Southern Kazakhstan refers to an area west of Almaty that runs along the Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan border. It is arguably most Kazakh and Central Asian part of Kazakhstan. Most of the people are Kazakhs, You can find mosques and madrasahs and mausoleums like those found in Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Most of this area is covered by barren steppe and desert. They areas that yield crops are generally on irrigated land.

Southern Kazakhstan Region is famous for its historical memorials — burial mounds, ancient settlements, fortresses, mausoleums and ancient towns — many of which have connections to the Silk Road. The region Kazakhstan has an extreme continental climate with very hot summers and very cold winters. It is mostly flat, with deserts and steppes, with some mountains ranges, particularly in the south along the Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan borders. Fertile soil and abundant sunlight near the rivers create great opportunities for development irrigated agriculture Vast pastures provide grass and grazing animals such as sheep.

Rare plants and animals found in southern Kazakhstan include wild apple-trees, the Berkara poplar, Graig's tulip, Karatau arkhar, snow leopards, Indian porcupine, boar, roe deer, hare, partridge, pheasant, wolf, fox and paradise flycatcher and others. In places like Moiynkum Sand Dunes tourists can have Silk Road caravan experience, riding on camels. In this area hunters with eagles chase hares and foxes. Herds of saigas (antelope) graze in the pastures, hunters seek wolves and foxes and tourists sit in yurts drinking kumys (fermented mare's milk), shubat (fermented camel's milk) and airan (sour milk).

Xuanzang in Southern Kazakhstan

In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) left the Chinese dynasty capital for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to Central Asia and then south and east to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Xuanzang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. His trip inspired the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West” by Wu Ch'eng-en, a 16th century story about a wandering Buddhist monk accompanied by a pig, an immortal that poses as a monkey and a feminine spirit. It is widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf); See Separate Article on Xuanzang]

Xuanzang reported: “ Going 200 li or so south-west from this, we come to the town called Peh-shwui ("White Water"). This town is 6 or 7 li in circuit. The products of the earth and the climate are very superior to those of Ta-to-sse. |Going 200 li or so to the south-west, we arrive at the town of Kong-yu, which is about 5 or 6 li in circuit. The plain on which it stands is well watered and fertile, and the verdure of the trees grateful and pleasing. From this going south 40 or 50 li, we come to the country of Nu-chih-kien (Nujkend, modern Shymkent, Kazakhstan). The country of Nu-chih-kien is about 1000 li in circuit; the land is fertile, the harvests are abundant, the plants and trees are rich in vegetation, the flowers and [p.30] fruit plentiful and agreeable in character. This country is famous for its grapes: There are some hundred towns which are governed by their own separate rulers. They are independent in all their movements. But though they are so distinctly divided one from the other, they are all called by the general name of Nu-chih-kien. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, |:|]

“Going hence about 200 li west, we come to the country of Che-shi (stony country). The country of Che-shi is 1000 or so li in circuit. On the west it borders on the river Yeh. It is contracted towards the east and west, and extended towards the north and south. The products and climate are like those of Nu-chih-kien. There are some ten towns in the country, each governed by its own chief; as there is no common sovereign over them, they are all under the yoke of the Tuh-kiueh. From this in a south-easterly direction some 1000 li or so, there is a country called Fei-han. |:|

Syr Darya

Syr Darya is one of the two largest and longest rivers in Central Asia. It originates and is feed by glaciers, snow melt and steams in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan and the mountains of Tajikistan and flows through Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan and then into the Aral Sea. Much of the water used for drinking, bathing, industry and agricultures for Central Asia comes form it. The flow of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya into he Aral Sea have been reduced by three-quarters, which is why the Aral Sea shrunk to such a small size.

In Kazakhstan, the Syr Darya basin occupies two regions: South-Kazakhstan and Kyzylorda. The river is 2,212 kilometers long and its basin covers 219,000 square kilometers. The Syr Darya is formed by the confluence of the Naryn and Karadarya River in the eastern part of the Ferghana Valley in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan..

Before 1989, the Syr Darya flowed into the Aral Sea, but as a result of shallowing of the Aral Sea’s separation into two parts, the Syr Darya now only fill up the northern part of once mighty Aral Sea, a body of water called the "Small Sea". Several reservoirs such as Toktogul (Kyrgyzstan), Kairakkum (Tajikistan), Chardara and Koksaray (both in Kazakhstan) were created on the river. The Syr Darya is the muddiest river in Kazakhstan, the turbidity of water in the reservoir is 1200 g/cc.mol. This is due to the fact that its waters carry away loose soil on its way.

The Syr Darya is the longest river of Central Asia but the second largest. The Amu Darya carries more water. Both feed the Aral Sea and have had their waters depleted for cotton irrigation. Since ancient times people living in the Syr-Darya basin have used its waters for irrigation and settlements that grew up around irrigation networks grew into major towns on the Silk Road. The Shardarinsky water basin is located where the Syr-Darya runs along the border of Kazakhstan with Uzbekistan. It was created in the 1960s as a huge cotton agricultural region. Water was also harnessed for a hydroelectric power station. The reservoir is utilized today for recreation and fishing.

Tugay woods in lower reaches of The Syr Darya are a unique ecosystem. An enormous variety of vegetation can be found in the tugay woods of The Syr Darya, including hedges of oleaster, tamarisk and turanga and the famous relic Asian poplar. The landscape — a dense texture of bushes and high grass — is very difficult to pass through and provide a nesting place for numerous water fowl. The Tiray tiger lived here until the 19th century.

Zhambyl Region

Zhambyl Oblast (Region), located in the South of Kazakhstan, was founded in 1939. It is predominately flat and covers territory is 144, 200 square kilometers and is home to about 1 million people, about two thirds of which are Kazakhs. There are 10 districts in the oblast. The main city Taraz. People are concentrated into a few areas. Most of the oblast is uninhabited

Zhambyl (also spelled Jambyl) Oblast borders Almaty Oblast to the east, Karaganda Oblast to the north, South Kazakhstan Oblast to the west and Kyrgyzstan to the south. About 23.8 percent of the region’s economic output is from industry, 20.2 percent from for agriculture, 16.6 percent from transport and communications, 6.5 percent from construction, 9.2 percent from trade and 23.7 percent from other sectors. There large but yet untapped lead-zinc deposits in the Shu-Iliskiy area. The mining of copper ore is done in the Shatyrkulskoe field in Shuskiy district. The oblast has large amounts of underground waters.

Tourism is mostly associated the Silk Road. The ruined and existing towns of Sairam village, Taraz, Aksholak, Ajyr-tobe station, Kulan, Merke, Shu, Aspara and Kordai all have links to the Silk Road. There are 1,080 monuments in Zhambyl oblast, including 844 archeological monuments, 111 historic monuments, 97 architectural monuments and 28 pieces of monumental art.


Taraz (on the Kyrgyzstan border about 600 kilometers west of Almaty) is a city with 360,000 people. It is not a terribly interesting place but is jumping off point for sites in the area and is place some travelers stop on the way between Tashkent and Almaty and Bishkek. Worth checking out is the History Museum. It contains a decorated yurt, a collection of stone statues and tableaux with figures from different historical periods. In a wooded park there is an 11th century mausoleum and a 13th century mausoleum. There is an interesting 12th century mausoleum about 13 miles west Taraz near Aysha-Bibi villages. It boasts terra cotta bricks with many different motifs.

The Ancient settlement of Taraz (occupied from the 1st to 17th centuries) is located in the central part of the modern city near the central market. At the beginning of the 20th century, within the "Long Walls" surrounding the agricultural district, there were more than three dozen knolls — the remains of castles, manors, necropolises. Currently, almost all of them have been leveled and built over. The so-called tortkul is on the street of Suilemanova app is near the television center. Sections of the "long walls" can be found mainly in the northern outskirts of the city.

