Artifacts of Material History

Khoja Ahmad Yasawi and His Mausoleum

Detail of the tiled Dome of the Khoja Ahmad Yasawi Mausoleum, late 14th c.  (Image in public domain)

Detail of the tiled Dome of the Khoja Ahmad Yasawi Mausoleum, late 14th c. (Image in public domain)

By Aigerim Korzhumbayeva – 

Silent yet loud … The lack of a tongue of this inanimate structure does not let it speak about its past. Yet, historical accounts and legends turn up the volume of this “silence” not letting humanity forget about it.

Far yet close … From a distance, as far as 10 miles away, a marvelous silhouette renders the remoteness closer and guides the tourists on their way to this magnificent structure.

Beautiful yet complicated… Both the exterior and the interior lure the visitors by their beauty yet, few contemplate the numerous complications it underwent in the course of revetments and restorations.

Powerful yet weak … It may look powerful and majestic to a tourist, but a discerning eye of an architect would fear for the fragility of this structure and its likely bleak future.

Famous yet unheard-of … The first monument from Kazakhstan to be included in the List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As fancy as it may sound, words have yet to do their works to spread the stories belonging to this monument across the world.

This legendary structure – the mausoleum of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi is located in the South of Kazakhstan, Central Asia, in the ancient city of Turkestan.  This city once served as the administrative, trade, and cultural center in the region. My first encounter with the mausoleum happened about 10 years ago. Being in high school at the time, I considered my class trip from Almaty (former capital of Kazakhstan) to Turkestan to visit this historical site as a fun journey; perhaps even a “team building” exercise.  Now looking back, it has been growing on me that not only was the trip to the mausoleum a team building journey, but it was also a “spirit building” occasion in my life.

Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi, with portal entrance facade (Image in public domain)
Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi, with portal entrance facade (Image in public domain)

“Who was Khoja Ahmad Yasawi?”, “Why do thousands of tourists, including me, flow to see the mausoleum?”– I kept wondering silently, diverting away my attention from the word games that I played with my classmates, on the bus making our way to the mausoleum.

Khoja Ahmad Yasawi (Yasawi henceforth) was one of the most influential spiritual leaders in Central Asia.  He was a Sufi poet and a mystic who contributed tremendously to the development of mystical orders throughout the Turkic speaking world. Yasawi was born ca. 1094 in the medieval city of Sayram and spent his childhood in the city of Turkestan. In his childhood, Yasawi received spiritual training from one of the greatest Turkic shaykhs, Shaykh Arstan Bab. After the death of Shaykh Arstan Bab, Yasawi continued his spiritual education in Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan), where he received an irshad, the right to teach the Sufic way to reach the truth. (1) Upon completion of his spiritual training, Yasawi returned to Turkestan.

Tiled Portal entrance of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi Mausoleum (Image in public domain)
Tiled Portal entrance of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi Mausoleum (Image courtesy of AZAN Kazakhstan)

Archaeological findings on the territory of Turkestan indicate that this city has a long history dating back to the Bronze Age when it was settled by the inhabitants of the Andronov culture. (2) In the Iron Age, the Syr Darya region, to which Turkestan belongs, was settled by the Scythians (“Saka” in the Achaemenid sources, and “Tura” in the Avesta). (3) The former name of the city was Yasi, presumably after the name of the ancient settlements in the territory. Turkestan and the surrounding region were under control of different powers such as the Turk Khanate (6th century), the Arab Caliphate (8th century), Qarlik, Oghiz, Samanids (9th-10th centuries), and the Turkic dynasty Qarakhanids (10th-11th centuries). (4) Turkestan, being on the crossroads of the Silk Road, served as the destination of a myriad of merchants and craftsmen, wealthy and poor, young and old. According to the 16th-century historian Fazlallah ibn Ruzbihan Isfahani: “goods and wares of precious stones are brought there and trade goes on; it serves as both a place in which merchants distribute goods and cargo and from which travelers depart to countries”. (5)

Throughout his life, as a wise, noble and honest man of high integrity, Yasawi gained significant popularity among Central Asian nomads and urban dwellers. He set a role model for his contemporaries, many of whom, upon various circumstances, would turn to Yasawi for advice and words of wisdom, even if it meant traveling long distances. Yasawi called people to do good, lead a moral and humble lives, and to refrain from luxuries. Turkic people, who at the time had not fully embraced Islam, nevertheless accepted Yasawi as a spiritual leader of their region. It is worth noting that in the 12th century, due to a continual shift in the control of power, Central Asians were undergoing a complicated stage of self-identification and uncertainty regarding many issues, including their religious preference. The Chinese exercised their power over Central Asia at that point and Islam had lost its dominant role. This was different than what had been occurring during the reign of the Arab Caliphate. Nonetheless, due to Yasawi’s unfailing tolerance and influential preaching, he succeeded in spreading Islam through the Sufi order. This could be seen by the rapid increase in the number of his followers.

