LocationMizdahkan is a huge monument located about 4km west of Xojeli on the main road to the Turkmen border checkpoint and Kunya Urgench.
View of Mizdahkan necropolis at sunrise.
Aerial view of the whole of the Mizdahkan site. Image courtesy of Google Earth.
Entrance to the necropolis of Mizdahkan.
ExcavationThe site was initially studied in 1928 and 1929 by the Russian archaeologist Aleksandr Yakubovsky, who linked it to an ancient city called Mizdahkan repeatedly mentioned in the writings of the medieval Islamic geographers such as al-Istakhri and al-Muqaddasi. Following the end of the Second World War the archaeological monuments of Khorezm were subjected to an intense programme of investigation by the newly formed Khorezm Archaeological Expedition led by the charismatic Moscow archaeologist Sergey Tolstov. Surprisingly Tolstov showed little interest in Mizdahkan, despite its easy access and proximity to No'kis, and frequently drove past it on his way to the more remote (and for him more mysterious) desert sites in Turkmenistan.
View of Gyaur qala from the north.
MizdahkanMizdahkan is the most common local spelling, but there are also many others including Mizdakhkan, Mizdakhkhan and even Mizdaxxan.
Aerial view of the huge Mizdahkan necropolis. Image courtesy of Google Earth.
More recent mausoleums and graves along the eastern side of the necropolis.
Aerial view of Gyaur qala showing the remains of the outer wall and the 12th century fortress.
The interior contained a central rectangular court with a pool in the middle, surrounded by residential and ceremonial rooms built around the insides of the defensive walls. The inner-facing walls of these buildings were lined with a covered gallery, or ayvan, with its front supported by columns surrounding the pool. The area on the top of the hill surrounding the fort was occupied by residential buildings and the whole settlement was defended by an outer wall reinforced with ten circular towers. There was just one entrance reached by an elevated ramp. Although the citadel was circular, the original hill on which it was founded was not. The raised site must therefore have been built up manually into the shape we see today.
At the time of the construction of the 9th century fort, Khorezm was politically divided into three parts. The Khorezmshah ruled over the southern Khorezm oasis from his capital of Kath, located on the outskirts of modern Biruniy. Meanwhile a separate confederation of nomadic cattle-breeders occupied a region of the delta known as Kerder on the right bank of the Amu Darya north of modern No'kis city. Finally a powerful feudal lord ruled over the northern region on the left bank of the Amu Darya. The latter region was known as Khamjird and its capital was the city of Gurganj, the ruins of which still exist today just outside the modern town of Kunya (Old) Urgench.
The Arab writers and geographers referred to Gyaur qala and its associated town as "Mazdakhqan". The 10th century traveller al-Muqaddasi, who was born in Jerusalem, noted that although at that time al-Jurjaniyya (Gurganj) was the capital of left bank Khorezm, Mazdakhqan was almost as large in terms of surface area. Indeed he claimed that Mazdakhqan was surrounded by an extensive rural district with 12,000 villages! This was undoubtedly a huge exaggeration. In 1972 the No'kis-based archaeologist Vadim Yagodin used aerial photography in an attempt to find traces of these ancient settlements. He found evidence for some 20 to 30 feudal fortresses in the surrounding region, along with the remains of their associated settlements and irrigation canals. Since that time most of these sites have been swallowed up by agricultural development.
Both Gurganj and Mizdahkan were destroyed by Chinggis Khan and his sons in 1221. The left bank territories of Khorezm were assigned to Chinggis's son Jöchi and eventually became part of the Khanate of Qipchaq, known much later as the Golden Horde. Khorezm was soon redeveloped into a prosperous commercial centre on the main trade route between the East and the Mongol capital of Saray. The new Mongol city of Mizdahkan grew up to the west of the three hills, the two north-western hills becoming the city necropolis. The Mazlum Suli Khan Mausoleum provides an indication of the quality of Khorezmian craftsmanship during this period.
The cities of Gurganj and Mizdahkan were finally obliterated by Timur in 1388. Khorezm had aligned itself with Toktamish, an early protégé of Timur who had subsequently turned against him, eventually gaining control of not only the Golden Horde but also the territories of the White Horde along the Syr Darya. Timur was not only set on destroying his enemy but on removing Khorezm as a future military and commercial threat. Only the religious buildings were spared.
Khorezm enterered a long period of turmoil and barbarism. Despite this the necropolis continued to be used as a local burial ground, increasingly venerated as a holy site. It continues to be used up to the present day.
