The forgotten pearl of the Silk Way
There is a road police guard-post 40 kilometers to the North of Turkestan on the border of the South Kazakhstan and Kyzylordinskaya oblasts. It is impossible to avoid it or not to notice it; however, few of hundreds of people passing by know that if only they were to look out the car’s window, they could see the walls of the city that once was the largest on the territory of Kazakhstan, only one kilometer away from the guard-post. The city is Sauran, which is truly a forgotten pearl on the great Silk Way. Since the 18th century, only lizards have lived there. The creators of the modern guides of Southern Kazakhstan for tourists also didn’t remember about Sauran. The object is unique, everything is soaked with history there.
Chimkent – Sauran – ChimkentOutpost of the Muslim world
We turn off the busy highway and drive for a couple of minutes in a dry steppe. After we passed the level crossing, the walls of Sauran raised before us in all of their majestic beauty. The main tower still contained the entrance into the city. There was dry grass, wind, dust and nobody inside. We were in the circle of the city walls, in the circle of the rich history of the region of Syrdarya with its famous cities, which always were desired by the Central Asian leaders and Kazakh Khans. The first notes on Sauran were found in the works of Istakhri, the Arabic historian, which refer to the early 10th century. At that time, the city was surrounded by seven walls, which encircled a center populated by the people. Sauran was considered to be the outpost of the Muslim world against the Oguz and Kipachak Turkic tribes, which had not converted to Islam yet. The city changed hands many times. In early 13th century, when Mongols came to Southern Kazakhstan, Sauran was formally under the government of Khwarezm. Unlike the citizens of Otrar, the people of Sauran decided that resistance was futile. When the army of Djuchi, the eldest son of the “Shaker of the universe”, arrived, the people opened the gates. For that, the Mongols only took the contribution from Sauran, without any further harm. In the 14th century, the city was considered to be one of the best towers in the region and became the capitol of Ak-Orda. In the following century a large oasis emerged around Sauran. At that time, Sheybani-Khan, the leader of the Uzbek nomads, conquered the city and turned it into a base for further assault to the South, where his tribes later settled.
Life behind the walls
Now it seems that there is nothing noticeable inside the circle of the ancient city’s walls. But if only you look down to the ground you see that you walk on the carpet of ceramics. So much of it accumulated over the centuries… There were especially a lot of crockery, among them which you could see some very beautiful ones. Archeologists have discovered that the city had its own center of ceramic production. And the ceramics of Sauran are significantly different from the ceramics of Otrar. The local potters used antimony to paint the ceramics a yellow color, while their colleagues from other cities next to Syrdarya couldn’t do it. Ceramic production in Sauran blossomed during the 13th to 14th centuries, after which it fell slowly into decay. Almost nothing is left from the houses of the people. Scientists identified that there were three types of houses; dugouts up to two meters deep, half-dugouts going down up to one meter into the ground, and on-the-ground houses. And the latter ones sometimes looked like yurts. What a market there was at that time! Steppe Way, one of the branches of the great Silk Way, passes through the city. Caravans from Crimea traveled to China and back. A one-way trip took 290 days. They carried silk, brocade, cotton cloths, rice, saffron, dried fruits, faience, china and high quality ceramics through the Steppe Way. Sauran reached its peak of its development at the time of Sheybani-Khan. At that time, a beautiful madrasah was built there, and all people traveling through the city wrote about it with enthusiasm; however, it didn’t last until modern times. Sheybani-Khan also built a mosque with the reeling minarets, as stated by the sources, in Sauran. Its remnants were seen by the first researchers of the city in the second half of the 19th century. However, we didn’t see anything like that. That’s when Sauran became the largest city on the territory of Kazakhstan. Its area was 44 hectares and, according to historians’ calculations, about 11,000 people lived there. In comparison, let’s note that Otrar at that time had the area of 20 hectares and Turkestan had 35 hectares. In the remnants of Sauran, we still could recognise the main street, which lay through the city, and smaller streets were going out of the main one, making the borders of the blocks, which each contained between 6 and 12 houses. After conquering Transoxiana, Sheybani-Khan moved the best of the Sauran’s workers there. It implied the beginning of the end for the great city. - Sauran is mentioned by virtually all of the medieval authors who wrote about Southern Kazakhstan. The city was well known from the 9th until the 17th century, and it was situated on the busy trade way. It was an important education center with many madrasah, - said Yerbulat Smagulov, the leader of the expedition, which worked during the current field work season in Sauran. In the current season a treasure of copper coins was found under the floor of the central mosque. After decoding, the coins will allow archeologists to identify the time during which the mosque was built. Many fragments of glazed bricks were also found in the city. - Sauran can be imagined as a city shining on the sun with the glaze of the big public buildings, - thinks Yerbulat Smagulov. Scientists consider Sauran’s madrasah to be one of the oldest in the country; they are related to the 15th century. They discovered the contour of the city square and the base of the famous reeling minarets, which were described by all of the authors of the notes on Sauran. According to scientists, the issue of preserving Sauran is very important now, and the city should be included into the list of tourist attractions on the Silk Way, especially because it is the only medieval city in Kazakhstan that still has its surrounding walls.
The sad desolation
In the 16th century, Sauran was included into the Kazakh khanate. Abdalla-Khan, the ruler of Bukhara, who temporarily conquered Turkestan, also tried to take over Sauran, but he didn’t succeed. In the 1680s the city slowly fell into the decay, the people gradually move to Turkestan, which became the capitol of the Kazakh khanate. In the 18th century, only about 100 houses with approximately 600 Sarts, of the Turkic tribe, were left in the city, which used to be very rich. Russian sources of that era refer to Sauran as “the small place close to Turkestan”. In the 19th century, the last people left the city. Interestingly, there are no rivers near Sauran. The city was supplied with water from a system of underground irrigation, the length of which was over 7 kilometers. There was so much water, that it was enough even for filling the ditch around the city walls. Standing on the tower I imagine myself as the ruler of the ancient city, the camels walking along the walls remind of the caravans of those times. But then I hear the train and the delusion disappears. According to the management of the department of tourism in the Southern Kazakhstan oblast, the tunnel under the railway doesn’t allow big excursion busses to go to the city, which is why Sauran was not included into the Silk Way revival program.
* * *
On our way back from the trip we asked the police officers how often cars turn towards Sauran. It appeared that it was almost never. Actually, it is not surprising, because there is no sign on the international highway to let people know what walls are seen from the windows of their cars. According to the locals, during Soviet times, tourists from Turkestan came here. Now it doesn’t happen. Maybe the tunnel under the railway became lower, or the busses became taller.