Mahmut Kashgari: A Pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Honorable Scholar

by Angela Waldron

Painting of KashgariFifty kilometers southwest of Kashgar in the remote northwest Xinjiang province of China lies Upal (Opal), a Uyghur market oasis strategically located on the old Silk Road between China and Pakistan. Upal is the final home and resting place of the first man of Turkish words: Mahmud Kashgari (c. 1029-c. 1101) the eleventh century lexicographer of the Divan-I Lugat al-turk, or dictionary of the Turkish language. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam, Kashgari was born Mahmud Kashgari ibn Husayn ibn Muhammad in Barskhan (Barsghan) on the shore of Lake Issyk-kul in present-day Kyrgyzstan (although some sources say he was born in Kashgar, hence his surname) into an aristocratic Uyghur family of scholars connected on his father’s side to the reigning Karakhnid Dynasty.  His mother, of Arab descent, was an intellectual named Bibi Rābiy’a al-Basrī after the pious female Sufi saint from Baghdad.

He who Travels Knows More than One who has Lived Long                                                                                                     (Turkish Proverb)

Makhmud-Kashgari-XI-v.-velikij-filologLittle is known about Kashgari outside of his academic life but like many intellectuals at the time, he knew Arabic and Persian in addition to his mother tongue. It is believed he served in the Seljuk army under Sultans Alparslan and Melikshah, and travelled extensively in Turkish-speaking lands before settling in Baghdad, then the epicentre of the Islamic world. The dictionary, written in Arabic, originally started as a manual for Baghdad’s Arab intelligentsia curious to learn the language and culture of the Turkish people around them, but with the wealth of information he collected it evolved into a comprehensive linguistic opus of Turkic dialects, place and tribal names, poetry, proverbs, folklore, mythology, customs, and traditions.

Arabic is a language, Persian is a Sweetmeat; Turkish is an Art                                                                                                      (Persian proverb)

Upon his return to Baghdad, Kashgari spent two years assembling his research.  Then, as he tells us in the dictionary, he wrote a total of four redactions in a twenty-year period, finally finishing the edits in 1094. He finally presented the finished copy to the reigning Caliph of Baghdad, El-Mukted Biemrullah, who likely commissioned it. Kashgari’s other achievements include a now-lost Turkish grammar teaching and the first map showing the distribution of Turkic tribes that remains relevant today.  The latter is preserved at the General National Library in Istanbul.


The Tomb of the Honorable Scholar

Kashgari's tombIn his final years Kashgari retired to Upal and established a medresse, or school, where he taught until his death.  Upal at the time was the elite retreat for nobles who fled the summer heat of Kashgar for their oasis villas, a seemingly perfect place for a distinguished scholar to actively retire. Today, a paved road ends at the turnoff to the shrine, and for a kilometre the dirt track winds through the shady neighbourhood of leafy gardens and stone and mud brick compounds enclosed by wooden gateways, where one catches a glimpse of suburbia, Upal-style. The road terminates in a parking lot where a larger than life statue of the turbaned scholar greets the visitor.

Kashgari's graveyardKasgari’s groundbreaking achievements and legendary status make him a revered figure for Turkic people worldwide, and pilgrims of all persuasions make the trek to the museum housing his sprawling tomb and mosque complex on the hill above the school he founded. Over the centuries a line of hereditary Sheikhs cared for the tomb and its written history. The Chinese renovated the tomb in the mid 1950’s and later rebuilt it in 1986 after a collapse due to an earthquake in 1985. Displayed throughout the museum are historic photos that show what the shrine looked like prior to renovations along with a copy of the Divan-I Lugat, a painting of Kashgari at work, and display of other artefacts. His intellectual legacy is honoured in the library where scholars donate books as charitable offerings.  In the mausoleum, his stone coffin is draped in a heavy cloth intricately embroidered in Koranic verses. Kashgari’s relatives and descendants are buried around him in the adjacent cemetery, with the 7,000 metre Kunlun mountain range providing a stunning snow-covered backdrop to the hundreds of cylindrical and bee-hived shaped tombstones the colour of the earth as far as the eye can see.


The Demon and the Prophecy of the Poplar Tree 

Makhmud-Kashgari-While it can be hard to separate fact from fiction when history is often a combination of both, two local legends give us insight into Kashgari’s character and status in the community. Kashgari’s bravery is exemplified in a legend that says he (or in a variant, one of his students) slew a demon that lived in a nearby cave and threatened to terrorise the inhabitants if they did not supply him one youth a year as sacrifice.  Is this legend synonymous with conquering Buddhism, the religion of the region prior to Islam?

In another legend, when a young Kashgari asked his teacher where he would die and be buried, his teacher said wherever his walking stick took root.  The prophecy came true in Upal years later when his walking stick sprouted into a poplar tree watered by a spring of crystal clear water.  After his death his disciples buried him on the hilltop in view of the tree and spring.  Today, the venerable tree is literally covered in rag petitions, each one representing a pilgrim’s wish or a wish fulfilled.

The original Divan-I Lugat is long lost, but the discovery of a fifteenth-century Persian copy in Istanbul during WW1 resulted in newfound interest in Kashgari and great national pride among the Uyghur people. Today, the Divan-I Lugat with over 7,500 words remains an invaluable record of the pre-Islamic language, history, and culture of the Turkish people. It has been translated into over twenty languages.


Angela Waldron lives in Union, Maine with her husband Jim.  An anthropologist, photographer, and writer, she has traveled extensively in the US and Europe and lived in Turkey for four years documenting traditional Turkish occupations and the archaeological and historic sites of the over forty different civilizations that have made Anatolia their home.  She is currently writing a book based on her research. Her other areas of study include Islamic and Christian mysticism and travel to study the spiritual traditions of Mongolia, Tibet and China. She has contributed to Wild Fibers, Renaissance, and Light of Consciousness.