Turkistan city is more than 1'500 years old; at least official data is suggesting it. In the early 2000s, big celebrations were carried out in the country. But no one knows in reality how old in fact is the city. The current name of the city is Turkistan; it's just the last name and it has 500 years of history. The city had other ancient names before such as Yassy and Shavgar. Maybe these names were not the first. There is a version that Yassy is an ancient Turkic name meaning "stretched, scattered". The name of great Sufi - Hodja Ahmed Yassavi which means Ahmed from Yassy city comes from this name. Unfortunately, previous history of the city since its beginning until the time of Hodja Ahmed is no longer available. For us, history of the city is associated primarily with the life of Hodja Ahmed, i.e. 11-12 centuries.
From geographical angle Turkistan city is located in ancient natural oasis near desert and Syrdarya river. In old days the river was known as Yaksart river. There is something similar in this name to the name of Yassy city. Ancient cities such as Otyrar and Sauran were also located in this area nearby. Historians call this area as Otyrar oasis, because in ancient times this place was densely populated and there were many settlements. Apparently at that time climatic conditions were more favorable for human habitation. Currently this area cannot be considered as populous. But people still continue to live here because they believe that this land is holy.
This region is also interesting because it is located on natural boundary between Great Steppe, which was inhabited for thousands years by warlike nomads and ancient urban civilization, which originated over the river. This place was meeting point of two cultures: nomadic and urban. Nomadic tribes and later Kazakhs, which were formed from these warlike tribes, moved many times in their history in case of heavy enemy attacks to their urban relatives over the river. It was during a severe attack of Kalmyk - Jungars in 18th century, when our ancestors after numerous defeats and losses were forced to retreat over Syrdarya river toward present territory of Uzbekistan closer to ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. They retreated or even fled from cruel enemy; peaceful people together with their families, cattle, whole settlements. Enemy spared no one. This period in the history of Kazakhs was named as Great Disaster or Aqtaban Shybyryndy in Kazakh language. But thanks God our ancestors survived, they gathered strength and drove the enemy from their lands and even beyond. Perhaps our native Turkic brothers in the cities over the river had credit for our victory; they helped our grandfathers and did not let them die of hunger. We do not say about this fact much, but it is necessary to know.
There is Karatau (Black) Mountains nearby. They are a natural border between steppe and the city. The Black mountains are saving the city and surrounding area from deadly breath of desert. By the way, Karatau mountains are ridge of main mountain range of Tien-Shan. The branch stretches from the main body so far. I always believed that Karatau mountains are an independent mountain chain. But it was a mistake. Geography is a great science and helps a lot. Now Turkistan city is an independent administrative unit on the map of Kazakhstan; the city of regional significance. But area which is adjoined to Turkistan city administratively belongs to Otyrar district with center in Shaulder village. As you can see whole district was named by the name of ancient city of Otyrar. Ancient and sacred name Otyrar was not lost despite the fact that no one had lived in Otyrar. People left the city a long ago because of much destruction. Now Kazakhs in South Kazakhstan call the city as Otyrar tobe, i.e. hill or settlement. There are many such tobe in Otyrar district. Tobe is a place where people lived in ancient times. Now this place is a holy area.
Turkistan in old Turkic language means country of Turks. Apparently this name meant territories where Turkic tribes lived. And this name meant not only the city and surrounding areas but entire region including whole Central Asia. Eastern Turkistan term exists even nowadays; it includes territories of Kashgar, Turpan and in general province Xinjiang in China. And even earlier West Turkistan term existed which meant the territory of our region. As we know from the history there were large nomadic Turkic states in this area and in Central Asia: Turkic khanates, Turgesh and Qarakhanid states. Many Turkic tribes that formed whole nomadic empires lived here; these empires disintegrated then formed new empires. These tribes fought each other, fought together with the neighboring people of Iran, China and India. Life here seethed and welled up. Then in 8-10 centuries Islam came to the region and life changed here dramatically. Under pressure of new religion and culture the Arabic and Persian influence started to dominate. Whatever it was the word “Turkistan” has been narrowed to name of the city. We became the Turkistan as “city of the Turks” and lost from the Turkistan as “land of the Turks”.
Ahmed son of Ibrahim was born in early of 11 century in the famous city of Sayram. Much later he became famous Hodja Ahmed Yassavi. Ahmed was unusual young man. According to my understanding he had extraordinary abilities. He started to develop them and was quite successful. He was member of religious clan of Hodja, which consisted of people who brought Islam to the region and who then assimilated among local people. According to legend Ahmed met his future spiritual mentor - famous Arystan Bab in Sayram city. Their meeting had been predicted a long ago by Prophet Mohammed himself; this is also one of the local legends. Thus a kind of spiritual baton of Islam or as Kazakh people say “Amanat” was transferred from the Prophet to future saint Ahmed. But all this occurred in Saiam city, not in Turkistan. Young but well-known Ahmed moved here much later to continue his education. Since that time life of Ahmed son of Ibrahim was strongly associated with Yassy city, which was later renamed as Turkistan. Then Ahmed moved to Bukhara city, where he studied secrets of Sufism. Later he returned home to Yassy – Turkistan city. What was his life in Bukhara city no one knows exactly; we can only guess. But one thing I can say that Ahmed from Yassy strongly stood out from that orthodox Islamic environment and may be had some spiritual contradictions with local religious leaders. People in the city and surrounding areas respected him; he became famous and popular among ordinary people. In addition Ahmed began to write poems in native Turkic language, while all the local literature was exclusively in Persian.
