The mausoleum of Ahmad Yasawi was built in the fourteenth century by the emperor Timur (Tamerlane). It was built, in two stages, to commemorate the Sufi poet and teacher Sheikh Ahmad Yasawi, who died in 1166. Yasawi is credited with the conversion of the Turkic-speaking people to Islam, and is commonly known as 'Father of the Turks'. The structure comprises eight main chambers, twenty-seven smaller rooms and some twelve passages, all enclosed within a single building and spread over two floors. The complex includes a mosque, a tomb chamber, a sacred well, a refectory, meeting rooms, a library space and a large assembly hall.
The building stands within the remains of a citadel, which once would have surrounded it. Parts of the mausoleum's external walls were severely damaged by Tsarist troops in 1864, and it has been under continuous restoration since 1907. The most recent effort, financed by the government of Turkey, was carried out between 1992 and 2000, when Kazakh and Turkish experts completed the restoration of the monument. The project attracted considerable public attention, and the government of Kazakhstan has nominated it for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Although the mausoleum is six hundred years old, the building's importance must be considered in a contemporary context: it is a national symbol and the most important historical monument of Kazakhstan (its image appears on every Kazakh currency note). Timur did not complete the building, neither did his successors, and so the edifice is incomplete. Nevertheless, its association with Timur and the historical uniqueness of the building has lifted its status far above that of all other Kazakh monuments.
The basic core of the building was completed by about 1394. During the second stage of construction (1397-99) the upper parts of the mausoleum, including the revetments and the domes, were completed, but the gigantic portal that dominates the front (south) elevation of the building was never finished. Abdullah Khan made significant additions to the mausoleum in 1591 but the bulk of it remained without any ceramic or other decorative finishes. The result is the massive walls of exposed brick masonry that can be seen today.
As with so many of the Timurid structures that were left incomplete when Timur died in 1405, a slow deterioration of the unfinished building over the centuries was more or less inevitable. After its bombardment in 1864 by troops under the command of the Tsarist General Chernyayev, the terrified population sheltering inside surrendered and the region came under Russian rule. Subsequently the shrine was used for many years as a military depot. In 1884 Russian engineers began a series of attempts to survey the damage to the building. These efforts continued irregularly until 1930, but without any serious achievement. During this period the Russian Army also virtually destroyed the adjacent mausoleum of Rabiá Sultan (the daughter of Ulugh Beg), and reused its bricks to construct official buildings.
After the Russian Revolution, a number of Soviet scholars - based initially in Tashkent and subsequently in Almaty - carried out detailed studies of various aspects of the monument. These took place between 1951 and 1989. The findings of these studies greatly increased understanding of Timurid history and architecture, and placed the monument in its position as one of the keys to the architecture of the Timurid world.
The pivotal role of the research material provided by the Soviet investigations of the Yasawi monument cannot be underestimated. It provided vital clues regarding both the theory and practice of Timurid architecture, alongside information about its innovative vaulting techniques and the forms and inscriptions found in its surface decoration. During this period of research, dedicated restorers carried out extensive restoration work; through their efforts the building was substantially stabilized, and much of the surface decoration was brought back to its former glory. The mausoleum thus became one of the most spectacular Timurid buildings in Central Asia.
The final phase of restoration work was carried out between 1992 and 2000. Based on the findings of earlier Soviet and Kazakh research, this last restoration effort, funded by the Turkish government, introduced innovative strengthening and waterproofing techniques which should, at long last, significantly slow down the rate of deterioration.