Location

Mizdahkan is a huge monument located about 4km west of Xojeli on the main road to the Turkmen border checkpoint and Kunya Urgench.


Mizdahkan necropolis at sunrise
View of Mizdahkan necropolis at sunrise.


The site stretches for 2km in one direction and 1km in another, covering three separate low-lying hills and part of the surrounding plain. The most visible part of the site is situated on the hills on the southern side of the main road. This section is divided into two parts an extensive necropolis covers the two largest hills laying closest to Xojeli, while the ruins of a walled citadel and fortress occupies the top of the smaller hill located to the south-west of the necropolis. The citadel and fort is known as Gyaur qala, a term that is of Arab origin and literally means "Infidel Fort". There is a second Gyaur qala next to the Amu Darya in southern Qaraqalpaqstan and a third at Merv in Turkmenistan.


Mizdahkan
Aerial view of the whole of the Mizdahkan site. Image courtesy of Google Earth.


In addition there is a less obvious third part of Mizdahkan which lies on the northern side of the three hills, straddling the main road. This consists of the remains of a large unfortified city dating from the time of the Golden Horde.


Entrance to Mizdahkan necropolis
Entrance to the necropolis of Mizdahkan.


Admission to all parts of Mizdahkan is free. The entrance to the necropolis is right by the main road. The whitewashed concrete wall is interrupted by a brick portal with a Cyrillic sign saying "Mizdakhkhan". A pair of blue doors provides access to a concrete staircase which leads to the top of the hill. Note that the two subterranean tombs open to the public are only unlocked by the caretaker during the daytime. The citadel is reached a little further on by means of a dirt track forking off from the main road, followed by a short walk.



Excavation

The site was initially studied in 1928 and 1929 by the Russian archaeologist Aleksandr Yakubovsky, who linked it to an ancient city called Mizdahkan repeatedly mentioned in the writings of the medieval Islamic geographers such as al-Istakhri and al-Muqaddasi. Following the end of the Second World War the archaeological monuments of Khorezm were subjected to an intense programme of investigation by the newly formed Khorezm Archaeological Expedition led by the charismatic Moscow archaeologist Sergey Tolstov. Surprisingly Tolstov showed little interest in Mizdahkan, despite its easy access and proximity to No'kis, and frequently drove past it on his way to the more remote (and for him more mysterious) desert sites in Turkmenistan.


Gyaur Qala
View of Gyaur qala from the north.


Mizdahkan was studied in more detail in both 1962 and 1964-65 by No'kis University and the Qaraqalpaq Branch of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately the quality of their excavation and associated documentation was poor and much valuable information about the site was lost. A further study was undertaken by Vadim Yagodin in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Professor Yagodin recounted that when he was given the project he was sure he would become the first archaeologist to discover a Mongol tomb in Khorezm. No Mongol burial sites were ever discovered either here or elsewhere in western Central Asia and the question of how the Mongol leaders treated their dead still remains a mystery.

Work on the unfortified Golden Horde city took place later, between 1985 and 1999.



Mizdahkan

Mizdahkan is the most common local spelling, but there are also many others including Mizdakhkan, Mizdakhkhan and even Mizdaxxan.


Mizdahkan necropolis
Aerial view of the huge Mizdahkan necropolis. Image courtesy of Google Earth.


The south-western hill seems to have been first occupied by a settlement in the 4th century BC at the time when Khorezm was rapidly expanding, having just gained its independence from the Persian Achaemenid Empire. This seems to have been destroyed by fire towards the end of the 2nd century BC. It was followed by a second settlement that lasted throughout the duration of the neighbouring Kushan Empire, from the 1st to the 4th century AD, but this too seems to have been eventually destroyed, only to be followed by several centuries of desolation.

The oldest burials were found on the north-eastern hill dating from around the 2nd century BC. The existence of such early kurgan-like burials has led to one theory that Mizdahkan might have been initially settled by a group of semi-nomadic people. Between the 5th and the 8th centuries AD the eastern hill had become an important Zoroastrian necropolis, evidenced by numerous finds of ossuary burials. Zoroastrians believed that a human corpse was both physically and spiritually polluting, defiling the sacred elements of fire, water and earth. The bodies of the deceased were therefore exposed to the birds and to the sun until the bones had been completely cleansed. The remains were then placed in ossuary containers and buried. Interestingly the highest point of the eastern hill has a conical mound known as Djumarat Khassab, which some have suggested may have been used as a tower of silence. In the early 7th century the Khorezmians developed a technique for making ossuarys out of alabaster, many of which were decorated with a standardized scene of mourning that some scholars have interpreted as the legendary death of Siyavush - who had been locally adopted as the god of death and revival.