Ancient Taraz was mention by Chinese sources 2000 years ago. The Byzantines wrote about in the 6th century. Taraz is located in the Talas Valley, where the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate, aided by the their ally the Tibetan Empire, routed the Chinese Tang dynasty in A.D. 751. Medieval Taraz was a populous city knonn for gardens and noisy market, where Persian, Chinese, Turkic and Slavic language could presumably be heard. The famous Arab traveler and geographer al-Makdisi wrote that Taraz was a “big reinforced city, with a beautiful garden, beside it moat... Beside the second big river, for her part of city, through it there is transition. The Cathedral mosque amongst the market".

Modern Taraz is located in the southwest part of Zhambyl Oblast in the centre of the Talas -Asa oasis, on the left bank of the Talas River. The sprawling city covers 110 square kilometers, with a length of 23.5 kilometers and a width of 12.5 kilometers. The distance from Taraz to Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan) is 1,255 kilometers.

Sights in Taraz

Karakhan Mausoleum (Auliye-Ata) is situated in the central part of the city at the intersection of Tole bi Street and Baizak Batyr Street. The mausoleum is a part of religious memorial complex, formed on the territory of medieval Taraz. Archeological excavations have found 30 different designs of shaped bricks made with great skill. The mausoleum was built in the 11th century era of Karakhanids. Folk legends inseparably associate the construction of the mausoleum and the person buried here with mausoleums of Aisha bibi and Babadzhi Khatun. Historians associate the buried person with one of the khans of Karakhanid dynasty, who ruled in our region in the 10th -12th centuries. Islam canonized him and as the result the mausoleum was given the second name Auliye-Ata. The present structure is relatively recent reconstruction of this small but important medieval mausoleum.

Oriental Kali-Yunus Bathhouse was built in the end of the 19th century by a citizen of the city of Aulie-Ata on the territory of modern Taraz. In this construction, concepts of architectural composition and principles of heating systems of oriental medieval baths were applied which illicit great interest among tourists and visitors. Until 1950s, the bathhouse was in use. At present, it is reconstructed and serves as a monument of architecture.

Tekturmas Architectural Complex was used from the A.D. 10th to 14th century. An ancient religious place, it is built on the right bank of the Talas river in the southeastern part of the city on a hill, rising above the neighborhood. Tekturmas. It is considered to be a burial place of Saint Sultan-Makhmud-Khan. The formation of the complex started in the 7th century before the introduction of Islam. The present mausoleum is a reconstruction of medieval type mausoleum. Nearby there is a mausoleum built on the grave of the great Kazakh hero Mambet. Down from the hill there is a beautiful view of the city of Taraz.

Caravanserai Tortkul refers to some 11th-13th centuries ruins located on the Suleimanova street that are perhaps the remains of a caravanserai. The site is a rectangular area 80 by 80 meters in size, 1.5 to 2 meters high. The edges of the area, on three sides, rise above the surface of the site, which suggests the existence of fortified walls. Access to the site is limited on both sides by residential buildings and its northeast corner is gone because clay from the site was used for household needs.

Aisha Bibi Mausoleum

Aisha-Bibi (18 kilometers west of Taraz) is an 11th or 12th-century mausoleum for a noble woman located in the village of Aisha Bibi. According to legend, the mausoleum was built by a Karakhanid Dynasty ruler for his beautiful fiancée Aisha-Bibi, a daughter of Sufi poet Khakim-Ata. The mausoleum's architectural forms and decoration are reminiscent of fine lace. The whole building is covered with carved terracotta tiles using 60 different floral geometric patterns and stylized calligraphy. Aisha Bibi is a direct stylistic descendant of Samanid Mausoleum in Bukhara.

There are 28 variations of the legend of Aisha-Bibi. According to the most popular version, Aisha-Bibi was the daughter of the well-known 11th century scholar and poet Khakim-Ata Suleiman Bakyrgani. After her father's death, Aisha was brought up by Sheikh Aikhodzha (Zangi-Ata). When the governor of Taraz Karakhan Mukhammed (for whom Karakhan Mausoleum in Taraz was built) asked for the young beauty's hand, her stepfather rejected the suitor, because Karakhan was not a descendant of the prophet (sayyid), as Aisha was. She then outwitted her hard-hearted stepfather by pretending to lead an army for jihad against the idolaters (Kara-Khitans). Secretly however, she rode towards Taraz. Unfortunately, Karakhan never met his young bride; she died of snakebite at Assa River. Mourning the death of the girl, Karakhan erected the mausoleum of fairytale beauty at this place. A friend and fellow traveler of Aisha named Babadzhi-Khatun became the custodian of the grave. When she died, she was buried within 20 steps from Aisha, and a mausoleum was erected over her grave as well.

All legends follow the same general plot: A girl disobeys her parents out of love for her a noble in Taraz and dies by entering a body of water near the city The legend emphasizes the belief in Central Asia of obedience to elders as the highest value. The site has been venerated since the Middle Ages. Local women from the Taraz Oasis still pray for children and a happy family. It is customary for newlyweds in Taraz to have their union blessed by the dead lovers. Their ritual reenacts the myth. After the ceremony the wedding party retraces Karakhan's journey from Taraz to the site of his fiancée's death. The journey begins at Karakhan Mausoleum in Taraz and ends at the Aisha Bibi, at each location the bride and groom venerate the dead lovers and ask for their blessing.Russian archeologist V. V. Bartold was the first scientist to record the and study the ruins in 1893. The Soviet Union built a protective glass shell to preserve the monument (c 1960) and used it for the education of students in Taraz and tourism. In 2002, the Republic of Kazakhstan paid Nishan Rameto to restore the Aisha Bibi and built the park infrastructure around it. It is a national monument and is listed by UNESCO.

Aisha Bibi is part of a larger complex. Ten meters away is a second mausoleum called Babadzha (Babaji) Khatun ("wise queen"), and across the road is a sacred limestone cavern. Together with a garden area and parking lot they form the national monument. The complex is sited on a ridge overlooking the Taraz oasis from the west.

Mausoleum of Babaji-Khatun

Babadzha Khatun Mausoleum (near Aisha Bibi Mausoleum) is a unique architectural monument built in the 11th -12th centuries. It is famous for its original 16- ribbed umbrella-type dome of dual curvature. In fact, the ribbed umbrella-type dome does not have any direct analogues in modern architecture of Central Asia. The epigraphic frieze on the portal of the mausoleum is the source of the name of the mausoleum and the woman buried there.

According to legend she was Aisha’s nurse-maid and accompanying her on the tragic trip. After Aisha’s death she kept a fire burning on Aisha’s grave. Both Babadzha (Babaji) Khatun mausoleum and Aisha Bibi mausoleums are not just architectural objects, but also places of pilgrimage as they are considered sacred, particularly to Central Asian Muslims.

Mausoleum of Babaji-Khatun is a non-morter structure with a cubic base (6.8 x 6.78 meters). It was built with square burnt bricks measuring 25x25x4.5 centimeters. The main facade differs from other facades only by the presence of a parapet. Part of the inscription has been preserved, which reads: "... then the tomb is called Babaji-Khatun... Its Builder...". The planes of the walls of the facades are decorated with false arched windows and niches to the ground. Above the windows are laid circles of brick, made of curly masonry. On the top of the niche are figured masonry made of paired bricks, rotated angle to the plane of the outer wall. At a height of 1.37 meters, the bottom of the arch-tromp is located to go into the octahedron. From a height of 3.8 meters, the laying of a 16-sided inner vault of the dome of double curvature begins.

Kostobe Medieval Settlement

Kostobe Medieval Settlement (10 kilometers northeast of Taraz) is an ancient settlement dated to the 6th to 12th centuries. Located in Dzhamukat town on the eastern side of the Sarykemer settlement, it was occupied by Oghuz and Karluk Turks and Sogdians and is part of The Silk Road in Kazakhstan, which was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The central part of Kostobe occupies a quadrangular elevated area with the size of 420 х 450 meters surrounded by a double wall. Height of the external rolls is 3.5 meters; internal roll is to 5 meters. The corners and perimeter of the walls had round towers fixed on them. Four entrances can be seen in the middle of each of the sides. The citadel is in the middle of the western wall. Now it looks like a pyramidal hill with a flat platform at the top. The sizes of a hill in the basis — 70x80 meters, height of the hill is12-15 meters. Shakhristan is attached to the citadel and occupies all southwest corner of the ancient settlement with sizes of 150x150 meters. The entrance is located in northern wall. 200 meters to the north of shakhristan there is a dome-shaped hillock with diameter of 80 meters and height of 15 meters. Probably, it was the fire tower. [Source: UNESCO]

“From the north side, behind external roll there are two necropolises. Rural districts can be noticed within the radius of 3-5 kilometers from the central ruins. Separate hills are the remains of former farmsteads and castles; they stretch upwards across Talas towards Tortkoltobe ancient settlement identified with Nizhniy Barskhan, located at the basic line of the Silk Road.

