Ismamut-ata complex of religious buildings at the southern edge of the oasis is one of the most atmospheric places of shrine pilgrimage in Turkmenistan, and deserves to be much better known.

It lies 13km south of the district capital of Georogly, a couple of kilometres beyond the main settlement of the Zaman Peasants’ Association. The complex, which is surrounded by a large graveyard, has been constructed on the ruins of the medieval Khorezm settlement of Eshretkala. ‘Eshret’ means ‘pleasure’, probably reflecting the feelings of those travellers on Silk Road caravans upon reaching the first settlement of the Khorezm Oasis after their wearying journey across the Kara Kum Desert.

There is a modern brick-built gate, alongside which are rooms offering basic overnight accommodation for pilgrims. The historic complex is a little way beyond, a whitewashed ensemble of buildings of different periods, the oldest built no earlier than the 16th century. Pass through a carved wooden door to enter an attractive courtyard, around which lie a series of small rooms, each bearing an old door of carved wood. These rooms have domed ceilings, fireplaces with blackened walls, and wooden second floors, looking rather like bunk beds. This part of the complex appears to be a madrasa or a hostel for pilgrims. At the far side of this courtyard, climb five steps, passing through a wooden screen, to reach the summer mosque. This features a covered rectangular space to your left, dominated by two beautifully carved wooden pillars, tapering to narrow bases in the Khivan style. To the right is a kitchen, with circular brick constructions in which cooking pots would have been placed.

Beyond the summer mosque lies the winter one, a domed building with four large arched spaces giving a cruciform design. Stairs in the corner lead up to the roof, from which the call to prayer once sounded, and which now offers an excellent view across the roofs of the complex to the desert beyond. Latticed windows beneath the dome give the building a tranquil light.

On the left side of the mosque complex is a long, narrow building topped by a line of seven white domes, and leading to a domed mausoleum at the far end. This long building is known as the dashkeche (‘stone street’). It is an enclosed corridor, along which runs a green carpet. Pilgrims visiting the mausoleum walk the corridor backwards on their return, so that the most sacred place remains always in sight. Arched niches along the sides of the corridor may represent places of burial. There is a four-domed lateral corridor to the right, close to the eastern entrance of the dashkeche. This leads to the western side of the winter mosque, though the connecting door is often kept locked.

The mausoleum is entered by a small anteroom, behind which lies the cloth- covered cenotaph of Ismamut Ata, in a locked chamber. A prayer chamber leads off to the left, from which an internal window offers pilgrims a sight of the cenotaph. So who was Ismamut Ata? Legend has it that he was actually two people. The story runs roughly as follows, though there are several versions. A young man named Isim was a contemporary and follower of the Prophet Mohammed, and volunteered to set off for Khorezm, to convert the peoples of the oasis to Islam. Accompanied by just 40 men, Isim reached Eshretkala, where he had little difficulty in persuading the local sultan, named Mahmut, to take up the Islamic faith. Isim then died, and Mahmut organised lavish burial arrangements for him, reasoning that, by so doing, successor generations would remember his name alongside that of Isim. So it proved, and the name Ismamut is said to be a shortened form of the two names: Isim and Mahmut. Scholars, however, have been unable to find record of a historical figure called Isim, and point out that ‘Isim’ is simply a word meaning ‘name’. There have been suggestions that ‘Isim’ may be a figure named Said ibn Musaib, but there is no record of the latter ever having been involved in the Islamisation of Khorezm, and the identity of Ismamut Ata remains a mystery.

A few hundred metres away, legend has it that Duldul, the fabled winged horse of Imam Ali, was pastured in the woodland here. The faithful used to bring their horses to a certain tree, considered sacred, and circle the horses three times around the tree to receive protection. The practice continues today, but now with motor vehicles rather than horses. Around a dry tree, marked with a couple of white flags, a large number of car tracks, drawing a tight circle, attests to the continued popularity of the tradition.