Khodja Akhmad Yassawi

For nomads living north of the Syrdarya, the gleaming blue domes of the Khodja Ahmed Yassaviy mausoleum in Turkestan city have always served as a beacon whose light allowed travelers to roam without fear of getting lost. Nomads had little fear of getting lost in their native steppe, vast though it was, but many, including the most distinguished Turkic thinkers of the time, were deeply anxious about losing their national identity at a time when the Arabic language and way of life dominated. 

The Sufi Khodja Ahmed Yassaviy is known today in most Muslim countries by the title (often used instead of his name) of “Hazret Sultan” or “Sultan of all saints”. He became a beacon, whose light drew people in from all over the vast steppe. Nowadays we know about him from numerous folk legends and his “Book of Wisdom” (“Divan-i-Khikmet”), written in Chagatai, a Turkic language. 

He revived in his nation an awareness of the uniqueness and unity of the Turkic ethnos, with its own culture and rich history; he also brought to the steppe a softer, more tolerant version of Islam, which has prevailed in Central Asia to the present day. It does not allow religious wars or “witch-hunts”. Indeed Sufism, which Ahmed advocated, claimed that sharia was an elementary school of spiritually, and that true wisdom was achievable only through long years of study. Only through learning could one aspire to find the truth. 

Ahmed believed that it was undesirable for a man to live in the sunlight longer than the Prophet, so when he reached 63 he voluntarily sentenced himself to life in a cave. His underground cell (khilvet) became a site of pilgrimage when he was still alive and crowds of people visited the holy elder, hoping for wise advice on attaining happiness in this life and peace in the afterlife. When Ahmed died, a small shrine was built close to the khilvet; it was over two hundred later years later that Tamerlane ordered the construction of the famous mausoleum which still stands today on the same spot. 

There are many legends surrounding both the life of Ahmed and the construction of the mausoleum in his honor. According to one, during the initial stage of construction, builders experienced persistent problems. First there was bad weather, and then the oxen ran amok and broke the supports. Progress could not have been worse. Tamerlane was very distressed by this until one night he dreamt that an old man appeared to him said that that it was no good building a mausoleum in honor of Ahmed without paying tribute to his teacher – holy Aristan-Bab. So not far from Otrar, Tamerlane began building the mausoleum of Aristan-Bab, and from then on the problems ceased. The mausoleum of Aristan-Bab is still a must-see for pilgrims who should visit it first and only after that pay tribute to Khodja Ahmed Yassaviy. 

Sadly the mausoleum of Yassaviy was never completed as can be seen from the design of the portal and some inner areas. Different reasons are given. According to the official version, construction works terminated with the death of Tamerlane, who was the driving force behind all large-scale projects in his empire. Some believe that construction works slowed down even before his death, and later came to a complete halt due to the transfer of many foremen and workers to Samarkand to build the main mosque there. But there are more romantic versions as to why the mausoleum remain ed incomplete. 

The most notable of these relates to Sholpan-the eldest and most beloved wife of Tamerlane. She is believed to have been the chief supervisor of the construction of the mausoleum. It is alleged that the chief architect of that “construction of the century” fell in love with Sholpan (with very little hope of reciprocation) . The wise woman soon realized what was going on and, sensing that his amorous (and hopeless) state might adversely affect the work, she decided to redirect the thoughts and desires of her admirer. She organized a small performance; taking two eggs, she painted one with a golden pattern and smeared the other in black paint, then asked the architect which he preferred. He indicated the golden egg, where upon Sholpan asked him to shell the eggs and taste them. She then posed her question once again. The man answered that the taste of both eggs was exactly the same. Sholpan explained that women too were different in appearance and apparel, but were identical in substance. In other words, she wanted him to realize that there were many other women in the world besides her and he did not have to suffer unrequited love. However, her trick had it that the architect disappeared on the following day, leaving Sholpan perplexed, and the site without its chief architect; and they never got round to finding a new one…

The architect ran away, Tamerlane died…Centuries, epochs, civilizations pass and alternate… But the mausoleum still stands at the southern boundary of the Great Steppe. And people still have memories of great Ahmed, who became a holy man and a legend after his death.