External ceramic brick arch of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi Mausoleum, in style of Ctesiphon, Iraq (Image courtesy of AZAN, Kazakhstan)
External ceramic brick arch of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi Mausoleum, in the style of Sassanid Ctesiphon, Iraq (Image courtesy of AZAN Kazakhstan)

Yasawi was the eponymous founder of the Yasawi Sufi order. Among the peculiarities of this order one can mention the vocal form of the rites “dhikr-i arra”, and the participation of women in Sufi ceremonies. (6) Yasawi initiated the first Sufi literary work in Turkic language, called Diwani Hikmet (“Book of Wisdom”). It is a collection of mystical stories and poems, which call upon people to lead a noble life and be aware of God. In it the principles of the Islamic worldview and the moral decline of society are narrated (7). Diwani Hikmet, the first mystical work written in Turkic, received wide recognition throughout the Turkic world. Historical accounts indicate that poets in Yasawi Sufi tradition kept updating Diwani Hikmet, as needs emerged. (8) This book was spread across Central Asia by wandering dervishes (Persian word for someone who follows a Sufi Muslim ascetic path through certain rituals), and stories claim to have reached 99 000. (9) Some of Yasawi’s poems describe the various stages of the ecstatic states experienced by Sufis. Here is one example:

In spacious gardens of love to the Almighty

I want to be a nightingale, who at dawn sings its mournful songs.

In those hours I want to see the radiant appearance

Of my God with the eyes of my own heart. (10)

Another example of Yasawi’s Sufi poetry is here:

Let the heart feed on love

The clothing of happiness tame the body

 I want the power of love to rise

 And the bird to descend on the stem of consciousness.  (11)

The poems above, as well as other poems in Diwani Hikmat indicate that Yasawi advocated a spiritual life style, based on self-contentment, love of God, kindness, conscientiousness, piousness, condemnation of greed and hypocrisy. Yasawi’s poems are reminiscent of the world-renowned Rumi’s poems. Jalal-ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273), also known as Mawlana, is another celebrated Sufi master who preached in a similar fashion to Yasawi, and led a spiritual and modest life based on high moral values and strong faith. To Rumi belongs Masnawi, a collection of spiritual poems that teach how to achieve the right path through loving God. While Rumi’s fame spread across the world, Yasawi became known mostly in Central Asia, Asia Minor, Azerbaijan, and the Volga region (12).

It is believed that Yasawi wrote the Diwani Hikmet whilst his retreat in the underground life. Yasawi believed that it was inappropriate for him to be part of a social life when he reached the age of 63. The reason for his decision is explained by Yasawi’s immense respect to the Prophet Muhammad, who passed away at the age of 63. Yasawi, 9 years before his death, retreated to the underground life, where he led a life of contemplation and meditation, and in 1166 he passed away.

Yasawi’s popularity did not cease with the ending of his life. Two centuries after the legendary Yasawi’s death, another legendary figure ordered to build a mammoth construction over Yasawi’s modest grave.  This legendary figure was not another spiritual leader – he was “the owner of the lucky star” Amir Timur (1370-1405), also known as “Tamerlane”, who founded the Timurid Dynasty although he started life modestly and not high-born.  Although medieval legend has also been superimposed on him, Timur was a Turco-Mongol leader who conquered a vast area of land including Central, West, and East Asia.  In the last quarter of the 14th century, Amir Timur established control over the lands along the Syr Darya river (Jaxartes in Ancient Greek, which is claimed to have marked the northernmost limit of Alexander the Great’s conquests), along which Turkestan is located. Amir Timur and his enemy Toqtamish Khan (1376-1395) conducted an extended campaign for the possession of this region. Toqtamish, the khan (ruler) of Altyn Orda (the Golden Horde), during one of his raids, pillaged the grave of Yasawi and robbed the shaykhs living near it. (13) Amir Timur, in an act of revenge, destroyed the forces of Toqtamish khan. With the spoils from the battle, he ordered the construction of a mausoleum over the grave of Yasawi, as a sign of respect to the sacred region.

