Konye-Urgench (Turkmen: Köneürgenç / Көнеүргенч; Persian Kuhna Gurgānj کهنه گرگانج) – Old Gurgānj also known as Old Urgench or Urganj, is a city of about 30,000 inhabitants in north Turkmenistan, just south from its border with Uzbekistan. It is the site of the ancient town of Ürgenç (Urgench), which contains the ruins of the capital of Khwarazm, a part of the Achaemenid Empire. Its inhabitants deserted the town in the 1700s in order to develop a new settlement, and Kunya-Urgench has remained undisturbed ever since. In 2005, the ruins of Old Urgench were inscribed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites. (See List of World Heritage Sites in Turkmenistan)
|Location||Daşoguz Province, Turkmenistan|
|Designated||2005 (29th session)|
|Region||Asia and Australasia|
Located on the south side of the Amu-Darya River, Old Ürgenç was situated on one of the most important medieval paths: the Silk Road, the crossroad of western and eastern civilisations. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in Turkmenistan, lying within a vast zone of protected landscape and containing a large number of well-preserved monuments, dating from the 11th to the 16th centuries. They comprise mosques, the gates of a caravanserai, fortresses, mausoleums and a minaret, and the influence of their architectural style and craftsmanship reached Iran, Afghanistan and the later architecture of the Mogul Empire of 16th-century India.
Atanyyazow explains, "In the works of Chinese historians, the name Yue-Gyan, which occurs in Georgian forms in the works of Arab scholars of the 10th century,...was used in the form of Gurganj, a native of Khorezm....and -j, according to Yakut, mean[s] just like the word... abat, i.e., "village" and "city"...Given the ancient name of the word Gurgen..., then the toponym of Gurganj...has the meaning of "Gurgen city", "Gurgen city of the people". Later, the name Gurganj began to be used in the form of Urgench." To what Gurgen or Gurgan refer, however, remains unexplained.
History and developmentEdit
The exact dates when Kunya-Urgench was founded remain uncertain, but archaeological finds at the Kyrkmolla Hill (one of the main fortresses at the site) reveal that the town already had a strong structure in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Some of the earliest records show that Khwarezm was conquered by the Arabs in 712, and Kunya-Urgench was given the Arabic name "Gurgandj". The city rose to prominence between the 10th and 14th centuries as the Khwarezmian capital, and as an important trading centre, competing in fame and population with many other Central Asian cities, such as Bukhara. It had become highly prosperous due to its strategic location on the main trade routes from the south to the north, and the west to the east, vastly contributing to the development of science and culture in Central Asia.
According to an 1893 writer Djordjania or Jorjania was the "second capital" of the country. It was on the Wadak canal which seems to be the east end of the Kunya-Darya which seems to be the river bed that now leads to the Sarykamysh Lake. Just east of the town was a dam that irrigated the area and blocked the flow of the Oxus into the Caspian Sea. In 1220 both town and dam were destroyed by the Mongols and the surrounding area became a marsh. Konya-Urgench was soon built on or near the site of Jorjania.
In 1221, Genghis Khan destroyed the city in the Mongol invasion of Central Asia, in what is considered to be one of the bloodiest massacres in human history. Despite the devastating effects of the invasion, the city was revived and it regained its previous status. It was described by the 14th-century Berber traveller Ibn Battuta as "the largest, greatest, most beautiful and most important city of the Turks. It has fine bazaars and broad streets, a great number of buildings and abundance of commodities".
In 1373, Timur attacked Khwarezm, and its ruler Yusef Sufi of the Sufi Dynasty surrendered to Timur. In 1379, Yusef Sufi rebelled against Timur, who sacked Urgench, and Yusef Sufi was killed. In 1388, the Sufi dynasty of Urgench again revolted against Timur; this time Timur razed Urgench to the ground and massacred its population, destroyed the city's irrigation system, and had barley planted over the ground where the city had once stood, leaving only one mosque standing. This, coupled with the sudden change of the Amu-Darya River's course, constituted the beginning of Kunya-Urgench's decline until the 16th century, when it was replaced as a regional capital by Khiva and was ultimately abandoned.
The area was later inhabited by the Turkmen people from the early 19th century, but they mostly developed outside the old town, utilising the latter as a graveyard. However, this use has now stopped, and efforts have been made to remove the decaying grave stones that can be encountered at the site.
The urban layout of Kunya Urgench has been lost and only certain monuments remain standing to this day. These are authentic and rich examples of fine architecture and building traditions existing for centuries. The level of conservation varies amongst the buildings, and the most substantial restoration work has been carried out in the past thirty years, during the soviet era, using traditional methods and materials.
The Kutlug Timur minaret is perhaps the most striking structure here. It dates to the 11th and 12th centuries, and measures 60 meters in height, making it the highest monument in the park. Its diameter is 12 meters at its base, and 2 at the top.
