In April 2017, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev launched the Rukhani Zhangyru program, which aims to modernize the country’s national identity. The program touches on different subjects, including strengthening ties between Kazakh citizens and their homeland, modern Kazakh culture in the global world, 100 New Books, 100 New Faces, the switch to the Latin alphabet, and the sacred geography of Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan is home to vast landscapes, rich with history and beauty. The Rukhani Zhangyru program poses to raise awareness of sites that boast unique cultural and historical significance. These sites range from mausoleums to ancient monuments and more.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Kazakhstan
Since Kazakhstan is such an expansive country, it is not surprising that the land is home to several renowned UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
These are broken up into two sections:
Natural: Saryarka – Steppe and Lakes of Northern Kazakhstan & Western Tien-Shan
Cultural: Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi; Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly; & Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor
Saryarka – Steppe and Lakes of Northern Kazakhstan
Introduced to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008
Saryarka – Steppe and Lakes of Northern Kazakhstan is made up of two protected areas: Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve and Naurzum State Nature Reserve. The combined area of these two reserves is 450,244 ha. The land is comprised of wetlands that serve a significant purpose for migratory water birds such as the Dalmatian pelican, Siberian white crane, Pallas’s fish eagle, and many other species. The area is also home to 200,000 ha of steppe, which provides refuge for over half the species of the region’s steppe flora as well as the endangered Saiga antelope, threatened species of birds, and more.
Introduced to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2016
The Tien-Shan mountain system is a transnational property and is one of the largest mountain ranges in the world. The Western Tien-Shan ranges in altitude starting at 700 m and rising all the way up to 4,503 m. The mountain range is home to diverse landscapes, lending to rich biodiversity. The area is of great importance for a variety of cultivated fruit crops as well as a diversity of different types of forests and unique plants.
Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi
Introduced to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2003
The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi was built between 1389 to 1405 during the time of Timur (Tamerlane) in the town of Yasi (now Turkestan). Even though the building is partially unfinished, Persian master builders worked on this site by experimenting with architectural and structural solutions that were later used to build the capital of the Timurid Empire, Samarkand. Many people visit this mausoleum each year as it is one of the biggest and best-preserved constructions from the Timurid period.
Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly
Introduced to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2004
The Petroglyphs of Tamgaly is a collection of around 5,000 rock carvings dating from the second half of the second millennium BC to the beginning of the 20th century. They are located in the Tamgaly Gorge in the Chu-Ili Mountains. The petroglyphs are distributed among 48 different areas associated with burial grounds and settlements. The subject matter of the rock carvings include rituals of pastoral peoples, social organization, husbandry, and more. The area is also home to human settlements, and mounds (kurgans) made from stone and earth. The central canyon boasts the densest concentration of engravings as well as what are believed to be alters, lending to the theory that these areas were used for sacrificial ceremonies.
Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor
Introduced to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2014
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a 5,000 km stretch of the extensive Silk Roads network, starting at Chang’an/Luyoang, the central capital of China in the Han and Tang dynasties, reaching to the Zhetysu region of Central Asia. This part of the Silk Road was used between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD all the way until the 16th century. Its purpose was to link multiple civilizations to facilitate the exchanges of trade, scientific knowledge, religious beliefs, technology, culture, and the arts.
Non-UNESCO Sacred Geography Sites
In addition to the UNESCO natural and cultural attractions, there are several places in Kazakhstan that are not included on the UNESCO World Heritage List that are noteworthy as places of sacred geography.
Arystan Bab Mausoleum
The Arystan Bab Mausoleum is located close the village of Kogam and Otrartobe in Kazakhstan. The legend behind this sacred building is that Emir Timur ordered to build a mosque on the site of Khoja Akhmet Yassawi’s grave, but it was unsuccessful. Timur then had a dream that told him he should first build a mausoleum over the grave of the mystic Arystan Baba. The mausoleum dates back to the 14th century but went through reconstruction up until the 18th century. It was then destroyed by an earthquake and replaced with a double domed structure with two carved wooden columns. However, most of the current building was built in the 20th century with only the wooden pillars remaining from the original structure.
Beket-Ata Underground Mosque
Located about 285 km east of Aktau, Beket-Ata is a popular place for religious pilgrimage as well as a cultural attraction for those who want to visit the final resting place of famous Sufi mystic, Beket-Ata. Beket-Ata was born in the Mangistau region and, after studing in Uzebekistan, came back to Mangistau and founded four mosques as well as a Sufi school. The underground mosque is situated towards the bottom of a desert canyon, which can be reached by guided tour, a 4-wheel drive vehicle, or by special pilgrim transportation.
Ulytau, Peak Aulie-Tau (Akemshit)
Peak Akmeshit (White Mosque) or Aulie-Tau (“Sacred Mountain” in Kazakh) is located on the sit of an ancient fortress of nomadic tribes. It is a significant site as it is the highest point of the ancient mountain range of Ulytau.
