“Autumn … Clouds … The Earth is beautiful.” For almost 1,000 years this line in Arabic alphabet Kufic script has decorated the patterned column of the famous Aisha Bibi mausoleum.
To date, 28 versions of the legend of Aisha Bibi have been told from generation to generation. A most popular tragic legend tells the story of young Karakhan Muhammad, batyr (warrior) and ruler of Taraz who loved beautiful Aisha, the daughter of Muslim saint Zengi Baba and Anvar Begim. She responded with the same passionate feelings. Muhammad soon returned to Taraz and the beauty, deciding to see her beloved, asked her parents for a blessing. Aisha’s actions were contrary to the laws of Islam and angry Zengi Baba gave her a terіs-bata (reverse blessing), prohibiting her to go to Muhammad.
Nothing could stop the brave girl. At night Aisha Bibi and her babysitter Babaji Khatun quietly left the house to make their way to Taraz. They stopped to rest on the shore of the Asa River, where a venomous reptile killed Aisha Bibi. Mourning over his beloved, Muhammad buried her on the hill and the most talented craftsmen were invited to build a beautiful mausoleum over the grave.
After her burial, Babaji Khatun remained as the grave guardian until her own death. In recognition of this extraordinary love and fidelity, Babaji Khatun was ranked at her death as a saint and buried 20 steps from Aisha Bibi’s grave. The mausoleum was also erected over the tomb.
By the mid-twentieth century, only a wall with a lancet arch entrance and two columns decorated with nearly 70 patterns showing plant-geometric motifs remained from the mausoleum. The decoration of the tomb and its architectural proportions are unique and even this part of the preserved masterpiece demonstrates the highest skill and rich artistic imagination.
The secret of the monument’s longevity is still unknown, although some researchers have guessed about it. There are many ancient, majestic buildings in the world which time could not destroy. The Aisha Bibi mausoleum was made from burnt clay bricks, which scientists have tested to determine their composition. There is nothing special – just clay and sand, but the particles are bonded to each other with a tremendous force and so far have not weakened. Medieval craftsmen used an unknown composition of natural origin as cement, which eventually disappeared.
The Aisha Bibi mausoleum is the only architectural monument in Kazakhstan and Central Asia fully lined with carved terracotta tiles. Its uniqueness is the fact that the tiles were not glued to the bricks, the method used by the craftsmen who built the world-famous Sanjar Sultan mausoleum in Turkmenistan, for example. The tiles were the front parts of the elongated elements and the rumps, or 20-40 centimetre “tails,” were pinched to the masonry. That’s why the patterns have not fallen from the walls and columns, as happened to many ancient structures.
Restorers first tried to save the dying mausoleum about 30 years ago by hiding it under a glass sarcophagus, but the new terracotta tiles, made in haste, were barely a pale copy of the real ones. In summer 2002, the Kazakh government decided the fate of the mausoleum. The sum of 76 million tenge (US$407,712) was allocated for its recovery, with the work entrusted to Nishan Rametov, the best restorer in the country.
“I was warned not to rush, although it was tempting to revive the mausoleum by the 2,000th anniversary of Taraz. For the anniversary of the oldest city in the country we managed to remove the glass cover, restore the beautiful exterior and interior of the dome, strengthen the foundation and remake three walls which were restored in 1983,” said Rametov.
Numerous commissions in Moscow and Tashkent considered the restoration project, developed by architects over 30 years ago. They offered to preserve the remaining part of the mausoleum and build exactly the same mausoleum next to it, as it is practiced in Japan. They finally approved the project presented by renowned Kazakh architect Aben Itenov. The most eminent Turkestani masters cast bricks and carved patterns for Aisha Bibi, creating new tiles that were almost indistinguishable from the old ones. Clay was taken from a pit near the ancient city of Sauran, which has no harmful impurities and a composition similar to the one used by the ancestors. The technology is also as close as possible to the medieval, although the secret of the recipe could not be solved.
The new dome was doubled. The inside dome, seen upon entering the mausoleum, is false. There is emptiness behind it and the vacuum protects the inner surface of the main dome from destruction. Humidity and temperature changes can damage only the false dome, which is low and easy to restore. That is why the ancient masters, erecting similar structures, used this technique.
Today, the Aisha Bibi mausoleum, like other ancient monuments, is protected by the state. According to legend, on windy days the mausoleum sometimes sounds like an organ. They say this is the sound of the souls of craftsmen who created the pottery patterns. There are 70 patterns, as there were 70 craftsmen of different nationalities, which is why their works are not alike.