Some ossuaries even bore the marks of Syrian-styled Christian crosses, suggesting that by the 7th century a small community of Melkite Christians had become established at Mizdahkan with their clergy probably under the jurisdiction of Merv.




More recent mausoleums and graves along the eastern side of the necropolis.


In 651 the Arabs invaded Khurasan and captured Merv. Over the following decades Khorezm experienced increasing attacks by Arab raiding parties and in 712 it was finally conquered. The Arabs destroyed the Zoroastrian fire temples and according to a later report by al-Beruni, killed many of the Zoroastrian priests. Yet Zoroastrian burials continued during the 8th and 9th centuries at Mizdahkan using ossuaries. Clearly the Arab invasion did not lead to a sudden extinction of traditional funeral rites, although change was underway since the first Moslem burials on this site also date from the 9th century.


Mizdahkan necropolis
Aerial view of Gyaur qala showing the remains of the outer wall and the 12th century fortress.
The remains of the 9th century fortress lie just to its east. Image courtesy of Google Earth.


In the same century a fortress was built on the eastern side of the western hill. By the start of the 12th century this fortress had fallen into neglect. It was replaced by a new fortress located slightly further west, which was occupied until the early 13th century the time of the Mongol invasion. It is the remains of these two citadels that we see today. The second fort was square and had a single entrance. The outer defensive walls were originally covered in vertical half columns which must have created a dramatic effect at sunrise and sunset.


Citadel wall
The weathered remains of the columns on the citadel walls.


The interior contained a central rectangular court with a pool in the middle, surrounded by residential and ceremonial rooms built around the insides of the defensive walls. The inner-facing walls of these buildings were lined with a covered gallery, or ayvan, with its front supported by columns surrounding the pool. The area on the top of the hill surrounding the fort was occupied by residential buildings and the whole settlement was defended by an outer wall reinforced with ten circular towers. There was just one entrance reached by an elevated ramp. Although the citadel was circular, the original hill on which it was founded was not. The raised site must therefore have been built up manually into the shape we see today.


Layout of fortress
Professor Yagodin explains the internal layout of the fortress.


At the time of the construction of the 9th century fort, Khorezm was politically divided into three parts. The Khorezmshah ruled over the southern Khorezm oasis from his capital of Kath, located on the outskirts of modern Biruniy. Meanwhile a separate confederation of nomadic cattle-breeders occupied a region of the delta known as Kerder on the right bank of the Amu Darya north of modern No'kis city. Finally a powerful feudal lord ruled over the northern region on the left bank of the Amu Darya. The latter region was known as Khamjird and its capital was the city of Gurganj, the ruins of which still exist today just outside the modern town of Kunya (Old) Urgench.

The Arab writers and geographers referred to Gyaur qala and its associated town as "Mazdakhqan". The 10th century traveller al-Muqaddasi, who was born in Jerusalem, noted that although at that time al-Jurjaniyya (Gurganj) was the capital of left bank Khorezm, Mazdakhqan was almost as large in terms of surface area. Indeed he claimed that Mazdakhqan was surrounded by an extensive rural district with 12,000 villages! This was undoubtedly a huge exaggeration. In 1972 the No'kis-based archaeologist Vadim Yagodin used aerial photography in an attempt to find traces of these ancient settlements. He found evidence for some 20 to 30 feudal fortresses in the surrounding region, along with the remains of their associated settlements and irrigation canals. Since that time most of these sites have been swallowed up by agricultural development.

