Kunya Urgench – the most beautiful dome in Central Asia

Turabek Khanum cupola

The interior of the cupola is covered in colourful tiles that form a complicated net of stars and geometrical figures. Every sector within the net is filled with a different pattern – and the design is full of surprisingly diverse details but still a perfect unit. The cupola of the Turabeg Khanum mausoleum in Kunya Urgench is about 700 years old and might very well be Central Asia’s most beautiful cupola (we have seen many).

Kutlug Minaret, landmark of Kunya Urgench
The minaret of Kutlug Timur is a tall landmark of Kunya Urgench

On the road in Turkmenistan

We are on the fourth day of our five day transit visa through Turkmenistan and have already travelled in a shared taxi since early morning.

Conveniently, the road from Ashgabad went through the desert most of the time, so there wasn’t much in the way of distraction except for a short break at a road-side inn, where everybody ate meat pies and we ate vegetarian  m&m’s (meat pies being the only dish available). Once out of view of ever-watchful Ashgabad policemen and militia, the driver and some of our fellow travellers spent the ride smoking. Mind you, Turkmenistan has a total ban on smoking! We were quite glad when the tall minaret of Kutlug Timur, the husband of the above mentioned Turabeg Khanum, came into view and we could get out of the smoky car.

Kutlug Timur was an important 14th century Mongolian governor. The minaret and a couple of domed tombs are all that is left standing of his once mighty city.

Il Arslan Mausoleum in desert, Kunya Urgench

Kunya Urgench means Old Urgench. Beware: There’s a newer town by the name of Urgench now over the border in Uzbekistan. But back then Kunya Urgench used to be just Urgench, and it was the capital city of Khorezm.

Enlightened rulers

stump of Mamun II Minaret
Mamun II Minarett

Its heyday was in the 9th and 10th century, before the Seljuks. Mamoun II, an assiduous ruler keen to prove himself devout, civilised, enlightened, and praiseworthy, invited the top scientists of his day to his court. Scholars well-known to this day, like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al-Biruni once lived in Urgench. In the 12th /13th century regional rulers took over again, and their architects and craftsmen developed buildings and decoration styles that were new and beautiful.

Unfortunately, one of those rulers picked a quarrel with Genghis Khan. Not a good idea: it ended in the whole of Central Asia being laid to waste. Urgench itself was flooded in 1221. Literally: the Mongols destroyed a nearby dam. Since it was a convenient spot, however, the Mongol rulers later rebuilt the city, complete with their own beautiful buildings. The tall minaret and the mausoleum with the beautiful dome stemming from this time. In 2005 the UNESCO inscribed the remaining buildings of Kunye Urgench as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In Turkmenistan we have also visited the UNESCO sites of Merv and Nisa.

Is it worth going to Kunya Urgench?

Wooden sticks and pieces of cloth, Kirk Molla

Absolutely! As we mentioned, the Turabeg Khanum mausoleum has the most beautiful cupola in the whole of Central Asia, and the Kutlug Timur minaret also is an eye-catcher. Strolling through the desert from one mausoleum to an old graveyard and on to a minaret stub while imagining the mighty city of Kunya Urgench was a very special experience.

If you like Islamic architecture you will love it. The Turkmens come here mainly to visit the tombs of some holy men. As there are very few tourists in Turkmenistan you will be on your own most of the time, at least as an individual traveller.

How to get to Kunya Urgench:

The ruins of ancient Urgench (Kunya Urgench) lie about 1.5 km south of the town of Kunya Urgench. If you are in Turkmenistan as an individual traveller, you will likely be on a transit visa. In that case it is best to visit from Kunya Urgench. Coming from Ashgabad, you can get off the bus or shared taxi directly at the site. With a tourist visa you will have a driver and organized transport anyway. Visiting the whole site takes two to three hours. 

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