Kazakhstan National Geographic Society Explores Mausoleums of Ulytau

Ulytau is a land of fresh air, delicious spring water, beautiful mountains, the origins of much of Kazakh culture and home to thousands of legends. And it is the cradle of the nation where a recent expedition was conducted by the Kazakhstan National Geographic Society (KNGS).

улытау Saulet Sakenov 4Many centuries ago in Ulytau, fate intervened in the history of the Kazakh people. Here on the white rug, according to tradition, khans were ordained. From Ulytau, legendary Tamerlane led his crusade against Khan Tokhtamysh. Here, the great khans Zhoshy, Alash, Tokhtamysh, the warrior Yedige and other historical figures are reposed. According to legend, Zheruiyk, a famous storyteller from Asankaygy, found a land of dreams here. That’s just part of Ulytau’s history.

The expedition was aimed at establishing GPS routes and preparing a digital and print outline map of Ulytau for tourists. In July, KNGS scientists carried out a preliminary evaluation expedition. The expedition team was composed of scientists, geographers, geologists, archaeologists, tourism experts and journalists. A documentary movie will be filmed and an audio book will be released about the expedition.

“Ulytau has played a large role in the history of the Kazakh people; our main goal is the revival and promotion of its cultural, historical and religious significance,” said expedition leading expert, geographer, senior manager at Nazarbayev University and representative of the KNGS Saulet Sakenov. “Of course, it is necessary to develop our tourism industry, which would give a powerful impetus to the socio-economic recovery of the region. The expedition team met with residents of nearby villages. Villagers spoke in detail about the future of the tourism industry and called upon residents of Ulytau to become involved in promoting tourism.”

Breath of Antiquity

The expedition traveled far to reach the mausoleums. The first on the expedition’s route was the mausoleum of Alash Khan. The monument is a traditional mazar [Eastern style funeral home]. The area is fenced and plates are installed at the entrance depicting almost all known family symbols and genera of three Zhuzes. It was Alash Khan who is considered to be the ancestor of the founders of the Kazakh Khanate, Kerey and Zhanibek, the ancestor of all Kazakhs.

“The earliest mention of Alash Khan, which can be found in written sources, belongs to Rashid al-Din, the greatest historian of the East (mid-14th century)… Turks called and continue to call him Yaphet Buldzha-Khan (Abuldzhi-Khan) and do not know whether this is the Buldzha-Khan (Abuldzha-Khan) that is the son or grandson of Noah, but they all agree on the fact that he lived at about the same time as him. All Mongols, Turkic tribes and nomads (literally, the inhabitants of the steppes) originate from his family,” Sakenov said.

There are also theories that Ghengis Khan is buried in the Genghis mausoleum. According to locals, much evidence of this was found during excavations over the last century, although the location of the grave of the greatest khans of all still remains a mystery.

An interesting feature of the mausoleum is an indoor spiral staircase that rises through narrow corridors and what appear to be catacombs. A view like no other awaits those who make it to the top. Around the mausoleum is a necropolis. There are no names on the graves, but it is known that they are ancient burial sites.

Why do dombras have only two strings?

“Aqsaq qulan” is a famous cartoon created at Kazakhfilm Studios in 1968 and is based on the beautiful Kazakh legends associated with the names of two khans, Genghis Khan and Zhoshy. Authorship of the kui is attributed to steppe musician, Zhoshy Khan Dombauyl. His mausoleum, some 50 kilometres away from Zhezkazgan, was the next stop on the expedition.

Zhoshy, the eldest son of Genghis Khan, died while hunting kulans. However, no one dared to report his death to the khan because he had promised to fill the throat of the “black messenger” with lead. Dombauyl, musical adviser of Zhoshy Khan and father of the famous Zhyrau Ketbugi, informed the khan about the terrible news while playing kui on his dombra. Enraged, Genghis Khan kept his word and ordered the “execution” of the dombra. Because of the hot lead, all but two of the strings on the dombra burst. Since then, the small hole characterising the bottom of the dombra, serves as a reminder of this.

A cone shape mausoleum made of dark stone and limestone was crafted to resemble a yurt. Vaults inside the building are trapeze shaped. The structure is about six metres in height. In the 1970s, the complex was renovated, but retained its original appearance. Stone balbals are located adjacent to the mausoleum’s patio.

Steppe Watch. Zhoshy Khan

A few kilometres further onto the steppe, the Zhoshy Khan mausoleum can be found. Its dazzling radiant azure dome can be seen from afar. The desert mausoleum is a true oasis with its thick groves along the river, lush wild rose bushes and bright palettes of colours. Presumably, this was Zhoshy Khan’s home.

Zhoshy was different from his father; ruthlessness and a lust for war were traits he did not inherit. According to historical records, Zhoshy (Dzhuchi) had excellent diplomatic skills and tried to avoid bloodshed.

On the plaque the date of construction can be found (the date of Zhoshy Khan’s death – 1227). The mausoleum is rectangular in shape, with a low lancet arch. Material for its azure dome, according to legend, was brought from Samarkand. The mausoleum was restored in the early 2000s.

Master of Legends

The expedition also went to Aulietau Mountain where seven saints are buried. Here, according to legend, the great storyteller Asankaygy and his wife found their last refuge. The expedition overcame a steep climb and went to the top of Yedige Mountain, where the ashes of the famous Tokhtamysh Khan and the warrior Yedige rest. They visited Terekty and saw petroglyphs, which are more than 3,000 years old.

At the site where Tamerlane’s troops were posted, it is possible to see an ancient stone smelting furnace on which his sword of meteorite steel was allegedly forged. Emir Timur’s memorial stone was placed there. It was later discovered by the Satpayev expedition in 1936 and transferred to the Hermitage in Leningrad (St. Petersburg today), where it remains to this day.

A copy of this stone was placed on the mountain with inscriptions reading: “In the seven hundred and ninety-third year, the year of the sheep, in mid-spring, Sultan Timur Turan-beg came with two hundred thousand men to challenge the Khan of Bulgaria, Tokhtamysh Khan for the sake of his good name. Upon reaching the area, he built this mound, for it was a sign. May God have justice! God willing! May God have mercy on man! May he bless us!”

Great Mountains

“Ulytau is mineral rich beyond imagination. From the south to the east, the mountain range stretches and at almost every slope, there are deposits of natural resources including tin and platinum amongst many other different types of minerals. Ulytau gave metal to ancient nomads to make weapons,” Kydyrbai Suleimenov, a scholar and a participant of the expedition, said. According to the scientist, the name of the mountains, which is translated as Great Mountains, speaks for itself.

In addition to natural resources, much Kazakh history originated at Ulytau. Today, Ulytau is home to a monument of Kazakh unity, which can be seen on the way to the mausoleums, as it is located at the main road near Zhezkazgan. It is considered the geographic centre of Kazakhstan. 

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