The Burana Tower is a large minaret in the Chuy Valley in northern Kyrgyzstan. The minaret is believed to be the first in Central Asia (you can find similar construction in Uzgen in the south of Kyrgyzstan). It is located about 80 km east of the country’s capital Bishkek, near the town of Tokmok. The tower, along with grave markers, some earthworks and the remnants of a castle and three mausoleums, is all that remains of the ancient city of Balasagun, which was established by the Karakhanids at the end of the 9th century. It is among the oldest constructions of this type in the whole of Central Asia. An external staircase and steep, winding stairway inside the tower enables visitors to climb to the top and look out from its rooftop. Climbing single-file up the very narrow spiral staircase is a bit of a thrill, especially with a small kid in tow. It is a very dark climb even during the brightest time of day but well worth the effort when you reach the platform at the top of the tower which offers fantastic panoramic views of the mountains to the south, and the fertile fields of the Chuy Valley to the north. The present-day name of the tower- Burana, comes from the Arabic “monar”, which means minaret or beacon.
The tower was originally 45 m (148 ft) high; the upper part of it was adorned with a lantern dome with four doorways looking out the four cardinal points. However, over the centuries a number of earthquakes caused significant damage to the structure. The last major earthquake in the 15th century destroyed the top half of the tower, reducing it to its current height of 25 m (82 ft). In the early 1900s, Russian immigrants to the area used some of the bricks from the tower for new building projects. A renovation project was carried out in the 1970s to restore its foundation and repair the west-facing side of the tower, which was in danger of collapse. The renovations sought to restore the structure to its original appearance, rather than spiff it up unnecessarily. A close inspection of the tower reveals neat architectural details, like the intricate brick patterning. Like many monumental brick constructions from this era, the minaret leans ever so slightly to one side. That it has survived complete destruction in one of the most seismically active regions in the world testifies to its structural soundness however.
The Legend of Burana
A legend connected with the tower says that a witch warned a local king that his newly-born daughter would die once she reached the age of sixteen by a deadly spider (the “karakurt”). To protect her, he built a tall tower where he sequestered his daughter. No one entered the tower, except the daughter’s servant who brought her food. The daughter grew up alone and became a beautiful young lady. One day, however, a poisonous spider was hiding in the food brought by the servant. The spider bit the girl, and she died in the tower, at the age of 16.
The Karakhanid kaganate (who built Burana) in the 10-12th centuries was a great feudal state in Central Asia. One of the capital cities of the state was the city of Balasagun, founded by the Karakhanids in the middle of the l0th century in the eastern part of the Chu valley. The history of the town was a short one. In 1218 Balasagun yielded to the front line troops of the myriad Mongol horde and by the middle of the XIV century ceased to exist. Archaeologists discovered that the town had a complicated layout covering some 25-30 square kilometers. They discovered ruins of a central fortress, some handicraft shops, bazaars, four religious buildings, domestic dwellings, a bathhouse, a plot of arable land and a water main (pipes delivering water from a nearby canyon) despite no other structures remaining. Two rings of walls surrounded the town which you can see the remnants from the top of the tower. Gravestone texts of local Christians – Nestorians, as well as those with Arabic texts suggest that residents of Balasagyn died from plague, which raged here in the XIV century.
Today, the entire site covers about 36 hectares, including the mausoleums, castle foundations and grave markers. A very small museum on the site contains historical information as well as artifacts found at the site and in the surrounding region (ancient jars, coins, a board game, 3D topographical map of Kyrgyzstan, etc.) The grounds include the tower itself, reconstructions of mausoleums found on the site, a 100 square meter & 10 meter high mound (all that remains of an original palace/citadel from the 10th century), and a field of balbals & petroglyphs.
Many much older than the tower itself, these “bal-bals” are grave markers used by nomadic Turkic peoples who used to roam Central Asia and there are also petroglyphs (paintings on stones). This collection of «bal-bals» or anthropomorphic stelae date from the 6th century and the petroglyphs here date back from the 2nd century BC, were brought and placed here from all around the Chui valley. The balbals are oddly proportioned, with misshapen heads and short torsos, and they often wear strange facial expressions. The idea is that a tombstone looks like the person who has died and often they were revered by future generations as symbols of ancestors. Nevertheless, these gravestones were produced by the some of greatest artisans of their time and are remarkably well preserved. While there are other some other examples around the Chu valley and in Southern Kazakhstan, some claim that the best pieces were taken years ago to Russian museums. In the Shamshy valley itself a wide range of Scythian artifacts, including a heavy golden burial mask have been found.