Prayer-sessions; walks around sacred trees; and underground mosques hundreds of kilometres from anywhere.
20.04.2013 - 22.04.2013
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Those who know me might be surprised to learn that I’ve been on a religious pilgrimage. It is, however, the traveller’s duty to challenge him- or herself, to seek out new experience and most important of all: get under the skin of the nations they visit.
Just to get all the blasphemy out of the way, I still consider all that religion and spirituality mambo-jumbo from the past. Whether it be you invisible old man in the clouds or an increase in facility by walking around a sacred tree three times.
None the less does Kazakhstan, and much of rest of Central Asia, have a history of important religious centres of spirituality and religious learning. Thanks to Stalin’s cruelties and the Soviet crack-down on religious practices this is mostly nothing more than history.
Central Asia, and in particular Kazakhstan is now the Islamic world’s answer to what North-western Europe is to Christianity: A highly secular place, where the religious rules are supressed by the culture that have shaped the region over the centuries. Beer and vodka is readily available everywhere thanks to the Russians, and most people drink (too much). Women rarely cover their hair. Pork is rarely eaten, but mostly because pigs are terrible animals to herd on the vast steppes, not because of the dogma against it. Most people will need an imam to do the praying for them as they aren’t themselves able to read or site the scriptures – just like most Europeans will need a priest.
That said religious Kazakhs – though they rarely visit their mosques – will go on pilgrimages to certain holy sites. Usually these will be mausoleums of important Islamic scholars. It is their equivalent of Christians attending services on Christmas and Easter.
The pilgrimages are thus one of the most important religious undertakings for the Kazakhs. In Western Kazakhstan the most important place of worshipping is the underground mosques of Shopan-Ata and Beket-Ata, with the latter being the most important one. They are names after the Sufi (less known branch of Islam) scholars who withdrew to these caves for religious meditation in the later parts of their lives. A practice relating more to Buddhism than Islam.
Most pilgrims come here to pray for (religious) inspiration or for increased fertility. The latter not really something that is lacking in rural Kazakhstan where families usually have between five and nine children.
To get there minibuses drive the c. 300 km into the Mangistau Desert from the Caspian Sea coastal city of Aktau. Our first stop was a sacred tree close to a necropolis (a graveyard where a small house or wall has been built around each grave). Here was an imam waiting for us, and as the respectful traveller I joined the circle around the tree when asked to. It was indeed a strange feeling dropping to my knees together with the 8 pilgrims, holding out my hands (like I was feeling whether it had started raining) and receive the imam’s prayer and blessing. For what exactly I do still not know. It didn’t get less ambivalent when everybody got up, to walk around the tree three times, touching it every half round just to put the hand to our forehead receiving the tree’s fertility. Given the fact that the tree was nothing more than a dead lump of wood, this particular effect of fertility seems even more odd.
After this we continued to the underground mosque of Shopan-Ata. Carved deep into the rocks and mountains, often using existing caves, these mosques are impressive sights. Here did an imam perform another prayer sessions, before we walked to another sacred tree, finally getting to a well that contained sacred and blessed water for drinking.
Last stop was the holiest of sites, the very impressive Beket-Ata. A place of religious worth ship or not, the site was impressive. Placed on top of a mountain, overlooking a broad desert valley was a small complex consisting of a mosque where pilgrims (and me) were provided free meals and sleeping opportunities. In fact most pilgrims sleep there before returning the next morning.
From here a steep path lead down the side of the mountain to the mosque itself. The three connected caves would each serve a special purpose for a special prayer – and most pilgrims would attend a prayer session led by the onside imam. A few even asked the imam to make an individual for them – the only of his prayers that included the traditional bow towards Mecca. My guess would be that these were the Sunni pilgrims, the branch of Islam where the five daily prayers are mandatory.
No doubt the trip was a highlight of Kazakhstan. Especially the opportunity to come face-to-face with practices so far from my own mind-set was a very interesting experience. Even if you don’t join a pilgrimage and rent a vehicle in Aktau, Beket-Ata is a must-see just for it beautiful location and the share awesomeness of carving a mosque into a mountain.