The mausoleum of Khwaja Ahmad Yasawi, the founder of the Yasawiyya Sufi order is located in the southern Kazakh city of Turkestan. Built during the reign of Mongolian conqueror Tamerlane (Timur-i Lang) (1370-1405), the construction of the mausoleum spanned almost sixteen years of his rule from 1389 to 1405, with unfinished portions remaining until the present day. Yasawi, a Sufi poet and teacher is credited with the conversion of the Turkish speaking people of Kazakhstan to Islam, and is commonly known as 'Father of the Turks'. His shrine is a national symbol and one of the most important historical monuments in Kazakhstan, with its image appearing on every Kazakh currency note.
The mausoleum stands within the former citadel, in the northeastern part of the ancient town of Yasi (Turkestan), presently an open archaeological site. On the north side, the complex is separated from the new town by a section of the ancient citadel wall, which was reconstructed in the 1970's. While the south side of the complex is occupied by a protected natural area, the modern city of Turkestan surrounds it on the remaining other sides.
The mausoleum was built by the order of Tamerlane to replace an older and smaller twelfth century structure dedicated to the same saint. The portal of the shrine was later completed by Shaybanid ruler Abdullah Khan (1583-1598) in 1591. In the early nineteenth century, Khudayar Khan of Kokand (1845-1875) had turned the mausoleum into a fortress by building a wall around it. The 1864 bombardment of the city by Tsarist troops severely damaged the external walls of the complex. The shrine was subsequently used as a military depot by the Soviets after which it has been under continuous restoration since 1907. A recent restoration and publicity effort, financed by the government of Turkey, was carried out between 1992 and 2000, until the monument was finally added to the World Heritage list in 2003.
The mausoleum is rectangular in plan (forty-six meters by sixty-three meters), comprising of eight main chambers, twenty-seven small rooms and twelve passages, all enclosed within a single building and spread over two floors. The complex is aligned along the southeast-northwest axis consisting, in order of visit, a magnified portal, a large assembly hall (kazandyk), the Khwaja's tomb chamber (gur khana) and several ancillary structures flanking the axis, such as a refectory (ash khana), library (kitab khana), small palace (aq saray), a mosque and a sacred well. Its skyline reaches thirty-eight meters at its highest, defined by the arrangement of the colossal portal and the dome of the assembly hall. The lack of surface treatment on the portal and the incomplete minarets flanking its sides give evidence to the unfinished state of the monument.
The main entrance to the complex is from the southeast through the deep portal niche into the large square assembly hall (eighteen square meters), which is covered with a conical dome, the largest in Central Asia. The dome is clad with a mosaic of light blue tiles on the exterior and is raised on a square and octagonal drum to the height of the portal. The center of the assembly hall is occupied by a bronze cauldron (kazan, dated 1399) used for rituals. To the northeast and southwest sides of the hall are two dark pairs of small rooms that probably served as rooms for confinement and reflection (chilleh khanas). Beside these, but entered only from the northern corridors are rectangular rooms with arched recesses. The larger room to the southwest serves as a library. The one to the northeast is known as the 'small palace' (aq saray). In the southern corner of the building is a narrow, rectangular kitchen (khalim khana), which has three two-story units. In the eastern corner is a large square room with a well and only one two-story unit (kuduk khana).
The tomb chamber of Khwaja Ahmad Yasawi is located on the northwest axial terminus. Its center is occupied by the sarcophagus of the Sufi saint. The chamber has a double dome with green and golden decorated tiles that cover the outer ribbed dome. The drum of the dome is tiled with hexagonal green glazed tiles adorned with geometric patterns in gold. To the southwest of the tomb is a small mosque of rectangular form with very deep arched recesses. Cut into these four corners outside these alcoves are four sets of staircases. The mosque is covered by a dome resting on arches. The mosque has a mosaic faience mihrab. The mausoleum and the mosque are also entered directly from the portals on the northwest façade.
The decoration of the shrine complex is concentrated on the exterior. The interior decoration is limited to plaster muqarnas, carvings in the dome surface and pendentives of the assembly hall, the mausoleum and the mosque. The dados of the assembly hall and mosque are formed of hexagonal green tiles. Almost all of the exterior ornamentation is in glazed tile. The large surfaces of the north, east and west facades are covered in brick mosaic (hazarbaf), forming great expanses of geometric patterns with some Kufic inscriptions. Though each façade has a different all over pattern, they are tied together through a continuous stone mosaic band at the base made of geometric patterns on haft rangi tiles. The three facades are also consolidated by a continuous Nakshi inscription that runs below the crenelated parapet of the roof, executed in brick mosaic.
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Hillenbrand, Robert. Islamic Architecture: Form, Function and Meaning, 303-305, 530 (plan). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994.
"Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, Kazakhstan, No 1103" Unesco. 2003. Website. http://whc.unesco.org/archive/advisory_body_evaluation/1103.pdf [Accessed December 8, 2004]