The City of Urgench
LocationThe site of the ruined city of Kunya or Old Urgench lies about 2.5km south of the centre of the modern town of Kunya Urgench in the Dashoguz welayat of northern Turkmenistan. The site is about 43km west southwest of No'kis. Foreign tourists can cross the Qaraqalpaq-Turkmen border checkpoint between Xojeli and Kunya Urgench, but must be in possession of a visa for Turkmenistan . See the "How to Get There" page of our Tour Guide.
The Sultan Tekesh Mausoleum and the adjacent Qutlugh Timur Minaret.
The Arabs named the new town Jurjaniya, although the local people came to call it Gurganj. It became an administrative capital for the Arab deputies, who were responsible for taxation and the promotion of the Muslim faith. As the most northerly town in Khorezm it soon became a major trading centre for the surrounding nomadic tribes and a thriving economic and cultural centre, greatly helped by the revitalising of the local agricultural region thanks to a change in the flow of the Amu Darya. Gurganj was surrounded by a defensive wall and probably had a central square surrounded by houses and winding streets, along with the rulers palace (the Kyrk Molla?).
The anonymous Hudûd al-Âlam, written around 982, noted that although Gurganj had previously belonged to the Khorezmshah, it was now governed independently. It briefly added that:
"The town abounds in wealth, and is the Gate of Turkistan and resort of merchants. The town consists of two towns: the inner one and the outer one. Its people are known for their fighting qualities and archery."The chronicler al-Muqaddasi also described the town in the 10th century when it was the seat of the Amir Ma'mun. It had four gates and the waters of the canals came only as far as those gates since there was insufficient room for the canals to continue into the city. The palace of Ma'mun was located close to the Hajjaj gate. Apparently the gates of the palace itself were of particularly beautiful workmanship, having no equal in the whole of Khurasan. Somewhat later, Ma'muns son Ali, who succeeded him in 997, built another palace in front of his father's. He also laid out a square in front of the palace gates in imitation of the Registan in Bukhara, and this was later used as a livestock market. In 1010, another of Ma'muns sons, Ma'mun ibn Ma'mun, built a minaret. One of the major city sights was to be seen about ¼km from the centre of Gurganj, where the course of the Amu Darya was deflected to the east by a huge wooden dam. Prior to the construction of this dam the water came up to the walls of the town.
Ibn Battuta provided us with an excellent eyewitness account of the bustling city when he passed through it on his journey to Bukhara in the 1330s. He had just spent 30 days crossing the Ustyurt desert after leaving Sultan Uzbek's brand new capital of Saray al-Jadid. He was clearly impressed:
" ... we arrived at Khorezm [Urgench] which is the largest, greatest, most beautiful and most important city of the Turks. It has fine bazaars and broad streets, a great number of buildings and abundance of commodities; it shakes under the weight of its population, by reason of their multitude, and is agitated by them in a manner resembling the waves of the sea. I rode out one day on horseback and went into the bazaar, but when I got halfway through it and reached the densest pressure of the crowd at a point called al-Shawr [the crossroad], I could not advance any further because of the multitude of the press, and when I tried to go back I was unable to do that either, because of the crowd of people. So I remained as I was, in perplexity, and only with great exertions did I manage to return."The city had a new college (medresseh), recently built by its governor Qutlugh Timur in which Ibn Battuta stayed, a cathedral mosque built by the Amir's pious wife the Khatun (queen) Tura beg, a hospital with a Syrian doctor, and a nearby hospice built over the tomb of Najm al-Din Kubra.
"Never have I seen in all the lands of the world men more excellent in conduct than the Khorezmians, more generous in soul, or more friendly to strangers."The local people were also extremely pious, possibly because the muezzins of each mosque would visit the neighbouring homes and remind them that the hour of prayer was approaching. The imam would fine those who failed to attend and beat them with a whip, which was prominently displayed in the mosque as a reminder! The city was close to the Jaiyhun River [then the main channel of the Amu Darya, now the Darya Lyk], which was navigable by boat in the summer, the journey from Termez taking 10 days. In winter the river froze solid for five months every year, and people walked across it, some perishing in its waters when the ice began to melt.
