Our knowledge of the early history of settlement here is sketchy.
Following the Arab invasion of Khorezm in 712 the town, known as Gurganj, gradually developed in importance thanks to its favorable position on trading routes between China and the Volga. It became the capital of Khorezm in 995, taking over from the city of Kath, following the triumph of the Emir of Gurganj against the last ruler of the Afrighid dynasty. The latter was murdered, the Emir of Gurganj took over his title of Khorezmshah, and Kath was destroyed by the capricious waters of the Amu Darya. Gurganj, in contrast, thrived. In the first part of the 11th century, under the reign of Ma’mun II, it became one of the major centres of learning and culture in the Islamic world, the home to scholars such as Avicenna and Al-Biruni. Gurganj then briefly fell under the control of the Ghaznavids, but, following the latter’s defeat at the hands of the Seljuks in 1040, became a remote outpost of the Seljuk Empire. It again grew in importance as the capital city of the Khorezmshahs, a dynasty which gradually broke free from the shackles of the Seljuk Empire, and which by the end of the 12th century had eclipsed it. Indeed, in a reversal of fortunes, Gurganj now controlled Merv. This was a golden age for the city, known by the Turkic peoples as Urgench, with trade routes flourishing, especially the western route to the Volga. The Khorezmshah, Mohammed II, saw himself as a latter-day Alexander the Great, and set about further expanding the boundaries of his empire.
This period of prosperity came to an abrupt end at the hands of the Mongols. Genghiz Khan reportedly began with some ostensibly favorable gestures towards Mohammed II, including by sending to him a lump of gold said to be the size of a camel’s hump. But Mohammed took offence at Genghiz Khan’s reported comment that he was ready to treat the Khorezmshah ‘as he would his sons’, since this seemed to imply a relationship of subordination. When the Khorezmshahs intercepted a caravan sent by Genghiz Khan at the frontier settlement of Otrar, they murdered the merchants. This was not, perhaps, tactically wise. Genghiz Khan launched an assault against Mohammed II in 1219, first razing Otrar to the ground. In 1221, after a siege of seven months, the Mongols took Urgench, destroying the buildings, slaughtering male occupants and enslaving the young women and children.
Thanks to its favorable geographical location, Urgench recovered importance relatively quickly, becoming the capital of the eastern province of the Golden Horde. The Arab traveller Ibn Battuta, visiting in the 1330s, found it again a great city. But history was to repeat itself. The ascendant Timur, known in the West as Tamerlane, was concerned about the challenge posed by the Sufi dynasty which now controlled Urgench. He pillaged the city in 1379, and then completed the job in 1388, razing Urgench to the ground and ordering that barley be sown over the site. The city was never to recover. Subsequent centuries brought unfavourable shifts in the course of the Amu Darya. In the 17th century the Uzbek Khan Abulghazi shifted the water-starved population to a new location in the east of the oasis, close to Khiva. Thus was born the new town of Urgench, in present-day Uzbekistan. The old capital became known as Konye-Urgench (‘Old Urgench’).
Konye-Urgench made a minor rally in the 19th century, thanks to the construction of the Khan Yap irrigation canal by the Khans of Khiva, and gradually settled into the agricultural centre it is today.
Mausoleum of Nedjmeddin Kubra
A short walk to the west, along a fenced path through the graveyard, brings you to an attractive ensemble of buildings. The most important is the Mausoleum of Nedjmeddin Kubra, the founder of the Kubravid school of Sufism, who was born in Khiva in 1145, and died here at the hands of the Mongols in 1221. The 14th- century mausoleum has a delightful portal, with blue and turquoise tiles in geometric, floral and calligraphic designs. Local guides will tell you that the outward lean of the portal is not a sign of future collapse, but a deliberate architectural feature, to symbolise the building bowing down in prayer. Let us hope they are right. Nedjmeddin Kubra’s tomb itself is in two parts: the larger for his body, the smaller one for his head, which was separated by the Mongols. The tombs are covered with fine majolica tile-work, but this is covered over by velvet cloths. The mausoleum is a major place of pilgrimage: visitors circle it three times, touching the walls and then their foreheads while reciting prayers, before entering.
Mausoleum of Soltan Ali
Standing opposite the Mausoleum of Nedjmeddin Kubra, and forming a harmonious composition with it, is the Mausoleum of Soltan Ali. This domed building, with cracks in its exterior walls and an altogether rather parlous appearance, is one of the most puzzling of Konye-Urgench. Some researchers date it to the 14th century, others to the 16th. Soltan Ali himself, to whom the building may, or may not, have been dedicated, was a local governor who died in 1565. The building was never completed: the wooden beams protruding from the facade may have been required for decorative tiling, which was not in the event applied. One theory runs that the building was commissioned by Soltan Ali’s successor, one Haji Mohammed Khan, who was forced to flee Urgench in the 1580s by the advance of the forces of the Khan of Bukhara. The building is usually kept locked. The portals of the Mausolea of Nedjmeddin Kubra and Soltan Ali suggest two elderly gentlemen, politely bowing to each other.
