Friday, October 17, 2014

Kunya Urgench

Photo: Kutlug-Timur minaret and Tekesh mausoleum

Just across the border on the left bank of the Amu-Daria River (50 Km SW of Nukus) is found the ancient fascinating city of Kunya-Urgench located in Dashoguz velayat of Turkmenistan.

Nowadays Konye-Urgench as it is known in Turkmen, is a quiet town but in the 12th century at the height of the powerfull Khorezm empire it was one of the most important cities in the Islamic world. The origins of Kunya-Urgench go back to the 6th or 5th centuries founded during the early Achaemenid period. In 712, Kunya-Urgench was invaded by Arabs and renamed Gurgandj. Being at the crossing of trade routes, the town prospered, becoming a major centre from the 10th-14th centuries. It was the capital of Khorezm from the 12th century and the second city after Bukhara in Central Asia.

The city, destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1221 but rebuilt, was described as the finest city of the Turks with fine bazaars and impressive buildings. It was once again ravaged by Timurid troops between 1372 and 1388 and never regained its position.  In the 16th century, the capital was transferred to Khiva, and the city was finally abandoned (the Amu Darya River changed its course at the same time).The city was newly colonised by Turkmen from 1831: however, the new development took place outside the old town, part of which served as a graveyard.

Today the area of the old town still contains a series of monuments dating mainly from the 11th to 16th centuries.  Most of it however is deserted with only the remains of its ancient fortified settlements, including a mosque, the gates of a caravanserai, fortresses, mausoleums and a 63-m high minaret all that is left of a once great city.


The great Moroccan traveller and Islamic scholar Ibn Battuta in 1333 visited the city when it was still thriving and reported that:

 "After journeying through this desert we have arrived at Khwarizm which is the largest, most beautiful and most important city of the Turks. It has fine bazaars and broad streets, a great number of buildings... the city is in the dominions of the Sultan Uzbek who is represented in it by the great Emir called Qutludumur. It was he who built the college and the dependencies annexed to it. As for the Mosque, it was built by his wife, the pious Khatun Turabak.”

Genghis Khan destroyed the city (along with many others towns in the territory of Khoresm) because of a short-sighted decision by the Khorezmshah, Mohammed II, who ruled from Urgench.

Ibn Battuta relates to the time when Genghis Khan came in 1219.
“It happened that Tankiz (Genghis Khan) sent a party of merchants with the wares of China and al-Katha (northern China) such as silk fabrics etc. to the town of Utrar (a city in todays Khzakhstan on the banks of the Syr Darya river about 100 miles north of Tashkent)....his governor in the town sent a message to him informing him of this event and enquiring of him what action he should take in regard to them. Jalal ad-Din (son of the King Mohammed II) wrote to him commanding him to seize their goods, mutilate them, cut off their limbs, and send them back to their country.......So when he carried out this action Tankiz made ready to set out in person with an army of uncountable numbers to invade the lands of Islam. When the governor of Utrar heard of this advance he sent spies to bring back a report about him and the story goes that one of them went into a mahalla  (an open area in an for large crowds to pray near a neighbourhood mosque) of one of the emirs of Tankiz disguised as a beggar. He found nobody to give him food and set up a position beside one of their men but he neither saw any provisions with him nor did the man give him anything to eat. In the evening the man brought out some dried intestines that he had with him, moistened them with water, opened a vein of his horse, filled the intestines with its blood, tied them up and cooked them on a fire; this was his food. So the spy returned to Utrar, reported on them to the governor and told him that no one had the power to fight against them.........”
In 1333 when he visited the city it had already recovered but it was later to once again fall victim to yet another invader, Timur the Great, known as Tamerlane.

Mausoleumturabag_1The interior dome of the double-domed Turabak Mausoleum

Tamerlane who was not willing to see the  city potentially rival his grand capital of Samarkand, first invaded in 1379 and again in 1388 when he razed it to the ground and in a gesture of finality reminiscent of the Romans’ treatment of Carthage when they ordered the ruins to be covered with salt, ordered that barley be sown over what was left of Urgench.


In 2005 Konye-Urgench was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. In giving the city world heritage status they noted that "The tradition of architecture expressed in the design and craftsmanship of Kunya-Urgench has been influential in the wider region to the south and south-west (Iran and Afghanistan) and later in the architecture of the Mughal Empire (16th-century India)".

No comments:

Post a Comment