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The Unfinished Timurid Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

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The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi is a monument in Turkestan, a city in southern Kazakhstan. The mausoleum was built during the reign of Timur, the ruler of the Timurid Empire. The monument was commissioned by the Timurid ruler to replace an earlier and smaller structure that was built over the grave of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a Turkic poet and Sufi mystic. The mausoleum, however, was never finished, as construction stopped after Timur’s death. In spite of this, the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi is one of the largest and best-preserved monuments from the Timurid period. This has contributed to its inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Putting the Khoja Ahmed Yasawi Mausoleum in Context

The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi is located in Turkestan, a city in the southern part of modern-day Kazakhstan. In ancient times, Turkestan was a trade center on the northern part of the Silk Road , and was known as Shavgar or Yasi during the medieval and early modern periods. Thanks to its location, Turkestan prospered, not only economically, but also culturally and intellectually. Additionally, Turkestan gained political importance during the 16th century, when it became the capital of the Kazakh Khanate.

Furthermore, Turkestan is also significant as a religious center. This is reflected in the name Hazrat-i Turkistan , meaning “Saint or Blessed One of Turkestan.” It is from this name that the city’s two names, Hazrat and Turkestan are derived. The saint referred to in the city’s name is Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, “Khoja” being an Islamic honorific title. Ahmed Yasawi lived between the 11th and 12th centuries, and is best-known as a poet and an early Turkic Sufi mystic . Ahmed Yasawi is a significant figure in the history of Sufism, as he exerted a strong influence on the development of Sufi orders in the Turkish-speaking world.

The tomb of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi within the mausoleum. (Dmitry Chulov / Adobe Stock)

The tomb of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi within the mausoleum. ( Dmitry Chulov / Adobe Stock)

Who Was Khoja Ahmed Yasawi?

Despite Ahmed Yasawi’s importance, however, very little is known for certain about his life. It is thought that he was born around the end of the 11th century in Sayram, another ancient city not far from Turkestan. According to tradition, Ahmed Yasawi’s father died when he was young, and the family moved to Turkestan. This is reflected in the use of the word Yasawi, which is derived from the city’s other name, Yasi.

It is said that Ahmed Yasawi had already attained a high level of spirituality when he was still a child. Subsequently, he went to Bukhara, in modern-day Uzbekistan, to continue his studies under the renowned Sufi mystic Yusuf Hamadani, as well as other famous Sufis. Ahmed Yasawi spent many years in Bukhara, before eventually returning home to Turkistan.

Ahmed Yasawi is traditionally thought to be the author of the Divan-i Hikmet (“Book of Wisdom”), which consists of a collection of poems on mystical themes in Turkic. In more recent times, however, scholars are of the opinion that the book was not written by him. Nevertheless, in terms of style and sentiment, the Divan-I Hikmet is similar to Ahmed Yasawi’s writings, hence the attribution of the book’s authorship to the Sufi mystic. Ahmed Yasawi is also known to have written the Risala (“Mirror of Wisdom”) and Hikmet Hazrati .

The fact that Ahmed Yasawi wrote his works in Turkic is quite significant. Prior to this, scholarly works in Central Asia were written either in Arabic or Persian. It was thanks to Ahmed Yasawi that Turkic became a sophisticated medium of communication that was on par with Arabic and Persian. Additionally, Ahmed Yasawi contributed towards the rise of Turkish culture as the dominant culture in Central Asia. These contributions were felt even beyond the boundaries of this region, as empires of Turkish origin, such as the Mughal and Ottoman Empires , brought them to their conquered territories. Furthermore, Ahmed Yasawi is credited with the conversion of the Turkic-speaking peoples of Kazakhstan.

Dome of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. (Yevgeniy / Adobe Stock)

Dome of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. ( Yevgeniy / Adobe Stock)

Understanding the Construction and Architecture of the Grand Mausoleum

Legends about Ahmed Yasawi subsequently spread across the Turkish world, and he acquired a great following. This continued even long after the Sufi mystic’s death. One such legend, for instance, involves Timur (known also as Tamerlane), who founded the Timurid Empire during the 14th century. According to this legend, Timur, who was of Turko-Mongol origin, had a dream one night. In the dream, Ahmed Yasawi appeared to Timur, telling him that he would soon conquer Bukhara.

Timur took this as an auspicious sign, and attacked the city. After the victory, Timur went to Turkestan, where he visited the grave of Ahmed Yasawi. Timur noticed that the grave of such a great saint was rather modest. Therefore, having paid his respects, Timur ordered a grand mausoleum to be build over the grave of Ahmed Yasawi.

The construction of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi began in 1389. It was, however, never completed. When Timur died in 1405, the construction of the mausoleum also halted. Subsequent rulers of Turkestan did not continue Timur’s work, although Abdullah Khan, a 16th century Shaybanid ruler, completed the portal of the mausoleum. In any case, the mausoleum was left largely incomplete. One of the consequences of this is that the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi is a good example of Timurid architecture. This is further enhanced by the fact that the mausoleum is one of the largest and best-preserved monuments of the Timurid period.

The plan of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi is a rectangle measuring 46 m by 63 m (150.9 ft by 206.7 ft), and is aligned along a southeast-northwest axis. The monument consists of two storeys containing eight main chambers, 27 small rooms, and 12 passages. Visitors to the mausoleum enter the monument via a grand portal, after which they would find themselves in a large assembly hall, which measures 18 m by 18 m (59.1 ft by 59.1 ft).

At the center of the hall is a bronze cauldron used for rituals. Beyond this hall, at the northwestern end of the mausoleum, is the tomb chamber of Ahmed Yasawi, with the sarcophagus situated precisely at the center of the section. There are several ancillary structures flanking the axis, including a refectory, a small palace, a library, a sacred well, and a mosque.