"This city of Urgench standeth in a plane ground, with walls of earth, by estimation four miles about it. The buildings within it are also of earth but ruined and out of good order: it hath one long street that is covered above, which is the place of their market. It hath been won and lost 4 times within 7 years by civil war, by means thereof there are but few merchants in it, and they are very poor, and in all that town I could not sell above 4 kersies [woollen broadcloths]. The cheifest commodities there sold are such wares as come from Bukhara and out of Persia, but in most small quantity not worth the writing."As Jenkinson had observed on his way through Vazir, the Amu Darya was changing its course, reverting towards the Aral Sea. The region around Vazir and Urgench was drying out and its agriculture was failing. In 1602 Hajjim was succeeded by his son, Arab Muhammad, who began ruling Khorezm from Khiva. Urgench struggled on until 1646 when Abu'l Ghazi Khan finally relocated its residual Uzbek population to the region of Khiva - founding Yani or New Urgench, the present day city of Urgench.
We describe the main monuments within the park in the sequence that they are encountered on leaving the car park.
There are numerous theories concerning its origins and purpose, none of which can be supported by hard evidence.
It is generally linked to Tura beg Khanum, the wife of the Golden Horde ruler of Khorezm Qutlugh Timur (ruled 1321-1333), who was appointed by Sultan Uzbek. Amir Qutlugh Timur was the son of Uzbek's maternal aunt. If it had been sponsored by Tura beg Khanum it is surprising that the building was omitted from the architectural highlights described by ibn Battuta.
In the early 1990s Kh. Yusupov suggested that it was a pre-Mongol palace dating from the 12th or early 13th century. However Central Asian palaces of this period normally had a central courtyard surrounded by four ayvans. Furthermore the mosaic and majolica tiles used on the building were manufactured using 14th century Khorezmian ceramics technology and are similar to those encountered on the Najm al-Din Kubra Mausoleum, built in 1340.
A more recent and rather obtuse theory has proposed that the building might have been sponsored by one of the sisters or wives of Timur as part of the ruler's quest for Chinggisid legitimacy through his female lineage. It is hard to see why and for what practical purpose such a monumental building would have been constructed outside of Timur's Chagatay domain.
The most likely hypothesis is that the building was a mausoleum for the somewhat later and short-lived dynasty of Qon'ırat Sufi Khorezmshahs, which began with the enthronement of Aq Sufi Khan in 1359. One suggestion is that it contained the tomb of the Khorezmshah Husayn Muhammad Giyath ad-Din Sufi (1361-1372), who enraged Timur (Tamburlaine) by annexing the Chagatay territory of Kath and right bank Khorezm. He died during the resulting siege of Urgench.
The ruins of this building demonstrate the advanced state of Khorezmian architecture and craftsmanship under Golden Horde rule. Indeed following the 1388 conquest, the master craftsmen of Khorezm were enslaved by Timur and relocated to Samarkand to work on his own monumental palaces, mosques and medressehs.
The mausoleum was primarily constructed from a mixture of yellow-coloured, fired clay brick and tile, and was extensively decorated with glazed tile work. The heart of the building is a massive cylindrical-shaped drum supporting a complex domed roof structure. The outer shape of the drum is based on a twelve-sided dodecagon, although the internal chamber is hexagonal. Only eight sides of the dodecagon appear on the outside, each incorporating a tall arched niche with a muqarnas vaulted roof. Four of these niches contain windows.
The drum supports an upper cylindrical tower containing twelve evenly spaced arched windows, each separated internally by an arched niche contained glazed tile work decoration. Most of the multicoloured hexagonal tiles that once decorated the outside of this cylindrical tower have become detached, although a few smaller tiles remain in the narrow borders.
The roof consisted of three superimposed domes, the purpose of the 9-metre diameter innermost dome being solely to support the magnificent decorative ceramic tile work, most of which is still intact. This is laid out in the form of a complex angular lattice with the spaces in between containing circular and star-shaped arrangements of motifs, which one author has compared to a firework display.
The intermediate dome stabilised the whole building and was meant to be concealed, although its restored structure now forms the present outer roof. The external dome was meant to be conical and decorated with dark turquoise glazed tiles. It would have looked magnificent but sadly does not currently exist. Only a small part of the lower section can still be seen, along with a lower band of multicoloured arabesque floral tiles glazed in dark blue, light blue, white, yellow and terracotta. The conical roof was either subsequently demolished or not fully completed at the time of the Timurid conquest.
