Konye-Urgench (“Old Urgench”), once one of the greatest cities on the Silk Road, was the architectural inspiration for much of the region until it was finally laid waste by Timur in the fourteenth century. The hypnotically elaborate facades of this style exude a deep perception of geometry, proportion, and color that is utterly captivating. Perhaps the desert night sky brought about this imagination?
Darkness envelopes the cool desert night with only the flickering of the crater to guide our way.
Our Land Rover sits a little too close for comfort on the very edge of one of the ‘mud holes’ at Dervaza (Turkic for “The Gate”) on the Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan border. These enormous sinkholes go down for hundreds of meters and open up into vast pools of molten earth. One has to take care of the wind direction; noxious gases that emanate from them can easily cause asphyxiation. Or more importantly not to get out on the passenger side. That first step is a long way down.
The ancient Silk Road city of Merv in the Karakum desert (Turkic for “Black Sand”) reminds me of a bit of the fate of ancient Carthage. Tracing its origins to the 3rd century BC, it was the largest city in the world in the 12th century only to be razed to the ground some 300 years later. What remains from that time is the unrestored Kyz Kala (“Girls Fortress”), standing quiet in the sunset.
When Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedovmade completed his first Hajj, it was the perfect time for citizens of Mary to ask him for the funds needed to finish the building of Mary’s mosque. The money was awarded and the inauguration of the Hajj Gurbanguly Mosque commenced two years later. The President proclaimed its’ opening was “evidence of an unbreakable and firm civil accord in the Turkmen society” and it marks the beginning of a “triumphant a new epoch of reviving indigenous customs and traditions of the nation.” It’s honorable that he at least put a large picture of its founder and his predecessor Saparmurat Türkmenbaşy out front.
Don’t you just hate it when you’re on your way to visit a ancient city that’s been abandoned for 500 years and you’re held up by a herd of camels? Yeah, me too. I mean who wouldn’t want to just gawk at these magnificent ‘ships of the desert’ as they slowly made their way along the solitary sands.
The Ertuğrul Gazi Mosque, said to be patterned after the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, sits at the end of a grand boulevard of parks that are almost as empty as the mosque itself. Large enough to hold 5,000 worshipers, it sees only a small fraction of that since it’s ‘unlucky’ or ‘haunted’ due to a number of deaths during its construction. In that respect, it seems that some comparisons are only skin deep.
Most Persian-style mosques are famed for their ornate surfaces and the interior of the Krezrety Omar mosque in Ashgabat certainly lives up to that rich history. What really catches the eye though is the unusual chandelier underneath the central dome. Oscillating, mesmerizing, and constantly reminding the faithful that the sumptuous surroundings are a mear diversion of focus to something much larger.