Named after Turabek-Khanum, the wife of Kutlug-Timur (ruled between 1321 and 1336), this structure is located at the northern part of ancient Gurgench. It is remarkable for its elegant design and stunning tile decoration, and it is a highly sophisticated work of architecture, both in its conceptualisation of spaces and in its engineering. Both are fully utilised in a conscious way to achieve a visual, aesthetic and spiritual effect.
The original building was composed of two chambers: a large domed hall and a smaller one behind it. The large chamber is twelve-sided on the exterior and hexagonal on the interior, being preceded by an entrance portal and a vestibule.
One of the most impressive architectural features of the mausoleum is the circular dome covering the main hall, whose surface is covered in colourful mosaic which forms intricate ornamental patterns consisting of flowers and stars, creating a visual metaphor for the heavens. No comparable contemporary parallels can be found at Urgench, as some of the architectural features, such as the decorations mentioned above, do not appear in other monuments built during the lifetime of Turabek-Khanum, around 1330. Thus, it is difficult to date the building so early. These features do, however, appear in Central Asia later, during the reign of Timur, a warlord of Turco-Mongol descent. New technologies, such as mosaic faience, show up in Timur's earliest buildings, such as the Aq Saray palace in Shahrisabz, in Uzbekistan, which was begun in 1379 but was still unfinished in 1404.
This structure is the presumed Tomb of Sultan Ala ad-Din Tekish, the founder of the Khwarezm Empire and its ruler between 1172-1200. It has been identified as a mausoleum due to the tradition that each ancient Central Asian building is dedicated to a historical or mythical personage.
The building is made of bricks and consists of a square hall with walls which are 11,45 meters high, a massive round drum and a conical roof with an inner dome hidden under it. The dome is connected to the square walls it rests upon by an octagonal belt. The structure between the dome and the octagon is decorated with 16 shallow niches. Their form is not lancet-like as those commonly found in the Islamic architecture of Central Asia, but rather semicircular. This is a motif that can be found in the marble 8th-century mihrab at the Baghdad Museum, and has seldom been used in Central Asia: another comparable case that can be found in Turkmenistan is that of the mihrab of Muhammad Ibn Zayd's 11th-century mosque, from Merv. However, the two are located too far away to be considered prototypes.
The external conical roof is built of horizontal layers using the technique of a false vault. From the inside, it is strengthened with 12 buttresses standing upon the internal dome. Although this might seem like a risky construction technique, the roof is not in bad condition: only the top is destroyed, and the blue majolica decoration slightly damaged.
One of the special features of the building's architecture is its façade. It presents a high portal niche with the main archway, which has now lost its original form. The lancet arch of the portal is filled by a complicated system of stalactite -like forms, which is a decorative motif made of terracotta and fixed on wooden sticks within the brickwork.
Research concerning this structure has given rise to speculations that the Mausoleum of Tekesh might have stood at the centre of some large construction that consisted of a multitude of buildings. Thus, certain scholars would argue that the building served a different purpose from that of a mausoleum, such as, for example, a House of Government or a Palace of the Great Khwarzm-shahs.
Kyrkmolla is a 12-meter-high (39 ft) mound which used to constitute a fortress. It is located in the north-eastern outskirts of Gurgench. It is particularly significant as the earliest ceramics discovered at the site, dating back to the 5th century BC, were located here. It is protected by a thick mud-brick wall which dates back to the 10th to 14th centuries, and has been partially rebuilt after archaeological excavations.
Najm-ad-Din al-Kubra Mausoleum, Sultan Ali Mausoleum and Piryar Vali Mausoleum ComplexEdit
This complex is situated in the centre of the new town of Kunya-Urgench, within a Muslim cemetery. The Najm-ad-Din al-Kubra Mausoleum was erected in the first half of the 14th century, and derives its name from the philosopher, painter, physician, chess master and general Ahmed Ibn Omar Najm-Ad-Din al-Kubra, the founder of the Kubrawiya Sufi order. This is one of the structures which was rebuilt during the Khorezm era of prosperity, and also after the Mongol invasion.
The Mausoleum of Sultan Ali, who ruled in the 16th century, is located across. It is a hexagonal monument, with a dome measuring 9.5 meters in diameter.
The Mausoleum of Piryar Vali, a contemporary of Najm-Ad-Din al-Kubra, is located to the west of the latter's mausoleum, and was built in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is 6.5 meters high and measures 7.5 meters in length.
Il Arslan MausoleumEdit
Il Arslan is a magnificent piece of architecture, also known among the people as the Mausoleum of Kho-Rezmshah II Arslan, who ruled from 1156 to 1172. The mausoleum, dating to the 12th century, is the oldest standing monument in Gurgench.
The building has a cuboidal structure of baked brick similar to the earliest existing Islamic mausoleum in Central Asia, the early 10th-century mausoleum of the Samanids in Bukhara, but instead of a hemispherical dome it has a faceted conical roof. The structure is decorated with a motif carved in relief into brick panels, a frieze containing an aphorism written in beautiful script, and with carved vegetal motifs displaying variations of an arabesque pattern. The decorative scheme of the dome presents a tiling technique executed in turquoise glazed brick tiles, forming a geometric pattern.
