Just off the highway from Turkestan to Kyzyl Orda, in the province of South Kazakhstan, lies an intriguing reminder of times past. Sauran was once the biggest city in Kazakhstan, but history abandoned it for a new lover. Today, a large, romantic ruins remains.
When entering through the large, lime gates of the city, it’s immediately clear that Sauran was at one point a major node on the Silk Road. The expansive grass-covered ruins have been partly dug out, revealing a sophisticated system of underwater canals that kept this oasis thriving. Some restorative work has been carried out, clarifying the lay-out of the ancient city.The city shifted its location on several occasions due to the changing course of the Syr Darya, on which it depended for water. Sauran has been mentioned in writing since the 10th century, but this location seems to have been inhabited from 13-14th century until 18th century.
It was one of only a few cities that survived the Mongol onslaught. The city administrators must have learned their lesson from nearby Otrar, which taunted the Mongols and was razed to the ground, with all inhabitants killed. As empires waxed and waned, Sauran adapted, becoming the capital of the Mongol White Horde, and later, a military fortress under Tamerlane.
In the end, people just gradually ditched it, for no other reason than that it was better elsewhere. Nearby Turkestan gained in importance, and Central Asia lost its mojo in general, becoming an easy prey for a rising Russia to take control.
The walls itself are still many meters high in places, crumbling elsewhere, providing an intimate atmosphere where you will be alone with bird song and cute little turtles, free to let your imagination feel up the passage of time. For now, you will be the only visitor. Unconfirmed claims that Tolkien got the name of the evil lord Sauron (from the tribe of Ainur, which is a local Kazakh tribe) from Lord of the Rings from here have not yet led to a boom in hobbit houses. Yet.
Find out the practical details for visiting Sauran.
Picture copyright: Caravanistan, Panoramio, Hannes Blommaert.