The cupola of the mausoleum above ground seems to have been destroyed by the Mongols, as may a portal above the entrance have been. During the Mongol period the mausoleum seems to have become an important holy centre since several rooms were constructed at ground level for visiting pilgrims. After Timur's destruction of Mizdahkan the site became buried under a layer of sand and it was not reopened until the 17th century under the orders of the Khan of Khiva. It subsequently became a centre for shamans rather than a holy place. Persian inscriptions discovered on the walls may have been written by merchants following the re-opening. Translations were published by A. Nekrasov in 1930. The first inscription said "Life is very beautiful but it's a pity that it's so short". The second said "Don't think that it is too bad for me in this small room full of sadness".
It is very unusual to find an underground mausoleum in Central Asia, which has led some architects to suggest that the building may have been something else, such as part of a castle. Archaeologists interpret it as an important link to the powerful Qipchaq nomads who played an important role in Khorezmian affairs at that time and continued to practise kurgan-style burials. The Khorezmshah Tekesh (1172-1200) even had a Qipchaq wife, the ruthless Turqan-Qatun.
We know that the mausoleum was built for more than one person and it is clear that it was built during their lifetimes since the floor had already been completed and had to be broken open to dig the burial chambers. When Yakubovsky examined the mausoleum in 1928 there were still two undisturbed burial places, but these were subsequently looted. The tomb facing the entrance contained the remains of a female, indicating the high status achieved by certain women at that time.
The current mausoleum is completely restored, a task that took about 20 years from the 1960s to the 1980s following its archaeological excavation. Most of the lower levels still contain the original tiles, but the upper levels were reconstructed from reproduction tiles.
We still have no idea about the identity of the people entombed in the mausoleum, apart from the obvious fact that they must have been important personages of the time. The name Mazlum Sulu Khan comes from a local Karakalpak legend. Mazlum Sulu Khan was supposedly the beautiful daughter of the governor of Mizdahkan. Despite being desired by all of the local eligible bachelors, Mazlum Sulu Khan was in love with a poor builder. Frustrated by the lack of a suitable groom, the governor foolishly announced that he would give his daughter's hand to the young man who could build a minaret as tall as the sky in the space of one night. Naturally the poor builder succeeded in constructing the minaret, but when he came to the palace for the hand of his bride the following morning, the governor refused. The dejected young man jumped from the top of the minaret only to be followed by the beautiful and distraught Mazlum Sulu Khan. The heartbroken governor ordered that the minaret be destroyed. The young lovers were buried together and a mausoleum was constructed above their grave using the bricks from the ruins of the minaret.
Legend has it that it is the burial site of a Caliph Erezhep, who continued to proselytize long after his death. Passing strangers claim to have been given verbal advice by the Caliph as they passed his tomb!
The tomb and some of its legends was studied by Yu. V. Knorozov in 1949.
In an attempt to stamp out what the Soviet authorities believed to be primitive superstitious beliefs, orders were given in 1966 for the mausoleum to be opened and demolished to "prove its mythical and non-Islamic character". Its destruction led to a sharp fall in its popularity, but with the onset of more liberal times the mausoleum has been restored.
The real purpose of the mound is uncertain, especially as it has never been excavated. It was of course traditional for the early nomads to erect burial kurgans on the top of natural mounds. Some have suggested that the mound was simply used as a dakhma, or a place of silence where the Zoroastrians exposed their corpses to the elements. There are also legends that the mound conceals a mausoleum.
The remains of some of the dwellings can still be made out today. Some of the residential buildings contained glazed ceramic tile work typical of 13th century Khorezm, somewhat similar to that seen in the Mazlum Sulu Khan Mausoleum. One house contained a prayer room with a decorative mihrab.
|Google Earth Coordinates|
|Place||Latitude North||Longitude East|
|Mizdahkan||42º 24.070||59º 23.360|
|Gyaur qala||42º 23.576||59º 22.623|
|Mizdahkan City||42º 24.018||59º 22.960|
|Muzlum-Khan Sulu Mausoleum||42º 24.163||59º 23.294|
|Caliph Erezhep Mausoleum||42º 24.088||59º 23.251|
|Mazar of Shamun Nabi||42º 24.093||59º 23.330|
|Djumarat Khassab Mound||42º 24.105||59º 23.387|
This page was first published on 3 September 2008. It was last updated on 8 March 2012.
© David and Sue Richardson 2005 - 2015. Unless stated otherwise, all of the material on this website is the copyright of David and Sue Richardson.