Abul-Fazl mausoleum – priceless reminiscence of Seljuk period architecture and significant Sufi shrine in Turkmenistan

Abul-Fazl exteriorKnown for considerable reserves of oil and gas, Turkmenistan is no less important as a land of fascinating ancient culture and a repository of numerous archaeological and architectural monuments giving an opportunity to trace the emergence and development of civilization in Central Asia.

A special place among many important architectural remnants of the past epochs and historical and cultural masterpieces of both Turkmenistan and Central Asia belongs to the mausoleum of Abul-Fazl, which was built in the southern suburb of the contemporary Sarahs in early XI c.

Existing since, at least, the Achaemenid period Sarahs has been an important service point on one of the Silk Road brunches, connecting such recognised centres of the medieval trade as Merv and Nishapur. But despite its former commercial significance, Sarahs has, for many centuries, been praised as a home of extraordinary school of architecture that had formed in the city by the early XI cc.

Abul-Fazl nameplaqueLocated 300 metres to the south of the so-called Old Sarahs citadel, the ruins of the administrative centre of the medieval city, mausoleum of Abul-Fazl is an important attraction for pilgrims who revere the beautiful brick-laid structure as the burial place of a recognised Sufi saint, Abul-Fazl as-Sarahsi. The mausoleum, which is popularly known as “Sarahs Baba” (“an old man from Sarahs”) holy shrine, was erected above the tomb of imam of Sarahs who lived in the city and died in 1023.

Due to Abul-Fazl, whose fame and renown spread well beyond Khorasan, Sarahs became an important regional centre of Sufism. Administered by respected sheikhs, a number of Sufi schools of the city attracted thousands of educated men from all over the region. Having finished their studies in Sarahs, students travelled all over the east to bringing the light of holy knowledge to the remotest nooks of the Muslim world. Abul-Fazl was the most respected of all imams in the city, nurturing most brilliant theologians of the time. One of his disciples was Abu Seid Mekhneyi (967-1049), an influential Sufi, a founder of khanaka (a sort of Sufi monastery) in Meana (southern Turkmenistan), and mentor of the great Seljuk sultans Chaghri Beg and Toghrul Beg. Having taught Abu Seid for a number of years, Abul-Fazl told his most favourite student to go and live a solitary and ascetic life for seven years. When the seven-year period was over, Abul-Fazl taught Abu Seid for two more years and then awarded him “khirka” – a sign of the best disciple and a blessing for independent teaching and preaching.

People believe that Abul-Fazl so highly esteemed Abu Seid that he continued mentoring him even after his death. They say that Abu Seid would visit the tomb of his mentor from time to time, where he would spend a few days praying and contemplating. Once Abu Seid fell asleep and his teacher came to him in a dream and said “Go and stay with people”. So he did and went to people to share holy truth.

Abul-Fazl interiorDue to the monumentality, clarity of lines, harmony and correct proportions, the building of the mausoleum, though relatively small, looks impressive. It was first mentioned in the notes of an English traveller, A. Burns, who passed Sarahs in 1832 on his way from Bukhara to Iran. Burns wrote that he stopped “at the tomb of some Muslim saint, whose name, according to the name plaque, was Abul-Fazl Ghuzi”.

In 1890 Old Sarahs attracted attention of a distinguished scholar and explorer of Central Asia, V.A. Zhukovskiy, who photographed the mausoleum and discovered that it had been erected above the grave of Abul-Fazl in 1024.

Later, in the mid XX c., the mausoleum was explored by M.Ye. Masson and G.A. Pugachenkova, directors of the eleventh Southern Turkmenistan Interdisciplinary Archaeological Expedition (YuTAKE). Soon after them, an architect from Moscow, A.M. Pribitkova, measured the building and offered a project of its restoration. All researchers noted that there is no suture between the body of the building and the portal, which means that the structure was erected as a single whole in the early XI c.

M.Ye. Masson noticed and deciphered an alabaster inscription on the mausoleum portal, informing that Timurid sultan Shah-Ruh ordered restoration of the mausoleum in 1425, which resulted in the enlargement of the portal. Soon after the repair works, the mausoleum was embellished with beautiful alabaster stalactites. The restorers also transformed the foundation of the inner dome, reinforcing it with twelve arches and corner squinches, redesigned the portal and decorated its arch with stucco mouldings, artificial marble, and intricate suls-style inscriptions in Arabic.

At present, the mausoleum is a monumental composition of the parallelepiped-shaped body that supports the cylindrical drum and the harmonious double dome. The square-looking body of the mausoleum is 15,4×15,4-m-large at the exterior and 10,2×10,2-m-large at the interior, which has four deep niches. Quite a heavy building of high quality Seljuk period brick looks quite elegant due to the exquisite brickwork: rows of alternating horizontal and vertical whole bricks and pieces.

The front of the building faces east. Two spiral stairways inside the 2,5-m-thick wall of the mausoleum to the left and right of the front door lead to a beautiful arcade, embracing the drum 5 metres above the ground level. It is here that visitors may see the inner, empty space between the inner and outer layers of the double dome.

The total height of the building is 14,07 m, 8,7 m from the ground to the foundation of the dome. The conically-spheroid double dome of the mausoleum does not overload the composition despite its considerable size. Symbolising the heavenly sphere, it seems to be floating above the body, which symbolises the earth, or earthly life, to be exact. Thus, we can see that the main idea of the Seljuk period mausoleums of this type is unity and subsequence of the life on Earth and the afterlife.

Typical and distinctive of the Sarahs architectural style was extraordinary brickwork and complex constructive forms, as well as highly-artistic ornamentation, which were unattainable before and unsurpassed after. But the highest of the achievements of the school was invention of double and, in some cases, triple domes.

The fame and prestige of the architectural school was so great in the XI-XII cc. that every monarch and sovereign of the east wanted a structure designed and erected by masters from Sarahs.

One of the earliest masterpieces of its kind, mausoleum of Abul-Fazl makes the company in Turkmenistan to two other outstanding buildings of the Seljuk period. These are the mausoleum of Abu Seid Mekhneyi (1049) in southern Turkmenistan and a world-famous 38-m-high mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar (1140), a major attraction of the XII c. “Queen of the Cities”, Merv.

Besides the mausoleums in Turkmenistan, evidences of the skill and ingenuity of Sarahs architects are scattered all over the region. Mosque and caravanserai in Rabati-Sharaf, mausoleum of sheikh Ahmed al Hadi and mausoleum of Lukman baba in Iran, as well as a unique corrugated Jarkurgan minaret, built in 1109, 35 km from Termez (Uzbekistan), are only a few and most striking examples.

Centuries later, having survived hard times and invasions, the priceless reminiscent of the Seljuk period architecture (a part of the “Old Sarahs” State Historical and Cultural Reserve since 1991) still serves a spiritual heart of the area, attracting thousands of pilgrims, architecture and history specialists, and ordinary Silk Road travellers.