Short Report of an Ethnographic Trip to the Kyzylorda Region, December 2021, by Ulan Bigozhin
Dates of the trip: December 10th-December 13th, 2021
Destinations: Kyzylorda Region, South Kazakhstan, Mausoleum of Khorasan Ata (or Abd Zhalil Bab)
On December 10-13, I made a short trip to the Kyzyl Orda Region, where is located the shrine complex of Khorasan Ata or Abd Zhalil Bab, via the city of Turkestan. The complex of Khorasan Ata is situated near the village of Zhanakorgan, the district centre, 146 kilometres from Turkestan. During this stay, I visited several shrines and collected several interviews.
Shrines visited: Khorasan Ata; Qulauz Ata; Qasïm Ata; Sayyid Kamal al-Din Burhaniddi Qïluch; Tolegetai Ata (related to the Nayman tribal group of the Kazakhs); Hazrat Kamal al-Din Baqsays (or Baqshaysh) Awliya; Ush Ata (or ‘Three Elders’); Sayyid Sabult Shaykh Buzruk; Mawlana Shams al-Din; and al-Amin Bab.
All are located near Zhanakorqan, less than one hour drive on the car from each other. The shrine of Hazrat Kamal al-Din Baqsays Awliya is the only one not served by road, since at more than 35 kilometres from Zhanaqorgan, in the Qïzïlqum Desert.
Textual hagiographies collected:
- Satarulu, S., Abd ul-Zhalil Bab (Khorasan Ata), Almaty, 2007 – 520 p.
- Aitzhanov, B., Aitzhanov, A., Rakhïm ete kor: Babam Khorasan [Except It: My Forefather, Khorasan], Almaty, 2019 – 88 p.
- Zhanysbekov, O. Aulieeldïn auliesï: Khorasan Aulie [The Saint of Saints: Khorasan Awliya], Almaty, 2019 – 64 p.
- Rustemulu, T., Qulauz Ata urpaqtarïn shezheresï [Genealogy of Quluauz Ata], Tashkent, 2004
- Uzun Ata Kesenesï, Almaty, 2019, 31 pp.
Fifteen interviews of lengths with holy lineage members, shrine keepers, pilgrims, etc.
About Abd al-Zhalil Bab or Khorasan Ata:
The main object of this research trip was the shrine of Khorasan Ata or Abd Zhalil Bab, one of the most popular Muslim saints (awliya) of Southern Kazakhstan, whose pilgrimage compares with Ahmad Yasawi’s in the nearby city of Turkestan. According to the manaqibs (exempla) by Aitzhanov and other hagiographers, ‘Abd Zhalil Bab made his arrival in the region in 150 AH (767 CE). All insist on his genealogy going back to ‘Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, son-in-law and fourth successor (khalifa).
The descendants of Abd Zhalil Bab call themselves ‘Khorasani’ khwajas or qozhas, by allusion to the historical region of Khorasan. (As to the Kazakh term of Iranian origin qozha, it designates a status group of local descendants of the Islamisers of the first centuries of the Hijra.) The shrine keeper, Meyramkhan Nurgozha (b. 1967), evoked the existence of eleven distinct sub-branches of Khorasani qozhas but could name only six. My study of the sacred Muslim lineages of Kazakhstan suggest that they are considered among their peers in the region as the largest and best widespread holy lineage. Their great ancestor, Abd Zhalil Bab, appears in the group’s traditions as a warrior and a preacher, a man of God who spread Islam among pagans. Local manaqibs mention, too, two brothers of his, Ishaq Bab and Abdaraim Bab. (More detail on the family will be given at the Project’s April workshop.) Under the ‘umbrella’ of Khorasan Ata’s veneration, other sacred lineages could shrive, endowed with diverse roots, backgrounds and histories, as well as with great ancestors of theirs. While the veneration of Khorasan Ata provides the whole region and its population with a holy figure comparable to Yasawi, it allows local tribes of non-qozha ascent to receive part of his sainthood.
Brief description of the shrine of Khorasan Ata:
The funerary complex consists of two tombs: the biggest, upfront the central gate, belongs in fact to the saint’s alleged son Husayn, or Usein. The pilgrims stop there first, before going to the father’s mausoleum. Numbers of narratives circulate on the miraculous healing of visitors, their saintly visions and dreams. The shrine keeper and locals mentioned to me the existence of a white snake (or snakes) as the sacred guardian(s) of the place. A peculiar feature of its modern development is a full size copy of the Kaaba, built very close to the sanctuary: its visit is now an integral part of the pilgrimage.
Besides the Kazakhstani state and the local elite, one of the main sponsors of the complex is the uranium mining company KazAtomProm. Two uranium mines situated not far from Zhanakorqan bear the saint’s name: Khorasan 1 and Khorasan 2 (https://www.kt.kz/rus/economy/v_kizilordinskoj_oblasti_otkrilsja_uranovij_rudnik_na_uchastke_horasan1_mestorozhdenija_severnij_horasan_s_proizvodstvennoj_moshtnostjju_3_tis_tonn_urana_v_god_1153484294.html).