Mausoleum of Piryarvali
Immediately to the west of the Mausoleum of Nedjmeddin Kubra stands the heavily restored Mausoleum of Piryarvali, a brick-built domed structure with the large portal typical of the Konye-Urgench Mausolea. The building is often kept locked but, if you are able to get inside, you will be confronted with four adjacent cenotaphs, one of which is said to mark the grave of Piryarvali, a disciple of Nedjmeddin Kubra and the father of a well-known Khorezm poet and wrestler named Pakhlavan-Ata. The others are by local tradition ascribed to three sheikhs; Attar Vali, Duyar Vali and Daniyar Vali. A grave along the northern wall of the mausoleum is said to be that of Piryarvali’s brother, Pir Attar Vali, the patron of confectioners. A series of burial vaults were found close to the Piryarvali Mausoleum during its reconstruction in 1989.
Around the main Mausolea are various other graves, many linked popularly to the names of disciples of Nedjmeddin Kubra or to local rulers. This graveyard, locally known as the ‘360’, a reference to the membership of the Kubravid school of Sufism, is the nucleus of the more modern cemetery which surrounds the site. Several of the older graves are associated with rites of shrine pilgrimage. For example, next to the two conical graves just to the north of the path running to the Nedjmeddin Kubra Mausoleum stands a tree, bent by the wind in the direction of the tombs. The tree is said to have special powers in the treatment of children’s ailments: you may see parents splashing into the faces of their children water from the little pool at its base.
Mausoleum of Turabeg Khanum
The Mausoleum of Turabeg Khanum has an imposing south- facing portal, some 25m high. Behind this is a domed lobby, with a spiral staircase (locked to visitors) to the right. The main chamber beyond is hexagonal in plan, with tall arched niches on each wall. The mosaic on the underside of the dome is stunning, its design apparently involving 365 interlocking geometric figures, one for each day of the year. The preponderance of dark blue in the design, and the fact that most of the figures are star shapes, give the viewer the impression of looking up at a stylised night sky. There are 24 arches running along the drum below the dome, one for each hour of the day. A line of 12 larger arches running around the chamber below suggests the number of months in the year. The overall message seems to be of the insignificance of humans when set against the great natural order.
The building has a 12-sided external plan, its outside walls enlivened by tall niches. Little remains of the exterior dome, which some researchers believe may have been conical in shape, save for a small corner of turquoise tiling, offering a tantalising hint of the beauty of the original roof. Turabeg Khanum was the daughter of Uzbek Khan, under whose rule the Golden Horde converted to Islam, and the wife of Gutlug Timur, a governor of Urgench in the early 14th century. There is speculation among researchers as to whether the building had in fact anything to do with her. Some researchers believe that it was a mausoleum of the rulers of the Sufi dynasty, dating from the second half of the 14th century. Others point to the unusually well-illuminated interior, the presence of structures with a possible defence function (such as a small room opposite the staircase which has been described as a guard room), and the absence of cenotaphs to argue that the building may have been a palace, not a mausoleum.
Mausoleum of Seyit Ahmet
Many of the key monuments are grouped along a path which runs southeast from the car park. The first building you come to, south of the path, is the Mausoleum of Seyit Ahmet. A modern reconstruction of a 19th-century mausoleum, this is a twin-domed brick building, the cenotaph lying in the second and larger of the two chambers. It is linked by popular tradition to Sheikh Seyit Ahmet, who died around 1308 and played a major role in the Islamisation of the Mongol Khans of the Golden Horde.
Gutlug Timur Minaret
The next monument reached is the Gutlug Timur Minaret, which at almost 60m is the tallest medieval structure in Central Asia, apparently. It was even taller before recent reconstruction work, aimed at stabilising the still somewhat unsafe-looking structure, had the effect of reducing the height by a couple of metres. The minaret is an attractive, tapering column, some 12m in diameter at the base, but just 2m wide at the top, on which a long-vanished wooden balcony would once have stood. There are 18 horizontal bands of decoration, some incorporating blue majolica tiles. There are three bands of inscriptions in Kufic script, one of which links the minaret with Gutlug Timur and his father-in-law Uzbek Khan. This led researchers to date the monument to 1320-30. But it is now believed that the minaret is much older, probably dating to the 11th or 12th century, and that Gutlug Timur’s role was limited to ordering its reconstruction.
Mausoleum of Sultan Tekesh
Some 200m further on sits the Mausoleum of Sultan Tekesh, which dates from the end of the 12th century, or the beginning of the following one. Tekesh, who ruled from 1172-1200, turned the Khorezmshahs into a major power, his conquests including Khorasan in present-day northern Iran. The building, which has been recently restored, is square in plan, with a distinctive conical dome above a 24- sided drum. The beautiful turquoise tile-work that still adorns the dome explains one local name for the building, Gok Gummez (‘Blue Dome’). The ‘stalactite’ decoration adorning the arch above the main doorway is also particularly fine. The building is sometimes known as the Mausoleum of Sheikh Sheref, following a local tradition as to its occupant. The absence of a cenotaph here has led some researchers to speculate that it was not a mausoleum at all, but a temple complex or palace of the Khorezmshahs. But architectural and written evidence mostly supports the attribution of the building as the Mausoleum of Sultan Tekesh, which according to one contemporary source formed part of a large complex built by Tekesh, including a madrasa and a library.
