NORTHEAST TURKMENISTAN NEAR THE UZBEKISTAN BORDER: AMU DARYA, KARAKUM, DINOSAURS FOOTPRINTS AND KONYE-UNGRENCH

KARA-KUM DESERT

The Karakum Desert occupies 80 percent of Turkmenistan. Covering all but the border regions, it features scrubby sauxal bushes, large crescent-shaped sand dunes and cracked, baked-clay surfaces known as takyr. Kara-Kum means “Black Sand”, name perhaps chosen because of its association with death as it was so difficult and dangerous to cross because its lack of water and shade and high temperatures. The Karakum desertIt and the Kyzyl-Kum (“Red Sand”) desert of Uzbekistan merge, and together form the forth largest desert in the world.

The Kara-kum Desert is home to poisonous snakes such as cobras and vipers, varan (sand crocodile, a kind of monitor lizard), goitered gazelles, Wild Asiatic asses, wild cats, foxes, wolves, various rodents, tortoises, tarantulas, scorpions and other spiders, lizards and insects. There would be few people if it wasn’t for the river Amu-Darya and the Kara-kum Canal. e. Flora includes sand sedge, acacia, saksaul, and in spring, grasses and flowers which cover large swaths of land, but huge areas, except for dunes, and completely dry up by May. Where there’s grass, herders raise sheep and camels.

The Karakum is a sand desert stretching for 350,000 square kilometers from the Caspian Sea to Pamir foothills and from Amu Darya to Kopet Dag ridge. Its name is translated as “black sands” (“kara” - black, “kum” - sand). Landscape-wise, it is a rugged plain with sand ridges and dunes connected with small salt marshes and takyrs. It is divided into the Zaunguz Karakum, located on a plateau, the Central Karakum, spread in the lowlands, and Southeastern Karakum, which gradually develop into the Kugitangtau foothills.

There is virtually no surface water in the form of oases, but large volumes of groundwater, are hidden beneath the sands that can be accessed with wells. The main source of water is the huge Karakum Canal, which takes water from the Amu Darya and delivers it for almost for 1,000 kilometers into the desert. In southern portion of the desert there are several rivers that flow down from the mountains and transpire in the air and sands.

The Karakum climate is very severe. Summer temperature can reach over 50° C (122° F) and the ground can reach as high as 80°C (176°F). In winter temperature can drop to -30°C (-22°F) so it just as possible to freeze to death and it to die of dehydration. Rainfall is minimal, unpredictable and widely scattered with some places receiving heavy downpours next to a place that receives no rain at all. Precipitation falls mainly in November and April. The Kara-kum Desert suffers from severe droughts and the environment problems associated with the disappearance of the Aral Sea. Deep bore wells have salinity levels; 90 percent above what is considered acceptable by the United Nations. The region is a very poor and undeveloped. People complain that there is no work, no money and no food. Some suffer from diseases brought about in part by environmental problems associated with the disappearance of the Aral Sea.

Amu Darya

Amu Darya is one of the two largest rivers in Central Asia (the other is the Syr Darya). It originates and is feed by glaciers, snow melt and steams in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan and the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, flows along the Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan border and empties into the Aral Sea. Much of the water used from drinking, bathing, industry and agriculture for Central Asia comes from it. The flow of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya into the Aral Sea have been reduced by three-quarters (See Aral Sea).

The Amu Darya was known as the Oxus in ancient times and has associations with the Silk Road and the great kingdoms of Central Asia. Looking down on it from a plane in eastern Uzbekistan it is surrounded by large cotton fields. In the deserts of western Uzbekistan it becomes a thin ribbon of brown water bordered by stretches of green grass and reeds with occasional salt marshes and patches of irrigated farmland. Boats make their way in some places through the series of pools and patches of reeds, some of over seven meters feet tall, that define much of the river, In some places the only way to get across the rover is on a pontoon bridge that breaks apart up when boats pass.

According to UNESCO: “During ancient and medieval times Amudarya river played a key part in the life of the population of adjoining territories as the basis of agriculture and the main transport and trade artery in Middle Asia. It was also a linking element for the peoples living on its left and right banks. Emergence and development of many pair towns-fortresses (laying on both river banks) was connected, first of all, with the favourable geographic location - in the places of water crossing. Large settlements were usually situated on the left bank of Amudarya, while small advanced posts - on its right bank.”

