On the fertile plains surrounding the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek red poppies bloom in fields as though someone has been splashing bright paint about. About an hour outside the city a monument rises like a fat minaret on a mound of grass-covered earth. From the top you can see low ridges marking the area – what were once city walls.
The monument is called the Tower of Burana and these are the remains of Balasagun, a city founded by the Sogdians (a dynasty of Persian origin) and later a capital of the Turkic Kara-Khanids at the end of the 9th Century. The Kara-Khanids were influential in bringing Islam to Central Asia and met their demise with the Mongol conquest of the 13th century.
The tower itself is a latecomer, built on the site of the ruined city in the 11th century. Apparently the tower was once nearly twice as high but earthquakes over the centuries have reduced it to the current 25 metres. It is a lovely warm colour and the red bricks are arranged in intricate forms and broad bands of geometric patterns.
Nearby is a field of balbals – Turkic totem-like stone markers or petroglyphs that were carved sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries. I wandered among the rather cute faces with their pointy beards, smiling amid the wildflowers.
Legend has it that a king locked up his newborn daughter in the tower to protect her from a witch’s curse. The curse being that she would die on her 18th birthday – sound familiar? But a poisonous spider entered the tower with some food brought in for the princess, bit her and she died.
This is a popular place for locals to come and picnic under the trees. A group of children were playing in the fields, including this group riding small donkeys. Kyrgyzstan is a land of horsemen and if you can’t yet own a horse, a donkey is a good start. Don’t you love the furry ears?
Kyrgyzstan is a spectacular country with incredible natural scenery, opportunities for trekking and hospitable people. But it was also nice to find such vignettes of historic architecture.
By Natasha von Geldern
The Tower of Burana is near the town of Tokmok in the Chuy Valley, some 80 kilometres from the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek.
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