Both Gurganj and Mizdahkan were destroyed by Chinggis Khan and his sons in 1221. The left bank territories of Khorezm were assigned to Chinggis's son Jöchi and eventually became part of the Khanate of Qipchaq, known much later as the Golden Horde. Khorezm was soon redeveloped into a prosperous commercial centre on the main trade route between the East and the Mongol capital of Saray. The new Mongol city of Mizdahkan grew up to the west of the three hills, the two north-western hills becoming the city necropolis. The Mazlum Suli Khan Mausoleum provides an indication of the quality of Khorezmian craftsmanship during this period.

The cities of Gurganj and Mizdahkan were finally obliterated by Timur in 1388. Khorezm had aligned itself with Toktamish, an early protégé of Timur who had subsequently turned against him, eventually gaining control of not only the Golden Horde but also the territories of the White Horde along the Syr Darya. Timur was not only set on destroying his enemy but on removing Khorezm as a future military and commercial threat. Only the religious buildings were spared.


Mizdahkan graves
Modern mausoleums and simple graves on the heights of Mizdahkan.


Khorezm enterered a long period of turmoil and barbarism. Despite this the necropolis continued to be used as a local burial ground, increasingly venerated as a holy site. It continues to be used up to the present day.



Mazlum Sulu Khan Mausoleum

The beautiful Mazlum Sulu Khan Mausoleum was constructed in the time of the last Khorezmshahs, just before the Mongol invasion, either in the late 12th century or the early 13th century. It was decorated inside with majolica, probably made locally, and gilded with gold painting.


Mazlum Sulu Khan Mausoleum
The Mazlum Sulu Khan Mausoleum from ground level.


The cupola of the mausoleum above ground seems to have been destroyed by the Mongols, as may a portal above the entrance have been. During the Mongol period the mausoleum seems to have become an important holy centre since several rooms were constructed at ground level for visiting pilgrims. After Timur's destruction of Mizdahkan the site became buried under a layer of sand and it was not reopened until the 17th century under the orders of the Khan of Khiva. It subsequently became a centre for shamans rather than a holy place. Persian inscriptions discovered on the walls may have been written by merchants following the re-opening. Translations were published by A. Nekrasov in 1930. The first inscription said "Life is very beautiful but it's a pity that it's so short". The second said "Don't think that it is too bad for me in this small room full of sadness".


Entrance stairs
Entrance stairs down to the underground mausoleum.


It is very unusual to find an underground mausoleum in Central Asia, which has led some architects to suggest that the building may have been something else, such as part of a castle. Archaeologists interpret it as an important link to the powerful Qipchaq nomads who played an important role in Khorezmian affairs at that time and continued to practise kurgan-style burials. The Khorezmshah Tekesh (1172-1200) even had a Qipchaq wife, the ruthless Turqan-Qatun.


Mausloeum domed roof
The simple blue-tiled interior of the octagonal domed roof.


We know that the mausoleum was built for more than one person and it is clear that it was built during their lifetimes since the floor had already been completed and had to be broken open to dig the burial chambers. When Yakubovsky examined the mausoleum in 1928 there were still two undisturbed burial places, but these were subsequently looted. The tomb facing the entrance contained the remains of a female, indicating the high status achieved by certain women at that time.


Mausoleum interior
Arched niche in a side wall of the mausoleum.

Mausoleum interior
View of one of the four corners of the mausoleum.


The current mausoleum is completely restored, a task that took about 20 years from the 1960s to the 1980s following its archaeological excavation. Most of the lower levels still contain the original tiles, but the upper levels were reconstructed from reproduction tiles.


Trilobate corner decoration
Restored tiling with Arabesque designs on the squinch in one corner of the mausoleum.
The squinches transform the four walls into the octagonal drum, which in turn supports the dome.


We still have no idea about the identity of the people entombed in the mausoleum, apart from the obvious fact that they must have been important personages of the time. The name Mazlum Sulu Khan comes from a local Qaraqalpaq legend. Mazlum Sulu Khan was supposedly the beautiful daughter of the governor of Mizdahkan. Despite being desired by all of the local eligible bachelors, Mazlum Sulu Khan was in love with a poor builder. Frustrated by the lack of a suitable groom, the governor foolishly announced that he would give his daughter's hand to the young man who could build a minaret as tall as the sky in the space of one night. Naturally the poor builder succeeded in constructing the minaret, but when he came to the palace for the hand of his bride the following morning, the governor refused. The dejected young man jumped from the top of the minaret only to be followed by the beautiful and distraught Mazlum Sulu Khan. The heartbroken governor ordered that the minaret be destroyed. The young lovers were buried together and a mausoleum was constructed above their grave using the bricks from the ruins of the minaret.