Peak Yedige is located 35 km west of the Ulytau district of Kazakhstan. It is the burial place of the great Khan of the Golden Horde Toktamysh. The peak is named Yedige because a revered judge named Yedige was buried here. There are many legends surrounded Yedige, and many of them state that he was a man of great courage and bravery. There are several stone monuments at the foot of Mount Yedige. These include 12 religious buildings and cemeteries
Altyn Shoky , also known as Golden Pike, is the name of the Ulytau mountain range in the Karaganda region. This area is rich in history surrounding the Great Tamerlane (1336 – 1405). During the campaign against the Khan of the Golden Horse Toktamys, Tamerlane ordered the creation of a huge stone monument on the peak of Altyn Shoky. The monument is located on the northwestern slopes of the Ulytau Mountains, 90 km west of the Zhezkazgan-Arkalyk highway.
Complex of Imankara
Mount Imankara has been considered a sacred place since ancient times and was a place of worship during the Iron and Middle Ages. It is a place that is often visited in a tourist route as a cult landscape and a place of cultural heritage. The mountain rises above the steppes and is visible from a long distance. In 1991, 18 cemeteries were discovered on the top of the peak during an archaeological expedition.
Wellspring and Cave of Zhylagan Ata (Crying Old Man)
The cave of Zhylagan Ata is located about 80 km from the city of Turkestan in Kazakhstan. The cave was formed as a rock displacement and is the source of various legends. One legend recalls the story of a man who dreamed of having a child and prayed to God day and night. The cave was named Zhylagan Ata, which means “Lamenting Old Man,” because of this story.
There is another story about a couple who had a wineskin instead of a child. A mullah told them that it was a test from God and that the woman would have to wear the wineskin for 41 days. At day 40, the woman grew tired of carrying the wineskin, and when she dropped her skirt, the wineskin broke and a small boy jumped out with a staff in his hand. He ran to the mountains and disappeared into a cave. The parents lamented the loss of their first-born. The next day, the boy sat down and prayed next to the mullah. When the mullah saw him, the boy ran back into the cave. When the mullah tried to follow him, he was physically unable to enter the cave. Several other mullahs read several prayers to get the boy out of the cave.
A small mausoleum is situated on the right side of the cave. Legend has it that is a woman who cannot have children spends the night in the mausoleum, she will become a mother.
Cave of Akmeshit (White Mosque)
The holy cave of Akmeshit is located in South Kazakhstan, 90 km from Shymkent. The geographical attraction of this cave is an 8m depression that people climb as a way to connect to God. There are many legends associated with the cave, including the story of Saint Akmeshit slaying a dragon that lived in the cave because it was eating the local cattle. Upon his death, he asked to be buried in the cave. The cave is always cool despite how hot it is outside. Drops of water often run down the walls of the cave and are called the “tears of the White Mullah.”
The Okzhetpes Rock, located in Burabai National Park in Kazakhstan, is the highest peak of the Kokshetau Upland. The park is home to magnificent nature that attracts tourists throughout the year. There are over 15 legends about this beautiful rock formation, including one in Saken Seifullin’s lyrical poem “Kokshetau.” This tale is about when Khan Abylai had a victorious battle against the Kalmyks, and when he returned from battle his soldiers, they argued over a beautiful Kalmyk woman they were holding captive. The woman said that she would hang her white handkerchief from the top of the Okzhetpes and that whichever soldier could reach the top of the rock with his arrow would win her love. None of the soliders were successful and the girl jumped from to top of the rock into the waters below
Mount Belukha (Ice Mountain)
Belukha (Ice Mountain) was formed 1.5 million years ago and is the highest point of the Altai Mountains on the border of Kazakhstan and Russia. The mountain is referred to as “Ice Mountain” because it is always covered in snow and ice. Local Altai residents also call it “The Dwelling of the Gods and The Great Old Man.” The Buddhists believe that Belukha is a place where legendary gods live. Many also believe that Buddha is from this area and moved from here to India. It is said that those who are looking for peace of mind venture to Belukha, and those who do visit never forget its mystifying beauty.
Khan Tengri is the most beautiful and highest peak in the Tien Shan Mountains. It is located on the coast of the Tekes River and its presence here makes the whole valley of Kyzylshekara up to Narynkol picturesque. The name Khan Tengri means “Lord of Heaven.” There are many legends about the mountain, including one of the god Tengri creating the heaven and earth. Many people travel here to climb to the top of this gorgeous mountain.
The Charyn Canyon (also known as Sharyn Canyon) is located about 195 km east of Almaty. It got its name from the Charyn River, which flows through the bottom. It is often referred to as the Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan. One of the most popular parts of the canyon is the Valley of the Castles. Nearby is the Witch Gorge and Angarsk Fortress. Here, visitors can see a variety of ancient stone drawings of wild animals and birds.