About 20 km west of Nukus and past the town of Khojayli, on the way to the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan border crossing, is Mizdahkan. An ancient and vast necropolis, Mizdahkan is spread over three low-lying hills, covering an area of approximately 2 sq.km.
Mizdahkan appears rather suddenly in an otherwise flat landscape. One moment you are driving past Soviet-style blocky constructions separated by vast stretches of emptiness. And the next moment there are thousands of graves, tombs and mausoleums stretching away from you and into the horizon. Even though I had seen online images of the Mizdahkan Necropolis before my visit, their appearance was still unexpected and a little unreal. I actually confirmed with the driver that we were indeed at Mizdahkan !
A low boundary wall separates the necropolis from the road, and like the seemingly unending graves it enclosed, this one too seemed to stretch on without a break. Just as I was wondering where the entrance to Mizdahkan was, a partly open blue door appeared on the wall. It was the entrance to the city of the dead, Mizdahkan.
Once inside the blue doors and after the initial look, the first thing that struck me was the different ages, styles and types of tombs — from unmarked graves to those with gravestones to plain tombs to elaborate ones to well-preserved ones to those falling apart… they were all there.
While Mizdahkan is known as a necropolis today, in the distant past it was the name of an ancient city that existed here. In fact, it was believed to have been the second largest city in the region about a 1,000 years back. According to archaeological findings, the area was continuously occupied from about 400 BCE till about 1400 CE.
Mizdahkan faced three major invasions during this period. The first was in the 8th century CE when Arabs invaded the region intent on destroying the existing religion in the region — Zoroastrianism — and establishing Islam. The second major sacking of Mizdahkan was in 1221 when the Mongols, led by Chengiz Khan invaded the city. The third and final attack was in 1388 by Timur, who destroyed everything, except the burial sites. Mizdahkan did not recover from Timur’s invasion and ceased to be a city for the living. It, however, grew as a city for the dead as burials continued at Mizdahkan, a practice that is continues even today.
The earliest burials at Mizdahkan have been dated to around 2nd century BCE and are attributed to semi-nomadic tribes. The next set of burials date from the 4th to the 8th centuries CE and are ossuary burials (interring of bones in a box after it had been stripped of the flesh by birds and the sun) of the Zoroastrians. Some of these ossuaries are now exhibited at the excellent Nukus Museum. There is also evidence of Christian burials at Mizdahkan from the 7th century CE, while the first Muslim burials can be dated back to the 9th century CE.
The ‘modern’ graves are quite interesting. They are simple graves without any tomb-like structure covering them. Instead a wooden structure that looks like horizontally-placed ladder covers the grave. The guide explained that this was a local custom wherein dead bodies were brought to the burial ground on these ladder-like structures. After the burial, the ‘ladder’ would be placed on the grave in a horizontal position.
I saw the ladder placed vertically in only one grave making me wonder at its symbolism. Was the horizontal position of the ladder meant to prevent an afterlife? Was the vertical position meant to help the souls attain a higher plane — heaven? Yes, I do have an active imagination.
The most elaborate mausoleum at Mizdahkan is that of Mazlum Sulu Khan, built in the late 12th or early 13th century CE. It is a rather unusual mausoleum as it is entirely underground; all that is visible from the outside is a large dome with an opening that has steps leading underground.
This mausoleum has an interesting background story. Mazlum Khan was the beautiful daughter of the local governor. Naturally, she was desired by all the local bachelors. But Mazlum was in love with a builder, and a rather poor one. Her father announced that he would let his daughter marry the man who could build a tall minaret in one night. One man completed the task — the builder. But unfortunately, this love story did not have a happy ending as the governor refused to honour his promise. The young builder jumped off from the top of the minaret he built and the heartbroken Mazlum followed suit. The distraught and repentant governor ordered the minaret to be destroyed. He also ordered for the lovers to be buried together and a mausoleum built over their graves from the bricks of the destroyed minaret.
Over the centuries, the Mazlum Khan Mausoleum fell into a serious state of disrepair. Following archaeological excavations, it underwent restoration over a 20-year period from the 1960s to the 1980s. Except for the bricks and tiles in the lower portion of the mausoleum, everything else is new. The newness of the blue-tiled dome is particularly striking after the plain, mud brick exteriors.