The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan was never completed. (Aleksandar / Adobe Stock)

The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan was never completed. ( Aleksandar / Adobe Stock)

Architectural Details at the Khoja Ahmed Yasawi Mausoleum

The monumental portal and the dome behind it form the highest parts of the mausoleum, each reaching a height of 38 m (124.7 ft). As mentioned earlier, the portal was completed by Abdullah Khan. Even so, parts of the portal were left in their unfinished state. For instance, there are a pair of incomplete minarets flanking the portal. These were put in place during Timur’s time, but their construction abandoned following his death.

Additionally, the façade of the portal lacks any surface treatment. This stands in stark contrast to the portal of other known Timurid monuments, such as the Gur-e-Amir (Mausoleum of Timur) and the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, both located in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The portals of these monuments are decorated with the carved and glaze tiles that Timurid architecture is famous for.

Unlike the mausoleum’s front, its rear façade is richly decorated. A good example of the banna’i technique can be seen in this part of the mausoleum. Banna’i means “builder’s technique” in Persian, and was an architectural technique adopted by the Timurids. This technique involves the alternation of glazed and plain tiles whilst decorating the surface of a wall. In addition to producing geometric patterns, the banna’i technique is also used to spell out sacred names and phrases. Both applications of the banna’i technique can be seen on the rear façade of the mausoleum.

The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi has three domes – one above the assembly hall, one above the tomb chamber, and one above the mosque. The dome surmounting the assembly hall behind the portal is a conical dome. This dome has the same measurements as the hall beneath it, i.e. 18 m (59.1 ft) in diameter, and is the largest of its kind in central Asia. The exterior of the dome is covered by blue glazed tiles. In order to reach the height of the portal, the dome is raised on a square and an octagonal drum. The dome above the tomb chamber is a double dome, the outer one being a ribbed dome. Like the dome above the assembly hall, the exterior of this dome is also decorated with glaze tiles. By contrast, the dome above the mosque has a plain exterior. This dome rests on arches.

The Decline of the Timurid Empire

The Timurid Empire continued to exist for about a century after Timur’s death. Nevertheless, the empire quickly fell into decline following the death of its founder. After the Timurid Empire ceased to exist in 1507, Turkestan became part of the Kazakh Khanate. In fact, it was the Kazakhs who changed the name of the city from Yasi to Turkestan. As the capital of the khanate, Turkestan was an important political center. Apart from that, the city’s age-old role as a trade center was retained during this period.

In the centuries that followed, the mausoleum continued to receive Muslim pilgrims from all over Central Asia, thanks to the fact that it is the final resting place of an important Turkic Sufi saint. Apart from that, the change in the regime, i.e. from Timurid to Kazakh, did not have much of an impact on the monument, physically at least. For one reason or another, the Kazakh rulers did not continue the construction of the mausoleum, leaving it as it is. Nevertheless, during the 19th century, defensive walls were built around the mausoleum, as part of an effort to protect the city’s commercial interests.

On the other hand, several prominent leaders of the Kazakh Khanate were buried in the mausoleum, including Abulkhair Khan, Abylai Khan, and Yessim Khan. This provided the mausoleum with additional symbolic power, and strengthened its association with the Kazakh nation. This significance is reflected in the fact that the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi was featured on banknotes of Kazakhstan prior to 2006. Moreover, the mausoleum is one of Kazakhstan’s national monuments, having been inscribed on the List of National Properties of Kazakhstan in 1982.

As time went by, the fortunes of Turkestan went into decline. Due to political instability, as well as the shift from overland to maritime trade routes, Turkestan was no longer the great city it once was. During the middle of the 19th century, the Kazakh Khanate was disintegrating. Consequently, the neighboring Russian Empire seized the opportunity to expand into Kazakh lands. In 1864, Turkestan was captured by the Russians, and remained as part of the Russian Empire until its dissolution in 1917.

Interior of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan. (Yashkin Ilya / Adobe Stock)

Interior of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan. ( Yashkin Ilya / Adobe Stock)

The Route to Becoming a World Heritage Site

During this period, Turkestan was deserted. It has been pointed out that no rebuilding has taken place in the area of the old city. This means that there is much potential for archaeological work to be carried out, especially with regards to the city’s medieval phase. Instead, a new town developed to the west of the ancient city including the construction of a railway station in 1903. The station is part of the southern branch of the Orenburg-Tashkent (Trans-Aral) Railroad.

In the subsequent Soviet era, the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi still attracted devotees, and continued to receive Muslim pilgrims. The Soviet authorities, however, did not encourage these religious practices. The Soviets, nevertheless, were interested in the mausoleum as an architectural achievement. In 1905, the first scientific expedition to Turkestan was undertaken, led by N. I. Veselovsky. Drafts of the monument were made during the expedition.

Apart from that, technical investigations of the mausoleum were conducted by several commissions from 1922 onwards. The most important of these were carried out between 1952 and 1958, and between 1970 and 1980. Furthermore, various restoration and conservation works have been performed on the monument. These works continued to be carried out after Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991.

Indeed, the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi serves as a powerful symbol of the Kazakh nation. As mentioned earlier, the monument is featured on the country’s banknotes until 2006. In addition to being a national monument, the mausoleum was also nominated by Kazakhstan as a World Heritage Site . In 2003, the mausoleum became the country’s first World Heritage Site, a source of great pride for the nation. Today, the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi is a popular tourist attraction, and arguably the first place most tourists would visit during their trip to Turkestan.

Top image: The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan. Source: MehmetOZB / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

References

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