Fieldwork Report: Sulaiman-Too, Osh, Kyrgyzstan, July 2023

By Pascale Bugnon
University of Geneva

In July 2023, I went to Kyrgyzstan to conduct fieldwork research as part of the Red Golden Legend project. My main objective was to carry out some preliminary investigations on Sulaiman-Too Mountain [Сулайман-Тоо], also known as the ‘Throne of Salomon’. Located in Osh, this place occupies an important position in the sacred geography of Kyrgyzstan. Although the ‘Throne’ was not originally an ancient shrine, it has become a reputed pilgrimage destination and one of the prominent holy place cults in Central Asia, equated with the pilgrimage to Mecca (cf. Liu, 2012: 37; Zarcone, 2013: 75 — according to the documents analysed by Thierry Zarcone, the cult dedicated to Salomon started in the 19th century, although the mausoleum of Asaf b. Burhiya had previously served as a pilgrimage place).

Drawing on fieldwork findings, the video that accompanies this text presents the transformation of the site, which has been going through a process of culturalisation since the mid-20th century. My aim is to show the museification and heritagisation processes, which has been taking place during the Soviet era and more recently. Accordingly, the site emerges as a palimpsest whose meaning changes with political contexts, combining local and global dynamics.

 

During the Soviet era, the site was identified as one of the most popular and ‘dangerous’ saint cults by the Communists (Zarcone, 2013: 76) and subsequently began to be secularised through a process of museification. In 1948, the Osh Regional Museum was founded and in 1978, it was transformed into the Sulaiman-Too National Historical and Archaeological Museum Complex (UNESCO, 2009: 28).

Following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the national government of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan re-evaluated the site and conducted various research activities, which were later used to submit a proposal to register the site on the UNESCO World Heritage List. In 2009, the Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain was inscribed on this programme and recognised as ‘the most complete example of a sacred mountain in Central Asia, worshipped over several millennia’ (UNESCO, 2009).

This process transformed the site into a touristic attraction, with its history embodying the essence of a city located at an intersection of the Silk Roads. The Kyrgyz State administers the site with the aim to ‘ensure the preservation, restoration, study and public restoration of a holistic historical, cultural and natural complex, [and] its material and spiritual values in their historical and natural environment through research, exposition, cultural education, and tourism’ (Pravitel’stvo Kyrgyzskoi Respubliki, 2004). The government considers the site as an integral part of its cultural tradition and therefore of an ethno-national significance, which forms an essential component of the post-communist nation-building project.

These different processes of heritage-making have remained essentially formulated by the government, and led by expert organisations, a process Laurajane Smith calls the ‘authorised heritage discourse (ADH)’ (2012). Due to its authoritative nature, the ADH is ‘reliant on the power/knowledge claims of technical and aesthetic experts and institutionalised in state cultural agencies and amenity societies. This discourse takes its cue from the grand narratives of nation and class on the one hand, and technical expertise and aesthetic judgment on the other’ (Smith, 2012: 11). However, alongside this professional and authorised discourse, there is also a range of popular practices that unfold their own narratives about the place and form an important component of the Muslim life world.

As a part of the social life of Muslims, conveying values and norms, I contend that despite the challenges Sulaiman-Too has faced due to tourism growth and heritagisation processes, Muslims have reconstructed their agency and subjectivity within this new environment. During my fieldwork, I observed that cult sites remain heavily attended by believers, specifically women, and that practices around Sulaiman-Too remain deeply rooted. Families and young couples regularly frequent the site, with prevalent enquiries regarding fertility, marriage or alternate forms of healing. Additionally, other secular activities such as sports are also common. The various uses and applications of Sulaiman-Too demonstrate its ongoing significance as a resource for economic, symbolic, religious and/or identity purposes, transcending its official heritage status.


References

Liu Morgan Y. (2012). Under Solomon’s Throne. Uzbeks visions of renewal in Osh, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Pravitel’stvo Kyrgyzskoi Respubliki. (2004). Ustav natsional’nogo istoriko-arkheologicheskogo muzeinogo kompleksa ‘Sulaiman-Too’ [Charter of the ‘Sulayman-Too’ National Historical and Archaeological Museum Complex).

Smith L. (2006). Uses of heritage, London: Routledge.

UNESCO (2009). ‘Sulaiman-Too Sacred Moutain’, UNESCO World Heritage Convention, retrieved from https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1230/.

Zarcone Thierry (2013). ‘Atypical Mausoleum: The case of the Salomon Throne (Kyrgyzstan), qadam-jay, jinns-cult and itinerary-pilgrimage’. In Shinmen Y., Sawada M. and E. Waite (eds.), Muslim saints and mausoleums in Central Asia and Xinjiang, Paris: Libraire d’Amérique et d’Orient, Jean Maisonneuve, pp. 73-89.



Cite this blog post
Red Gold (2024, January 11). Fieldwork Report: Sulaiman-Too, Osh, Kyrgyzstan, July 2023. RedGold. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vko1

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