Faith takes many forms at Mizdahkan. Some of the older mausoleums at Mizdahkan have acquired a reputation of being holy and being able to grant specific wishes. Take for example Shamun Nabi’s Mausoleum.
Shamun Nabi or Prophet Shamun was supposed to be a giant among men, literally, and that’s why his tomb is 25 m long ! It is believed that the tomb grows an inch every year in length due to Shamun Nabi’s powers. The exterior of the mausoleum is the same mud-coloured brick, while the interior has exposed brickwork in the domes (there are 7 of them arranged along the length of the tomb), and whitewashed walls.
There was a family inside the mausoleum when I entered. As they went around the grave of Shamun Nabi and prayed and touched it reverentially at regular intervals, I wondered if they were wishing for good health and strength, for that is what Prophet Shamun Nabi was known to grant. As the family finished their prayers, they sat down for a few seconds on the seats provided near the entrance, before making their way out. I was surprised on seeing this practice, for I thought that this was unique to Hindus and visiting Hindu places of worship. I got over this surprise soon enough for I observed this quite often at mosques and mausoleums during my Uzbekistan trip.
The highest point at Mizdahkan is the Djumarat Khassab Mound, which is named after a khassab (butcher in the local language) named Djumarat. The butcher used to distribute meat to the poor and needy during hard times. He was respected by the local people, which over time turned into reverence. Djumarat soon came to be regarded as a holy man. His special power was the ability to bless the childless with children.
It is a common local practice for childless women to climb up to the mound and roll down its gentler side, all the while praying for a child. Once again, I was struck by how similar this was to the angapradakshinam (or rolling on the ground to seek favours from God) one sees in temples of India. The second photo below shows a family watching a woman (not in the frame) roll down the hill.
The most interesting structure in Mizdahkan is also the one with the most interesting stories associated with it. A large squarish ruin, with two very distinct types of brickwork, it is not clear what exactly it was before it was destroyed. Some archaeologists believe that this was a madrassah, which was a destroyed by Timur when he invaded the region. Local belief, however, is divided between this being the mausoleum of Caliph Yerejeb or Erezhep, a holy man; or the site where Gayomard, the first human being according to Persian mythology is buried; or the site where Adam is buried.
Whatever the structure was or whoever was buried here, local belief is very strong about the fact that the day every brick in this structure falls down will be the day when the world will end. To delay the eventual ending of the world, people stack the loose bricks in piles of seven, and also ask for a wish as they do so.
“And do the wishes come true?” I asked my guide.
“I came here about 2 years back and picked seven loose bricks and stacked them and wished that I become a tourist guide. And see, that is what I am today.”
I surreptitiously looked around for loose bricks to stack, but sadly there were none to be seen. 😦
I could have spent an entire day at Mizdahkan exploring the older parts of the necropolis, but unfortunately I did not have the time. I had to be content with seeing just the main and best known mausoleums there.
I find necropolises quite fascinating for understanding local culture, and Mizdahkan did not disappoint. A burial site, and a necropolis it may be, but it is a holy site as well. It was interesting to watch the locals visiting Mizdahkan that day as made their way from mausoleum to mausoleum, offering prayers, kneeling before the tombs, lighting candles and sometimes offering (plastic) flowers — all quite contrary to what I understand to be Islamic.
That’s when I realise that while the local religion may be Islāmic and the people Muslims, their customs and traditions have more ancient origins, predating the conversion of their ancestors. This realisation set the tone and context for understanding and experiencing the rich, varied and subtle influences of various sub-cultures, traditions and beliefs that shape modern-day Uzbekistan and its people.
My Dream Trip Uzbekistan Series:
Dear Uzbekistan | A city called Nukus | Art in the Desert: The Savitsky Collection at Nukus | The Mizdahkan Necropolis | 3 forts and a dakhma | Itchan Kala of Khiva | There’s something about Bukhara! | Monumental Bukhara | The Jewish Heritage of Bukhara | Shakhrisabz: The home town of Amir Timur | The Registan Square of Samarqand | The blue city of Samarqand | The silk paper factory at Konigil | The surprise & delight that was Tashkent | Uzbekistan: The food & markets special | The Uzbekistan trip planner |