Amu Darya Delta extends from the southeast of Urgench to the Aral Sea. Being an important source of water in a large arid region its has been inhabited for millennia and contains the ruins of several ancient Khorezmian towns and fortresses, some of them more than 2,000 years old. There are some ruins around Bustan (50 kilometers miles northwest of Urgench) and other sites further afield. The Badai-Tugai Nature Reserve (beginning 35 kilometers north of Urgench) occupies a strip of tungai swamp forest along the Amu Darya. Animals found here include the Karakal desert cat, badgers, jackals, wild boar, foxes and Bukhara deer. The last Caspian tiger was killed in an area of tungai north of Nukus in 1972.

Karakum Canal

Karakum Canal is the world's longest irrigation canal. It stretches 1,350 kilometers (745 miles) from Haun-Khan to Ashkhabad and brings water from the Amu-Darya to the inhabited areas in southern Turkmenistan. Draining the Amu-Darya, it runs most of the length of Turkmenistan and is used to supply water for cotton farms. It has contributed to large cotton harvests and the shrinking of the Aral Sea.

The Karakum Canal, which has a capacity of 500 cubic meters per second, accounts for almost all irrigation in Ahal and Balkan provinces along the northern reaches of the Kopetdag Range. The canal also supplies additional water to the Murgap oasis in southeastern Turkmenistan. The main canal was built in sections between 1959 and 1976, initially providing irrigation for about 500,000 hectares. Plans call for construction to continue until the canal reaches a length of 1,435 kilometers and a carrying capacity of 1,000 cubic meters per second, enabling it to irrigate 1,000,000 hectares. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Karakum Canal leaks a lot of the water it carries and is badly in need of reconstruction. From the air its looks like a thin ribbon fringed by kilometers-wide bands of weeds. The Turkmenistan government admits that 28 percent of the water disappears before it reaches it destination. Scientist think the figure is close to 60 percent. Agricultural run off ends up in Sarykamish Lake or swamps and lakes that have appeared miles from the canal.

Turkmenabat

Turkmenabat (near the Uzbekistan border) is Turkmenistan's second largest city. A dusty industrial town with 250,000 people., it is an important rail and cotton trading center and the main crossing point between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It is also the overland crossroads between Ashgabat and northern Turkmenistan. Planes, buses, trains and shared taxis can be caught here. The industrial sector consists mainly of cotton, silk, and chemical factories.

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: Turkmenabat is “another renamed city—some people I met in Mary still called it Çarjou. In Ashgabat, I had asked an American Peace Corps volunteer what this part of the country would look like. He said, “Looks like west Texas,” and it did. An old shrouded woman squatted by the road, with a pile of trinkets—here in the middle of nowhere, yet another seller of amulets against the evil eye. Berdy bought me another multicolored demon-distracting cord, thinking it might come in handy.

“Perhaps it did. Our driver dumped us in Turkmenabat, saying he could not go farther. We got another car, but no sooner had the old man driving it pointed out the Amu Darya River—one of the wonders of this region—than a roadblock appeared. The soldiers looked at Berdy’s papers and told him that he could go no farther.

Amudarya State Nature Reserve

Amudarya State Nature Reserve (100 kilometers northwest of Turkmenabat, near the Uzbekistan border) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Amudarya State Nature Reserve was established in 1982 and covers a total of 48 5 square kilometers. It is split into three separate sites in the middle reaches of the Amudarya River: Nargiz (451 square kilometers), Gabaklinskiy (12 square kilometers) and Gereldinskiy (22 square kilometers); in which the valley flood plain tugais, ridge-hillocks and barkhan sands, and salt pans of the Turan lowlands are well represented. [Source: Ministry of Nature Protection of Turkmenistan, UNESCO]

“The territory of the Reserve includes part of the Amudarya River. In the tugai thickets, wild liquorice grows. Eulophia turkestanica and Ophioglossum bucharinmt, two species of Orchidaceae are occasionally found. The Amudarya spiny sturgeon, the small Amu-Dar and large Amu-Dar shovelnose sturgeons and the pike asp can be found. The wild boar, Bukhara deer and 104 nesting bird species occur including the Amudarya pheasant (Phasianus colchicus ssp.) and hypocolius (Hjpocolius ampelinuss). In the seepage zone near the Karakum Canal the 103 0 square kilometers. Up to 55 000 waterfowl winter. The northeastern and eastern borders of the Reserve (62 kilometers) run along Turkmenistan's and Uzbekistan's border (mid-stream line of the Amurdarya river).

