Middle age cities of Chu Valley (Historical tour)

From the ancient times on the territory of nowadays Kyrgyzstan a Great Silk Road was going its way from Europe to China along which many settlements and caravanserais were located and even today we may see their ruins. The northern branch of the Great Silk Road started in Samarkand and went to Tashkent. Then caravans went by so called Chu road along the Kyrgyz ridge foothills and entered into Chu valley. Here from West to East went a long chain of little towns which the caravans went through. The biggest of them all were Navekat and Suyab…

In the early middle ages in Tian-Shan mountains and its foothill valleys including Chu appeared a new great force that very soon started to play almost the main role in the history of Central Asia. This was nomads – Turks. In VII century Suyab town is being the center of these settlements. Their way of living is described by Chinese authors. To the north of Suyab at the bottom of Dzyadan mountain hagan appointed chiefs. In two days’ journey from Suyab in Kochkor valley was Kuruk, the Protected Lands where from Turks started their military campaign.

At the very same time on the fertile land on the way of the Great Silk Road Sogdians form their colonies. New comers build towns on the land of nomads. No accident the quantity of these towns is equal to a quantity of nomad tribes making the Khanate.

The beginning of Sogdian colonization of Seven Rivers is not known. There are no veracious documents on the state of Seven Rivers in V century. For Sogdian metropolis it definitely was the time of new towns’ formation and growth of their territory. The most likely date here is VI century as in 628 Suyab is already described as a large city. Accordingly the Sogdians built dozens of cities on Turks’ territory. What made it possible? Describing the Seven Rivers’ towns Xuan Zang states that in all the cities to the west of Suiye there is a ruler, all these rulers do not depend on each other, but are under Turks’ control.

There is information allowing us to think that Sogdians founding certain towns were from particular Sogdian metropolis themselves. So the quantity and the location of towns was determined from one side by the territories of certain Turks’ tribes and from another side by the wish of Sogdians that came from one particular town to live densely together. This gave Turks a good benefit not only from the right to the land but also from the right on trading formed by Sogdians.  Turks supported Sogdians with safety of towns and trade roads. The peculiarity of these towns was an extensive agricultural land encircled by high long walls. These towns were mostly populated by Sogdians; they talked sogdian and wore sogdian clothes. Turk Hagan having Suyab as a residence hosted Xuan Zang in the countryside in a marquee.

Krasnorechenskoe settlement is 36km. far from Bishkek. The ruins of an ancient town of Navekat (New Town) were found here, one of the towns on the way of Great Silk Road that thrived in VI-XII centuries. Navekat town founded in VI century was a large trading and cultural center of ancient Turks’ khanatesIt way on the way of no9rthers Silk Road’s branch. In the urban planning of Navekat there were a citadel, two shahristans (“the town itself” by the Arab terminology) and a vast suburb with villa constructions on the territory of so called “long walls” having the area of 20 sq.km. It complies with the large city of early middle age Central Asia. The excavations showed the waterline that brought water from the main canal to the houses of wealthy citizens and also the cleaning wells.

The most spread religion among the citizens was Zoroastrianism (fire worship), but with some specific local tribe characters. In the “Burana” archeological-architectural museum on the territory of Krasnorechenskoe settlement you may see an indispensable attribute of Zoroastrianism religion - an ossuary (container for bone storage).  


Buddhist and Manichean communities of VII-IX centuries lived under the ruler’s power behind the town walls. Buddhist temples “Mani” on the territory of Krasnorechenskoe settlement were in the system of monastic buildings.

At the excavations the fragments of Buddhist paintings and sculptures were found as well as a huge Buddha statue (over 12 m high) made of molded clay with finely elaborated drapery and coloring. In 1961 in the west part of temple gallery granite with coloring monumental sculpture of Sleeping Buddha on sufa was found which is unique for Seven Rivers. This statue at the beginning was about 12m. high but only half part of it preserved and now stored in the Hermitage.

Navekat started to fall into decay from the second part of XII century and at the beginning of Mongolian campaign it was almost dead. Some citizens went to the neighboring capital Balasagun which was located about 20 km far to south-east or about the same distance to the west was another town called Tarsakent “Christian Town” that survived until XIV century. Most of the citizens though came back to nomadic cattle breeding which determined   the economic-cultural type of population for other five centuries and the return to shamanic-pagan cult.

Suyab or Ak-Beshim settlement not far from Tokmok was one of the most significant spots on the way of Great Silk Road. At the times of early middle ages Suyab was the most important town in Central Asia, the capital of Western-Turk Khanate and the gates for trade caravans.

It was founded in V-VI centuries as one of the furthest settlements of Sogdian merchants on the Silk Road. Suyab is an Iranian name of Chu River. In 629 it was visited and described by Xuan Zang. He noticed a very fertile soil most favorable for cultivation of millet and grapes. At those times Sogdian merchants paid Turk Hagan a tribute. Later Suyab got the name of Ordukent.

With the separation of Westent-Turk Khanate Suyab is made its capital. Turks provided the state with security and Sogdians provided its economic welfare.

In 648-719 Suyab served as one of the furthest western fortresses of Tan Empire. Due to Chinese, Buddhism becomes the main religion which coexisted with Nestorianism and Zoroastrianism before.

