On the road to Turkestan, we look out over the steppe for the blue cupola rising above all the modern houses. The mausoleum of the Sufi Sheikh Ahmed Yassawi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is visible from far away. But once we come closer, the view of the impressive dome is blocked by one of those monumental portals that the great Amir Timur liked to put on his megalomaniac buildings. Only few of them have survived the centuries and the following dynasties, and the Ahmed Yassawi mausoleum is the best preserved. Built by Iranian architects, the portal alone is 44 m high.
Like proper pilgrims, we were following the sequence of holy sites relating to Ahmed Yassawi. We first visited the mausoleum of his mother, followed by the one of his teacher, Aristan Bab. His mausoleum, often rebuilt, stands in the middle of nowhere, but believers flock to it nonetheless. While we visit, a huge group of Kazakh pilgrims push in behind us. Conveniently, the otherwise locked tomb room of Aristan Bab is opened for them and we are swept in with a mix of devout babushkas and newly or vaguely religious people. “Hands in prayer!” their guide commands, and Natascha finds herself enlisted to help a heavy old woman with bad knees onto a seat, while Isa is reprimanded for taking too many pictures instead of pious praying. It was a rather inclusive experience and we quite enjoyed it.
Unlike the mausoleum of Aristan Bab, the huge mausoleum of Ahmed Yassawi is not only visited by pilgrims – there are also a lot of Kazakhs who came just as tourists.
Inside the holy place, next to an enormous bronze cauldron, we find a rack with leaflets available in several languages, including English, about the history and the architecture of the site. At least the English version does not greatly enhance the experience or understanding of the mausoleum, but the Kazakh tourists aren't deterred: they just collect an armful of leaflets, one in each language.
Ahmed Yassawi, the 12th century saint, is not only revered in all of Central Asia, but also one of the major spiritual forefathers of Sufism in general. It is said that three visits at the Ahmed Yassawi mausoleum can replace the Hadj. We have been here for the second time. Additionally we have also visited the great mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia, where seven visits can replace the Hadj, so we are already 17/21 Hadjis, we calculate.
Should you visit the mausoleum of Ahmed Yassawi?
Definitely. It is the top tourist site in Kazakhstan, and even compared to similar Timurid architecture in Uzbekistan it is absolutely worth a visit: Ahmed Yassawi's mausoleum is far better conserved than Timur's other great buildings (Bibi Khanum Mosque in Samarkand and Ak Sarai in Shahrisabz), and standing on a plain with almost nothing blocking the view it is an awe-inspiring sight. And: 3 times here replace the Hadj!