To the northeast of the Tekesh Mausoleum stands a low hill, covering some 3ha and never much more than 12m in height. The hill bears the curious name of Kyrk Molla (’40 Mullahs’). Excavations along its western slope have revealed the inclined walls of a fortress, punctuated by square towers. This is believed to be the ancient heart of Gurganj: some finds here have been dated to the 5th century BC. Researchers believe that the fortress was destroyed on the arrival of the Arabs in the 8th century. Local legends surrounding the name of the place are based around the 40 mullahs as wise teachers, leading to suggestions that this may have thereafter been the site of an important madrasa or even the fabled Academy of Ma’mun. One tale runs that, with the dreaded Mongols fast approaching, the 40 mullahs prayed that the rare and beautiful books of the Academy be spared. Their prayers were answered by the Academy suddenly turning upside down, so that its doors were underground, out of reach of the Mongols. And this, the tale concludes, is how the hill was formed. The great books remain below ground, waiting to be uncovered.
Kyrk Molla, which was later the site of a cemetery, is one of the most atmospheric places in Konye-Urgench, and an important pilgrimage destination. The branches of wizened trees are covered in strips of cloth. Crows caw. Human skulls stare out from the excavated western slope of the hill. Across the top of the hill are hundreds of little stone huts, and miniature cradles fashioned from pieces of cloth, the legacy of wishes made here. On the eastern side of the hill, you may see groups of girls rolling each other down the slope, an activity said to promote fertility, though it appears more likely to have the opposite effect.
Mausoleum of II Arslan
Back on the main path, and following it south from the Tekesh Mausoleum, you reach the Mausoleum of II Arslan, the favourite Konye-Urgench monument of many visitors. Dated to the middle of the 12th century, the mausoleum is square in plan, with a beautifully decorated eastern faсade, offering Arabic inscriptions and floral designs in terracotta. Like that of the Tekesh Mausoleum, the cupola is conical in form, but unusually that of the II Arslan Mausoleum retains the 12-sided structure of the drum below. The cupola is decorated with turquoise tiles, set in a playful zig-zag design. The mausoleum is identified locally as that of Fahr ad-Din Razi, a well-known scientist of the 12th century, but he is known to have died in Herat around 1209. The building might nonetheless have been built in honour of Fahr ad-Din Razi, but some historians, looking for a suitably important person who actually died in Gurganj at the right time, have suggested that the tomb may be that of the Khorezmshah II Arslan, father of Tekesh, who ruled 1156-1172. The scholar Az Zamakhshari has also been suggested as a possible occupant.
The above itinerary covers the most impressive sights of Konye-Urgench. But if you have the time, and Khorezm fatigue has not set in, the path continues southwards to more monuments of interest. The remains of moated walls here enclose Dash Gala, the pre-Mongol settlement which may later have formed the citadel of the larger city of Urgench. Inside Dash Gala, not far from the site of its north gate, is the stump of the Ma’mun Minaret. It was built in 1011, making it the oldest structure in Gurganj of which anything is standing, but probably collapsed during an earthquake at the start of the 13th century. A new, taller minaret, believed to have been some 55m high, was built around the remains of the old one, but this in turn was brought down by an earthquake, although not until 1895. Archaeologists in the 1950s unearthed around the site evidence of the Friday Mosque of which the minaret would have been part. According to tradition, the mosque in its heyday could accommodate 40,000 worshippers.
Continuing further south along the main path, you reach the most substantial standing monument within the Dash Gala site. This is a heavily restored arched gate, leading nowhere. Traditionally known as the Caravansaray Gate, the structure, with elegant blue and turquoise tile-work decorating the underside of the arch, seems rather too grand to have been built as the entrance to a caravansaray. Researchers have suggested that it might have formed part of an important madrasa, or a palace of the Khorezmshahs.
To the east of the Caravansaray Gate, just outside the confines of Dash Gala, is the fortress known as Ak Gala. Its southern wall ran alongside the old channel of the Amu Darya, making a formidable defensive barrier. The fragments of mud-brick wall which survive along its 1km perimeter reach a height of up to 8m. These probably date to no earlier than the 16th century, but are built on top of earlier walls, destroyed by Timur. Researchers have speculated that this fortress may have been the Keshk-i-Ahchak mentioned by a 13th-century scholar as one of two monuments of Urgench (the other being the Tekesh Mausoleum) not destroyed by the Mongols.
The rectangular fortress of Khorezm Bagh lies in the southwest corner of the archaeological site, west of the Ashgabat road. It is a relatively recent monument, though built on the site of a citadel which probably dates to the time of the Golden Horde. It was built on the order of a khan of Khiva named Mohammed Emin, who decided in 1846 that he would make Konye-Urgench his place of residence. This plan was terminated abruptly by Mohammed Emin’s death in battle in 1855, and that was it for Khorezm Bagh.