“The ancient settlement is identified with the Dzhamuket town. Arabian geographer al-Makdisi named the Dzhamukat city among the cities of Ispidzhab district and described it like this: “… big [city]. The wall around it. Inside it there is a cathedral mosque and the markets are in rabad”. According to another historian of X century, Nershakhi, Dzhamukat has been founded in 6th century by natives of Bukhara and received the name from the name the leader of Bukhara citizens — Dzhamuka.

“Excavation of rural necropolises of Kostobe has allowed establishing the type of burial places of citizens in 6th-IX centuries. The majority of remains were found in “naus” — funeral constructions of the rectangular and square shape. Their walls of 0.5-0.6 meters width are made of thick mudbricks. The sizes of “nauses” are various: square ones of 3.3x3.4 meters, 3.8х 3.9 meters, 3.5x3.5 m; rectangular – 2.5x4 and 2.5x3.7 meters. The floors laid with mudbricks are covered with coating.

“Dating of the described necropolis is defined by a finding of a bronze coin with an image of human face on one side and a horse on another. Such coins were minted within a wide area: from the Karshin oasis to Fergana in 6th-VIII centuries. The pendant with an image of peacocks (or cocks) is similar to the same pendants from nomadic burial places of Irtysh compared with Kimak ones. As it is known, Kimaks have started to move from Priirtyshye to the West in second half 8th century. Therefore, the presence of nomadic ornaments and the bones of horses in a city necropolis of Kostobe is reasonable, and indicates that representatives of groups of the population, differing in their ethnic and religious signs have been buried here.

“Excavation at the Kostobe citadel has uncovered a group of the constructions of different periods relating to 6th-ХII centuries. Those of them which were found in the uppermost building horizon are greatly destroyed, because starting from 13th century the citadel was used as a cemetery. Numerous Muslim burial places have changed the integrity of the initial lay-out. However, the ceramics and coins allow to date the top building horizon ХI-ХII centuries.

“It was possible to establish that the earliest complex of constructions on a citadel relates to 6th-VIII centuries. This was a fortress-castle with roundabout corridors and premises of inhabited and economic appointment; they were constructed of “pakhsa” blocks and mudbricks. Then, in IХ-Х centuries, some considerable re-constructions of a complex occured: the roundabout gallery was divided into separate compartments-rooms serving mainly for economic needs. They were connected with habitable rooms, front doors and cult premises by corridors. Two premises looking like big halls were excavated. The walls of one of these were decorated by carved pictures which have slipped to the floor and got broken. Fragments remained and they show that the carving was done on thick plaster coat about 7 centimeters.

“Analyzing the findings of the Kostobe ancient settlement, it can be noted that they are close to findings and works of art from excavations of the Central Asian cities like Afrasiaba, Varakhsha, and other famous cultural centers of the Middle East. Due to the fact that all building horizon is dated by IХ-Х centuries it indicates the presence of cultural and commercial relations between the cities of Talas valley located on the line of The Silk Road.”

Akyrtas – Medieval Archeological Complex

Akyrtas (40 kilometers east of Taraz, 6 kilometers south of Akchulak railway station) is an archeological complex with various kinds of features situated at the foot of Kyrgyz Ala Tau. The features cover wide chronological range and were occupied mainly by Karluk Turks and Arabs. Part of the Silk Road in Kazakhstan, nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012, the site is occupied by dry foothills, some of them archaeological ruins. In regards to site’s so-called palace, there is no exact data about the history of its creation or builder. The unfinished project, massive, grand and bold in design, consists of a number of rooms arranged around a spacious internal yard.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The complex includes several archeological and archeological-architectural monuments of different times. A “palace” features monumental construction, is rectangular and is made of massive stone blocks of red sandstone, with a height from 1 to 1.5 meters. The size of construction is 169x145 meters. The long sides of construction are oriented at a north-south line. The plan of construction can be read easily: the main street connects north and south entries. One more street which is perpendicular to it goes from east to west and rests against deep “aivans”. Streets divide the construction into four parts, three of them consist of facilities situated round the yards and one (northwest one) is free from development. [Source: UNESCO]

“The center of the whole development is occupied by yard with stone column bases at the perimeter of it, with sizes of 5x5 meters. The south part of the yard has some traces of foundation pits for water reservoirs. Palace construction dates by the middle of 8th century. There is a garden-park zone near it. It is a sector of subdirect rectangular shape. Sizes are 250x250 meters. Country farmsteads or “residential neighborhood” are situated to north of “palace complex”. Near the complex, to the west of it, the stone quarry and open cast for stone extraction were found. An observation tower, caravanserais of 10th-12th and 13th-14th, settlement of 19th century and Sak burial mounds were found and explored.”

Akyrtas’ purpose and occupiers is still not completely understood. K.M. Baypakov believes that Akyrtas was an undeveloped Karluk settlement, ruled in the 9th-10th centuries by Semirechye who invited Arab architects to aid in construction. The German researcher B. Brentes believes that Akyrtas was built on the orders of the Arab commander Kuteyba. He has argued that construction began in A.D. 714-715 years, when Kuteiba ibn Muslim became a ruler of Central Asia and, fearing for the safety of his family, ordered Akyrtas built as his residence in the north, a safe distance away from his rivals.

The “Palace Complex” at Akyrtas dates to the 8th-9th centuries. Its purpose and builder are a mystery. Tourists are impressed by the grandiosity of the architectural monument and the size of the block stones used for its construction. The foundation of the Palace Complex is four meters deep. Numerous legends try to explain the purpose of the construction and the reasons for why it was not finished. By its size the complex can be compared with ancient Egyptian pyramids. Apparently, frequent raids and internal wars left Akyrtas unfinished and aided the decline of Taraz.

Kulan Medieval Settlement

Kulan Settlement (100 kilometers east of Taraz) dates to the 7th to 13th centuries. It is part of the Silk Road in Kazakhstan, which was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012 According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Kulan town is known from the written sources relating to 8th-13th centuries. In routing guide by the Tang Dynasty Chinese pilgrim Sjuan Tszjaija mentioned it under the name "Tszjuj-lan’". In 9th-10th IХ-Х centuries Kulan was mentioned by the Arabian authors describing cities located on a line of the Silk Road. Ibhn-Khordadbekh and Kudama geographers locate Kulan fourteen “pharsakh” (unit of measure) to the west of Taraz. Here what Kudama told: “... there is sand between Taraz and Kulan from the north side, and behind it there is a desert of sand and pebble, and in this desert there are echidnas, [it stretches] to Kimaks’ border“. The Arabian geographer of X century al-Makdisi describes Kulan as “the fortified city” which has “a cathedral mosque” and which “has already become empty, it is located on big Taraz road”. The author of the geographical dictionary, Yakut who created his work in 20-ies of 13th century, mentions: “Kulan is a pleasant small town on border of the country of Turks, from the side of Maverannakhr”. A number of famous historical events is connected with Kulan: in year 740 the last west-Turkic kagan Ashaina Syn’ has been killed by Turgesh prince Kursul’.[Source: UNESCO]

“Degree of research: Explorations of remains of this city were facilitated by the fact that according to the sources it was located between two medieval cities the location of which was well-known. In the west, fourteen “pharsakhs” from Kulan the Taraz was located at the place of an ancient settlement in the centre of present Taraz city; in the east, on distance of four “pharsakhs”, there was Mirki town which nowadays has the same name. Therefore, identification of Kulan with ruins close Lugovoye village Meadow, suggested by V.V. Bartold, does not leave any doubts. The data received by archeologists allow assuming that originally in 7th-8th centuries there was a construction with “pakhsa” walls in the place of citadel. Probably, it was a construction of a castle type.

