If a nation does not know its history, if the country loses its history, then its citizens have nowhere to go.
Mirzhakyp Dulatuly

History of Otrar

Caravan paths have turned into highways, multilingual sales have been forgotten, there are no merchants; rich medieval towns were destroyed and buried under dust of centuries. One of them was Otrar.

Much water has flown under bridges since the time of brisk trade on the Silk Road. Caravan paths have turned into highways, multilingual sales have been forgotten, there are no merchants; rich medieval towns were destroyed and buried under dust of centuries. One of them was Otrar. Let us make a stop and look closely at the bitter pages of its history.

“Traveller! Here are the ruins of the fortress-town that stemmed for half a year the advance of hordes to Central Asia and Transcaucasia, Great Russ and east-European countries, that showed resistance to foreign invaders in the following centuries”, runs the inscription on the cast-iron plate set up at the entrance to the territory of the Otrar archeological reserve-museum. It is about that cruel age.

The Land of Zhetysu fell to the hoofs of Mongol horses like a hewed marquee. As if the evil wind that blows day and night through the Dzungaria gate brought an innumerable alien army to Zhetysu. Under the fierce onslaught of the Mongol Tatars fallen were the towns of Dzharkent (Panfilov), Koilyk (Taldy-Kurgan), Ashpara (now the village of Chaldovar), Kulan (Lugovaya), Mirki (Merke), Saryg (the village of Red River) and a number of other fortresses that lay on the Great Silk Road between the Earth Door and the famous town of Taraz. The capital of Semirechye, a beauty of the Chu Valley-Balasagun surrendered without fighting; the town of Ispidzhab was set on fire and plundered.

Genghis Khan’s army stopped at Otrar’s gate. What do we know about this town? It is known that the oasis covered over 150 small towns, fortresses, castles and fortified settlements connected with one another by a chain of caravanserais of the Great Silk Road. In the time of its flourishing the population of Otrar numbered about a quarter of a million. As to the population density you can get an idea from the proverb: “A cat can get from Otrar to Sairam by jumping over the tops of houses, if it wants to”. The distance was not small — thirty farsahs, a four-days’ nonstop march of a caravan.

The first town-type settlement on the Otrar place is dated the 2nd century B. C. Its founders were the Kangyus — descendants of the Sakas. On the eve of the new era they were so numerous that in case of danger they could gather together with allied nomadic tribes about one hundred and twenty thousand of strong army. The Kangyus were engaged in farming, irrigated lands were given to wheat, millet, rice, melon fields. The nomads raised sheep, goats, cattle, horses and camels.

The tribe name was given to the town. In ancient runic characters (the 6th — 8th centuries) there are many records of Kangu-Taraban, which scholars refer to Otrar of the latest time.

In 737-748 the town of Kangyus-Taraban was conquered by the Arabs. As is often the case proper names acquire a new sounding according to the rules of another language. The same took place in this case. The first part of the town name — “Kangu” — was omitted whereas “Taraban” was transformed into Arabic “Farabi”.

Otrar is the birthplace of the great scientist and philosopher of the Middle Ages Abu Nasra ibn Mohammed who came into history under the name of Al Farabi. The thinker lived between 870 and 950. Thanks to his philosophical thinking and encyclopedic knowledge he was called the Second teacher of mankind after Aristotle when he was still alive.

Al Farabi lived in the happy time for Otrar. Not only trade was flourishing in the towns of the large Arab caliphat but science and culture as well. There were three centuries ahead before the first universities appeared in Europe, whereas in Bagdad, Shakhrisyabs, Khorezm, Balasagun and Gerat there were brilliant scientists and scholars working in the East. Among them the name of Al Farabi was shining like a bright star; his treatise on classification of sciences opened a way to learning for centuries ahead. It is not without reason that all the great scientists after him such as Avicenna, Al-Buruni, ash-Shirazee, Makhmud Kashgari, Yusuf Balasaguni, Ulugbek, ibn al-Arabi considered themselves to be his disciples.

In the time of the Mongol-Tatar invasion Otrar was a first class fortress with about sixty thousand warriors in its garrison. But the forces were not equal. Khaiyr Khan’s warriors fought staunchly and bravely against the invaders, for five months battles were fought on the walls of the town, the inhabitants courageously stood the siege of the enemy. It was the treacherous hand of Karacha Khan that opened the gate of the fortress through which the Mongols burst into the town.

Khaiyr Khan together with twenty thousand brave defenders took cover in the citadel and stood for three months more but after unequal battles and death of his courageous warriors the khan was captured, tied up, put into heavy chains and taken to Genghis Khan’s headquarters. Out of respect for Kaiyr Khan’s bravery and courage an order was given to perform an execution of honor — to smelt silver and pour it into the prisoner’s ears and eyes.

That was the end of Otrar. Traveller! Bend your head to the memory of its courageous defenders!

Destroyed was not only the fortress that fully exhausted its defense potentialities but ancient and powerful civilization that had a 1500 year-old history.

After the Mongol destruction the town of Otrar somehow rose up again. At least, in the travel book of the tsar Getum I who visited Munke — khan’s headquarters in 1255 with a diplomatic mission Otrar was mentioned alongside with other settlements. In Timur’s time Otrar was revived but then it fell into decay and after 1410 when it was plundered by Shah-Dzhakhan it was abandoned forever.

Rakip Nasyrov, “Along the Great Silk Road”, published by “Kramds—reklama”, 1991.