A huge and imposing rectangular entrance portal or pishtaq, some 25 metres high, is positioned on the southern side. Its arched entrance contains the remains of the original muqarnas, or corbelled vaulted ceiling and leads into a vestibule, with ancillary chambers on each side. The vestibule on the right hand side contains a circular staircase leading to the roof of the portal. The entrance vestibule leads directly into the main hexagonal chamber of the mausoleum. Much of the tile work on the portal seems to have been lost and this, together with no trace of a dedicatory inscription, has led some to argue that the exterior decoration was never completed.
The walls of the mausoleum were restored between 1983 and 1993 and the collapsed northern portal was reconstructed. Between 1999 and 2000 the main inner dome and two ancillary domes were restored. However much of the remaining tile work still remains in a precarious state and requires conservation.
In the more recent past the minaret supported a wooden lantern, constructed upon wooden beams inserted into the brickwork. It apparently served as a lighthouse and a watch tower.
Medieval minarets in Central Asia can be classified into two basic forms those that are smoothly tapered and those that are stepped. This clearly falls within the former category, having smooth sides and a diameter of 12 metres at the base and only 3 metres at the very top. The top of the minaret is accessible by means of a windowless internal helical staircase with 145 steps, the entrance to which is 7 metres above ground level presumably a level that was once accessed from the adjacent mosque, probably by means of a wooden bridge. The diameter of the staircase narrows with increasing height.
The minaret is constructed of yellow fired-clay brick on a 3-metre deep foundation. Much of the original brickwork is badly weathered. The minaret was decorated on the outside with some 18 bands of patterned brickwork separated by sections of plain brick. Some of these bands contained glazed inserts similar to those found in the pre-Mongol Mazlum Sulu Khan Mausoleum at Mizdahkan. There were also originally six bands bearing inscriptions in Kufic script, although only three remain today.
The location of the minaret is in the northern segment of Kaan, the new part of Gurganj built in the 11th and 12th century, and also in the very heart
of the 14th century Golden Horde city of Urgench.
When the minaret was examined by A. Yu. Yakubovsky in the late 1920s he described it as "a typical construction of the Karakhanid epoch" - in other words, mid 9th to early 13th century. However he then discovered that the lowest band of inscription at the level of the entrance to the minaret stated that it was built by Qutlugh Timur (the two higher bands contain Quranic verses). Yakubovsky therefore described the minaret in the literature as the "minaret of Qutlugh Timur" with a proposed date of construction in the second quarter of the 14th century. There was also a large hill located just west of the minaret strewn with fragments of fired brick and multicoloured tiling. Yakubovsky interpreted this as the ruins of the related cathedral mosque, which he assumed had been restored when the minaret was constructed during the era of the Golden Horde.
Damage to the original cladding on the south-east side of the minaret coupled with the raised entrance provides additional evidence that the minaret once flanked a large building, presumably a mosque.
In the meantime many scholars have observed that the minaret has an archaic appearance and bears many resemblances to the 11th and 12th century Qara-Khanid minarets at Uzgen, Buran, Bukhara and Vabkent.
In the late 1980s the lower part of the minaret was cleaned and restored and the internal staircase repaired. V. V. Zotov examined the architectural and decorative design of the minaret at that time as well as the construction methods and materials, concluding that the minaret was pre-Mongolian. Zotov also established that the inscription referring to Qutlugh Timur was not original but had been added at some time after its initial construction.
The most likely possibility is that the mosque and its associated minaret (or minarets) were constructed in the 11th or 12th century, prior to the Mongol conquest, during which they were badly damaged. They were both later restored during the reign of Qutlugh Timur. The inscription on the minaret (which is general and does not refer to the minaret specifically) therefore refers to the activity of restoration and not to the original construction.
In 1999 the top section of the minaret was partially reinforced. Today the top of the minaret is out of alignment by over one metre demanding more reinforcement in the future to prevent a collapse.
To complicate matters further there are the remains of a second minaret in the archaeological park 800 metres to the south east of this one see below for details.
Built of light yellow fired brick, the foundations of the monument currently lay several metres below the level of the surrounding landscape. The lower part of the building consists of a massive square-shaped chamber with outside walls that are 19-metres long on each side and over 3 metres thick.
