UNESCO World Heritage Site
Kunya-Urgench also known as Old Urgench in Turkmenistan is an ancient city that stands as a testament to the region’s rich history and cultural significance. Once a glorious capital of the medieval Khorezmshah Empire, the biggest Muslim empire of the late XII – early XIII cc., Kunya-Urgench was the largest city on the northern branch of the Silk Road.
As an UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kunya-Urgench showcases remarkable architectural remnants that reflect the city’s former glory. The site is adorned with majestic mausoleums, towering minarets, ancient fortifications, and intricately carved tombs. These structures, built over several centuries, display a captivating blend of architectural styles, including Persian, Islamic, and Turkmen influences.
Beyond its architectural marvels, Kunya-Urgench is steeped in history and legends. It is said to be the birthplace of the famous poet and philosopher, Al-Khorezmi, who made significant contributions to mathematics and algebra. The city’s intellectual legacy is further enhanced by the presence of mausoleums dedicated to renowned scholars and Sufi saints.
Visiting Kunya-Urgench is a journey through time, allowing travelers to immerse themselves in the ancient wonders of Central Asia. The site’s historical and cultural significance, coupled with its architectural grandeur, make it a captivating destination for history enthusiasts, architecture lovers, and those seeking to connect with the region’s rich heritage.
Kunya-Urgench stands as a living testament to the cultural and historical legacy of Turkmenistan and the Silk Road. Its architectural marvels and archaeological remnants provide a window into the past, allowing visitors to appreciate the city’s former grandeur and its enduring impact on the region’s history and culture.
The exact founding dates of Kunya-Urgench remain uncertain; however, archaeological findings at Kyrkmolla Hill, one of the primary fortresses in the area, indicate a robust settlement as early as the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Early historical records reveal that Khwarezm fell to Arab conquerors in 712 AD, leading to the capture of the capital city, Kath, of the Iranic Khwarazmian Afrighid dynasty.
The city’s glory days came between the 10th and 14th centuries when it became the prominent Khwarezmian capital, supplanting Kath. Known as Gurjanu, this bustling metropolis served as a vital trading hub, rivaling other significant Central Asian cities like Bukhara in terms of fame and population. Its strategic location along major trade routes from south to north and west to east contributed significantly to the flourishing of science and culture in Central Asia.
In the late 19th century, Djordjania or Jorjania was considered the “second capital” of the region. Located on the Wadak canal, possibly marking the eastern end of the Kunya-Darya, this area, which now leads to Sarykamysh Lake, was bordered by a dam that irrigated the region and diverted the flow of the Oxus (Amu-Darya) away from the Caspian Sea. Nevertheless, in 1220, both Jorjania and the dam met their demise during the Mongol invasion, turning the surrounding region into a marsh. Konya-Urgench was later built near or on the site of the former Jorjania.
The city experienced devastation once again in 1221 when Genghis Khan unleashed a brutal attack during the Mongol invasion of Central Asia. This catastrophic event led to the extermination or displacement of most, if not all, of the ancient Iranic Khwarazmian people, paving the way for the Turkification of Khwarazm. Despite the harrowing aftermath, Kunya-Urgench rose from the ashes and reclaimed its former status. Renowned Berber traveler Ibn Battuta, in the 14th century, described it as “the largest, greatest, most beautiful, and most important city of the Turks,” boasting vibrant bazaars, wide streets, numerous buildings, and a wealth of commodities.
However, in 1373, Timur (Tamerlane) launched an attack on Khwarezm, and its ruler Yusef Sufi of the Sufi Dynasty surrendered. Subsequently, in 1379, Yusef Sufi rebelled against Timur, leading to the sacking of Urgench and Yusef Sufi’s demise. Timur once again faced rebellion from the Sufi dynasty in 1388, prompting him to raze Urgench to the ground, massacre its inhabitants, and destroy the city’s irrigation system. Barley was then planted over the site of the former city, with only one mosque spared. This event, coupled with the Amu-Darya River’s changing course, marked the beginning of Kunya-Urgench’s decline, eventually leading to its abandonment in the 16th century when it was supplanted as a regional capital by Khiva.
In the early 19th century, the Turkmen people inhabited the area, but they mainly settled outside the old town, using it primarily as a graveyard. Over time, the site fell into decay, with crumbling grave stones scattered about. However, recent efforts have been made to remove these remnants.
To the southeast, the new town of Urgench developed in what is now present-day Uzbekistan. Alexander Yakubovsky conducted some of the initial archaeological research on the old city site in 1929.
Kunya-Urgench main sights
Mausoleum of Turabek Khanum
One of the most notable attractions in Kunya-Urgench is the mausoleum of Turabek Khanum. This beautiful structure, dating back to the 14th century, features exquisite blue tilework and intricate geometric patterns that adorn its dome and walls. Nearby, the Kutlug Timur Minaret the former highest minaret in Central Asia rises magnificently, standing as one of the tallest brick minarets in Central Asia. Its intricate brickwork and geometric patterns are a testament to the city’s architectural prowess.
The archaeological site of Kunya-Urgench also includes the remains of ancient fortifications, such as the Kunya-Urgench fortress. These fortifications provide a glimpse into the city’s defensive strategies and the historical conflicts it endured.
Mausoleum of Sultan Tekesh
Other significant historical sights of Kunya-Urgench are mausoleum of Sultan Tekesh, a beautiful XII c. mausoleum with one of the earliest portals of the east and a unique cone of a dome; Kyrk-Mollah mound, the fabled al-Mamun’s Academy of Sciences; and mausoleum of Il-Arslan, a tiny precursor of unique Khorezmian mausoleums with a pyramidally conical dome.
The minaret of Kutlug-Timur is one of the most memorable buildings here. It was built in the 11th or 12th century and is 60 meters high. This makes it the tallest monument in the park. The diameter of the minaret is 12 m at the base and 2 m at its highest point at the top.
The age of the minaret was established on the basis of data from the study of decorative brickwork, which contains a number of Kufic inscriptions. Apparently, Kutlug-Timur carried out around 1330 the reconstruction of an already existing structure.
Najm-ad-Din al-Kubra Mausoleum, Sultan Ali Mausoleum and Piryar Vali Mausoleum Complex
The complex stands at the heart of Kunya-Urgench, the new city. Among its notable structures is the mausoleum of Najm ad-Din al-Kubra, an impressive monument erected during the first half of the 14th century. Named after the esteemed philosopher, artist, doctor, chess master, and commander, Najm ad-Din Kubra, who founded the renowned Sufi order of Kubravia. The mausoleum underwent reconstruction both during Khorezm’s flourishing period and following the devastation caused by the Mongol invasion.
Adjacent to it lies the mausoleum of Sultan Ali, who reigned in the 16th century. This hexagonal marvel boasts a grand dome, boasting an impressive diameter of 9.5 meters. Towards the western side, you’ll find the mausoleum of Piryar Vali, a contemporary of Najm al-Din al-Kubra. Constructed between the 13th and 14th centuries, this mausoleum stands 6.5 meters tall and stretches 7.5 meters in length.