The most famous and popular work of Ahmed Yassavi was Book of Wisdom – “Divani Hikmet” created in Turkic language. This book was so popular among ordinary people that many young people learned and recited his poems by heart. Elders assessed maturity of young people by knowledge of Khodja Ahmed’s book. Ordinary people called this book as Second Book or “Korany Turky” i.e., second great book after the Koran or Turkic Koran.
We know that Islam was relatively new religion in this area at that time. Most people still adhered to old faith - Tengry. I fundamentally disagree with those who today claim that Tengry was belief of pagans and shamans. I think it was quite a serious system of beliefs with the basic idea of existence of one God - Tengry. For many centuries, thousands of years Turks confessed Tengry and this belief was foundation of their lives. I dare to assert that Islam, which is practiced today by modern Kazakhs and other people of Central Asia contains many religious principles and attributes of old religion – Tengry. I think belief of Tengry did not disappear but gradually was developed and preserved in so-called popular Islam. Islam in the Steppe and Central Asia always differed from Islam, which is confessed today in Arab world and Iran in terms of tolerance and wisdom. It is not a secret that there is a serious conflict in modern Islam between Sunnis and Shiites, two main branches who still argue who is closer to Allah. Ordinary Muslims in Kazakh Steppe and Central Asia have always been religiously tolerant and restraint towards their Islam brothers and representatives of other religions. And the reason of this is old faith of Tengry.
In times of Hodja Ahmed our ancestors made already decision to accept Islam as main religion among the nomads with proviso that their Islam would be kind of symbiosis of old and new beliefs. Hodja Ahmed Yassavi realized this fact therefore he promoted and explained understandable Islam to ordinary people. He confessed Islam which had taken into account life and customs of the nomads. Among the preachers of Islam he was one of few who did not call to “pure” Arabic or Persian versions of Islam, but called for a clear simple and universal Islam, center of which was love to Human.
History of Turkistan city and South Kazakhstan in general is closely associated with Sufism or rather with Turkic Sufism. It was written and said much about Sufism, but we do not talk about it in Kazakhstan. For some reason people here are afraid of extreme manifestations. I personally understand Sufism as spiritual way of purification and self-development, way of comprehension of God. Originality of Turkic Sufism was in that fact, that he adapted local folk traditions and customs, elements of old faith to Islam, turning it into a so-called folk Islam, which is still very popular among Kazakhs. Ahmed Yassavi developed and expanded this line. One of the characteristics of Sufism in general and in particular of Turkic Sufism is asceticism and mysticism. Hodja Ahmed was such ascetic; he also was founder and leader of Sufi order named after the city or its founder - Yassaviya. Asceticism of the order was also in that fact that it was a dervish order, i.e. wandering monks order. Dervishes or as Kazakhs called them “Duana” were ascetics, who renounced material life and dedicated themselves to comprehension of True. Dervishes traveled all over the world distributing and collecting crumbs of Wisdom and True. Students of Khodja Ahmed were very popular among ordinary people especially among nomads. They brought sacral knowledge on God to people. Sufism was very popular among Turkic nomads, especially when Islam was chosen as main belief. Sufism for nomads became a kind of continuation of their old Faith. Religious authorities so-called “Sopy” – Sufis were very popular among Kazakhs. If you are familiar with Kazakh genealogy – “Shezhire” you should know that majority of founders of most Kazakh tribes were “Sopy” - followers of Sufism. Legendary saints of South Kazakhstan such as Koshkar - Ata, Shakpak-Ata, Ak-Bura Aulie, Ukash- Ata, Beket-Ata and others were the followers of Hodja Ahmed and may be members of his Sufi order. Hero of folk anecdotes famous and loved by everyone Hodja Nasreddin was Sufi dervish. He is very good example of Turkic Sufi. Hodja Ahmed Yassavi whom people called as Sultan of Sufis was such leader and one of great founders of Turkic Sufism.
We can talk about Turkistan city and Hodja Ahmed Yassavi a lot. I can tell the story about construction of the Mausoleum, where saint Ahmed was buried. Mausoleum, which was built three hundred years later after death of great Sufi by great ruler Tamerlane. I can also tell the story of Turkistan city in middle ages as main city of Kazakh khanate. History of modern Turkistan city is also very interesting. I have many such stories and they all are very interesting. As we say in the South: “It is better to see one time rather than to hear hundred times”. Come, see and you will hear many surprising and interesting stories.