According to some of the latest scientific discoveries, one of the structure's functions, at a certain point, was that of storing water.
Ibn Khajib ComplexEdit
This monument is dedicated to Ibn Khajib, one of Najm-ad-Din al-Kubra's talented disciples. It is located in the western part of ancient Urgench and it consists of a complex of monuments, all constructed in different periods of time, from the 14th to the 19th centuries.
Ak-Kala is a fortress located southwest of the ruins of medieval Urgench. Its walls, whose height ranges from 6 to 8 meters, and which measure approximately 2 meters at the top, stretch on more than a kilometre. They were built with sun dried mud-bricks and their corners are decorated with semi-circular towers, whilst the inner side of the fortress wall is sustained by buttresses.
This is a quadrangular fortress, erected by Khan Muhammed Emin, measuring 400 by 500 meters, and was built in the mid-19th century in the south-western outskirts of Kunya-Urgench. It is surrounded by a high defensive wall which has been severely eroded by the passing of time.
Kunya Urgench Museum (Dash Mosque)Edit
The museum is located in the brick structure the Dash Mosque, a former madrasa constructed in the early 20th century. It was built as a mosque and it served as a Koranic school before it was turned into a site museum in the 1990s. Its structure is mainly square, with a multitude of rooms opening into a large courtyard, and which now house various exhibits.
The museum displays focus on the history of the site, on traditional arts and crafts of the region, on the building tradition of Urgench, etc. The largest room is dedicated to the history and treasures of the old city, including a comprehensive miniature model of Gurgench and a variety of artefacts such as ceramic bowls, glazed tiles, children's toys, or Arabic texts. Another important room centres around the Dash Mosque and the history of its construction and use. Around the courtyard, behind the main building, the remaining smaller rooms, formerly the bedrooms of the students at the madrasa, have been converted into 19 displays explaining the traditional handicrafts of the region such as carpet making, pottery, Yurt construction, etc.
Kunya Urgench has been, for a long period of time, a prolific school of construction masters. The knowledge and skills of this school have spread, throughout the centuries, amongst the Muslim world, and can be recognised in the structures and decorations of many buildings from the Timur period, both within Turkmenistan, and in regions such as Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Transcaucasia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India. For example, a multitude of buildings in Samarkand were erected by builders and architects employed from Kunya Urgench in the 14th century.
The ingenuity and skill of the local craftsmen and architects can be seen in the exceptional construction details, such as structure, form or ornamentation, which have been perfected throughout time. Furthermore, traditional building techniques have survived to this day: for example, the kilns at Kunya Urgench are still used throughout the region for the production of bricks utilised in the reconstruction of historic buildings. 
Kunya Urgench has a cold desert climate (BWk in the Köppen climate classification), with long and hot summers. Winters are relatively short, but quite cold. Precipitation is scarce throughout the year, with an average of 109 mm (4.36 in).
|Climate data for Kunya-Urgench|
|Average high °C (°F)||0.2
|Daily mean °C (°F)||−4.0
|Average low °C (°F)||−8.0
|Average precipitation mm (inches)||9
- "Kunya-Urgench". UNESCO World Heritage Center. UNESCO. Retrieved 19 February 2011.
- Atanyýazow, Soltanşa (1980). Түркменистаның Географик Атларының Дүшүндиришли Сөзлүги [Explanatory Dictionary of Geographic Names in Turkmenistan]. Ashgabat: Ылым. pp. 189–190.
- Gloukhovsky, Alexandr Ivanovitch, The Passage of the Water of the Amu-Darya by its Old Bed into the Caspian Sea, St Petersburgh, 1893, pages 8,10,15,28.
- Gibb, H.A.R. trans. and ed. (1971). The Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, A.D. 1325–1354 (Volume 3). London: Hakluyt Society. p. 541.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
- Government of Turkmenistan, January 2004. Nomination of the Ancient Town of Kunya-Urgench for the Inclusion on the World Heritage List (https://whc.unesco.org/uploads/nominations/1199.pdf)
- Golombek, L. 2011. 'The Turabeg Khanom Mausoleum in Kunya Urgench: Problems of Attribution, in Muqarnas. An Annual on the Visual Cultures of the Islamic World, Volume 28, 133-156.
- Chmelnizkij, S. 1995 'The Mausoleum of Tekesh in Kunya Urgench', in International Congress of Turkish Art: Art Turc, Turkish Art, Geneve, Fondation Max Van Berchem, 217-221.
- Kuehn, S. 2007. 'Tilework on 12th to 14th century funerary monuments in Urgench (Gurganj)', in Arts of Asia, Volume 37, Number 2, 112-129
- Climate data: Konye Urgench
|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Konye Urgench.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Kunya Urgench.|
- Guide in Kunya Urgench
- UNESCO World Heritage List: Kunya Urgench
- Kunya Urgench Nomination File
- Konye-Urgench Museum
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