Decoration of portal entrance to Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi - note Kufic script in arch (Image in public domain)
Decoration of portal entrance to Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi – note Kufic script in arch (Image in public domain)

Amir Timur cultivated profound respect for Yasawi. Prior to receiving his bride Tukel Hanym, the daughter of a Mongol leader Khizr Khoja Khan, Amir Timur left a wonder garden prepared for Tukel Hanym in Samarkand to travel to Turkestan. In Turkestan, Amir Timur performed a ritual of visiting the grave of Yasawi, and distributed gifts and food to the city’s inhabitants. (14) Amir Timur had enormous respect for Yasawi’s Diwani Hikmet as well. Prior to and during the battles against his enemies, Amir Timur would read from the Diwani Hikmet to find out ahead of time whether he would be victorious and also read ahead to gain power. “By means of mediation I knew that if in the course of the war I found myself in a difficult situation, I would only have to read the quatrains herein (of Yasawi) and success would be beyond doubt… I firmly remember these poems, and in the course of battle with Qaysar, I read them over 70 times to myself and gained victory”. (15)

In the light of the above-mentioned, somewhat skeptical historians doubt that Amir Timur’s only intention in building the mausoleum was purely to honor Yasawi. Some historians claim that in building the mausoleum, Amir Timur took into consideration a number of goals and made a shrewd political calculation: “to draw the attention of the nomads to their national shrine, to underscore the political unity of their peoples, who confess Islam, to impress the nomad with the grandeur of the plan, and in carrying it out to represent the might of the empire”. (16)  Timur’s fame even reached Elizabethan England where playwright Christopher Marlowe, author of Doctor Faustus, also wrote his Tamburlaine in 1588, but like Faustus his Timur was not a character who respected religion as much as power.

Interior of dome of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi Mausoleum with muqarna - "honeycomb" - decorations (Image in public domain)
Interior of dome of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi Mausoleum with muqarna – “honeycomb” – decorations (Image courtesy of AZAN Kazakhstan)

No matter what intention Amir Timur had in mind while building the mausoleum, he did succeed in bringing together the nomads around him and around their national shrine. Since the 14th century, Yasawi’s followers started a rite of visiting the mausoleum. Annually, thousands of people would travel to Turkestan to pay a visit to the legendary guru. Over centuries, the visiting rite transformed into a so called pilgrimage, to the extent that many Central Asians who are not mainstream Muslims consider three visits to Yasawi’s mausoleum to be commensurate with the holy pilgrimage to Mecca.

“How was such a powerful construction built?” – I questioned myself, enthralled to see the silhouette of the magnificent building and beautiful blue domes, as the bus was approaching the final destination.

The majority of the construction works led by Amir Timur in Central Asia, have reached our time in ruins, and only Yasawi’s mausoleum was preserved in its entirety. (17) Throughout history, Yasawi’s mausoleum has been much-admired. The famous 16th-centruy historian F. R. Isfahani wrote: “it is one of the most remarkable constructions in the world of architecture and amazing creation of the children of mankind”. (18) M. Ye. Masson, who conducted research on the mausoleum in 1928 remarked: “by plan and design the powerful creation of the mausoleum has no equal in Central Asia. It is unique”. (19) Archaeologist Smagulov, as a result of analyzing a plethora of fragments of engraved terracotta, collected from the roof during renovations in 1994, came to the following conclusion: “The mausoleum of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi, in terms of decorative characteristics, equaled the most elite and modern monuments of its time”. (20) Some of its features include perhaps the most beautiful muqarna or honeycomb decorations famous in Islamic-inspired architecture. This honeycomb decorated feature can be found in the Alhambra of Granada, of Moorish Spain (Al-Andalus), but was even used in the Capella Palatina for the Rogerian kings of Norman Sicily in the 13th century by Islamic architects who were not only tolerated but highly esteemed in the multicultural architecture of Palermo when this city was the most literate and enlightened in Europe, just as Boccaccio wrote in the Decameron.