After 719 Suyab was given to Chinese under the rule neighboring Turgish. At the times of Chinese-Tibetan wars in the middle of the century the Tan garrison was again made on Suyab’s territory. The Chinese invasion into Western Turkistan faded after the defeat in 751 in Atlah brought by Arab commander Xiad Salih. In Seven Rivers the superiority was taken by Karluks which invaded Suyab in 766 and made it the capital. Then Karluks flowed into Uigur Khanate membership.

Chinese traveler Du Xuan going through Suyab in the middle of VIII century found it in ruins though Buddhist temple was still functioning. After Chinese went to East in 787 there is a little information on Suyab. In “Hudud-al-alam” treatise the town is named as “The town with the population of 20 thousands”.

Suyab was eventually dead  due to Balasagun town foundation in XI century. Archeological territory of Suyab is about 30 hectares. Excavations reveal many Christian as well as Buddhist cult buildings on the territory of Suyab.

Burana Tower and Burana settlement are located in 12 km from Tokmok town. According to archeological and historical research the settlement is the ruins of ancient city of Balasagyn – a capital of Karahanid khanate.  This city was founded by Sogdians in VI-VII centuries and later named Balasagyn. It was a developed city with communication lines: roads, water supply systems, social structures. The water was coming from the reservoirs located at the foothills 15-20 km afar. At this time the pipes were already ceramic, but the most amazing thing is that they have been working till X century. Due to the fact that the city was located on the crossroad there was an active trade with many countries.

A huge square of four-sided bastion was located in a central part of the city. In this square there were houses of common people, utility structures, workshops, city market and private lands. This area was enclosed by two-row wall. The length of external wall was about 20km; city area was about 25-30 sq.km. There was a river running through the city. Different parts and facilities of the city were supported with water coming from the river through water supply system, pipes and aryks (irrigation channel in Central Asia). An old fortress had a four-sided form (570-600 m). Nowadays, the height of the fortress’ walls is 3-4 m. According to archeologists, the walls were about 8-10meters at the beginning. Besides that during the excavation four prayer houses, construction of bath, ruins of houses, mosques, ruins of sewer pipes and a lot of different kind of pottery were found.

When people started practicing Islamic belief, the Karahanids were first to accept it. The Burana minaret was constructed inside the city in XI century and it became the first construction of minaret on the territory of Central Asia (you may find similar construction in Uzgen city on the south of Kyrgyzstan). The name “Burana” was taken from Arabic “Monara” (minaret), what means beacon. That’s why the connection between minarets and Arabic beacons  – poured burial grounds, is so evident. Their resemblance is as follows:  The Ramp – is imitation of path, clambering to the top of the tower, and a “light” of a minaret – is the top of the tower itself where a lantern was lighted. Minarets were constructed near mosques to call believers for praying. In the beginning the stairs of minarets constructed in the Middle East countries, were built on the external part of the construction. After IX century the stairs were placed inside the minaret. First minarets were built of mud bricks and ended with wooden pavilions. Starting from X century mud minarets were coated by burnt bricks. Later minarets were fully constructed of burnt bricks. A fine example is Burana Tower – minaret of the Djami mosque (ending of X – beginning of XI centuries).

Supposedly the mosque was constructed on the west side of Burana Tower. First height of Burana Tower was 46 m. Nowadays it is 25 m. Presumably the upper cupola of the tower was destroyed during the big earthquake in XV or XVI centuries. Depth of the tower foundation is 5meters. You may reach the minaret by ladder or by the stairs that go up the former mosque’s roof; it’s located at an altitude of 5 meters from the foundation. There were three mausoleums (shrines) at the eastern side of the minaret. The mausoleums are dated by XI-XII centuries.

The peculiarity of this city among other cities of Central Asia is that it was not destroyed during Chingiz-Khan invasion. Moreover, the Mongolians gave it a name of Gobalyk which means “good city”.

The city of Balasagyn existed till XIV-XV centuries. But finally the city lost its importance. Life in the city was fading away and citizens were leaving. In XV century municipal buildings turned into ruins. Former capital of Karakhanids Khanate has disappeared and even the name of the city was lost. By the gravestone texts of local Christians-Nestorians and the gravestones with Arabic texts we may suppose that citizens of Balasagyn died from a plague, raged here in 30s of XIV century. Nowadays, only the remains of the fortress and a huge tower silently testify the existence of Karakhanids capital.


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Best Time: May-October only in dry weather

One day excursion:

09:00. Departure from Bishkek. Transfer to Krasnorechenskoe settlement – ruins of ancient Navekat town, existed here in VI-XII centuries. Excursions around the settlement: citadel and shahristan view, the remaining of necropolis and Zoroastrian temple, excursion to the reconstructed Buddhist temple.

12:00. Transfer to Ak-Beshim settlement – ruins of the ancient Suyab town (V-XII c.). Excursion around neighborhood. Collection of little ancient ceramics’ debris as souvenirs.

13:00-14:00. Lunch

14:00. Transfer to Burana settlement – ruins of the ancient town called Balasagun (VI-XV c.). Excursion to the museum and to “Burana” tower itself (XI c.), view of the remaining foundations of former majestic mausoleums (XI-XII c.) – shrines of the power rulers of the town. Visiting the open air museum where you will be able to see the evidence of once restless life of various doctrines, cultures, regions and styles representatives.

16:30-17:00. Return to Bishkek.   

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