“The Nargiz unit is an Important Bird Area. The bird community contains many species typical of wet woodlands, including riparian forest. Threatened species here are Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus and European Roller Coracias garrulus. Other species here include Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, Turkestan Tit Parus bokharensis, White-winged Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus, Eurasian Thick-knee Burhinus oedicnemus, Eurasian Eagle-owl Bubo bubo. The migratory flyway along the Amudarya valley passes through the IBA. Of the species that use it, 59 are waterbirds. Migratory and wintering species are Pallas's Fish-eagle Haliaeetus leucoryphus, White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla, Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca, Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus, Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca; passage migrants include Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus, Osprey Pandion haliaetus, Common Crane Grus grus, Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia, Black Stork Ciconia nigra. The avifauna consists of 21 resident species, 48 breeding migrants, 41 wintering and migratory species and 103 passage migrants.

Amudarya State Nature Reserve was established in 1982 for the purpose of conservation and restoration of tugai (riparian forest) which is typical for Central Asia's extensive river floodplains. The river gallery forests ("tugay") in some places are difficult to traverse, like real jungles. The river gallery forests hold 86 plant species, the most numerous of which are two species of poplar Populus pruinosa and P. euphratica, Russian olive Elaeagnus orientalis, Salix songarica, tamarisk, common salt-tree Halimodendron halodendron, licorice root Glycyrriza glabra and reeds, among others. The Amudarya Reserve is the only reserve in the country where relict tugai ecosystems are conserved. The Bukhara deer (Cervus elaphus bactrianus) and the tree Populus pruinosa are included in the Red List of IUCN. More than 250 species of birds have been recorded, among them 105 have bred. This rich avian diversity is due to the Reserve's location on the seasonal flyways of migratory birds. Among ungulates there are wild boar (Sus scrofa) in the tugai and sand (or goitred) gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) in the desert part of the Reserve. The nominated site contains the best representation of the tugai flood plain ecosystem in Central Asia and has a typical composition of native plant and animal species. A considerable part of the river valley habitat has been modified by human activities, and scientists have categorized the tugai as "a living landscape". The Amudarya State Nature Reserve represents an almost fully conserved natural ecosystem (riperian river forest) with nearly the full set of its original components. Only the Turanian Tiger (Panthera tigris ssp. virgata) is extinct.

Amul on the Amul-Merv Silk Road Route

Amul (outskirts of Turkmenabat city) is one of the Silk Roads Sites in Turkmenistan that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Amul is the ancient and medieval site at the outskirts of the modern Turkmenabat city. The most ancient period of occupation refers to the I-IV centuries A.D. At that time it occupied the area of about 50 hectares and was a part of Kushanian kingdom. Srating from the 4th century A.D. the period of crisis is observed. After Arabian conquest Amul was revived and by the 9th century became one of the largest centres of international trade which promoted appreciable increase of the town. [Source: Embassy of Turkmenistan to France, UNESCO]

“Amul, the capital of Middle Amudarya region, was an important transit point on the Great Silk Road. Here there were crossed two international routes - land and river ones. The land one led from Merv to Bukhara and China. Another land way led to the north, to Khorezm. The second route was Amudarya itself by which the goods from India through Afghanistan had been delivered. According to archaeological data Amul of that period consisted of shakhristan inside of which there was a citadel (ark), and outer town with 3 gates: northern, southern and eastern ones. In 1220 Amul was destroyed by Mongols. The next significant stage of its life started in the 15th century when the town had been called already Charjui. The town plan of that period survived practically till 60-ies of the 20th century

“Now the remains of shakhristan of Amul-Charjui represents nearly regular quadrangle with the area of 9 hectares. It lies on the multi-meter pakhsa massif rising at a height of 21-24 meters above surrounding locality. In the northwestern corner of the fortress a massive ark (citadel) next to 33 meters high with 5 towers is located. Territory of rabad which had surrounded the Amul shakhristan exceeded 150-175 hectares.

“The origin of the name "Amul" is still under discussion. It appears in the 7th century A.D. In historical literature there are found also other its names: "Amuya", "Amuye", "Amu". Later the Persian abbreviated name "Amu" was applied to the Oxus-Jeikhun river which was started to call Amudarya (Amu-river), Since the late 15th century a new name of the town appears, that Charjui (or "Charkhajub - four streams") which gradually replaces the old one. Informations of the medieval Amul-Charjui are found among a series of authors: al-Belazury (IX century), ibn-Khordadbekh (IX century), al-Istakhry, al-Makdisy, ibn-Khaukal (X century), Yakut (13th century), Mukhammed Kazim (18th century) and others.

