The ancient capital of the wealthy Persian Khorezm empire, Urgench was one of Central Asia’s grandest cities until Mongol forces overran it in 1221. What remains of the ancient mausoleums and minarets is now essential viewing for history-inclined travellers — or anyone who might enjoy a stroll through impressive ruins. Today Konye-Urgench is one of Turkmenistan’s top-ranking heritage destinations.
Konye-Urgench was the ancient capital of the Khorezm culture and one of the most important cities on the Silk Road in medieval times. After large-scale massacres and destruction by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, the city was abandoned. The remains of the Islamic architecture are a testament to the power of the city in ancient times.
Formerly situated on the Amu-Darya River, Old Ürgenç was one of the greatest cities on the Silk Road. Its foundation date is uncertain, but the extant ruins of the Kyrkmolla fortress have been dated to the old Persian empire around 5th century BC. The 12th and early 13th centuries were the golden age of Ürgenç as it became the capital of the Khorezm Empire and it surpassed in population and fame all other Central Asian cities barring Bukhara.
Konye Urgench was built on the crossing of two major caravan routes from the South to the Volga in the Northwest and from the West to China in the East. From the 1st century AD onwards Konye Urgench was an important trade center on the Northern Silk Road leading to the Caspian Sea and Russia. Around 1000 Emir Mamun unified the country of Khwarezm and made Konye Urgench its capital. In the 10th century Urgench was the capital of the powerful Khwarezm state which occupied the whole area of the Amu Darya delta in Northern Turkmenistan and Western Uzbekistan.
Konye Urgench became one of the centers of the Islamic world and was called “the heart of Islam” and “the capital of thousand wise men”. Great scholars as Al Biruni (Abu Reikhan Biruni) and Avicenna (Abu Ali Ibn Sina) lived here.
In 1221, Genghis Khan razed it to the ground in one of the bloodiest massacres in human history, as described by Ibn Battuta.
After its conquest by the Mongols in the 13th century, the city became an important trade center again. Ibn Battuta described Konye Urgench as the ‘biggest among the Turkish cities with broad streets and splendid bazaars’.
The sudden change of Amu-Darya’s course to the north and the town’s complete and utter destruction again in the 1370s, this time by the bloodthirsty Timur, forced the inhabitants to leave the site forever. Timur wanted to make sure no city would surpass his Samarkand and had barley sown over the remains of the city.
The area was later inhabited again by Turkmen, but they built outside the old town, using it as a graveyard. Konye Urgench was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
Most of Ürgenç’s monuments have completely or partly collapsed. Nowadays, the site contains three small mausoleums of the 12th century and the more elaborate 14th-century Törebeg Hanym Mausoleum, which was much restored in the 1990s.
The most striking landmark of Konye-Urgench is the early 11th-century Gutluk-Temir Minaret, which, at 60 meters, used to be the tallest brick minaret prior to the construction of the Minaret of Jam – which was later surpassed by the Qutb Minar when it was completed in 1368.
Also of note is the Il-Arslan Mausoleum – the oldest standing monument: a conical dome of 12 facets, housing the tomb of Mohammed II’s grandfather, Il-Arslan, who died in 1172. Somewhat to the north, sprawls a vast medieval necropolis.
Besides these monuments, we have to concede Timur did a thorough job: there is little else left. If you just came from the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan, it might be a let-down.
Dashoguz and getting there
The new town of Dashoguz is your reliable option for accommodation and transport, by train, airplane or by road. It’s 100km away from Konye-Urgench, a route plied by marshrutkas and a daily train for a few dollars.