Saraishyk - the ancient city of the Golden Horde

22 October 2019

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The ruins of the once magnificent and ancient city of Saraishyk are located 52 km north of Atyrau in the Turan Depression along the lower Ural River. The city was one of the most prominent commercial centers which lay on an important northern trade route of the Great Silk Road. Strategically located at the juncture connecting Europe, Central Asia and China, Saraishyk flourished between the 13th and the 16th centuries.

There is no documented evidence about the exact period when the city was founded but archeologists believe the city might have been built on the ruins of a 10th-century medieval town of Saksim mentioned in Arabic sources. The legends have it that Saraishyk was erected during the initial years of the Jochi Khanate, later known as the Golden Horde, which included the territories of most of Eastern Europe from the Urals to the Danube River, and extended east deep into Siberia.

Well documented in Arabic and Persian sources dated to the 13th-14th centuries as a large trade center of the Golden Horde, Saraishyk had a very developed culture. Archeologists unearthed vessels with inscriptions as well as artefacts showcasing the mastery of Saraishyk’s metallurgists and potters. The excavated finds also included marble pieces and tiles as well as burial jewelry and gold, silver and bronze coins. In 2000, Kazakh archeologists uncovered a manse at the peripheral site of the city testifying to its grandeur.

In 1334, an Arab traveler and merchant Ibn Battuta visited the city and described in his books the glitter of the khan palaces, a vast number of mosques and hotels as well as the usage of advanced technologies such as water-piping and sewerage made of ceramic pipes. He also wrote about bustling ferries across the Ural River that reminded him of Baghdad. In 1335, a Florentine banker Francesco Balducci Pegolotti in his “Pratica della mercatura” described his travels through the city. The suburbs of the city were likened to a resort center where nobility from all over the Golden Horde would come to hunt and fish.

Like many other Golden Horde cities, Saraishyk was destroyed in 1395 by the army of Timur, a Turco-Mongol Persianate conqueror and founder of the Timurid Empire. It was, however, rebuilt in the 15th century and became the capital of the Nogai Horde khans and later of the Kazakh Khanate and existed until the end of the 16th century. In 1580, Saraishyk was routed and burned by anti-tsarist “thievish” Cossacks; its people were forced to migrate to Khiva and the city became completely desolated.

Saraishyk, a sacred place in the psyche of Nogais and later Kazakhs, was a religious center of Islam, a first in the northwestern sector of what used to be the Mongol Empire. Seven khans who ruled in Saraishyk between 12th and 16th centuries were buried here. The city was not only a sacred place for the burial of rulers and eminent people but also played an enormous role in the destiny of the Kazakh people.

In 1999, a memorial complex called “Khan Ordaly Saraishyk” was built at the site of the ancient city. The memorial includes the site of the ruins and fortress walls of the ancient city, a museum and a pantheon with seven tombstones in honor of the seven khans buried in Saraishyk.