Timurlane (a Western variant of Timur's name, from Timur the Lame), notice Westernized facial features (Image courtesy of Getty Images and BBC)
Timurlane (a Western variant of Timur’s name, from Timur the Lame), notice Westernized facial features (Image courtesy of Getty Images and BBC)

The mausoleum reaches the height of 128 ft, which corresponds to the height of a modern ten-floor building. The dimensions of the mausoleum are 217 ft by 150 ft. (21) The mausoleum contains a mosque, burial chamber for saints, madrasa (an Arabic word for any kind of educational institution), which allowed those devoted to Islam to study and practice religion under the domes of the mausoleum. There are 34 different rooms, and these rooms contain various exquisite objects such as bronze lamps, engraved doors, a bronze pommel, and a bronze ritual cauldron. From the inscriptions on the walls and various objects found in the mausoleum, it is clear that among construction workers there were many Persian masters, such as Haji Hasan from Shiraz, Izz-ad-Din from Isfahan, and Abd-al-Aziz from Tabriz. Amir Timur gave the charge of this building to Mawlana Ubaydullah Sadr.

The building blocks of the mausoleum, bricks and tiles, were carried by hand from the neighboring city Sawran, situated 25 miles away. (22) At the initial stage of the construction, an unusual event occurred, which puzzled Amir Timur and postponed the construction of the mausoleum. According to lore, after the bricks had been laid down as the base for the

building, either horses or camel from the nearby pastures shattered the bricks, thus annulling the works of construction workers. After a few futile attempts of the construction workers, Amir Timur had a dream. In his dream, an unfamiliar sage man suggested that Amir Timur build a mausoleum for the Shaykh Arstan Bab, Yasawi’s teacher, prior to building a mausoleum for Yasawi. Taking heed of this advice, Amir Timur ordered his workers to build Arstan Bab’s mausoleum. This time nothing prevented the construction work, and Yasawi’s mausoleum was completed successfully in 14 years.

Amir Timur’s dream delivers a valuable message applicable in any period of time, whether it was 7 centuries ago or today. This dream underscores the role of teachers and suggests that they should be upheld highly. It also shows that the achievement of successful people should not be ascribed purely to themselves, but also to their teachers, who guide their students along the way to success.

In the middle of the spacious mausoleum central hall stands a bronze cauldron Taiqazan, a legacy of a wonderful medieval bronze metallurgy. The brilliant work of crafting this Taiqazan belongs to the 14th-century Abd-al-Aziz from Tabriz.  Its height is about the average height of a human being – 61 in, with a width of 96 in. The cauldron weighs two tons and could store up to 661 pounds (23). In the past there was a tradition, every Monday and Friday, to cook a hot meal in the cauldron and to distribute the meal to the servants of the mausoleum, visitors, orphans, poor and the needy.

Ritual bronze cauldron in Khoja Ahmad Mausoleum (Image courtesy of AZAN, Kazakhstan)
Ritual bronze cauldron in Khoja Ahmad Mausoleum (Image courtesy of AZAN, Kazakhstan)

Turkestan, unlike today, served an administrative role in the past, whereas Yasawi’s mausoleum and the adjoining territory served as a place of burials for khans and other representatives of ruling houses – 18 khans and 28 heroes are claimed to be buried there.

Special ceremonies enthroning the Kazakh khans took place in Turkestan. To give you an idea of how these ceremonies were held, listen to the words of Abilay Khan, allegedly one of the most influential khans in the Kazakh khanate history: “…in 1771…all of our distinguished and honorable people, the khans of the Kazakh Uch-Alash, of the city and steppe marches, and also the dignitaries of the Turkestan yurt agreed to place me as leader above the khans. According to the customs and rituals of prior khans, I was elevated to the throne in Turkestan, in which our Holy Khoja Ahmad Yasawi passed away.” (24)  Special ceremonies were held upon the arrival of important guests as well. According to a report from 1744: “As Abilmambet khan made his arrival to the city, such was his reception that almost no one remained in the city…The ceremony was accompanied by musicians of copper trumpets, arranged in a line… and beating tambourines of clay…The khan set off to the city. As he entered, he first rode to the mausoleum in which the saint had been buried”. (25) The tradition of receiving guests in the best possible way has made its way throughout centuries and this tradition remains in Kazakh culture, not only pertaining to high-level guests, but also to ordinary neighbors and relatives.

“How come we still remember and revere Khoja Ahmad Yasawi? Is it possible that 10 centuries down the “time road” anyone that I know present in this life would be remembered in the highest esteem, let alone be remembered at all?” – I pondered, perplexed, somewhat resentful, and overwhelmed by the fact that despite the passing of 10 centuries we still speak in the highest terms about this legendary man.