“During ancient and medieval times Amudarya river played a key part in the life of the population of adjoining territories as the basis of agriculture and the main transport and trade artery in Middle Asia. It was also a linking element for the peoples living on its left and right banks. Emergence and development of many pair towns-fortresses (laying on both river banks) was connected, first of all, with the favourable geographic location - in the places of water crossing. Large settlements were usually situated on the left bank of Amudarya, while small advanced posts - on its right bank. Such were, for example: Amul and Farap (then Bityk), Zemm and Kerkichi, Khodja-Idat-kala and Navidakh etc. (in Turkmenistan).”

Repetek Desert Reserve

Repetek Desert Reserve (60 kilometers south of Turkmenabat) has recorded temperatures of over 49 degrees C (120 degrees F). Wildlife found here includes sand crocodiles (monitor lizards that reach 1.8 meters in length), cobras, large black scorpions and tarantulas. There is a research center and a simple lodge here. The reserve was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Repetek State Biosphere Reserve is situated in the southeastern Karakum desert, near the Repetek railway station. Its typical landscape is arid, with large, hummocky, ridged, fixed sand dunes in some areas, large areas of sand dune and valley-like depressions. The ridges are 15-20 meters in height and 8-10 kilometers in length. The depressions, which lie adjacent to the slopes of the ridges, are as much as several hundred meters wide and stretch for 3-7 kilometers. Depressions are characterised by lower elevations and gradually pass into small hummocky ridges of geologically older sandy areas. This is one of the hottest regions in Central Asia and the climate is typical for southern (extra-tropical) deserts. The soils have sandy subsoils, and soil-formation ere is very slow. [Source: UNESCO] The flora consists of 21 trees, 104 grasses, eight mushrooms, one moss, 68 soil algae and 197 fungi. The rare Ammodendron conollyi, Calligonum sp. and Aristih sp. grow in the sandy dunes, while white saxaul Haloxylonpersicum, Calligonum sp. and Astragalus sp. are present in fixed sands with sedge communities, Black saxaul Haloxylon clphyllum grows in the valley-like depressions. Cattle breeding and grazing are camed out in the adjacent areas. Small villages and stations are located along the railway and road that cross the central part of the IBA from southwest to northeast.

It is one of the few natural desert sites in Central Asia with large areas of black saxaul, covering more then 1 470 hectares, or 4.5 % of the Reserve's territory. The site supports a complete assemblage of bird species typical of the sand desert of the Karakum, and stable populations of the globally threatened Goitered Gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa), listed as vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List. In addition the site holds migrating globally threatened and near threatened Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus (VU), Pallas's Fish-eagle Haliaeetus leucoryphus (VU) -both occasional migrants-, Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus (NT), Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus (NT), Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca (VU), Corncrake Crex crex (NT), Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata (VU), European Roller Coracias garrulus (NT) and breeding Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni (VU), Saker Falcon Falco cherrug (EN). Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Gaurdak

Gaurdak (320 kilometers miles east of Turkmenabat, near where Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan meet) is the jumping off place for Koytendag Nature Reserve and the dinosaur footprints there. It is located in very remote area that requires a permit so visit so you have to make arrangements with a travel agency just to get here.

Gaurdak is the desert near a mountainous landscape with wild gorges, waterfalls and caves with stalactites and stalagmites. The highest point in Turkmenistan is 10,299-foot-high (3,139-meter-high) Ayrybaba, located where Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan all meet. Visiting the region is difficult because of its nearness to the Afghanistan border.

To get to Guardak one has to fly to Turkmenabat and then travel many hours on a bumpy road. Even though it is very remote, Turkmen officials hope to turn into a major tourism draw because of it accessibility to the Dinosaur Plateau, Koytendag National Park and Turkmenistan's highest mountain (Airybaba at 3,319 metres) as well as waterfalls, lakes and caves.

Koytendag Nature Reserve

Koytendag Nature Reserve (accessible from Guardak) is the site of the dinosaur plateau (see Below). It is also known for its cave and desert and mountain landscape and was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The site is located in the southwestem slopes of the Koytendag mountains (the Kugitang range), at the southwestem extreme of the Gissar range of the Pamir-Alay mountain system. Generally, it lies in the middle and upper mountainous belts at elevations of 900-3139m above sea level, which it reaches at Ayrybaba (the highest peak of Turkmenistan).