“Dating is based on peculiarities of construction techniques. The above-stated sizes of blocks and bricks and the combined laying of walls are typical for southwest Semirechye of 7th – 8th centuries. Such dating for the lower construction horizon is also evidenced by ceramics complex where the handmade dishes prevail, such as houma, cookers, water pitchers with wide neck and also table jugs, covered with red engobe and with light glossing. The uppermost building horizon demonstrates new methods of building techniques. People used flat stone plates as the base for dwellings, and they applied fired bricks of the square shape for building purposes. Irrigating ware of 11th-beginning of 13th serves as a dating material for the upper horizon.

“On the territory of the ancient settlement surrounded by long walls there are dozens of hills which represent the remains of castles and farmsteads. Some of these hillocks were excavated. One of them, named as Lugovoye A resembled the truncated letter “pi”. Archeological excavations have completely revealed the central construction which had, as it was found out, "comb-shaped" lay-out typical for early-middle age castles of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. The castle consisted of seven premises. Architecture and techniques of building of the castle were typical for Central Asia and Kazakhstan of 6th-8th centuries. The most similar to Lugovoye castle is the castle of the Krasnorechenskiy ancient settlement identified with the Navaket town.

“During the excavations of Lugovoye A castle the material was received allowing to conclude that it has been constructed in 7th-8th centuries, and after that its lay-out undergone some changes, by means of reconstruction, and in such state the castle was used up to X century. The castle of development of Lugovoye G existed in 7th-ХII centuries. Dating of the initial date was confirmed by the coins which were found on the floor of premises. The construction lay-out with its center in the open yard has exits to the premises located around the castle. Presence of numerous premises of different function, findings of carved pieces of 9th-11th centuries, and also the terracottas looking like men heads which were a part of the decorated pictures made of carved pieces testify that, most likely, the remains of construction of Lugovoye G are the remains of a country palace, probably, the owner was the governor of a city. In its life there are at least two periods of construction that can be traced — 7th-8th centuries and 9th-11th centuries.”

Zhaysan's sanctuary

Zhaysan's sanctuary (in a valley of the river of Choo (Shue)) is a complex of Turkic cult memorials — ritual fencing with stone statues — in the steppe which belongs to notable persons and were used as places of prayer and ritual. There are a large number of petroglyphic galleries with hunting scenes, images of animals with cubs and patrimonial tamgas which representatives of Turkic tribes.

Zhaysan's complex – funeral, includes a barrow and a ritual construction with a stone sculpture on which head there is an attire topped with three ledges, similar to horns. On fencings of a sanctuary of Zhaysan were found iron tips of arrows. The woman and a tip of an arrow were one of symbols of an ideological complex.

The sculptures established from East side of fencings on a sanctuary of Zhaysan, who are representing mainly men, they are intended for worship and a glorification of ancestors on the fatherly line, holders of the heavenly leader. Early Arab sources confirm that in tradition of Turkic peoples practiced ritual of fixing of the contract by water drink from a vessel against image of an idol, and old Russian chronicles report that "Turkic peoples drank an oath on the faith" (in a value "take an oath"). In the Kazakh lexicon and now living the concept of “drink an oath”-“ ant ishu”.

Ancient masters represented ancestors beautiful and courageous: wide eyebrows, big eyes, straight noses, curved moustaches, earrings in ears. In traditional culture of Turkic peoples an earring served for designation of courageous character of the person. Let's notice that worthy men wore also necklaces with jewels.

On all space of the Turkic world sacral lands were marked by sacred symbols – images of the great ancestors,who are cut in a stone, tamgas, altars, the rock paintings which have been beaten out on a stone by inscriptions.

Merke and Its Healing Sanctuaries and Summer Retreats of the Turkic Khans

Merke (150 kilometers east of Taraz and 100 kilometers west of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) is a medieval sanctuary used as a summer residence of Turkic khans. Located at the foot of the Kyrgyz Ala Tau, it was mentioned 9th- and 10th-century Arab geographers by the name "Mirki". Merke (also spelled Merki) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The material and spiritual culture of the Turks is expressed and embodied in the burial and ritual complexes of their sanctuaries. They can be found all over the steppe zones of Eurasia, signing the ways of diffusion and the stages of formation of the Turkic ethnos. At the present most of them are severely damaged by the impact of natural and anthropogenic destructive forces.

“Only the sanctuary of Merke, located at 3000 meters. above the sea level, because of its difficult accessibility, is well preserved. It is represented by small "temples" consisting of barrows, empty funeral fences and anthropomorphic steles (balbal): totally more than 170 monuments have been found until now, distributed on an area of 250 square kilometers of mountain plateaux, defining a space for burials, worship and ritual ceremonies. About 70 of them have steles, single or in group up to four, set in situ mainly on the tombs, sometimes outside the funeral fences, and only in one case 'buried' inside a fence. The fences define a sacred space and the steles probably represent idolised ancestors.

“The relics of the sanctuary represent all the stages of the history of the Turks, from the origin to the classic forms of the epoch of the Turk Khaganate. In the sanctuary of Merke the Turkic nomadic culture is expressed by the choice of the natural landscape and by the vastness and lightness of the human intervention. Highland alpine meadows, large plateaux abundant of water and green pastures, flocks and herds, yurtae and shepherds, petroglyphs on rock surfaces, barrows, sacred fences and anthropomorphic steles: the complex makes all the material elements transmuted into harmonic and ecstatic messengers of the unity of the supreme sky.”

Merke was considered a city of average size but was well-fortified with a citadel. The city founded in the 7th century. More than 80 stele have been identified. They are located individually within fencing or with in in the center of barrows. Man's and female’s stone sculptures were built on barrows with vessels in hands at the level of a stomach. They were intended for carrying out rituals of worship to the highest deities of a Turkic pantheon — Tengri (sky), Zher-su (earth -water), Umay (to a female deity, the protectress of a home) and to their terrestrial embodiments — the idolized ancestors. Some researchers consider that at production of female statues, it’s quite likely that meant defined died women, which turned into protectress of a family or a clan.

Merke’s sanctuary were believed to be "Healing Earth" places. People are thought to have come from far and wide to seek cures to illnesses and favors from gods. Turkic peoples regarded the sanctuaries as places of worship and carryied out ceremonies and rituals there connected with tribal customs and bonds. Byzantine chronicles wrote; "Istemi-kagan usually met overseas ambassadors in the ancient city of Taraz. However then the leader led guests to mountains, he gave a warm welcome in marquees and exposed one’s riches on carts". This suggests the relatively cool mountains around Merke contained the summer residence of the khans, who lived there to escape the heat and seek curative sources.


Balasagun (Between Almaty and Taraz near the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border) was an ancient city founded by Soghdians, a people of Iranian origin, in the early centuries A.D, and remained in their hands until the 11th century. Situated in the Chuy Valley between Bishkek and Issyk-Kul Lake, it was the capital of the Kara-Khanid Khanate from the 10th century until it was taken by the Kara-Khitan Khanate in 1134. It was then captured by the Mongols in 1218. The Mongols called it Gobalik ("pretty city").

Under the Kara-Khanid Khanate in the 9th century, Balasagun soon supplanted Suyab as the main political and economical centre of the Chuy Valley but its prosperity declined after the Mongol conquest. The poet Yusuf Has Hajib, known for writing the Kutadgu Bilig, is thought to have been born in Balasagun in the 11th century. The city also had a sizable Nestorian Christian population. A Nestorian graveyard was still in use in the 14th century. Since the 14th century, Balasagun has been a village with a lot of ruins.

The medieval town of Balasagun was the capital of the western wing of the Karakhanid Empire for a long time. It was a cultural, academic and spiritual centre in the enormous territory of the Eurasian continent. Prominent figures such as Iusup Balasaguni, Mahmud Kashgari and others lived and worked here; it was where Balasaguni wrote his encyclopaedic work ‘Kutadgu Bilik’ – ‘The Book of Moral Edification’.