Caliph Yerejeb or Erezhep Mausoleum

Little is known about the ruins of this monumental mausoleum, which was built from a mixture of fired and unfired mud bricks. A layer of reeds was inserted into one of its lower courses to protect the walls from damage by salinization and perhaps seismic activity. There are differing dates for the time of its construction ranging from the start of the 9th century to the 11th century AD.


Caliph Erezhep Mausoleum
The Caliph Erezhep Mausoleum.


Legend has it that it is the burial site of a Caliph Erezhep, who continued to proselytize long after his death. Passing strangers claim to have been given verbal advice by the Caliph as they passed his tomb!



Mazar of Shamun Nabi

The word nabi means prophet, so this is the Mazar of the Prophet Shamun. It is an elongated sepulcher, some 25 metres long, topped by seven cupola domes. In the past it contained a long stone sarcophagus. The latter has given rise to several local legends, one being that Shamun Nabi was a giant who, over the space of several centuries, grew by one inch every year! Another proposes that this is the burial site of the biblical giant Samson, the slayer of the Philistines.

In the past the mausoleum was a popular holy site and the subject of local pilgramages during holy festivals such as Qurban Bayram. In the early 19th century it became the subject of holy pilgrimages by the Khivan Khans - by Eltüzer Muhammad Khan in 1804 and Muhammad Rakhim Khan in 1815.


The Shamun Nabi sarcophagus
A replica of the huge Shamun Nabi sarcophagus.


The tomb and some of its legends was studied by Yu. V. Knorozov in 1949.

In an attempt to stamp out what the Soviet authorities believed to be primitive superstitious beliefs, orders were given in 1966 for the mausoleum to be opened and demolished to "prove its mythical and non-Islamic character". Its destruction led to a sharp fall in its popularity, but with the onset of more liberal times the mausoleum has been restored.



Djumarat Khassab Mound

The Djumarat Khassab Mound is located on the highest part of the eastern hill at Mizdahkhan. It is named after a butcher or kassab named Djumarat. Legend has it that the butcher handed out meat to the poor during times of bad harvests or famine. As such he was revered as a holy person by the local people.


Djumarat Khassab Mound
The Djumarat Khassab Mound.


The real purpose of the mound is uncertain, especially as it has never been excavated. It was of course traditional for the early nomads to erect burial kurgans on the top of natural mounds. Some have suggested that the mound was simply used as a dakhma, or a place of silence where the Zoroastrians exposed their corpses to the elements. There are also legends that the mound conceals a mausoleum.



The City of Mizdahkan

The Golden Horde city of Mizdahkan dates from the 13th and 14th centuries and was situated to the west of the necropolis and to the north of Gyaur qala. Today the site is divided by the modern road. The city was divided into residential quarters and contained craft and pottery workshops and even a winery.


Excavations of a dwelling
Excavations of a dwelling at Mizdahkan.
From M. Sh. Kdirniyazov, "Capital Columns from Mizdahkan", Sanat, Issue 2, Tashkent, 2003.


The remains of some of the dwellings can still be made out today. Some of the residential buildings contained glazed ceramic tile work typical of 13th century Khorezm, somewhat similar to that seen in the Mazlum Sulu Khan Mausoleum. One house contained a prayer room with a decorative mihrab.



Google Earth Coordinates

The following reference points (in degrees and digital minutes) will enable you to locate Mizdahkan and some of its important buildings and features on Google Earth:


  Google Earth Coordinates
Place Latitude North      Longitude East     
Mizdahkan 42º 24.070 59º 23.360
Gyaur qala 42º 23.576 59º 22.623
Mizdahkan City 42º 24.018 59º 22.960
Muzlum-Khan Sulu Mausoleum 42º 24.163 59º 23.294
Caliph Erezhep Mausoleum 42º 24.088 59º 23.251
Mazar of Shamun Nabi 42º 24.093 59º 23.330
Djumarat Khassab Mound 42º 24.105 59º 23.387
     


Note that these are not GPS measurements taken on the ground.







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