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Introducing Turkistan

At Turkistan, 165km northwest of Shymkent in the Syr-Darya valley, stands Kazakhstan’s greatest architectural monument and its most important site of pilgrimage. The mausoleum of the first great Turkic Muslim holy man, Kozha Akhmed Yasaui, was built by Timur in the late 14th century on a grand scale comparable with his magnificent creations in Samarkand. Turkistan has no rivals in Kazakhstan for manmade beauty. It’s an easy day trip from Shymkent, though staying overnight is enjoyable.

Turkistan was already an important trade and religious centre by the time the revered Sufi teacher and mystical poet Kozha Akhmed Yasaui was born at Sayram, probably in 1103. Yasaui underwent ascetic Sufi training in Bukhara, but lived much of the rest of his life in Turkistan, dying here, it’s thought, about 1166. He had the gift of communicating his understanding to ordinary people through poems and sermons in a Turkic vernacular, a major reason for his enduring popularity. He founded the Yasauia Sufi order and is said to have retired to an underground cell at the age of 63 for the rest of his life, in mourning for the Prophet Mohammed who had died at the same age. Local lore today has it that three pilgrimages to Turkistan are equivalent to one to Mecca.

Yasaui’s original small tomb was already a place of pilgrimage before Timur ordered a far grander mausoleum built here in the 1390s. Timur died before it was completed and the main façade was left unfinished – it remains today bare of the beautiful tilework that adorns the rest of the building, with scaffolding poles still protruding from the brickwork. From the 16th to 18th centuries Turkistan was the capital of the Kazakh khans.