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June 12, 2018

June 12, 2018

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What Sayram means to me

Sayram... It is not just the name of the city, it is something more. This is our History.


Sayram personally to me - it is, first of all, the amazing Sayram peak (4238 m), the highest peak in South Kazakhstan in Western Tien Shan, Talass Alatau. This is also the names of the Sayram lakes, Upper and Lower, amazing in its beauty, which originate from glaciers of Sayram peak. This beautiful river Sayram Su and Gorge through which it flows under the same name. All these natural attractions are located in the famous National Park - Sayram-Ugam. And, of course, ancient Sayram city. Our Eternal City. Today it is hard to see and find out in this dusty provincial city one of the oldest cities in Kazakhstan, perhaps, in Central Asia. To do this we need to be here, to listen to the voices of its streets, feel the beat of his heart and have a bit of imagination to travel back through the centuries in that Sayram, which we only have in our dreams. 


What does Sayram in general mean? Where does this toponym come from? In this respect there is no clear and reliable information. It is also unknown what was named earlier: peak of the mountain or the city. Taking into account that Sayram is not the first name of the city, I think first the mountain peak and river were named. Although, it is necessary to make a reservation, this is just my own opinion, which can be flawed. The previous name of the city was, for some reason in Persian – “Ispindzhab”, which means “white (light) River.” Why this old name is Persian, we could only guess. Perhaps this is due to the first penetration of Islam into South Kazakhstan in 8th - 9th centuries. First missioners of Islam, probably, were the Persians. As, for example, famous saint Arystan Bab, buried about 150 km from Sayram, and not far from the city of Turkestan. Or maybe this Persian name of the city came from a time when the city was part of the Samanid Empire – ancient Persian-Tajik state which existed in 8th - 9th centuries. There is no reliable data about this fact. At least, the current name of the city - Sayram sounds and looks like a Turkic name. Some ancient sources say that “Sayram” is translated from ancient Turkic language as “shallow water”. In any case, meaning of the city name is connected with a water source, in our case, with the river. And this once again confirms my theory of the name after the mountain and river.


But there is also an esoteric, mystical version of Sayram toponym origin. It does not seem so fantastic and in the future it could be even the main one. This version connects us with a kind of prehistoric hero, whose name was Rum and who came from somewhere in the East. And it is quite logical. As we know in ancient times there was an old path of pilgrims who had prehistoric pre-Islamic belief, path passed from holy mountain Uch Sumer in Altai mountains, through the Tien Shan, Pamir, Hindu Kush, and went to the Himalayas to another holy mount Kailas in Tibet. And, perhaps, that Rum person was an ancient pilgrim who was going from East to South. For some reason, this person stayed in our region, and lived here for some time. Apparently, his behaviour and personality influenced local people so strongly that they decided to name after him everything that can be named, including the city. “Say Rum” means by this version as “Holy Rum”. Later, this Saint went to India. In India this person is so well-known that there is even a whole book dedicated to his exploits – Ramayana. And the status of the person in India, almost divine. That’s the story of connection between Sayram and far India. There is a reason for search and researches. Who knows the truth? 


And one more addition to the history of our region, today’s name of Tien Shan mountains (in Chinese “Celestial Mountains”), it is just a carbon copy of the original ancient Turkic title  - Tengri- Tau, which means Mount of Tengri, mountain of supreme God. Kazakhs now poetically call these mountains Ala-Tau – “Motley mountains”. That’s the story of the mountains, peaks, lakes which smoothly flows into the history of the city. 


City of Sayram (let’s call it so), its administrative status is not clear at the moment. Initially, it was a village, then a district center, and now it is planned to merge with the regional center – Shymkent city. As mentioned above, Sayram is one of the oldest cities in Kazakhstan. The exact date of its foundation and age has not yet been defined. Even historians have different opinions on this issue. So far, with more or less degree of probability we can say that the age of the city is about two thousand years. The city is famous not only for its ancient history, but first of all that it is burial place of many holy persons. The city, in fact, is a huge burial place of holy men. Almost all of these known buried saints are Muslim saints. Stories and legends tell us that these holy men were the ones who first brought Islam to the region. So, one of the saints buried here – Abdul-Aziz Bab is called, contemporary and companion of Prophet Muhammad, a kind of standard-bearer of the first group of Muslims. His mausoleum in Sayram is a place of visit for religious pilgrims. All these people who stayed and spread Islam in the region and were buried here were later recognized and ranked as a special caste of religious people, so-called Hodja. Their direct descendants among Kazakhs still today belong to this religious group. Most respected and revered of them, few of their names are known to us, were canonized. Possible or impossible to imagine how many such people came to preach Islam, and how many of them were buried here. At least, Kazakhs still are calling Sayram as “Sanzyz bab Sayram” – i.e., city of uncountable number of saints. I do not consider it impossible if the city was a burial place for ancient Turkic tribes even much before Islamic period. Very close to the mountains in Kazakh villages you can meet ancient pre-Islamic, and possibly prehistoric burial mounds of Scythian, Saka or Hun people who once lived here.


There were no any serious archaeological excavations in the entire history of the city. It’s just physically impossible, because everywhere there are private households and modern houses are practically located on the site of ancient city. The whole city would be a huge archaeological site. Periodically, people find various objects and ancient artifacts when they construct or rebuild their homes. Taking into account the number of graves and mausoleums in the city it can be named as “Holy Sayram”. So, Sultan of Sufis – famous Hodja Ahmed Yassavi (who was buried in Turkistan city) was born here in the 10th century. His parents, grandfather and relatives also were buried here. Their mausoleums still stand here and they are places for pilgrimage. According to the legend his spiritual mentor Arystan Bab met little Ahmed - future saint, here in Sayram on the bridge in the center of the city.


Today Sayram is the city with its own face, its unique culture. Maybe not everyone knows that fact: vast majority of Sayram population (over 95%) are residents of Uzbek origin. These people call themselves Uzbeks, a kind of Uzbek enclave on the territory of South Kazakhstan. In general, many of the nearby larger towns, such as Kara-Bulak Kara-Murthy, Ak-Su from ancient time are inhabited by these Uzbek people. These people did not come here from


, they were not brought by force, and they lived here forever. Sayram is their homeland. Even their language and customs are different from Uzbeks in Uzbekistan. Maybe they are descendants of those people who came here to the edge of Great Steppe to nomads with new faith, Islam. Who knows? These people are good traders, farmers, builders, cooks. Probably nomads learned a lot from these people. Whatever it was they are now part of the distinctive culture of South Kazakhstan. Without these people South Kazakhstan would be much poorer. Their national Uzbek cuisine, in particular bread baking and tandoor samsa, I think is the most delicious. Ancient technology of cooking in tandoor, which is ancestor of all modern ovens and stoves, preserved to the present day. Many citizens of the regional center Shymkent come here to enjoy delicious food.


This was a short, but interesting and even mysterious story of this ancient city of Sayram. The city with two thousand years history. The city of the Sun and Warmth. Come and you will not regret.


Travel in Kazakhstan with English speaking guide - Dildabek Bekman 

Visit and choose a tour around Kazakhstan.

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