Burana Tower, Kyrgyzstan’s Ancient and Last Monument to a Lost City
Central Asia has been home to various cultures and empires, and many of their materials remains can still be seen. One of the most important in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan is the Burana Tower. This minaret is virtually all that is left of the capital of a powerful empire. The tower is one of the older architectural structures in all of Central Asia and its design influenced architects all over the region and into India.
The Long History of Burana Tower
The history of the tower is closely related to the long-lost city of Balasagun, which was built by the Sogdians, an ancient Iranian civilization, sometime in the early Christian era. It was later occupied by Karakhanids (or Qarakhanids) who were a confederation of nomads from what is now Mongolia and Siberia. They conquered much of central Asia.
When they converted to Islam, the Karakhanids became patrons of Islam scholars and built many mosques, but the conversion to Islam led to the decline and ultimate demise of Buddhism in the area. The Burana Tower was a minaret that was attached to a major mosque. The design of the tower was unique, and represented a variety of influences including Arab, Sogdian and Persian.
Detail of the incredible and ancient brickwork of Burana Tower ( Matyas Rehak / Adobe Stock)
Balasagun was the capital of the Karakhanids Empire, but when this collapsed, it was the capital of the Eastern Karakhanid state. For centuries it remained the most important urban center in the Chuy Valley. The city was taken by the Qara Khitai in 1134, and the tower survived. It was then captured by the Mongols in 1218 and the tower again miraculously survived. When the Mongols became Muslims, they appeared to have maintained the upkeep of the tower, which was in use as a minaret.
In the 15 th century an earthquake struck the city of Balasagun and the upper sections of the tower collapsed. Local people have a legend that it crumbled when the powerful king cried upon the death of his beloved daughter. There were, however, other earthquakes and Balasagun was abandoned. Many of the residents moved to a nearby village, which is now named after the lost city.
The extensive complex that the Burana Tower was part of virtually disappeared when Russian settlers removed bricks from the site for their buildings in the 19 th century. By the 20 th century the tower was in a state of disrepair. Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union and the communist authorities neglected what they saw as a religious monument .
In the 1970s the disused minaret was restored. Today the Kyrgyzstan government funds the site and it is a popular tourist destination.
Burana Tower- The Last Monument of a Lost City
The round tower was based on the classic design of minarets and stands on an octagonal base. It is set on a plain that is surrounded by the spectacular Tian Shan mountain range, located on the west end of the ancient capital. It was originally 148 feet (45 m) high, but now measures 82 feet high (25m).
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Ancient stone sculptures near Burana Tower ( Olga Labusova / Adobe Stock)
Many of the original distinctive red bricks have survived and the impressive brickwork of the structure comprises of sections arranged in a geometric design and based on Islamic patterns.
Sadly, the original winding staircase is no longer accessible at ground level, but the modern metal staircase attached to the tower gives visitors access to the historic winding stairs which led to a viewing platform at the top of the tower.
The tower is located in the Burana zone, an archaeological park that contains the last remnants of the city of Balasagun. Among the remains that can be seen near the tower are some earthen works, the ruins of a fortress, and three mausoleums. The rest of the city has disappeared.
Visiting the Burana Tower in Kyrgyzstan
Burana Tower is near the city of Tokmok and about an hour’s drive from Bishkek, the capital city, where it is possible to hire a taxi to take you to the location. A fee is charged to enter and climb the tower. Apart from the remains of Balasagun, there are some ancient petroglyphs and ancient stone sculptures in the vicinity of the tower, as well as a visitor’s center.
Top image: Burana tower located on famous Silk Road, Kyrgyzstan Source: Pavel Svoboda / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
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Ploskih, V. (2006). Monuments of Kyrgyzstan along the Great Silk Route . SONI, 59.