In order for one to become and remain a legend, a legend at his lifetime and centuries after, one should leave behind meaningful and useful work, varying from tangible testaments, such as an outstanding mausoleum by Amir Timur, to intangible legacies, such as the wise words of Yasawi, which spread across different landscapes and time scopes by the word of mouth. Despite the dissimilarity of the domains with which their names are associated – in Amir Timur’s case – politics and in Yasawi’s – spiritual teaching, and despite their expectations – in Amir Timur’s case – fame and glory and in Yasawi’s case – heavenly reward, Kazakhstan history remembers them equally, as legendary figures, whose lifetime deeds elevated them above the ordinary.

If we are down to earth and realize that the odds indicate that we will most likely not become legendary, it is still worth trying to live a life of a “perhaps-I-will-be-a-legend-one-day.”  That’s because an aspiration to leave behind meaningful and useful work, no matter in what domain or of what impact, stimulates us to serve our relatives and friends, neighbors and colleagues, our country and the globe. And it may result in our generation benefitting from our efforts, and may also result in subsequent generations being grateful for the legacy we leave them. It is our choice – whether we wish to be remembered as the Amir Timur or the Yasawi of our time, but regardless, we should each make the intention to leave a lasting legacy for posterity, in whatever form is most desirable and leaves the most beneficial and enduring touch on humanity and the world at large. That is monumental in itself.




 1.  Из истории архитектурного комплекса Ходжи Ахмеда Ясави.

2.  Смагулов Е.А., Баратов СР. «Предварительные итоги археологических исследований на могильнике эпохи бронзы Шербай».Известия Министерства образования и науки Республики Казахстан,  Национальной Академии наук Республики Казахстан. Серия общественных  наук. 2001, № 1, 38-41.

3.  Шуховцов В. Туран (к вопросу о локализации и содержании топонима) // Взаимодействие кочевых и оседлых культур на Великом Шелковом пути. Алма-Ата: Гылым, 1991, 102-105.

4.  Muminov A.K., Қожа Ахмет Йасауи кесенесі – Мавзолей Ходжа Ахмада Йасави – Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi. 3rd ed. Aлматы: «Эффект» ЖШС, 2011, p.33.

5.  Ibid., p.40.

6.  Гордлевский  В.А. Избранные сочинения. Том III. M., 1962, 367.

7.   Пылев А.И. Ходжа Ахмад Ясави: суфийский поэт, его эпоха и творчество. Алматы: Атамура. 1997, 41-42.

8.    Bekakhmetov Gabit K. “The Yasaviyya Sufi Order and Its Impact on Islam in Central Eurasia.” Term Paper. Religion 146: Islamic Civilization. Duke University. Dec 12, 2005, 4.

9.   “Introduction to “Divani Hikmet”. Türkiye türkçesi. Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı yayınları, 2003.

10.     Muminov, op. cit., p.34.

11.     Muminov, op. cit., p.34.

12.     Muminov, op. cit., p.34.

13.     Массон М.Е. Мавзолей Ходжа Ахмеда Ясеви. Ташкент: Сыр-Дарьинское отделение Общества изучения Казакстана, 1930, 7.

14.     Из истории архитектурного комплекса Ходжи Ахмеда Ясави.

15.    Рахманалиева Р. Тамерлан: эпоха, личность, деяния. Москва: Гураш, 1992, 51.

16.    Массон, op. cit., p.4.

17.   Muminov, op. cit., p.37.

18.  Фазлаллах ибн Рузбихан Исфахани. Михман-наме-йи Бухара (Записки бухарского гостя) / Перевод,    предисловие и примечания Р.П.
Джалиловой. Под редакцией А.К.Арендса.М.: Главная редакция восточной литературы  издательства «Наука», 1976.

19.   Массон, op. cit., p.12.

20.  Muminov, op. cit., p.35.

21.  БасеновТ. Комплекс мавзолея Ахмеда Ясави. Алма-Ата: Өнер, 1982, 39.

22.  Muminov, op. cit., p.37.

23.  Muminov, op. cit., p.37-38.

24.  Масанов Н.Э., Абылхожин Ж.Б., Ерофеева И.В. Научное знание и мифотворчество в современной историографии Казахстана. Алматы: Дайк-Пресс, 2007. p. 57.

25.  Материалы по истории Казахской ССР. Т. II. Под редакцией М.П.Вяткина. Алма-Ата,1948,96.

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