The building's greatest feature is its magnificent conical hipped roof. The top portion of this is covered with rectangular-shaped bricks laid out in
a herringbone pattern, the outer face of each brick having a turquoise-coloured glaze. The lower section of the cone is decorated with a wide band
of similar bricks arranged as a repetitive pattern of large diamonds. Just below the hip of the conical roof is a frieze composed of large moulded
turquoise-glazed tiles bearing a Kufic inscription.
In its original state the roof must have looked spectacular. In 2005 the roof remained in a
critical condition with many glazed bricks already lost and others becoming detached. In 2006 the outer shell of the drum and roof was restored
thanks to a grant from the US Department of State.
The conical roof conceals an inner dome decorated with small holes forming the outline of a 12-pointed star.
Once again the purpose of the building and its date of construction remain a matter of opinion, of which there are many. There is recent evidence to suggest that it was the central building or the major component in a much larger complex. This may explain the featureless square base, whose walls may have been once concealed by surrounding buildings.
The attribution of the building to the Khorezmshah Sultan Tekesh (reigned 1172-1200) seems to be the most widely held view among Russian and Central Asian architectural historians. They believe it was part of a combined mausoleum and funeral mosque, especially given the existence of a structure which may have been an underground tomb adjacent to its western side. There is some historical support for this point of view. One written source - Ibn al-Athir - noted that Tekesh constructed a complex in his capital city of Urgench containing a large medresseh and a tomb in which he was buried. Meanwhile the Sultan's vezir, Ibn Ali al-Kharavi recorded that Tekesh built a huge medresseh, mosque and manuscript library. It is not known whether these two complexes are one and the same, or whether either of them relate to the current building.
An alternative theory has been proposed by the Berlin-based Professor Sergej Chmelnizkij, who thinks the building was not a religious structure at all but the audience chamber of the Palace of the Khorezmshah.
Both the above theories place the date of construction in the late 12th or early 13th century, just before the Mongol conquest. We do get some help in deciding between them from the 13th century writer Juzjani, who noted that only two edifices remained in the city of Gurganj following the Mongol conquest: the Kushk-i Akhchak [Kyrk Molla] and the mausoleum of Sultan Tekesh.
Clearly more investigative research is required.
In 1991 extensive excavations on the western side of the hill supervised by Kh. Yusupov revealed the foundations of a defensive mud-brick wall, reinforced with rectangular towers shaped like a truncated pyramid. Finds of ceramics date the earliest occupation of the site to the 4th and the 3rd centuries BC. At that time its location was probably close to a bend in the early Darya Lyk river the old snake-like course of the Amu Darya at a time when it flowed west towards the Caspian Sea. Such a location would have been optimum for agriculture since it required less investment in irrigation works. The early city seems to have been occupied into the early Middle Ages, the so-called Afrigid feudal era, since its upper layers contained a rich assortment of ceramics from this period.
Thanks to a UNDP grant the external fortified wall has been partly reconstructed using modern mud brick and plastered with adobe. Openings have been left in the new wall to show some of the original brickwork. The whole development looks an eyesore.
Before the construction of the new wall, the western side of the hill was littered with the remains of human skeletons. Local guides used to brag that this was the site of the city's stand against the Mongols. In fact the bones were the much more recent remains of local people who had been buried on the hill of Kyrk Molla, which was regarded as a special holy site.
This too is built from light-yellow fired brick and has a cubic base supporting a 12-sided drum which in turn supports a conical dodecagonal (12-sided) hipped roof. Excavations have shown that the ground level of the mausoleum is several metres below the current ground level, meaning that the original building was once considerably higher.
The east-facing front of the cubic base is richly decorated. It contains three rectangular niches, each containing arched structures. The central arch contained a lower door and might, along with the outer arches, have contained rectangular windows. The spaces within the upper parts of the arches and surrounding the upper parts of the arches are filled with carved decorative brickwork, while the three rectangular niches are bordered by a frame of calligraphic inscriptions. It is possible the base once had doors on all four sides.
The 12-sided drum contains four rectangular windows. It was once decorated around its summit with a wide frieze but today the tiles are all missing. The conical roof is covered with glazed and unglazed bricks arranged to create a pattern of interlocking concentric diamonds. The interior of the chamber is undecorated and contains a simple domed roof.