Balasagun was a significant economic, political and cultural medieval centre on the Great Silk Road. Archaeological excavations carried out here have lasted at least a decade. Much has been uncovered over this time: a palace complex with a square and eastern bath house, water-carrying and sewerage systems, residential and agricultural buildings and centres of craftsmanship, where ceramic crockery and tools have been discovered. A unique archaeological find of more than 500 bronze coins was made here.

Balasagun Archaeological Area in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan

The Burana archaeological zone is located at the edge of Tokmok, The western end of the ancient city is six kilometers from the present-day village of Balasagun. The zone includes the Burana Tower and a field of stone petroglyphs, the bal-bals. Parts of the archaeological zone extend into Kazakhstan in the Shuskii region of Zhambyl Province, three kilometers south-east of the village of Aktobe on both sides of the River Aksu.

Balasagun comprises two shakhristan settled areas (1 and 2 ), a citadel and city outskirts. Shakhristan 1 is rectangular in form (380 x 250 meters) and 6-7 meters tall. The citadel is situated in the central area, is square in shape with sides of 100 meters, and 10 meters tall. Shakhristan 2 is sized 300 x 250m and is 3-6m tall. The city’s outskirts are surrounded by long embankments: the first embankment is 17 kilometers in length and the second is 25 kilometers. Four semicircular embankments are attached to the second embankment on the east and west sides. [Source:]

Shakhristan 1 is rectangular in form (380 x 250m) and 6-7m tall. The citadel is situated in the central area, is square in shape with sides of 100m, and 10m tall. Shakhristan 2 is sized 300 x 250m and is 3-6m tall. The city’s outskirts are surrounded by long embankments: the first embankment is 17 kilometers in length and the second is 25 kilometers. Four semicircular embankments are attached to the second embankment on the east and west sides.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Kazakhstan Tourism website, Kazakhstan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, 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


South Kazakhstan region(oblast) is located within the eastern part of the Turan lowlands and western foothills of Tien Shan. It is one of the major regions of the country. The region borders Zhambyl on the east, Karaganda on the north, Qyzylorda to the west and Uzbekistan to the south. The region covers 117,3,000 square kilometers. Most of it is plains, embracing the knobby-ridge and sands of the Kyzyl Kum desert and the steppes Shardara and Moyynkum. The northern part is occupied by the Betpak-Dala desert. In the extreme south is the Myrzashol steppe. The central part of the region is occupied by the Karatau range. On the western fringes are the Talas Alatau and ridges of Karzhantau and Ugam.

The population of South Kazakhstan region is around 2.5 million people, of which about a tird live in urban areas. Administratively it is made up of four regions, four district-level towns and 11 rural districts. The administrative center and main city is Shymkent, home to about a half million people. The city is a part of ancient cities of Central Asia, has a rich history and culture.

Irrigated land is used for agriculture. The vast grasslands are used by grazing sheep. There are deposits of polymetallic ores on southwestern slope of the Karatau mountains near Kentau town in the Achisayskoe, Bayzhansayskoe and Mirgalimsayskoe fields. There are also large iron ore deposits in Karatau Ridge. Two railways lines and 444.6 kilometers of highwats run through the region.

South Kazakhstan Region is famous for its historical memorials — burial mounds, ancient settlements, fortresses, mausoleums and ancient towns. One of the most popular attractions, located on the Kazakh segment of the Silk Road is a unique complex — the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassaui in the city of Turkestan, which is considered the "second Mecca" of all the Turkic-speaking countries of the world. Since 2004, the mausoleum is included in the list of world cultural heritage by UNESCO. Among the recreation areas are the Aksu-Zhabagly nature preserve, foothills Ugam Boralday, the Karzhantau mountains, and the valleys of the Arys, Syr Darya, Aksu and Sayramsu rivers.


Shymkent (110 kilometers north of Tashkent, Uzbekistan) is major industrial, cultural, and rail transportation center and Kazakhstan’s third largest city with about a million people. It has about twice as many people as it had in the Soviet era when it was known mainly a depressing city with a lead-processing industry, air full of pollutants, trees with yellow and awful hotels with broken furniture, radios with the knobs broken off and prostitutes waiting for customers in the lobby. Things are better now but not all that much. The city has grown so rapidly in part because of central location in Central Asia. The city has a lively bazaar and a Regional Studies and History Museum with a yurt, some costumes and artifacts from nearby ancient settlements but otherwise there is little of interest to tourists.

Shymkent (also spelled Cimkent) is located in southern Kazakstan by the Turkestan-Siberian Railroad line. Established in the 12th century, it was located at a crossroads of the Silk Road near ancient Silf Road cities such as Otrar, Isfidzhab (modern Sauries), Jassy (Turkestan), Sjutkent, Syganak and Sauran. Today, Shymkent is convenient jumping off point for visits to Turkistan, Otrar and Aksu-Zhabaghly Nature Reserve. Within 32 kilometers of the town are some 14th century mausoleums and the remains of a 2000-years-old settlement.

Researchers of Southern Kazakhstan date the oldest Silk settlements in Shymkent to the 12th and 12th centuries. But they have also found evidence of people living in the area in the 6th – 7th centuries. The first mention of the city of Shymkent appeared in 1425 in a book by the Persian historian Sharaf.

Museums include one devoted to regional history, There is also a city a museum about victims of political repression. The local art museum, "АРТ-21", Vladimir Vysotsky's museum, is named after famous artist that was born in. For entertainment there are night clubs, bowling alleys, parks, cinemas and golf courses. The city has the second largest zoo in Kazakhstan and a hippodrome, where Kazakh horse games are sometimes staged. In Shymkent, one can enjoy Kazakh cuisine as well as Uighur, Tatar, Uzbek, Russian, Armenian, Georgian and Greek food.

Karatau Mountain Range and Its Paleolithic Sites

The Paleolithic sites and geomorphology of Karatau mountain range were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Karatau mountain range, situated north of the middle course of the Syr Darya river, is a tectonic uplift to 1500 meters. that happened 1.5-1 million years ago. It shows today, on its top, fragments of former plains, on the slopes, evident layers of the phases of formation; on its feet fossil terraces and the world-wide unique phenomenon of griffons, resurgences of underground waters sedimenting carbonates. For these reasons, the area is an important polygon of geological studies.

“Besides its geological importance, the Karatau mountains assume an ever greater paleonthological importance for the presence of exclusive and extremely well preserved fossils belonging to the early pleistocenic fauna (Koskurganskaya fauna: equus mostbahensis, elasmarii sibiricum, strutio species, etc.), and for its Paleolithic sites where stone tools assemblages have been found that represent the all process of development of stone-ages cultures from the early stages of the Early Paleolithic (1 million before present) to the Neolithic period (4500 B.C.). So, the area represents a complex system showing how a mountain range itself, its fauna and its early human inhabitants rose and developed synchronically for one million years, with a variety and a mutual integration of geological, zoological and Paleolithic remains not found elsewhere.

“Up to the present around 300 Paleolithic sites have been found, and only 20 percent of them excavated. They are scattered all over the range, on its northern and southern slopes, and at different altitudes. The Early Paleolithic sites are situated in the mountains (1300-1100 meters), where stone tools can be found, in grey silex (Aristandi culture, 1,000,000-500,000 before present), and in black silex (Bory-Kasgan and Tom-Kasgan cultures, 500,000-100,000 before present). The Middle Paleolithic sites are mostly situated in the griffons of the foot hills (500 meters), where stone tools of Moustarian culture can be found, as well in silex, as well in sandstone, showing the immigration in the area of new populations from northern regions. The griffons constitute an exceptional source of findings, in spite of the fact that only 5 out of 40 that exist have been excavated. The Late Paleolithic sites (Valikanov-Karasu settled cultures, 30,000-15,000 before present) are situated on the terraces (800-500 meters), and so the Mesolithic ones, represented by a big number of settlements. A hiatus (7000- 4500 B.C.) shows that a worsening of climate depopulated the area; and Neolithic cultures developed again around the wells of the area only around 4500 B.C..

