Text by Vitaliy Shuptar
Of the many places in southern Kazakhstan that have been the object of pilgrimage for Muslims over the centuries, probably the most revered is the mausoleum of Khodja Akhmed Yasavi, the poet, thinker, preacher and head of the Yasaviya sufi order, and the khanaka, or gathering place for members of the order, on the same site. UNESCO has acknowledged the importance of the place: in 2004 the site joined UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. But the man, Akhmed Yasavi, has been revered for centuries: his name is rarely used without its customary honorific, Khazret-Sultan, meaning Sultan of Saints. It and he are known throughout the Muslim world.
The khanaka is in the city of Turkestan, a name of obvious resonance for all Turkic peoples. More than 1,500 years old - it went through two changes of name, originally being called Shavgar, and then Yassy, before acquiring its current name - much of its significance derives from the fact that it was in this city that the Kazakh khans who united the Eurasian nomadic tribes into the Kazakh nation had their residences. The khans were crowned here; foreign states sent their embassies here.
Sufism is a mystical extension of early Islam, or, as some might prefer, an exploration of its mystical heart. It advocates the use of contemplation and other mystical pathways to achieve authentic insight into absolute reality and the nature of man and God. By the turn of the 12th century, sufism was thriving in Central Asia as the conversion of the Turkic peoples to Islam proceeded. In this Khodja Akhmed played a significant role.
He is believed to have been born in 1103. He had two important teachers: Arystan-bab, who instructed him in the fundamentals of both worldly and spiritual knowledge; and Khodja Yusuf Khamadany, a Bukharan sheikh, who first taught him how to lead others along the sufi path to truth.
That was when Akhmed returned to Yassy, as it was then called, to head the sufi order that he established there, the Yasaviya order. From that time on he devoted himself to the consolidation of unity among the kindred peoples of Central Asia, the creation of a single stream of spiritual unity out of the multifarious religious currents of the time.
The khanaka’s dimensions are impressive: the main dome and the entrance arches are 37.5 meters high. The khanaka’s longitudinal axis runs from south-east to north-west.
The most important rooms are Khodja Akhmed’s gurkhana, or burial vault; the jamaatkhana, or meeting hall; the mosque; the large and small aksarais, or conference halls; the kitabkhana, or library; the askhana, or dining room; the kudukkhana, which houses the well; and the khudjras, rooms for pilgrims and staff.
Meetings and acts of collective prayer took place in the jamaatkhana, the khanaka’s central chamber, which linked the other rooms. Its dome, measuring 18.2 meters in diameter, is the largest in Central Asia. In the centre of the jamaatkhana stands the ritual cauldron or kazan - a Kazakh word from which is derived an alternative name for this chamber, the kazanlyk. A symbol of unity and hospitality, the kazan is not small: it has a diameter of 2.2 meters and weighs two tons. The size of the kazan was a requirement imposed by a traditional Turkic belief that its rim be at the same height as that of the mouth of a man walking towards it. The kazan is said to have been cast in 1399 by Abdulaziz ibn Sharafutdin, a craftsman from Tebriz, from an alloy of seven metals.
Next door is the gurkhana, or burial-vault, which houses Khodja Akhmed’s gravestone and ashes. In shape, the gravestone resembles an inverted three-level podium. It is faced with tiles of serpentinite and its cornices decorated with carved plaits and icicle shapes. The ceiling is domed to a height of 17 meters, and the outer dome is 28 meters high. At the base of the walls a carved stone plinth supports wainscoting made of green tiles decorated in gold.
Several khans are buried around the khanaka, evidence of the strength of the muslim belief that interment near the grave of a revered person guarantees the latter’s protection.
Khodja Akhmed was not only a spreader of the faith; he was also a philosopher and mystic poet. He wrote his poems in Turkic, which made them, and him, more accessible to the people he addressed. He is either sole author or co-author (this second version gaining weight nowadays) of the Divan-i Khikmet, or Book of Wisdom, a collection of poems on spiritual themes which goes a little further than merely urging his Turkic audience to adopt Islam: it also issues an explicit call for spiritual unity among the Turkic peoples.
Khodja Akhmed died in 1166 or 1167 and was buried in Yasy in the mazar - the name given to the tomb of a revered muslim - which had been built for him. The mazar became a sacred place, a focus of pilgrimage and worship.
In 1397 the construction of a new mazar was begun on the orders of Timur the Great - otherwise known as Tamerlane - and a grandiose khanaka was erected over the grave of the poet. Timur’s death in 1405 halted the work before its completion, leaving interior of the khanaka’s south-eastern entrance hall and of some of the rooms unfinished. The khanaka still stands, in more or less the same state as at the abandonment of the building work more than six hundred years ago.