Thursday, November 12, 2009

Konya Urgench (Old Urgench)

Gutluk-Temir Minaret


Konya-Urgench, Old Urgench or Urganj (Turkmen: Köneürgenç, Russian: Куня Ургенч, Persian Kuhna Gurgānj) lies some 43km west southwest of No'kis, just across the border in Turkmenistan. The city contains the largely unexcavated ruins of the once famed 12th century AD capital of Khwarezm. Today it is the capital of a district of the same name with some 30,000 inhabitants. Since 2005, the ruins of Old Urgench have been protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Formerly situated on the Amu-Darya River, Konya-Urgench (the Urgench) was one of the greatest cities on the Silk Road. Its foundation date is uncertain, but the extant ruins of the Kyrkmolla fortress have been dated to the Achaemenid period. The 12th and early 13th centuries were the golden age of Urgench with it surpassed in population and fame all other Central Asian cities barring Holy Bukhara.

In 1221, Genghis Khans armies razed it to the ground in one of the bloodiest massacres in human history, killing almost the entire population. Urgench however recovered in time and once again became a thriving commercial centre and a staging post on the important trading route between Europe and the Black Sea ports in the west and Mongolia and China in the east.

In 1388 the whole city was again destroyed by Timur, as were most other parts of Khorezm. Timur's campaign was not only aimed at eliminating the military threat posed by Khorezm and the remnants of the Khanate of Qipchaq, but also at destroying an important commercial and cultural competitor. As such, most of the city was deliberately demolished. The historian Ibn Arabshah reported that after ten days of destruction, only the mosque and its minarets were left standing. Timur is reported to have ordered that the ground on which the city stood should be ploughed and sewn with barley.

The city was partly rebuilt in the 16th century, but it was largely abandoned when the Amu-Darya changed its course. Timur's armies destruction of the dams controlling the flow of the Amu Darya meant the river was now free to revert to its natural direction of flow – towards the Sarykamysh Lake. The level of the Aral Sea began to fall and the Amu Darya delta began to dry out forcing its nomadic population to migrate. It was the beginning of an environmental crisis that would last for over 200 years.

The modern city of Konye-Urgench dates from the construction of a new canal by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. Today, most of the city of Old Urgench lies underground, but there is enough signs to get an idea of its former glories. Its uniqueness was acknowledged in 2005 when Unesco named it as a World Heritage site.

The most striking monument of old Urgench is the early 11th-century Gutluk-Temir Minaret, which, at 60 meters and prior to the construction of the Minaret of Jam (located in Ghor Province in Afghanistan) was the tallest brick minaret in the world. Notably the one structure that both the Mongols and Timur spared destruction.

Also of note is the Il-Arslan Mausoleum - the city's oldest standing monument: a conical dome (with 12 facets) housing the tomb of Mohammed II (the ruler of the Khwarezmid Empire from 1200 to 1220) and three other smaller mausoleums dating from the 12th century including the elaborate 14th-century Törebeg Hanym Mausoleum, which was restored in the 1990s. Somewhat to the north of the old city sprawls a vast medieval necropolis that is also well worth visiting.



The modern town of Konye-Urgench (from Persian ‘Old Urgench’) is a rural backwater with empty plazas, wandering livestock and back roads that end in agricultural fields. Yet centuries ago, this was the centre of the Islamic world, not the end of it.

The ancient state of Khorezm, located on a northerly Silk Road branch that leads to the Caspian Sea and Russia, was an important oasis of civilisation in the Central Asian deserts for thousands of years.

Khorezm fell to the all-conquering Seljuq Turks, but rose in the 12th century, under a Seljuq dynasty known as the Khorezmshahs, to shape its own far-reaching empire. With its mosques, medressa, libraries and flourishing bazaars, Gurganj became a centre of the Muslim world, until Khorezmshah Mohammed II moved his capital to Samarkand after capturing that city in 1210.

Jenghiz Khan arrived in 1221, seeking revenge for the murder of his envoys in Otrar as ordered by Mohammed II. Old Urgench withstood the siege for six months, and even after the Mongols broke through the city walls the residents fought them in the streets. The Mongols, unused to cities, burnt the houses but the residents still fought from the ruins. In the end, the Mongols diverted the waters of the Amu-Darya and flooded the city, drowning its defenders.

The Mongol generals went in pursuit of Mohammed II who eluded them for months until he finally died of exhaustion in 1221 on an island in the Caspian Sea. The tombs of his father, Tekesh, and grandfather, Il-Arslan, survive and are two of Old Urgench’s monuments.

In the following period of peace, Khorezm was ruled as part of the Golden Horde, the huge, wealthy, westernmost of the khanates into which Jenghiz Khan’s empire was divided after his death. Rebuilt, Urgench was again Khorezm’s capital, and grew into what was probably one of Central Asia’s most important trading cities – big, beautiful, crowded and with a new generation of monumental buildings.

Then came Timur. Considering Khorezm to be a rival to Samarkand, he comprehensively finished off old Urgench in 1388. The city was partly rebuilt in the 16th century, but it was abandoned when the Amu-Darya changed its course (modern Konye-Urgench dates from the construction of a new canal in the 19th century).

Today, most of Old Urgench lies underground, but there is enough urban tissue to get an idea of its former glories. Its uniqueness was acknowledged in 2005 when Unesco named it a World Heritage site. The modern town is somewhat short on tourist facilities and most travellers overnight in Dashogus.

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