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April 10, 2012

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Marking the Routes of the Silk Roads

Posted by Natalia Turekulova, ICOMOS Kazakhstan
World Monuments Fund
Fragment of the view on Shopan Ata necropolis, 2011

Old necropolises are some of the only man-made landmarks that can be seen along the main routes that cross the vast steppes and deserts of the Mangystau peninsula and the Usturt Plateau, between the Caspian and the Aral Seas. These ancient roads, which are still in use, in the Middle Ages connected Khorezmian and Sogdian lands with the territories to the north and west of the Caspian Sea. This network was an important part of the Silk Roads, especially following the sixth century, when the Turkic Khanate and Byzantium signed a trade agreement. Providing transportation of goods, these roads were also the routes of migration, dissemination of knowledge and culture, and of world religions.

The first mention of the advent of Islam in the region of Mangystau is related to the legends of Shopan Ata, a follower of Hoja Ahmed Yasswi. Hoja Ahmed was a distinguished poet and Sufi Master of the twelfth century, the father of the Turkic branch of Sufism, and a distinguished teacher of Islam, who lived in the city known today as Turkestan in modern-day Kazakhstan. According to one legend, he threw away his walking stick and said that whoever of his students found it would be blessed by him. It was Shopan Ata who found it, on a mountaintop in Mangystau. In the foot of this mountain he carved small caves and set up a mosque. The wooden stick took root and grew into a beautiful mulberry tree, offering sweet berries and its shade to the numerous pilgrims and travelers who visited this place for more than 800 years. Today, this mosque and the surrounding necropolis form one of the largest, most beautiful, and most important sacred places in the region of Mangystau.

The tradition of building mosques underground or in rock-carved caves, as well as cells for Sufi ascetics, spread widely in Mangystau by the followers of the Yasawiya Order and it became the characteristic feature of Islamic culture of this land. Legends mention 360 Sufi saints that lived, preached, and were buried in this region. Most of their names and graves are lost, but some survive: Shopan Ata, Masat Ata, Sysem Ata, Beket Ata, Shakpak Ata, and others have become the centers of the famous necropolises and sacred places visited by pilgrims from the Kazakh, Turkmen, and Karakalpak populations of the region. In these places, and in the religious practices of these local populations, one finds many unique influences from Zoroastrianism and other pre-Islamic cults. All the built structures of the old necropolises of Mangystau differ from similar structures in this part of Asia in their architecture, craftsmanship, decoration, and surroundings and they represent the material evidence of the culture created by nomadic peoples who have inhabited for many centuries this severe, deserted space to the east of the Caspian Sea.

The state and local authorities have made a great effort to preserve this unique heritage, which faces increasing pressure from such negative factors as urban development, rising numbers of pilgrims, and rapid growth of the oil extraction industry. In accordance with Kazakhstan’s “Cultural Heritage” national program studies, restoration and promotion of the nomadic heritage of Mangystau have begun. Archaeological, historical, ethnographic, and architectural research is underway, with the aim of improving its future preservation. Local authorities are at work to establish and enforce zones of protection for the ancient necropolises, within the context of the surrounding cultural and natural landscape.

Room in Shopan Ata mosque, 2010