There are a substantial number of waterbodies: karst lakes and caves (Kattakul, Khurdzhumkul, Garlyk and others), freshwater springs (Bulakly and Koyten) and hydrogen sulphate wells (Khodzhakainar, Khodzhapil and Bazartepe). Some watercourses originate in snowfields, located at altitudes of about 3000 meters. The main water source is the Koytendarya river. The climate depends on altitude, changing from arid and hot to temperate and cold with annual precipitation of up to 350mm. The soils are serozyems (grey earth). The flora is composed of 982 species. Juniperus (or archa) forests with Thragacanthus communities are widespread (1700-2800 meters), in which Astracanta sp. and steppe grasses are also present. Seasonal grazing and cattle reariing are carried out here, as well as arable farming to a lesser degree. Most of the population (up to 50 000 people) lives in the Koytendarya valley; the main villages are Garlyk, Koyten, Khodzhapil, Gorshun.

The reserve and associated protected areas include: 1) Koytendag State Nature Reserve (271.39 square kilometers); 2) Karlyuk State Nature Sanctuary (400 square kilometers); 3) Khojapilskiy State Nature Sanctuary (316.35 square kilometers); 4) Khojaburjibelendskiy State Nature Sanctuary (175.92 square kilometers); and 5) Khojakaraulskiy State Nature Sanctuary (60 square kilometers) The total area of the site is 1,223.66 square kilometers)

Koytendag is famous for its unique caves and other geological features (marble onyx), as well as its archa forest and species of rare plants and animals such as the blind cave loach (Nemacheilus starostini) which inhabits underground lakes in the karstic caves. Notable elements of the flora include Juniperus seravschanica, tulip (Tulipa ingens), almond (Amygdalus spinosissima), Cleome gordjaginii, and Ungernia victoris. Some woods are composed of oriental plane, jujube and pistachio. The beautiful mountains and caves are supplemented by the presence of markhor and Barbary falcon (Falco pelegrinoides). Endangered species in the reserve include relict mollusc species Kainar Cerith Melanoides kainarensis. Globally and near threatened mammal species include Tajik Markhor Capra falconeri, (EN), Tien Shan Brown Bear Ursus arctos isabellinus, Turkestan Lynx Lynx lynx isabellinus (NT), Persian Leopard Panthera pardus saxicolor (NT), which may already be locally extinct; Afghan Urial Ovis orientalis cycloceros (VU), European Free-tailed Bat Tadarida teniotis and others. The nominated site represents the main periods of Earth development, including the illustration of ancient life, significant geological processes in Earth surface forms development, essential geomorphological and physical-geographical particularities of relief. The site is composed of rocks of the Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cainozoic Eras rich with ancient fossils of Molluscs, Brachiopods, and dinosaurs - including dinosaur footprint trails, etc. At the base of the Koytendag mountains there are igneous rocks, testament to ancient volcanism, as well as tectonic faults and canyons.

Dinosaur Plateau

Dinosaur Plateau (in Koytendag Nature Reserve, accessible from Guardak) contains the world's longest known set of dinosaur tracks, a 310-meter (1,020-foot) -long set of tracks was made 155 million years ago by a huge meat-eating megalosaurus. Nearly 3,000 well-preserved dinosaur footprints Hundred of dinosaurs prints have been left in the bedrock near the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan border in a place called the Dinosaur Plateau in an area believed to be the remnants of a lagoon that dried out.

The tracks seem have been created by several species of dinosaurs. The smallest prints, made by a three-toed dinosaur, are about 18 to 20 centimeters (7 to 8 inches) long. The largest — a megalosaur print — is about 71 centimeters (28 inches) long. Within the thousands of dinosaur footprints, scientists have found two human footprints as well.

The dinosaur footprints are mainly located a 200-х-80-meter limestone plateau with a slope of 17-20 degree. The footprints vary in size from 20 to 70 centimeters belong to three species of dinosaurs which have not been exactly identified. The formation of the Dinosaur Plateau took place between 145-150 million years ago in the Jurassic Period , when the area is believed to have been a shallow lagoon. When the water receded and the former bottom dried up, it turned into a solid layer of limestone, preserving impressions that had been left in it. Over millions of years the limestone was covered by sediments and then pushed up by tectonic forces, The limestone plate, which had been horizontal, was tilted and revealed after softer rocks above it was eroded away.

