At the crossroads of the Silk Road, Turkmenistan has a rich historical heritage that is greatly unknown to the general public. The country’s isolationist policies and the limited number of tourists it receives contributes to this lack of awareness. From medieval cities in the desert to imposing fortresses, from delicate mausoleums to fine caravanserais, Turkmenistan’s hidden historical gems lie almost forgotten, waiting to be rediscovered.
The few tourists that manage to enter Central Asia’s most isolated country will certainly visit Turkmenistan’s most reputable sites. The oasis of Merv, the ancient Parthian settlement of Nisa or the mausoleums at Konye-Urgench, all of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are the main historical stops of any visitor. Whiles these attractions deservedly take centre stage, Turkmenistan also has other remarkable historic attractions that are barely known. Unfortunately, some of these are out of bounds to visitors, which makes them even more interesting.
Dehistan, a city in the Silk Road
In the arid landscape of Turkmenistan Balkanabat region, once can find the remains of what once was a fine settlement at the heart of the Silk Road: the city of Dehistan. What is now a barren land was centuries ago a lush territory crisscrossed by irrigation canals. Located in the route between northern Iran and Khwarezm, Dehistan flourished between the 10th and 14th centuries as a centre of trade. With its own water supply and sewerage systems, bathouses and brick-paved roads, the city became an important settlement along the caravan routes.
Dehistan thrived under the Khwarezmian dynasty, the ephemeral empire that stretched from the Caucasus to the steppes of Central Asia before it was conquered by Genghis Khan. The city survived the Mongols but later declined as a result of the drying up of the Uzboy river and was finally abandoned in the 15th century. Most of the remains today’s visitors can admire come from the period of the Khwarazmshahs.
Set in a dramatic landscape, Dehistan, which has been in UNESCO’s tentative list for World Heritage Site since 1998, has preserved its defensive clay walls, which surround the settlement’s rectangular shape. The most impressive feature standing against erosion and pillage is the portal of Ala ad-Din Muhammad II’s cathedral mosque and its two remaining 25-metre minarets, one of which can be traced back to the early 11th century (pictured at the top). This was the same monarch who provoked Genghis Khan’s wrath and who was later defeated by the Mongol conqueror.
Around seven kilometres to the north of Dehistan, lies the Meshet cemetery where several medieval mausoleums can be found. The most important of these is that of Shir Kabir. Built at the same time as Bukhara’s Ismail Samani mausoleoum, Shir Kabir stands out with its finely decorated mihrab of carved and coloured stucco.
Dayahatyn, the caravanserai par excellence
While there are no known formal restrictions for tourists to visit Dehistan, besides its remote location, the next site is off limits due to its proximity to the Uzbek border. On the shores of the Amu Darya, the Oxus of ancient times, stands one of the best-preserved caravanserais in the whole of Central Asia.
In the middle ages, caravanserais were important buildings that served as secure places where merchants and other travellers could rest, store their goods and even do business. They played a vital role in the routes that stretched from Constantinople in the west to China in the east. Dayahatyn, in the Turkmen province of Lebap, is a great example.
Originally built in the 9th century as a fortress by the Tahirid dynasty, Dayahatyn was transformed in a caravanserai in the 11th and 12th centuries under the Seljuks. The building itself displays all the characteristics of the caravanserai, with sturdy walls and towers to keep raiders at bay, an inner yard where travellers would first arrive to and a series of rooms, all made of adobe and burnt bricks. One can easily imagine how Dayahatyn would have been during its heyday, as a bustling inn were merchants, soldiers, dervishes and other people from distant corners and cultures met under the same roof.
Despite not being open to visitors, it is worth noting that a US-sponsored conservation project is underway to restore and preserve the caravanserai.
Mane Baba, a tomb for a poet
In southern Turkmenistan, close to the Iranian border, stands the mausoleum of the sufi Abu Sa’id Abu’l-Khayr (967-1049). Known for his poems through which he conveyed his mysticism, Abu Sa’id Abu’l-Khayr was a reputable scholar of his time whose fame extended throughout the Islamic world and was respected by the powerful Seljuk rulers of the time. Despite spending most of his life in Nishapur, he was buried in fine mausoleum in his native village of Miana.
Built during the glorious days of the Seljuk Empire, the mausoleum suffered modifications up until the 15th century. Covering an area of approximately 100 square metres, the building is topped by a dome. Outside, a portal of blue mosaics contrasts with the brown bricks, while inside the dome is painted with geometrical patterns and floral motifs and majolica tiles decorate the inner walls. A fine example of the different architectural styles that evolved in the region during the Middle Ages.
Devkesken, the forgotten capital
Those interested in Central Asian history would probably know about the Khanate of Khiva, but few would know about the town of Devkesen, which became the capital of what would later become the Khanate of Khiva. In the remoteness of Turkmenistan’s northern Dashoguz province, by the Uzbek border, stand the remains of a medieval town that played a key role in Khwarazm’s history.
The settlement was originally established around the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, although what can be seen today belongs mostly to the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was known as Vazir. After Muhammad Shaybani’s defeat by the Safavids, the local rulers of Vazir rebelled against the Persians and the nobleman Ilbars was proclaimed khan. Ilbars then proceeded to rule Khwarazm, including the cities of Urgench and Khiva, from Vazir. Eventually it would be Urgench which would become the capital of the emerging khanate before Khiva became its definite seat, but Vazir retained its importance until before the end of the 16th century, when changes in the flow of Amu Darya led to its abandonment.
Today, Devkesken is an imposing site. Seating on the top of a cliff, the fortress looks down on the desertic plains below. The citadel still towers above the other remains, and the walls and towers are still standing in the northern part of the settlement. Inside, an unnamed mosque and two mausoleums dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries can be found.
Despite Devkesken/Vazir’s potential and regional importance, the site seems to be off limits to visitors due to its proximity to the Uzbek border. As a matter of fact, a view from Google maps, notwithstanding its real accuracy, shows the border cutting through the site.
Turkmenistan is not known for its dazzling monuments as neighbouring Uzbekistan is. However, the country does have a rich historical heritage that is greatly unknown and that the authorities, with its restrictions towards tourism, do not help to promote. The sites above are a simple selection of Turkmenistan’s hidden treasures as there are many more: from the Bronze Age settlement of Gonur Depe to Nadir Shah’s fortress, from the Sassanian city of Abiverd to the ruins of the Annau mosque, plus countless mausoleums spread all over the country. Turkmenistan is a country with heritage which is yet to be rediscovered.