vali, one of Najm-Ad-Din al-Kubra’s contemporaries is situated west of the latter's mausoleum. Sultan Ali’s own Mausoleum lies across from here.
Going through these places, one can’t help ask: if these monuments could talk, what stories would they tell? One can only imagine the amount of history they’ve witnessed throughout the ages.
It also leaves you with a profound sense of awe on how small we are in the sea of history. They may be long gone, those traders, artisans, and philosophers, their beloved Khwarizm may have already gone back to the sand leaving only called Konye Urgench in its wake but they all left indelible marks on who we are as a civilization.
Let CentrAsia Tours Travel Agency hold your hand as we guide you through Konye Urgench and the times long past, book with us today!