Igor Sassin wrote in Phys.org: “Some eight hours dusty drive from the nearest major settlement, tucked into the eastern corner of Turkmenistan and unknown to the outside world until the second half of the last century, lies Turkmenistan's Plateau of the Dinosaurs , the location of one of the most magnificent collections of fossilised dinosaur tracks anywhere on Planet Earth. On the plateau, some 2,500 dinosaur tracks have been discovered. Some are 40 centimetres long and 30 centimetres wide, others even bigger, measuring 70 by 60. A dinosaur five to six metres (16 to 20 feet) tall could take a stride of up to two metres. [Source: Igor Sassin, Phys.org, May 2, 2014]

“The plateau is renowned for having the longest trackways—continuous lines of footprints made as a dinosaur walked or ran—anywhere in the world. In places they reach up to 200 metres. It seems improbable that what is now an arid mountain zone could sustain such life but 150 million years ago when these creatures reigned supreme on Earth the eco-system was completely different. Some 145-150 million years ago, there were lakes and marshes and herds of dinosaurs strode along the banks. There were both vegetarian and carnivorous dinosaurs. This sandy marshland quickly silted up and so these prehistoric tracks left their mark forever," said Anatoly Bushmakin, a Turkmen scientist specialising in the plateau.

“It was only confirmed in the 1950s that dinosaur tracks existed here, although locals have known about them for much longer, even if they were not quite sure of the origin. The name of the nearby village of Khodja Pil means "Miracle of the Elephants" in Turkmen. Of course elephants have never existed in Turkmenistan but local legend long had it that the tracks were left by elephants taken by Alexander the Great in his campaigns.

“The Plateau is located deep in Turkmenistan's eastern corner on the border with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Visiting the border region requires a permit. A visitor from the capital Ashgabat on the other side of the country needs to fly to Turkmenabat before then travelling south by road some 450 kilometres (280 miles), a bumpy eight-hour journey.”

Dashoguz

Dashoguz (near the Uzbekistan border, 400 kilometers north of Ashgabat) is the only sizable city in northern Turkmenistan. Home to about 140,000 people, it is a medium-size Soviet city situated on the Amu Darya delta in the heart of Aral-Sea-draining cotton country. It is of little interest to tourists other than being a jumping off point for Konye-Urgench The landscape around the city is a wasteland of farm land ruined by salinization due to poor irrigation.

Dashoguz is also spelled Daşoguz and Dasoguz and roughly means "stone spring" in Turkmen. It was known as Tashauz until 1992. As it is the only city in the region, it is a transport and administrative center. The Uzbekistan border is about 10 kilometers away and Nukus, Uzbekistan is about 87 kilometers away. Nearby Lake Sarykamysh is home to 65 different species of fish.

Dashoguz was well-used stop on the Silk Road because it had a spring, hence its name. Founded as a fort called Tashauz in the early 19th century by the Russians, the name was changed to the Turkmen form Dashkhovuz in 1992 after independence, and to Daşoguz by order of President Niyazov in 1999, The city has some Soviet-style monuments and museums. The population is predominately Turkmen but there are also some Russians, Koreans, Karakalpaks and Tatars.

Konye-Urgench

Konye-Urgench (near the Uzbekistan border, 100 kilometers northeast of Dashoguz, 400 kilometers north of Ashgabat and 45 kilometers from Nukus) was the capital of Khorezm empire and was a remote outpost on a branch of the Silk Road. . Founded around 1000 B.C. and located on the Amu-Darya Delta, where the Kara-kum and Kyzylkum deserts meet, it was ruled by Persians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks and reached its height in the 12th century under the Seljuk shahs of the Khorezm empire, which encompassed much of northern Turkmenistan and southern Uzbekistan.

Konye-Urgench is similar to Khiva but less well restored and less like a museum piece and much more empty than Bukhara and Samarkand because it is harder to get to. There are ancient mosques, minarets, mausoleum, madrasahs, and homes. Few modern structures obstruct the view. .Modern Konye-Urgench is a small town surrounded by state cotton farms.

Kunya-Urgench was named a World Heritage Site in 2005. According to UNESCO: “Kunya-Urgench is located in the territory of Dashoguz velayat of Turkmenistan. It is situated in the northwestern Turkmenistan, on the left bank of the Amu-Daria River. Urgench was the capital of the Khorezm region, which was part of the Achaemenid Empire. The old town area contains series of monuments mainly from the 11th to 16th centuries. This area has remained a vast deserted land with some remains of ancient fortified settlements, including a mosque, the gates of a caravanserai, fortresses, mausoleums and a 60-meter high minaret. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site, 2005]