“The Paleolithic complex of Karatau is of outstanding universal value for the reconstruction of the genesis and evolution of Paleolithic Eurasian cultures together with their geological and climatic environment. It supports the theory of Central Asia as a primordial homeland of the modern man (per-Asiatic type); testifies an interchange of local and northern cultures during the last interglacial, and, when correlated with paleoclimatic reconstructions, the extreme sensibility of Paleolithic communities to climatic changes.”

Zhuantobe Ancient Settlement

Zhuantobe Ancient Settlement (left bank of Arys river, northeastern outskirt of Kultogan village) dates to the 1st century B.C. – A.D. 9th century. Occupied by the Kauchin culture, Kangar-Pecheneg, Oghuz Turks and Sogdians, it is part of The Silk Road in Kazakhstan, which was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “ The site of ancient settlement has two-part structure: the central part looks like “tobe” with a ground at the top and the territory looks like a “ring-shaped hilling” surrounding the central part, distant with 20 to 60 meters from the central part. The first is a hillock of conic form with abrupt walls and a ground at the top. Its sizes are 85x75 meters and the ground is 65x55 meters, the height of “tobe” is 17 meters. The three corners of it (except the northern one) have some remains of towers and it can be seen rather well. Around it, at a foot there is a ditch with the width of 40 meters and depth of 1.5-2 meters, and there is a development behind the ditch looking like a ring roll with the width of about to 60 meters and height of 6-7m. The east corner has a rupture with the width to 50 meters. The total area of the ancient settlement makes about 14 hectares. [Source: UNESCO]

Tenth century Arabian geographer Ibn Haukal mentions: “…it is between Farab, Kendzhida and Shash, there are good pastures in it, and about a thousand of families of Turks have already turned to Islam... Subaniket is the main town of Kendzhida”. Istakhri (10th century) writes that “From Ispidzhab to Usbaniket there are two days of travelling, from Usbaniket to Keder, the main town of Barab (Farab) two easy day passages”.

“The anonymous author of “Khudud al-Alem” (X century) writes: “Subaniket is a pleasant prospering rich city”. According to Yakut (XII century), “Usbaniket is a city in Maverannakhr, one of the cities of Ispidzhab, a long day of travelling is between them”. According to al-Makdisi (X century) “Arsubaniket is big, pure, fortified town; a cathedral mosque is in it, and constructions in rabid”. On the basis of stated distances between Ispidzhab and Usbaniket, Usbaniket and Keder, V.V. Bartold has localized the district of Kendzhidu at the middle Arys’.

“There is an opinion that Arsubaniket is corresponded by the ancient settlement of Zhuantobe or Shortobe in the middle current of the Arys’ river. Shortobe ruins are now occupied by a modern cemetery, therefore it was not explored, but according to the upper material it is dated by I-14th centuries of A.D. As the result of works carried out at the “ring hilling” the remains of two premises were excavated, a site of external face of the defensive wall and cultural beddings behind it, and in the central part — nine premises of "housing estate" and “Sogdian house” were uncovered. The complex is dated by 4th-7th century A.D.

“At the flat top of “tobe” the buildings of three construction periods were revealed dated in range of 4th-8th centuries. The houses grouped around the inter-quarter small streets are characterized by presence of “sufs” along two or three walls, entries with vestibule walls and the floor hearths with square shape and with boards. “Construction of “Sogdian house” of 7th-8th century in a southern part of “tobe” is interesting; it provided a complex of “Sogdian ceramics” of 7th – the beginning of 8th centuries. During excavations the ceramics of 4th-VI centuries relating to “Kaunchin” culture and a complex of “Kangar” ceramics of 7th-8th centuries were gathered.”

Karaspan Ancient and Medieval Settlement

Karaspan Ancient Settlement (50 kilometers west of Shymkent) was occupied from the A.D. 1st century to the 18th century. Situated at the left bank of Arys river, to 2 kilometers to the east from Karaspan village. It was part of the Otrar-Karatau culture and was home to Sogdians, Turks, Sarts and Kazakhs. It is part of The Silk Road in Kazakhstan, nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The central part of the ancient settlement is a high subdirect square in the plan “tobe”, the basis of it is 220-260 meters and the height is 22 meters. Around the ancient settlement there is a shakhristan development surrounded by roll. The sizes of its territory are 850х 600 meters. Outside of shakhristan the remains of rabid can be observed, but it is impossible to determine its sizes because it was thrown open and built up. [Source: UNESCO]

“The settlement is identified with Karasaman town, known to the sources of 14th to 18th centuries. The ancient settlement was explored by the South-Kazakhstani archaeological expedition (1948-1951) and the excavations were recommenced in 2004, 2008 by the South-Kazakhstani complex archaeological expedition.

“Excavations of the central part revealed the building constructions of 16th and 17th centuries. The houses with habitable and economic constructions were uncovered. In the habitable premises the pasted “sufa” occupies ¾ of the total area, there is “tandyr” with a flue constructed in “sufa”, and a “tashnau” area (the sanitary-and-hygienic device) before it. Clay vessels were found in premises – houmas, jugs, and mugs. It is interesting that among the invariable findings for dwelling premises is a grain grater (“zernoterka”) – “a manual mill”, and irrigation basin-“tagora”. It is interesting that “tagora” has its own original design in each house and different ornamental drawings. One of such “tagoras” has images of fishes on it. During excavations of the central part the collection of coins of 16th and 17th centuries was collected, these define the dating of the top layers of a site of ancient settlement in a more exact way.

The excavations were performed on the territory of shakhristan where the prospect hole has been installed cutting the stratum of cultural beddings to the depth of 3,5 meters and this provided the material of A.D. 1st to 12th centuries. Assuredly, the ancient settlement is identified with Karasaman city that is known from the sources of 14th to 18th centuries. Citizens of settlement sold to explorers a series of copper “felses” and silver “dirhams” of 13th century. Thus, the history and culture of a big city on Arys’ river starts shape better and better. Coins of 13th caulked in Otrar, Kanzhe, Samarkand, Buhara, fragments of Chinese porcelain were registered in this area.”

Borizhar Ancient Burial Grounds

Borizhar Burial Grounds (60 kilometers northwest of Shymkent, on the left bank of Arys river, near where the Badam River flows into it) dates from the 2nd century B.C. to the A.D. 7th century. Occupied by the Kauchin culture and Kangyuy, it is part of The Silk Road in Kazakhstan, nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Borizhar burial ground is the biggest necropolis of South Kazakhstan. Burial mounds of earth are spread all over the left bank of Arys’ river, for more than 13 kilometers from Karaultobe settlement to the mouth of Badam river which falls into Arys’ river on the opposite side of Karaspan (Obruchevka) settlement. The width of burial area in some places reach 1-2 kilometers covering the upper river terrace. River bank in that place is indented with ancient ravines. Hundreds of unsystematically situated burial mounds occupy slopes and surface of uplands. This huge burial field consists of burial mount complexes of different periods, separate burial mounds which over time became a one huge massive. [Source: UNESCO]

“The burial is linked with the tribes and folks who lived in the Arys river valley during the millennium. It was affected by migration processes that took place among the nomads and the evolution of the funeral rites of the sedentary population, formed the basis of the Kangyuy state. In total, about 100 burial mounds were excavated on the territory of the burial ground. Mortuary construction had a “naus” (made of mudbricks) in the central place which was covered by earthfill of burial mound.

“Iron swords, adornments and belt sets of Hun-Avar type were found during excavations of burial mounds inside “nauses”. Ceramics retrieved from burial mounds is represented mainly by jugs with spouts, mugs – all typical for “Kaunchin” culture. Besides, there are some dishes of “Sogdian” kind. This variety of material cuased some contradictions when dating the burial ground. Y.I. Ageyeva and G.I. Patsevich dated it with 8th-10th centuries, then with 6th-8th centuries. Second dating is agreed by L.M. Levina. V.I. Raspopova dates this burial ground to 6th-7th centuries. According to K.M. Baypakov, the burial ground is to be dated with the second half of 6th-7th centuries.”