The building cannot have been built as a mausoleum for the Persian theologian Fakhr ad-Din Razi, since he only spent a short part of his career as a religious teacher in Gurganj, where he was favoured by the Khorezmshah Tekesh. However he was soon expelled for his controversial views and eventually died in Herat in 1209/1210, where he was buried.
The building is generally considered to have been constructed in the second half of the 12th century. Because of this, people have speculated that it might have been the mausoleum of the Khorezmshah Muhammad's grandfather, Il-Arslan, who died in 1172, or his great grandfather, Atsyz, who died in 1156. The absence of a mihrab shows that it cannot have been a mosque.
In our opinion it seems to be a little too small to have been the mausoleum of a great Khorezmshah.
"The amir, the sayyid, the just prince Abu'l-'Abbas Ma'mum ibn Ma'mun Khorezmshah ordered the construction of this minaret. He constructed it himself and supervised the laying down of the foundations, in humility toward religion and to approach God, may His mention be great, and with the desire for recompense in this world and the hereafter. This took place in the year 401 [1010/1011 AD]."This suggests that Ma'mun II funded the construction of the minaret himself and regarded it as an investment rather than a charitable deed.
The foundations of the collapsed minaret were discovered below a hill excavated by Sergey Tolstov and his colleagues in 1952. The minaret was only preserved up to the level of a marble ring. Tolstov also discovered the remains of the associated mosque, which had floors laid with fired bricks and stone pyramid-shaped bases for the columns that once supported the roof. Tolstov believed that the early medieval mosque and minaret had been destroyed by the Mongols and were then restored in the 14th century at approximately the same time that the Qutlugh Timur minaret was repaired.
Tolstov's excavations were rediscovered in 1993. In 1999-2000 the minaret was partially reconstructed on the original foundation up to a height of 6 metres above ground level.
The gate was built of light-yellow fired brick and contained a pointed arched opening. There is no muqurnas or squinch like that on the entrance portal of the Tekesh Mausoleum. The face of the portal is decorated with three vertical rectangular columns on either side of the opening, decorated with carved bricks. The only surviving area of tiled decoration is confined to the inside surfaces of the archway and utilizes a combination of terracotta tiles and dark blue, light blue and white glazed mosaic tiles. A central panel of interlocking roundels with floral mosaics is surrounded by a border of interwoven plaits forming patterns of squares enclosing star-like crosses. This style of tile work has been dated to either the late 12th or the early 13th century.
It is clear that such a grand portal can never have been the entrance to a caravanserai as Yakubovsky initially assumed. Although there was a nearby caravanserai, V. V. Zotov established that it was built at a later date than the portal itself. The latter must have been the entrance to a public monumental building such as a mosque, medresseh or palace.
One unlikely theory is that it was the entrance to the late 10th century palace of the Khorezmshah Ma'mun I. However the foundations of the gate rest on pre-Mongol layers containing distinctive 12th century ceramics. These were produced by a recently introduced firing process involving chemical reduction and are quite distinct from the ceramics that were made during the earlier 10th and 11th centuries. Furthermore we know that the Palace of Ma'mun was close to the Hajjaj Gate, which Yusupov has convincingly shown to be the northern gate of the city. The Gate of the Caravanserai is of course in the southern part of the city.
After all these years, the function of the gate still remains a mystery.
|Google Earth Coordinates|
|Place||Latitude North||Longitude East|
|Tura beg Khanum Mausoleum||42º 18.674||59º 8.231|
|Seyit Akhmet Mausoleum||42º 18.589||59º 8.356|
|Qutlugh Timur Minaret||42º 18.521||59º 8.515|
|Sultan Tekesh Mausoleum||42º 18.445||59º 8.633|
|Kyrk Molla Hill||42º 18.516||59º 8.767|
|Mausoleum of Fakhr ad-Din Razi||42º 18.269||59º 8.739|
|The Ma'mun Minaret||42º 18.120||59º 8.738|
|Gate of the Caravanserai||42º 17.864||59º 8.728|
|Aq qala||42º 17.785||59º 9.125|
|Khorezm Bag||42º 17.839||59º 7.917|
This page was first published on 3 September 2008. It was last updated on 30 January 2012.
© David and Sue Richardson 2005 - 2018. Unless stated otherwise, all of the material on this website is the copyright of David and Sue Richardson.