“On the sample of Kunya-Urgench monuments one can see all variety of methods and décor of Islamic architecture of Central Asia. There are constructions from adobe and burned bricks, plain unicameral dome constructions up-going to ancient chartak and buildings with complicated compositions, sometimes with long history of development, repair and reconstruction. These monuments also demonstrate the evolution of methods of treatment of inner surface of domes from cellular sails to stalactite those times called “muqarnas” and brought to the highest perfection by local masters. The best monuments of this city are distinguished by high degree of decorativeness. They provide prominent examples of classical arabesques in monochrome terra-cotta and bright colorfulness of enamel. The monuments testify to outstanding achievements in architecture and craftsmanship whose influence reached Iran and Afghanistan, and later the architecture of the Mogul Empire of 16th-century India. The Islamic sacred objects concentrated in this city are exceptionally popular places for pilgrims and serve attractive objects for the international tourism.

The site is important because: 1) The tradition of architecture expressed in the design and craftsmanship of Kunya-Urgench has been influential in the wider region to the south and southwest i.e. in Iran and Afghanistan, and later in the architecture of the Mogul Empire (India, 16th century). 2) Kunya-Urgench provides an exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition (the Islamic culture of the Khorezm) and is unique in its state of preservation. The society that created this centre has disappeared; however we note that most of visitors are in fact pilgrims from the region.

Although the individual monuments are in variable conditions, the principal monuments have retained a substantial amount of original material, representing a reasonable level of authenticity. Other buildings have remained untouched or been more or less substantially reconstructed. The individual monuments have been subject to various degrees of repair, restoration and reconstruction. Seeing the condition before repair, it can be appreciated that in some cases the choice was a complete collapse or partial reconstruction. While taking note of the several reconstructions of individual buildings, the principal monuments are still considered to have retained a reasonable level of authenticity.

Early History of Konye-Urgench

The origins of the settlement go back to the 5th century B.C., Archaeological excavations carried out on the hill known as Kyrkmolla revealed the contours of a powerful ancient fortress dated to the 5th-2nd centuries B.C.Urgench was mentioned in the Avesta — the primary Zoroastrian text — as Urwah (or Urga). In the Chinese chronicles of the Han dynasty (A.D. 1st century) Urgench was mentioned in a transcription as “Yuegan”. Chinese sources in the 7th century describe a period of revival of Khorezm. [Source: State Committee for Tourism of Turkmenistan]

In 712, Urgench was invaded by Arabs and named Gurgenge. Being at the crossing of trade routes between the Volga River in the northwest and Mongolia and China in the east, the town prospered and became a major trade center. At beginning of the 11th century, during the reign of Mamun I, historians describe military events, long marches, complex political intrigues. A brief reign. Under the reign of Mamun II the city reached its peak. Gurgenge was greater than Bukhara' and attracted famous scientists to the unique court “Academy” of Mamun. The great historian and Islamic scholar Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (973-1050) and a brilliant scientist, physician and philosopher Abu Ah ibn Sina (980-1037), known in the West as Avicenna , were among those that lived there. This prosperous period in history of the city did not last long. After Mamun II died in 1017, Khorezm was conquered by the Ghaznavids and then by Seljuk Turks. After 1044, Khorezm was a a province of the Seljuk Empire.

In 1097 an event marked the beginning of the last dynasty of Khorezmshakhs — the Anushteginids dynasty. The Seljuks appointed Qutb al-Din Muhammad I as a ruler of Khorezm. He ruled for 30 years until his death was a loyal subject of Seljuk Sultan Sanjar, who then did not hesitate to approve his son Atsyz to the throne of Khorezm shahs. However, Atsyz repeatedly showed independece, engaging in military confrontation with Sandzhar. Atsyz persistently carried out a policy of “gathering lands”, and gradually gained control over the entire northwestern part of Central Asia. In 1194, his grandson Tekesh ibn Il-Arslan finally freed Khorezm from Seljuk domination and expanded Khorezm into what amounted to a small medieval empire.

Under the Tekesh son Ala-ud-Din Muhammad II the state of Khorezm shahs reached its highest power: their empire stretched from the northern regions of the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf and from the Caucasus to the Hindu Kush. During this brilliant period Gurgenge (Konye-Urgench) was the imperial center, where arts, crafts and trade flourished. Mohammed II later anger Genghis Khan when he had one Mongol messenger killed and had the beards burned off of two others.