Kultobe Ancient and Medieval Settlement

Kultobe Ancient Settlement (50 kilometers west of Shymkent) was occupied from the A.D. 1st century to the 17th century. Situated near to Karaspan village and Karaspan ancient settlement, it was home to Kangyuys and Kazakhs. It is part of The Silk Road in Kazakhstan, nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The monument’s citadel is almost destroyed by waters of Arys’ river. The remained part represents a rib with height of 7.5 meters and area of about 150 square meters with precipitous west slope. The slope cutting revealed building constructions made of “pakhsa” and rectangular mudbricks with size of 35x30x10 centimeters. Kultobe “ground” has an irregular trapeziform layout with the following side sizes: 210х150х100х180 meters. The steepest slopes are in the west part of the monument: central and north parts show some lowering. South part has round rising grounds; most probably these were defensive towers. An average height of Kultobe ground is 5-6 meters.

“In scientific area the settlement became well known due to the scriptial monuments that were found there. Historical interpretation of the inscription was made by the French explorer, France Grenei. Probably, the inscription informs about a building of a city on a place of Kultobe ancient settlement by “the leader of army”, most possibly, “the leader of army of the Chacha people”. Probably, he headed the army in the name, or jointly with leaders of four basic cities-states of the central and southern Sogdiana: Samarkand, Kish, Nakhshab and Bukhara. “The land belonging to (our) people” and “[the land belonging] to nomads” can be understood as the land conquered from nomads and divided between Sogdians. More possibly, it could mean that the borders between the arable lands belonging to Sogdians and pastures of nomads were determined by the mutual consent. It seems that "city" was located on this border or behind it. This city could be a part of a line of the boundary posts stretched along the river Arys’.

“Unfortunately, because of blanks it is impossible to understand exactly the role that was played by the four heads of Sogdian cities. According to one of the versions, they have conquered “all treasures” and that could mean the stolen good or the collected tribute during military campaign. If this interpretation is correct, then the reason of mentioning this was the desire to show loyalty of the head and his justice. Other interpretation, equally possible is to show that the commander was the author of this action. It can make the end of the text more clear in relation to the beginning: “the city belonged to the leader of Chacha army because he has built it on his share of the earth belonging to Sogdians in order to hide the "treasures". It is necessary to mention that in “pahklavi” language and in Persian language the word “treasure” means both an “armoury” and money and precious things. The political forces mentioned in an inscription are the possessors of Samarkand, Kish, Nakhshab and Bukhara. Inscriptions date by I-3rd, or 4th-V centuries.

“Inscriptions of Kultobe characterize the joint military campaign of the cities of Sogda which has established the border along the Arys’ river. In this context “nomads” could belong to real Nomadic components of Kanguy. If the inscriptions are dated by the first half of third century it is possible to interpret the border establishment as a counter-measure against Hunnu who have intruded to Sogd in the next century.

“However, according to E. V. Rtveladze, dating of inscriptions, other by N. Sims-Williams also can be challenged. He suggests, by basing on inscriptions on coins of Chacha made with the same language and the same alphabet and which are dated by the middle — second half of 3rd century, to date inscriptions from Kultobe by this time exactly. E. V. Rtveladze also suggests perusal of a name of possessor Chacha which was called, in his opinion, as “Vanvan”.

“List of four Sogdian towns-states appears as the forerunner of the early list of Chinese rulers in of Sogdian in Suyshu whose information dates back to the beginning of 7th century. Primacy is given to Samarkand, Kishu, Chahshabu and Buhara, which are in the list and which are added six minor principalities: Maymurg, Kabudan, Qushaniya, Harghan, Vunaho and Mu. Possession of Chach appears as one of the federal Sogdian states only in the further list, given in Tangshu. Samarkand, Kish and Nahshab were already significant towns in Achaemenid period. It is interesting to note that in the medieval period, in the X century in Samanids in the town center and south of Sogda were traditionally established a military presence along the border with South Kazakhstan. This is evident from the writings of the Arab geographer al-Maqdisi, who points out that "Ispidzhab is a large district town... in the capital region there were rabats: rabat of Nahshabs, Buhars, rabat of Samarkands".”

Otrar Ancient and Medieval Settlements

Ortrar (170 kilometers northwest of Shymkent, 10 kilometers to the west from Timur railway station) is a ghost city on the Silk Road was once so city great it drew Genghis Khan to Central Asia. There is little of the ancient city today other than an expanse of ruins and an 11th century mausoleum that is in surprisingly good condition.

Otrar Ancient Settlements and Monuments of Otrar oasis was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. Otrar oasis is an area of 200 square kilometers with archaeological remains of medieval towns and structures of irrigation. The main town is Otrar (A.D. 1st to 16th centuries). Other towns are Kuyruk-Tobe (A.D. 1st to 15th centuries) Altyn — Tobe (A.D. 1st to 11th centuries), Pshakshi-Tobe (A.D. 1st to 12th centuries), Mardan-Kuyk (A.D. 1st to 15th centuries) and Kok-Mardan (A.D. 1st to 7th centuries). “Tobe” means hill.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Otrar town is the largest medieval hillfort of Kazakhstan with an area of 170 hectares: in the A.D. first century it was part of the Kangju empire; at the beginning of the 8th century it was the capital of the Kangars tribal confederation (Petchenegues) with the name of Kangu-Targan and later of Farab. Abn Nasr Farabi was born here in 870 and Timur died here in 1405. It has all the typical features of a medieval Central Asian town: citadel, shahristan (a town in itself), rabat (suburbs) and fields, everything surrounded by walls.

“Today the landscape is reduced to semidesert and the towns are in ruin, but, until the 15th century, Otrar, together with the rest of the oasis, represented the main urban centre on the marginal zone between southern towns and northern steppes, between settlers and nomads of Central Asia. The oasis constituted a peaceful economical and cultural complex, an avant-post in attracting northern nomads, settling them down, and so importing elements of the nomadic culture into the sedentary societies. This is reflected in the town planning, architecture, in the art of pottery and jewelry.

“Archaeological excavations brought into light the general plan of the territory, the irrigation system, the suburbs, and the earthen ruins of the towns. They are almost reduced to the plan, but, through the remains of towns, of canals and roads, it is possible to observe the evolution of this interaction of cultures stage by stage, from the very beginning to the period of final decay, when the Eurasian route lost its importance and the towns their economical role”

History of Otrar

Otrar was the birthplace of the great medieval philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi. The earliest indications of human settlement date to the A.D. first centuries. First name of Otrar — Farab — appear in 9th century written sources. The period of the 10th to 12th centuries was the time of prosperity of urban life. This era ended with the Mongol invasion. In 1219 Otrar fell under the onslaught of the army of Genghis Khan. However, Otrar rose from the ruins and by the middle of 13th century it had become a major trading hub between East and West. In 1405, the great Turkish leader Timur (Tamerlane) died in a palace in Otrar. Otrar continued to exist until the 18th century.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Historical reference: Otrar which has another other name — Farab during the Middle Ages was a capital of Otrar-Farab district-oasis. Now it is a part of Otrar district of the South Kazakhstan region. Otrar was mentioned in many works of medieval Arabian, Persian and Turkic authors. These are at-Tabari, Makdisi, Ibn Haukal, Hafiz Tanysh. They call this city by another name – Tarban, and it was, probably, the earlier name of Otrar and, according to ancient Turkic sources it was the center of Kangu-Tarban Kangar possession. The evidence of this city was brought by ancient Turkic runic monuments in the honor of Kjultegin and Bilge-kagan. According to data of the Makdisi, geographer of 10 century, “about 70 000 male souls” lived in Farab and there was a citadel, a Friday mosque, a market and shops. Отрар was located on a junction of various geographical landscapes and was a place of crossing of caravan roads. That is why Otrar, located at a falling of Arys’ into Syr-Darya, was the center of the big agricultural region, and being close to Karatau foothills was one of the main fortresses of Nomads. There were roads to Taraz, Balasagun and further, to East Turkestan starting from Otrar along Arys’ river; since ancient times the route along Syr-Darya lead to Shash, Sogd and then — to Merv and Nishapur, Kabul, Herat and to India; the lower road led in Priaralye and to Ural Mountains; the west way led to Khorezm across Kyzyl Kum, and from there the road led to the Volga region, to the North Caucasus, Black Sea Coast and to Byzantium.

