Throughout Central Asia, the burial sites of saints and mystiques, of men and women who may have lived hundreds of years ago play an integral part of everyday life. Often though, we find ourselves at a loss when asked by a foreign visitor about a particular shrine and the story behind it. We may know detailed facts about Ancient Greece, Rome or Egypt but very little about the heritage of our own native land. This applies to us in Kyrgyzstan as well. Who, for example, has heard of Shah Fasil and the legends around the Mausoleum in his name?
Tucked away at the small village of Safid-Bulan in the Jalalabad Oblast, in the northwestern part of the Ferghana Valley, where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan converge, lies the historical and architectural complex, Shah-Fasil, first mentioned in Persian and Arabian sources under the guise of Isbid-Bulan. Legend has it that Arabian conquerors under Shah Jarir, the grandson of Prophet Muhammed, came to these lands in order to spread the Islamic faith. To be spared a dour fate, the local inhabitants pretended to agree to convert to Islam only to attack the invaders during evening prayers. The battle was brief and 2700 warriors were taken captive and executed. A young and beautiful girl then appeared, looking for her beloved among the slain, but to no avail. The girl turned grey as she took in the full extend of the great slaughter. She buried the remains of those who had perished and for her good deed Allah turn the girl entirely white. From then on she was known as Safid Bulan, the white woman who lived on that very site until the end of her days, looking after the graves. A mausoleum was erected over her tomb to honor her. The legend ends with Sah-Fasil, the son of Shah Jarir, returning to the village to punish the pagans and his burial in a mausoleum next to his father’s.
Archaeological excavations have unearthed marks of a great battle around the tenth century, but historians have never found any written reference to these legendary events. Visitors today get to see the mausoleum of Shah-Fasil, the mausoleum of Safid-Bulan, the mausoleum of the 2700 Islamic warriors, several vaults, a mosque, necropolis, and the holy mountain Archa-Mazar. The whole complex is a Muslim sanctuary, pilgrimage site and place of worship. The Shah-Fasil mausoleum is distinct for its extraordinary interior. The entire walls are patterned from floor to ceiling with thin toned screw-thread on ganch (a mixture of alabaster and clay). Despite the fact that screw-thread has blackened in some places or fallen off, the overall effect remains awe inspiring. One feels small and fragile faced with the history of a thousand years, standing under the streaming light from the ceiling vault above that lights up the splendid decor.
The Shah-Fazil complex is of major significance to the Kyrgyz Republic and it is noted
with great pride that it is currently nominated for inclusion in the UNESCO list of world heritage sites.
In 2002, $24,000 was donated for the restoration of this unique mausoleum by the “Cultural Heritage Preservation Ambassadorial Fund”. The project of the “Kyrgyz Restoration” bureau on restoring and conservation of the interial decor of the Shah- Fazil mausoleum in Safed-Bulon village of Jalal-Abad region was among the winners of a national competition in 2002.
The criteria for project applications were:
- Conservation of archaeological and historical monuments, archaeological researches and excavations and related informational and elucidating activities;
- Preservation of collections and separate works of art: conservation, providing necessary conditions for storing and educating specialists in methods and ways of preserving the works of art and related informational and elucidating activities;
- Preservation of the various forms of traditional arts: recording the samples of musical and dance arts, compilation of endangered language dictionaries, recording the samples of oral folk arts and traditional poetry, education to tradition forms of folk handicraft arts aimed for their preservation.
A special tour has been developed for visits to Archa-Mazar mountain, and the Shah-Fazil complex. Hopefully similar projects can continue to be funded through these initiatives and preserve the history of lesser known parts of Kyrgyzstan’s cultural heritage.