The Mausoleum of Ahmed Yasavi

[H. Joseph Ware]

The Mausoleum of Ahmed YasawiThe Mausoleum of Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan, Kazakhstan was built in the 14th century by Timur to commemorate the local Sufi mystic Ahmed Yasawi, who was active in the 12th century. These two facts ensure that, from its genesis, it has been wrapped up with memory—it began life as an act of remembrance, but this site itself has been the subject of subsequent acts of remembrance.

Ahmed Yasawi was the founder of the largely nomadic Yasawid Sufi tradition, responsible for the Islamicization of much of Southern Kazakhstan, which differs from other noted Sufi sects in the paltry availability of documentation on its founder (Alvi, Deweese 2000). The earliest written narratives date from the 15th and 16th centuries, about a hundred years after the imposing shrine was built by Timur between 1389 and 1399 to win the influence of the Sufi orders in the area (Deweese 2000, UNESCO). This shrine, which is considered the beginning of Timurid architecture, is no small thing, and testifies both to the political power of the Sufi orders, and the reputation of the man for whom it was built. Thus, it should be no surprise that when, in the 15th and 16th centuries, documentation does arrive about Yasawi, they are narratives centered on the shrine (Deweese 2000). The Mausoleum of Ahmad Yasawi was a site of memory for Ahmad Yasawi before he had a history—in fact, this site of memory generated his history.

Floor PlanThe mausoleum was constructed on an imposing rectangular plan. One enters through a high four-centered arch on the North end of the building and moves directly into an open space covered by Central Asia’s largest dome—18.2 meters in diameter. The sarcophagus is in the Northwest corner of the building. The entrance is rather plain, but the remaining three exterior walls are intricately decorated with tile. The building is currently divided into several spaces for various uses, including meeting rooms, a library, and mosque (UNESCO). One can access a spherical viewer of the mausoleum here.

There is no doubt that even today the Mausoleum meets Pierre Nora’s criteria for sites of memory; it is a lieux in three senses—material, symbolic, and functional (Nora, 18, 19). Materially, its blue dome, the largest in Central Asia and considered the progenitor of Timurid architecture, still stands after nearly seven hundred years of history’s chaos (UNESCO). Symbolically, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with the attendant meaning of a great human cultural accomplishment (ibid.). Functionally, it serves as a site for pilgrimage for Muslims from around the area (Golovnina).

Validating the symbolic sense of the Mausoleum as a site of memory through the employment of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site should not be read as an attempt to deny other symbolic meanings of this site. For instance, the pilgrims who frequent the site associate with mausoleum a much different set of meanings that is equally valid. Rather, this contrast is brought out in order to demonstrate the pluralistic nature of many sites of memory, and the Mausoleum of Ahmed Yasawi in particular. It suffices to note that sites of memory serve for more than one community.

The UNESCO designation of the Mausoleum as a world heritage site marks it as a site of memory for what I will vaguely define as the international community. Perhaps nothing else so perfectly represents the self-consciousness of Nora’s lieux de memoire than the World Heritage Sites, which are selected based on Outstanding Universal Value (Jokilehto, 1). Although a site’s association with a tradition or belief can qualify it for inclusion on this list, most of the values subsumed under the category of Outstanding Universal Value are more material or archeological (ibid., 8). The Mausoleum is included on the list because it meets the criterion of a “masterpiece of human creative genius”(Ibid. 9).

UNESCO is involved in an act of institutional remembrance, and views the history of its sites, including the Mausoleum, institutionally. According to UNESCO’s history of the mausoleum, in the 16th century, the mausoleum’s “arch was repaired by order of Abdullah-Khan, the governor of Bukhara”. It then speaks of the interaction of the Kokand khanate and the mausoleum, before detailing its poor repair when the Russians took over the region in 1864. “In 1872, the authorities decided to preserve it” (UNESCO). This privileging of institutions not only makes for cleaner history, but it also serves to legitimate the institutional nature of UNESCO.

UNESCO’s mode of remembrance is institutional in the sense that an individual’s access to a site of memory is mediated by an institution. This is invented tradition for the global citizen, whose rite is tourism and whose memory is one based on an institutional history. To be clear, UNESCO is not the only outside actor to appropriate the meaning of the Mausoleum. It has been used to validate political power, and we shall find opportunity shortly to speak of the specifically Soviet creation of the mausoleum as a place of memory.

Against the plurality of external actors, one might contrast a plurality of local institutions. This requires some telling of the history of the Mausoleum. The descendents of Ahmed Yasawi have claimed the role of khoja (basically, a caretaker of a spiritual place) since its construction, yet there was contention between two lines of descent—that through Asawi’s daughter, and that through his brother (Deweese 1999, 509, 516). This role of khoja was influential before the 19th century because it involved the oversight of the waqf that collected funds for the maintenance of the mausoleum (ibid., 509). It seems that sometime before the Russian invasion of the area in the 1860s, there was evidence of conflict among Yasawi’s descendants, conflict which may have been compounded by the decline of Yasawiya fortunes since the 17th century (Ibid., 517, Olcott, 3). So it was, that after Russia established control over the area, a purported Waqfiyya (Waqf charter) attributed to Timur himself surfaced, likely presented by the descendents of Yasawi’s brother to a Russian official in an attempt to establish legitimacy (Deweese 1999, 517). At the time, Russian and Western scholars considered this waqfiyya to be genuine, which fed into the institutional historiography of the mausoleum they were creating; only recently has it been accepted as a fabrication by which the branch of the Yasawi family descended from his brother could solidify their status as khoja in a new political context.

