Ruins of Tuimekent Reveal Significance of Kazakhstan’s Heritage

ASTANA Out of the 33 historical sites in Kazakhstan listed in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), five are situated in the Zhambyl Region, which includes Akobe (Stepninskoye), Kulan, Ornek, Kostobe, and Akyrtas, a mysterious palace complex. Another significant cultural heritage site in the country is the ancient city of Tuimekent, the ruins of which are located 40 kilometers from Taraz on the bank of the Talas River in the Tuimekentskiy Rural District of the Baizak District.

Photo credit: Click to see the map in full size. The map is designed by The Astana Times.

Galiya Alimzhanova, a historian and archaeologist from the Zhambyl Region, spoke with Kazinform about the history of the ancient city and its present condition. 

Can you tell us about the ancient city of Tuimekent?

The Tuimekent archaeological site is a classic medieval city where archaeologists have found intriguing artifacts during excavations. Thanks to the work of the renowned Kazakh archaeologist Madiyar Yeleuov, Tuimekent has been designated as a site of national significance.

Over a hundred ancient cities have been discovered in the southern part of the Zhambyl Region, and this is just the number known to us today. In the region between the Shu and Talas rivers, which corresponds to the present-day territory of the Zhambyl Region, a thriving civilization once flourished, complete with bustling cities and active trade.

People settled in the Talas Oasis because of the abundant rivers that provided a source of water and served as natural barriers against enemies. This area is rich in springs and boasts a lengthy list of valuable minerals. In ancient times, gold and silver mines were developed here, iron was extracted, and ceramic pottery was crafted from the local clay soil.

Who conducted excavations at this site and when?

The city of Tuimekent was initially discovered and studied by Evgeny Kalem, a Russian scholar, in 1890. Kalem was a philologist, orientalist, archaeologist, collector, and traveler in Turkistan.

Subsequently, in 1895, Samuel Dudin, a colleague of the renowned Russian historian Vasily Bartold, provided an account of the city. Dudin was an ethnographer, artist, photographer, and explorer. He described the city, noting that during that era, ‘the fortress was encircled by an earthen rampart and a wide but not very deep moat. The rampart was constructed from large sun-dried bricks, likely prepared on-site using clay extracted from the moat, as Sarts (part of the settled population of Central Asia) and Kyrgyz do when building adobe structures. Evidently, walls once existed in place of the rampart, but over time, they crumbled, significantly diminishing in height, and eventually taking on the form they have today.’

In his travel report to Central Asia, Vasily Bartold proposed that the city of Tuimekent might be considerably older than similar cities. He also recounted a local legend regarding the city’s name origin: ‘Two heroes, a father and a son, worked on constructing the Akhir-tash (Akyrtas complex). The father was engaged in construction, while the son transported stones from the nearby mountains. The father strictly instructed his son not to gaze around, but when the beautiful queen Toyma passed by, the son couldn’t resist stealing a glance, became captivated, and abandoned his work to pursue her. The queen and her entourage hurled clumps of earth at the young man in pursuit, from which seven mounds (Jity-tepe, a complex of seven burial mounds located not far from the site, resembling the seven stars of the Big Dipper) emerged. However, this did not deter the youth. Eventually, the queen, exhausted, collapsed and passed away. To honor her memory, the city was named Toymakent.’

In the 1930s, this site was investigated by the Semirechenskaya Archaeological Expedition of the Kazakh branch of the Institute of Material Culture of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, led by Soviet archaeologist and historian Alexander Bernshtam. Tuimekent underwent further examination in 1986 by the renowned Kazakh archaeologist Karl Baypakov and his team who produced a site plan and gathered a substantial amount of excavation materials.

How old is the city of Tuimekent?

When it comes to dating the city, a precise determination is challenging, and multiple hypotheses exist. One theory proposes that the city was established between the 9th and 13th centuries. However, another version suggests the city might have emerged in the 7th century.

There are two legends regarding the city’s founding. According to one, the founder was Khan Kokshe, who named the city after his daughter Tuime (Button). It is believed that she ruled successfully after his death. Another version attributes the city’s establishment to a merchant named Kaharman and his daughter Tuime.

What did archaeologists discover during their excavations?

Archaeologists discovered a rectangular area measuring 250 by 300 meters, covering 7.5 hectares. The city was enclosed by a wall, with wall widths ranging from four to six meters and heights of up to 30 meters. Thirty watchtowers were located along the entire perimeter of the city, serving as defensive structures.

Positioned in the city’s center was a sizable caravanserai where travelers from distant lands would find lodging. Towards the eastern side, it is presumed that a palace for the ruler once stood.

Among the most noteworthy findings for archaeologists are the so-called “pahsa” blocks. These blocks were made of compressed clay and alternated with regular raw bricks.  This type of construction exhibited exceptional earthquake resistance, suggesting that ancient builders considered the seismic activity in the region and fortified the walls of their structures accordingly.

The ancient city had engineering communication networks that enabled it to provide residents with drinking water not only during peaceful times but also during enemy invasions. Researchers discovered a water pipe that extended for several dozen meters and ran beneath the road at depths ranging from 1.5 to 2 meters. Tuimekent stood as a self-sustaining, fortified city capable of withstanding prolonged sieges by invaders.

Do we know the population of Tuimekent?

According to scholarly assumptions, Tuimekent was primarily inhabited by individuals from Turkic tribes. Concerning population estimates, it is believed that around 1,000 people resided there permanently. Simultaneously, the city hosted numerous merchants and travelers who lodged in the caravanserais.

The sedentary population was engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry, craftsmanship, hunting, and fishing. This once again affirms that the Kazakh ancestors were not predominantly nomadic. They embraced a sedentary lifestyle, practiced diverse crafts, constructed cities and palaces, and extracted and processed valuable minerals.

 What is the current state of the city of Tuimekent?

Presently, Tuimekent is in a state of significant disrepair, with its walls collapsing. The city is located on a vast territory but lacks protective structures and fencing. Consequently, it has already incurred a partial accumulation of waste brought by the residents of the nearby village of Tuimekent. Evident signs of degradation exist due to the construction of a road traversing the city’s territory. This has impacted the southwestern section of the city, leading to its erosion into the Talas River. I am hopeful that the relevant authorities will take an interest in preserving this site and prevent further deterioration. Archaeological excavations remain ongoing, and I anticipate that the most intriguing discoveries at Tuimekent are yet to be revealed.

The article was originally published in Kazinform. 

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