The Ancient History of Kazakhstan at Otrar


To restore or not to restore, that’s the question…

Well, I think it is at Otrar, a historical site in southern Kazakhstan.

The oasis lay at the junction of important caravan routes: west to Khorezm and the Volga, south along the Syr Darya towards cities such as Merv and Nishapur, and east along the Arys to Taraz and beyond. Otrar flourished.

Bradt – Kazakhstan travel guide
Silk Road Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Camel caravan, reminder of the Silk Road heyday

Visits from Genghis Khan & Tamerlane

Once a flourishing town on the Silk Road, Otrar saw the beginning of its end when Genghis Khan was on its way in 1219. As he generally did, the master of conquest of all times asked the town to agree to his authority and pay some annual tribute. Ala, the town – or at least, one guy in town – had other plans and said no.

Genghis Khan took a look at his list of cruel revenges, picked on and conquered Otrar. After he razed it to the ground (standard procedure if a town didn’t submit to his authority) he had molten silver being poured into the eyes and ears of the traitor.

Ancient History of Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

On a side note, did you know Genghis Khan was more than a fierce and cruel warrior? E.g. he was the one who founded the concept of diplomatic immunity. Jack Weatherford wrote truly fascinating books about Genghis Khan and his influence on the world, about his views on religion (he allowed everybody freedom of religion) and the influence the Mongol queens after his death.

Otrar regained its strength and, early 16th century, opened its gate to Timur, also known as Tamerlane, the second cruelest ruler of this part of the world. However, in Otrar the leader of the extensive Timurid Empire got a fever, and died.

Travel Guides for Kazakhstan

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Insight Guides – Silk Road

Lonely Planet Travel Guides – Central Asia

Bradt Travel Guides – Kazakhstan

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Otrar Today

These days Otrartobe, the mountain top, consists of ruins, mostly remains of adobe walls. However, restoration has been taken place. There’s always the question, I suppose, on how much you do repair, restore, rebuild and/or leave alone at such kind of places. It’s a complex issue for many, if not all, historic sites. We generally prefer a combination of leaving parts as they were found while restoring other parts as to get a better feel of how it once was.

Ancient History of Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Ancient History of Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

On arrival in the parking lot, however, it was too hot to move a toe – 45 degrees Celsius (113F). No shade anywhere near the site and the sun about to scorch us together with the grass that was still surviving.

“Let’s wait till six o’clock,” I suggested.

Coen immediately agreed, even more so because the rest area had columns to support a roof for shade. The columns were of particular interest to him so he could hang his hammock.I cut a melon – it’s easy to live on melons in Central Asia. They are cultivated in Uzbekistan and you will find vendors in bazars and along many streets, including along double-lane highways, selling them for next to nothing. By the way, did you know there are some 160 types of melons? 

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With the sunrays diminishing their heat, we bought our tickets, walked through the gate, and followed a path to the remains of the old city. An old bathhouse is protected with a huge roof; the rest of the town is entirely open to the elements.

As far as restoration goes, we think they are doing a fantastic job and the work is ongoing. Two gates have been rebuild, as well as a part of the wall, and a number of old merchant buildings and homes. It’s always interesting to experience how buildings of thick adobe walls and small windows can stay so cool on the hottest of days.

Other than that, it’s low walls indicating old constructions.

Meeting people in Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Always time for a chat and a photo
Meeting people in Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

Background of Otrar’s History

Earlier that day, we had arrived in Shauildir, 10 kilometers down the road. It lies along a double-lane road and for the size of the town, that’s a lot of asphalt. It feels somewhat overdone. It intrigued me. Is this a stopping point for the pilgrims to the mausoleum in Turkestan? Does it have days with huge numbers of visitors to the museum about Otrar? 

I have no idea.

History of the region is abundantly honored. In the middle of the road, along fences, are ceramic pots, big pieces of art such as ancient rings or other objects that may be found during archaeological excavations. In a park are busts honoring all kinds of important men, and there are more of them on murals. A large mosaic details a battle against the Kazakhs’ biggest enemy in the past, the Dzunghars. Silk Road reminders abound through sculptures of camels. 

We were here for a museum. It had started as a school museum in 1973 by volunteers and was recognized as a regional museum in 1976. How cool is that? We realized too late that it was Monday, when museums are often closed.

Here the sign said: ‘Monday is Cleaning Day’.

And cleaning they did! Women were walking in and out with huge carpets to be aired over fences of the parking lot. One woman spoke a little English and she allowed us to walk around nonetheless. How kind was that? The museum is a characteristic regional display of historical artefacts and dioramas giving insight in how people lived in the past and today.

Recommended Books on Overlanding

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Mud, Malaria, Guns and Miracles – Graeme Bell

Hit the Road; Vans, Nomads and Roadside Adventures

My African Conquest – Julia Albu

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Museum Shauldir, Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
siege of Otrar
Museum Shauldir, Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Entrance of the museum with a pot of gold

More around Otrar

This is a fascinating little corner of Kazakhstan. Nearby is the beautiful mausoleum of Arystan Bab as well as the cultural highlight of the country: Turkestan, with the grand Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi.

But that’s for another day…

Near Otrar we hit a sandy path that ended at a river. I got out of the car and walked right into the water still in shorts and T-shirts to cool down. Bliss!

GPS Waypoint Otrar: 42.908059, 68.346955

GPS Waypoint Camp Spot: 42.852471, 68.211894

Read More: Our Favorite Overland Wild Camps in Kazakhstan

Wild camp near Otrar, Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Wild camp near Otrar, Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

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3 thoughts on “The Ancient History of Kazakhstan at Otrar”

  1. Another wonderful collection of words and photographs. You two seem able to capture the feel of every place you visit. Your talents give readers the experience of “being” there.
    I admire how you interact with the people you meet. There are some writers whose articles and photos seem to overlook the fact that people live where they are visiting.
    They seem to forget that meeting people is one of the joys of traveling.
    I have read, “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”. It gives an insight to those times.


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