“During the Middle Ages palaces with gala halls decorated by paintings and woodcarving were built in Otrar and oasis cities. Adornments, jewelry and silks were spread by the Silk Road. Feudal lords of Kazakhstan tended to have an imposing appearance as European, Byzantian and Central Asian ones. Gradually Islam started to spread among the urban population, and then among nomads: preachers-missionaries appeared in the cities and steppe, mosques were being built, Arabian language was studied in “medrese” (schools). It was during that time people started to write different sayings and good wishing from Koran on irrigation bowls of potters; the clay crock with the inscription of the first surah of the Koran made with ink was found during excavations of one of the houses of the10 to 12th centuries. However, cults of fire, lamb, Zoroastrism vestiges, especially among the settled nomads which number in cities and settlements has especially grown during the 10 to 12th centuries continued to exist.

“After the Mongolian invasion which brought destructions and have suspended the development of city culture, Otrar, Sayram, Syganak, Zhent, Yangikent and other cities were being build up again. Improvement of city life was promoted here, in particular, by moving of the international trading way from the West to the East, through Otrar and Khoresm. Numerous craft workshops become to appear in a city, baths and other public constructions arebeing constructed. The mint operated in a city. At this time Otrar became one of the largest economic and shopping centers. During Timur's epoch the cathedral mosque is being constructed in Otrar its ruins were excavated by the archeologists. Excavation provides us with materials of the latest period of existence of a city (X6th-17th centuries). At this time the city was a part of the Kazakh khanate. Of 20 hectares which were occupied by Otrar at this time one third is almost dug out. City quarters, streets and deadlocks, small markets and the squares are uncovered. We have a complete image of the city dwelling. And one of them, that was burned down in fire has preserved not only the interior remains, but the whole inventory which “has been preserved by the failed cane roof”. Now we know about employment of inhabitants of Otrar, including the craft development. By looking on products of masters-potters it was possible to track the craft development, change of styles in ceramics that was happening during two thousand years. The important conclusion is drawn: for centuries, despite political changes and ethnic movements in Otrar, the local layer of the population with the settled traditions of material and spiritual culture remained. The conclusion of researchers about the fact that most of the things created by the people occupying coast of Syr-Darya in the ancient time and the Middle Ages were transmitted into traditional culture of the Kazakh people and into a treasury of world culture is also important.”

Otrar Oasis and Its Ancient Ruins

The main sources of water of the for Otrar oasis are Arys and Syr Darya (rivers). Channels from the rivers, canals and irrigation ditches it, supplied water to towns, cities and villages in the oasis and irrigated fields. The abundance of water here helped the area develop agriculturally, freeing a large portion of the population to engage in trade and craft making. The length of the oasis from north to south is about 53 kilometers and from west to east is about 54 kilometers, In the area of the oasis are over 130 monuments and ruined settlements. The location of Otrar oasis at the confluence of Arys into the Syr Darya. near Buguni, occupied an position that advantageous for both trade and irrigating fertile land. From Ortar there were well-traveled routes to the going to the Ferghana Valley and Sogdiana.

On the ruins at Otrar, UNESCO reports: “Otrar tobe [hill] is pentagonal mound, oriented to the cardinal angles with little deviation. Its southern side is 380 meters, southwestern — 145 meters, western — 400 meters northeastern — 380 meters and eastern — 350 meters. Maximum height from the bottom of the hill — 18 meters in the southwestern part, closer to the corner, and average of its height varies from 10 to 15 meters.

“The Settlement is surrounded by a wall which is best preserved in the northeastern and eastern sides. Wall is fortified with the towers. There left a protuberance scree from them. They are still acting out swollen debris. Around the main mound remain the rests of the moat as a hollow with sloping edges. There were three entries to the town. Two are arranged opposite to each other — one in the south, the second — in the northeastern wall, and the third — in the middle of the west side.

“To the central mound adjoins the settlement area, surrounded by a wall which is clearly visible on aerial photographs, while the area shows only its separate parts. The wall is well preserved and looks like a swollen shaft of the width of 20-25 meters and a height of 3-5 meters. In some areas from the outside the ditch is swamped.

“In so-called Otrar oasis boundaries there are 200 archeological monuments registered by the investigations. The numerous settlements surrounded by walls were located down on the banks of the mountain rivers, in the floods of Arys’, Keles, Syr-Darya they united into groups with the largest acting like centers of these, those which gradually developed into feudal cities. Their inhabitants were engaged in agriculture, cattle breeding, hunting, fishery, they were skillful handicraftsmen. In their spiritual life an important role was given to numerous cults – fire, animals, and ancestors.”

Arystan-Bab Mausoleum

Arystan-Bab Mausoleum (near Otrar and the village of Kogam) was erected on the grave of Arystan-Bab, a famous 12th-century mystic the known religions mystic of the 12th century. The first construction of the mausoleum dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries. The building from 17th century was ruined and in 1909 was rebuilt. Only the carved wooden pillars are left from the 18th century structure. In 1971, due to the high groundwater level, leading her to the emergency condition, the mosque was demolished and rebuilt. The building was built from baked bricks.

The mausoleum is one of the holiest Muslim places of Central Asia and a pilgrimage destination. well. According to legend, Arystan-Bab was one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Once the Prophet Muhammad and his companions were sitting and eating persimmons. One of the fruits kept falling out of the dish, and after this the prophet heard the revelation: "This persimmon is intended for a Muslim Ahmed, who will be born 400 years after you". The Prophet asked his companions, who transmitted this persimmon to its future owner. No one volunteered. The Prophet repeated his question, and then Arystan-Bab replied: "If you ask Allah for 400 years of life more, then I will give this persimmon. According to folk tradition and written sources ( "Risolai Sarem-Isfizhob" and the book of Kuprilozada), Arystan-Bab lived on for 400 years, became the instructor of Khoja Ahmed Yassawy and actually gave him the persimmon.

The Mausoleum of Arystan-Bab is greatly revered because he is regarded as a companion of the Prophet Muhammad who lived in the 7th century and was the teacher of Khoja Ahmed Yassawy, who lived in the 12th century. According to the legend, when Prophet Mohammed was dying, he gave his own rosary to Arystan-Bab, and Arystan-Bab, in his turn, presented it to an 11-year-old boy – the future Khoja Ahmed Yassawy. Near the mausoleum of Arystan-Bab there is a well with very salty water, which is said to have healing qualities (s.Sayram).

Sayram-Ugam National Park

Sayram-Ugam National Park (on the border of Uzbekistan, 70 kilometers southeast of Shymkent) is located in northeast area of the of Western Tien Shan and embraces the hills of Ugam, Karzhantau and Boraldajtau, and also northwest spurs of Talassky Ala Tau as well the Sajramsu, Kaskasu, Burguljuk, to Buds, Mashat and Kokbulak which are tributaries of the Ugam River. The park comprises seven natural zones, ranging from steppe to high-mountainous and is home to 1635 kinds of plants, 59 kinds of mammals and 300 kinds of birds.

Rare species plant species include wild grapes, a currant Janchevsky and Albert's iris. One of the most remarkable feature of Western Tien Shan is the presence of many kinds of wild relatives of common plants including the ancestors of apples, pears, plums, onions and tulips. Among the animals found in the park are bears, wolves, wild boars, mountain goats, badgers and porcupines. Graceful Karatau mountain goats can be seen on southern sites of the Boraldajsky ridge in the spring. Snow leopards and Turkestani lynx also live here.

Though much of the area is protected for nature conservation, there are 10 tourist routes in the park. The routes support hiking, horseback, and on some lengths, buses. Hiking trails range from 7 to 72 km. Facilities include campsites, hiking trails, viewing platforms, baths and saunas, yurts to let (without services), a hotel, and access to guides and translators. Highs of the park include 4236-meter-high Sajramsky Peak, turquoise blue high-mountainous lakes and the freaky Forty Girls Kyrykkyz rock formation.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Kazakhstan Tourism website (, Kazakhstan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, 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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