As Deweese argues, Soviet rule had “devastating effects on historical and genealogical memory” of the khoja (ibid. 521). Although the use of these holy places declined under Soviet repression, it was impossible for the Soviets to know of them all, and many remained completely under the radar, although many others were closed or decayed in this period (Atkin, 614). This, of course, did not happen to the mausoleum, which was turned into a monument to 14th and 15th century architecture, which becomes part of the Soviet treatment of sites of memory (Subtelny, 599). Incidentally, though the mausoleum was intensely studied by the Soviets, the architectural and archeological nature of their interest blinded them to the social, sacred role of the mausoleum, and compromised understanding of, for instance, the Khoja (Deweese, 507).

Regardless, the mausoleum as museum was antireligious. Maria Subtelny visited it in 1989, and was given what she felt was a mostly accurate tour; she could not tell if the factually incorrect information on the religious nature of the site was intentional or not (Subtelny, 599). For instance, the tour guide told her that a collection of ram’s horns, a shamanistic talisman at shrines all across the country, were only representative of the hunting prowess of Ahmed Yawasi (ibid.).

Despite the anti-religious museum, Muslims from around the country still continued to make pilgrimages to the mausoleum, often under cover of tourism (ibid., Louw, 325). Because of the sovietization project, this carried personal risks, and some faced persecution (Louw, 325). Often, however, local officials responsible for the administration of these would look away or even join in themselves. Thus, the policy was never applied evenly (ibid., 326).

The policies were also more difficult to apply because of the strong bifurcation between the official and non-official branches of Islam in these countries (Lipovsky, 1-2). Even before the Soviet era, Sufi and post-Sufi (Ishan) sects, and the preaching of itinerant, non-official clergy held the focus of many Central Asian Muslims, especially around mazars, or holy sites, while the official clergy served what has been thought of as a more educated constituency in cities (ibid., 2-4). During Soviet rule, the official clergy was easy to regulate, while, in many cases, the non-official clergy was impossible to even know about.

This had the effect of further weakening the official clergy’s hold on the population, often not so much in the service of Soviet atheism, but in the service of non-official Islamic sects, who built much of their power around identification with these holy places, including the Mausoleum of Ahmed Yasawi (ibid., 4). Ironically, this process may have been accelerated by the official clergy, who, because of the Soviet isolation of Central Asian Islam from other Islamic countries, encouraged Muslims to make pilgrimages to mazars, instead of the Hedjaz (ibid.).

As pilgrimage became more open and much more substantial after the fall of Communism, this trend has not reversed, and the official clergy has struggled to regain a hold on its influence. Now, pilgrimages to mazars are not considered equivalent to a pilgrimage to the Hedjaz (ibid. 5). But sites like the Mausoleum of Ahmed Yasawi remain crucial sites of memory for diverse communities. The Khoja are making a comeback, and their struggles to recreate their identity generate genealogical and hagiographical lore that will further invest this site with symbolic significance and complicate the relationship between the official and non-official clergy (Deweese 1999, 507,508, 521). Additionally, Ahmed Yasawi, who predates Kazakhstan by several centuries, has become a sort of national saint, and the shrine itself has become enmeshed in the Kazakh project for the creation of a national identity (Subtelny, 599, UNESCO). The activates national meanings for the mausoleum that may or may not be at odds with its sacred ones.


Works Cited:

  • Farhat Alvi, “The Significant Role of Sufism in Central Asia,” Accessed March 16, 2012.
  • Muriel Atkin, The Survival of Islam in Soviet Tajikistan, Middle East Journal , Vol. 43, No. 4 (Autumn, 1989):  605-618
  • Devin DeWeese, The Politics of Sacred Lineages in 19th-Century Central Asia: Descent Groups Linked to Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi in Shrine Documents and Genealogical Charters, International Journal of  Middle East Studies , Vol. 31, No. 4 (Nov., 1999): 507-530.
  • ________, “Sacred Places and ‘Public’ Narratives: The Shrine of Ahmad Yasavi in Hagiographical Traditions of the Yasavi Sufi Order, 16th-17th Centuries,” Muslim World 90, no. 3/4 (2000).
  • Maria Golovnina, “Central Asia rediscovers its Muslim roots,”Times of Central Asia, June 18, 2006.
  • J.Jokilehto, Considerations on authenticity and integrity in world heritage context, City & Time 2 (2006) (1): 1.
  • Igor Lipovsky, The Awakening of Central Asian Islam, Middle Eastern Studies , Vol. 32, No. 3 (Jul., 1996): 1-21
  • Maria Louw, “Pursuing ‘Muslimness'” Shrines as Sites for Moralities in the Making in Post-Soviet Bukhara,” Central Asian Survey, 25(3) (2006): 319-339.
  • Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux des Memoires,” Representations, 26, (1989): 7-24.
  • Martha Olcott, “Sufism in Central Asia: A Force for Moderation or a Cause of Politicization?” Carnegie Papers, 34 (2007).
  • Maria Eva Subtelny, The Cult of Holy Places: Religious Practices among Soviet Muslims, Middle East Journal , Vol. 43, No. 4 (Autumn, 1989): 593-604
  • UNESCO, “Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi,” Accessed March 16, 2012.