Konye Urgench (Old Urgench) which joined UNESCO list in 2005, is one of the most important archaeological locations in Turkmenistan (the other being Merv). It lies in the site of the ancient Persian Empire and was inhabited since 4th century BC. It rose to a powerful city during the middle ages - as an important center on the famous Silk Road. In the 13th century, Urgench was invaded by the Mongols who leveled the city to the ground. Nevertheless, it regained its previous, strong position and remained that way until the 16th century when the people slowly started to abandon it. The new settlement (New Urgench) was founded some 160 km (100 miles) to the south (which is now Uzbekistan).
How to get to Konye Urgench
Konye Urgench is situated around 100 km (60 miles) from the city of Dashoguz. Although it's extremely cheap to travel between the capital Ashgabat (which is probably world's strangest capital - all in marble - see my full post about Ashgabat here) and Dashoguz, due to the low prices of fuel - even flights are very affordable for local people, in practice it's not that straightforward.
It's because the visa requirements - to get to Turkmenistan and travel around places like Dashoguz, you must book a tour with one of the travel agencies. To obtain the visa itself, however, is not that difficult and very little paperwork is required. Also, in Turkmenistan virtually no one speaks English - so getting around without a driver may be difficult. And the last thing is - the vast size of archaeological sites - there's no way you can walk around - you must have someone who will drive you around. If you need any more info about traveling and booking a tour in Turkmenistan, contact me here.
Visiting Konye Urgench
Since Konye Urgench was abandoned a few centuries ago, it has remained literally untouched. Only small villages are strewn around the area. The fortifications and ordinary buildings of the former empire were made from clay and mud and did not survive due to the weather conditions and lack of restoration works.
Only a few of the most hardy and important monuments built with bricks, like mosques, minarets and mausoleums exist to this day. The whole area is located within the Karakum desert which is responsible for very dry, harsh climate and covers most of the territory of Turkmenistan. Thus, the region might look a bit grey and depressing, surrounded by the vastness of wastelands dotted with ill-looking shrubs.
Nevertheless, the Konye Urgench ruins, just as the whole of Turkmenistan are extremely exciting and for those who love undiscovered places, different cultures and ancient sites - it's a perfect destination! During the whole day we spent at Old Urgench, we didn't meet even one tourist - only the local people who came to the site to pray. It was, I think, the most authentic place I had ever traveled to.
The site is divided into two parts. In both of them, you can visit the most important monuments of the bygone greatness of Konye Urgench. They two sites are, however, located quite far from one another and you'll have to drive to see them both.
The first site lies near the beautifully decorated Turabek Khanum Mausoleum, which is the most magnificent there. There are also a few smaller constructions worth noticing. All of them date back to the 11th-14th centuries. It was clear to see, unfortunately, how neglected the site had been left. However, I noticed some renovation works in progress.
A little path that leads from Turabek Khanum Mausoleum will take you to the highest and most striking structure still standing today in Old Urgench - the Kutlug Timur Minaret. Further on, you'll see smaller mausoleums - Takesh Mausoleum and II Arslan Mausoleum (the oldest mausoleum in Urgench).
In the second site, there is only one, but in my opinion, the most beautiful archaeological complex of Old Urgench. It's a few kilometers away from the previous site. It dates back to the 14th century and consists of mausoleums dedicated to Najm ad-Din al-Kubra, Sultan Ali and Piryar Vali. The dome, the structures and the decorative details are beautifully preserved. If you need more detailed information about all the monuments, visit wikipedia here.
The people and the rites
The Turkmen people are Muslim, however, there are some customs still present from the Persian Empire times in their culture. It's nice to see the local, original clothing as all the people at the site were from the area. We also observed one interesting ritual - local people hanging colorful ribbons on branches stuck in the ground and then walking under them a few times in a circle. I tried to find an answer to what that could mean, but our driver didn't speak enough English and my search online brought no results. If you, by any chance know, it would be great to find out, so please leave a comment in the comment section below.
Outside Konye Urgench
The city of Dashoguz and Izmukshir Fortress
The city of Dashoguz, similarly to Ashgabat, boasts "over the top" buildings, although on a much smaller scale. Some of them, are really worth looking, like for example the wedding venue. As everywhere in Central Asia, the bazaar is also a very interesting place to see. There are fake "Zara" shops, flea markets and many other things you won't see anywhere else. Eat in a local restaurant - it's amazing, you lay down on a carpet (no chairs!) and can enjoy the superb quality food. Don't be surprised by the curious locals staring at you!
Around 25 km from Dashoguz city lies Izmukshir Fortress. It's an open archaeological site - the excavations were clearly not carried out properly, there are no fences and "no-go" zones for tourists. Well, there are no tourists! Although very little remained from the fortress to this day - due to the walls made out of mud bricks which were washed away with the rain - it was the most interesting archaeological site I'd seen. We found pieces of colorful pottery, jewelry and bones literally sticking out of the fortress' walls! It all looks like an undiscovered ancient city. I will describe our visit in the city of Dashoguz and the Izmukshir Fortress in the future.
Darvaza Gas Crater
Darvaza Gas Crater is one of the most extraordinary spots on our planet - the crater is constantly on fire and especially attractive at night. It's located halfway from Ashgabat to Dashoguz and what a great place to stop it is! Luckily, Turkmenistan is one of the countries tourists omit and you can enjoy the desert experience without loud crowds - it's absolutely out of this world!
Merv (UNESCO), although far from Konye Urgench, is another important archaeological site of Turkmenistan. It also used to be a city on the famous Silk Road and had been founded as a part of Persian Empire centuries BC. Now not much is left but it's still worth a visit for those interested in history; especially the beautiful, best preserved Kyz-Kala structure is striking. Besides the ruins, you can see some local desert villages and herds of camels/wild horses.
For more articles about Turkmenistan, check the "Related Posts" below.
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