Later History of Konye-Urgench

In 1221, The Mongol sacked Samarkand and Bukhara and then took Gurgenge (Konye-Urgench) and destroyed it after a siege of several months. However, thanks to its advantageous location, the city was rebuilt not long afterwards and described as the finest city of the Turks with fine bazaars and impressive buildings. After joining to the possession of Juchi, and then becoming almost independent in the Golden Horde Khanate, Khorezm entered into a prosperous phase, which lasted until Timur's campaigns. The famous Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta arrived in Urgench in 1333 and called it the largest and most prosperous Turkic city. The city was at that time the capital of the vast eastern province of the Golden Horde.

Kutlug Timur and his wife Tyurabek Khanum played a special role in Urgench’s development in the first half of the 14th century, constructed beautiful and important buildings such as a hospital, a mosque and khanaka and restoring surviving monuments of pre-Mongol period. They finished and repaired the minaret that became one of the highest in the world (about 60 meters), and built up a large area within the city walls which extended 10 kilometers from the Ak-gala fortress in the north, encircling the entire territory of the site reaching Khorezm-bag fortress and the river Amu Darya in the south.

After 1360 Uregnch was taken over by a Turkish Sufi dynasty that was independent from the Golden Horde. Tamerlane regarded Khorezm as a rival of Samarkand and sacked Konye-Urgench five times in the 14th century.The city suffered heavily from destruction by the Timurid troops between 1372 and 1388, and never gained its previous position again. The best artists, architects, builders and craftsmen went to Samarkand instead. In spite of attempts to restore the city, particularly in 1391, the city never. In the 15th century the Amu Darya River changed its course and moved about 40 kilometers away from the city. The political and economic center of the region shifted from Khorezm to Samarkand and Bukhara. Finally, the development of sea routes between Europe, India and China, as well as the discovery of America led to the gradual disappearance of the Silk Road transcontinental caravan trade. The economy of Central Asia as whole declined and found itself at the periphery of world civilization. By the 17th century, Uregnch was all but abandoned, with its former population having moved to Khiva..

Almost nothing is left from the once great Gurgenge, and its ruins have since become known as the Old Urgench. The city has experienced modem development since 1831 when the Yab Khan channel was dug here (north of the mausoleum of Najm al-Din al-Kubra) form the Amu Darya.

Places in Konye-Urgench

Under the Khorezm shahs, Konye-Urgench was filled with mosques, madrasahs, libraries, bazaars, arched ramparts, carved columns, turquoise domes, spectacular mosaic tilework, white-washed houses with magnificent carved wooden doors and became a showcase for Islamic art and architecture. It was regarded as the center of the Islamic world until the Khorezmshah Mohammed II moved the capital to Samarkand in 1210.

Sights at Konye-Urgench include the 19th century Sayid Ahmed mausoleum, the Sultan Tekesh mausoleum, the Il-Arsian mausoleum (built in 1172, the oldest standing structure in Konye-Urgench), Kirkmomlla (a scared mound of graves), Mamun 2nd minaret (built in 1011 and rebuilt in the 14th century), the Dash Kala Caravanserai Portal, the Turabeg Khanym mausoleum, the Aka Kala fortress and the Khorezm Dag.

Najm-ed-din Kubra Mausoleum is the most sacred place in Konye-Urgench. Built over the tomb of a 12th century poet, philosopher and leader of a Sufi order, it has three do mes, tiled portals and two tombs (one for his body and one for his head, which was chopped off by the Mongols). The tomb is believed to have healing powers and pilgrims gather around to pray for cures. Nearby are a small museum, the Matkerim-Ishan Mausoleum, the Sultan Ali Mausoleum.

Turabeg Khanym Mausoleum is regarded as the beautiful spot in Konye-Urgench. Built over the family tombs of a 14th Sufi dynasty, it features an array of geometric patterns that organized like a calendar. In the inner dome is a mosaic with 365 sections, representing the days of the year. Underneath are 24 point arched symbolizing the hours of the day. The 12 arches below them represent the months. The four big windows symbolize the weeks in a month,

Kutleg Minaret is the highest minaret in Central Asia, at 67 meters. Built in the 1320s, it is only surviving part of Konye-Urgenche’s man mosque. It has bands of brickwork and a few turquoise tiles.

On monuments in Konye-Urgench one can see all variety of methods and decor of Islamic architecture of Central Asia. The buildings aree generally made from adobe and burned bricks and feature plain unicameral dome constructions. Some buildings have complicated compositions and a long history of development, repair and reconstruction. Others have distinctive Central Asian features such as cellular sails, stalactite bases, "muqamas" and classical arabesques in monochrome terracotta and bright enamel decorations.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Turkmenistan tourism sites, Turkmenistan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Wikitravel, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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