Sayram (Ispidzhab)

Sayram , known as Ispidzhab prior to the Mongol conquest, is one of the oldest cities in Transoxania and celebrated  celebrated the 3,000th anniversary of its founding in 1999.   Mahmud Kashgari (an 11th-century Kara-Khanid scholar and lexicographer of the Turkic languages from Kashgar.) mentioned it as the “White City which is called Ispidzhab,” suggesting its connection with the Soghdian/Persian word for white, sipīd or ispīd.

Located in southern Kazakhstan  on the Sayram Su River,  Sayram is 173 km west of Taraz and 242 km west of Talas, Kyrgyzstan.  near the 4000-meter mountain Sayram Su. In medieval times, the city and countryside were located on the banks of the Arys River, into which the Sayram Su river flows. 

Sayram is a city on the frontier between irrigated farmland and the pastures of the Dasht-i Qipchaq. It has a long history of commercial and political importance as a border town and has been the site of numerous conquests and reconquests.  It is the site of the first mosque in Kazakhstan.  Today, Sayram is significant  for maintaining  traditional mud-brick architecture and the absence of Soviet-style construction. There are many pre-20th-century mausoleums, and more continue to be built.

Ispidzbab on the Silk Road

Archaeology in Central Asia was active following its conquest by the Russian Empire, but remains a relatively understudied area.

Notable among the archaeological discoveries is evidence of an early plumbing system like the kinds found in Samarqand and other cities of the early Achaemenid Empire.

There is another city named Sayram in Xinjiang, China located between  Kucha  and Aksu, which, according to local tradition, was founded by captives captured by the Qalmaqs.

Ispidzhab would have been a northern border town in the northeastern reaches of the Achaemenid Empire (550 BCE – 330 BCE), later conquered by Alexander, (329 BCE) but there is no mention of Sayram in the histories surrounding the acts of Alexander  The word “Sairam” appears in the  Avesta  which also mentions  a river, and a land or people called Sairima elis,  However, these are all guesses, the truth is lost in in the sands of time,  It also seems strange that Sayram is the modern name.

In the 7th century, the Western Turkic Confederation consisted of five Tu-lu and five Nu-shih-pi tribes, known collectively as the On Oq (Ten Arrows) and by the Chinese as Shih Hsing (Ten Clans).  In 642, the khaqan(khan) of the Tu-lu Turkic tribe took refuge in Isfijab from the Nu-shih-pi.

After the expulsion of the heretical sects of Christianity, there came a large number of Christians to Central Asia and the East. Largest among them were the Nestorians, who were condemned at the First Council of Ephesus in 431. There was a community of Nestorian Christians in Ispidzhab when Islam first came to Ispidzhab in 766 AD who resisted conversion from the detachment of Arabic and Arabic-speaking soldier-missionaries. Buddhism was also prevalent in Central Asia at that time.

Ispidzhab was already an important trading site in the centuries before the Arab Conquest, served as a border town between the Islamic lands and the pagan Turks.

One surviving manuscript, entitled Nasabname, tells how the Muslim warriors under Iskak-bab came to Sayram and met with the Nestorian patriarch of Sayram, Nakhibar.

Iskak-bab invited Nakhibar to the true faith. But Nakhibar replied, “I am a tarsa (Christian) of the seventieth generation, and my faith is true! That is why I shall fight you.” Hand-to-hand combat ensued, and lasted for three days and nights. Ten thousand Nestorian tarsas and fifteen thousand Muslim missionaries died for their faith.

The same manuscript goes on to describe Iskak-bab’s building of the first mosque i

“After that he set up a Friday mosque in Sayram. The first stone in the foundation was laid by his hands. He sanctified the stone with holy water.”

In 840 AD, the Samanid chief of Samarkand Nūḥ ibn Asad, wrested control of the city from the Turks living on the steppe. In that year, Nūḥ built a wall around it to protect it from the Turks. By this time the city was a flourishing market center at the nexus of nomad and sedentary lands. It was also a linchpin in the broad zone of protective forts built to protect the Samanid empire from nomadic raiders.

After Nūḥ died in 841/2—his two brothers Yahya and Ahmad, were then appointed as the joint rulers of the city by the Tahirid governor of Khorasan After Yahya’s death in 855, Ahmad took control over Châch (areas around modern Tashkent/Chachkent), thus becoming the ruler of most of Transoxiana. He died in 864/5; his son Nasr I received Fergana and Samarkand, while his other son Ya’qub received Châch

Fortresses, or ribāṭs,like Sayram had outer walls to protect the crops of the inhabitants from raiders, but the town was not only a military outpost. Traders from Bukhara and Samarkand constructed large caravanserais in Sayram.

Ispidzhab was also the main contact between Samanid Islam and the Qaghan Turks of Turpan, Kashgar, and Kucha. The alternate southern routes were controlled by rival factions, leaving the primary route east through Farab and Ispidzhab.

Ispidzhab is significant for maintaining a degree of independence from the Samanids, remaining a possession of the local Turkic dynasty. The rulers owed three signs of loyalty to the Samanids:

  • Military service,
  • The presentation of symbolic gifts,
  • Samanid ruler on minted currency.

Ispidzhab was divided into three districts, like others of the time: qohandez (citadel), madīnah (inner town), and rabaż (suburb), the latter two being protected by walls. All the houses were of mud brick. The government center (dār al-imārah), the prison, and the Friday mosque were all in the inner city. ‘

There were four main gates to the inner town, each guarded by a ribat manned by ghāzīs (volunteer fighters for the faith) recruited from Bukhara and Samarkand. The ruler of Ispidzhab apparently also exercised some authority within the steppes, since Moqaddasi mentions that the “king of the Turkmen” at nearby rdū habitually sent presents to Ispidzhab.

The Qarakhanids seized the city in 980, during the reign of Nuh II of the Samanid Empire. At this time, according to al-Istakhri, the city marked the border between Karluks and Oğuz Turks.  Ispidzhab was part of the Eastern Qarakhanid Khanate based on three cities: Ispidzhab itself, Talas, and Fergana. Coins were minted there by the Qarakhanid rulers.   In the opening years of the 7th/13th century, the district seems to have been taken over by the Qipchaqs of the middle Syr Darya, for the Khorezmshah ʿAlāʾ al-dīn Muḥammad devastated the area beyond the Syr Darya to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Mongol leader Küchlüg.

Sayram under the Mongols

The city of Sayram was captured by the Mongols using catapults under the command of the Siet Alahai.

The city of Sayram is mentioned in some detail in the Taoist monk Qui Chuji‘s book “Travels to the Western Regions“, recorded by his disciples after Chuji returned home.

In 1220,  Chuji left his home town of Shandong in northern China and traveled to Persia to present himself before Genghis Khan. His fame as a pious exemplar of Taoist belief had preceded him, and his travels carried him over roads newly restored by the Mongols, roads that were then in better condition than when the Russian imperial orientalist V. V. Barthold described them in the early 20th century.

Chuji traveled through the land of the Uyghurs, through Kulja, through Zhetysu, crossing first the Chu River on a wooden bridge, then the Talas River on a bridge of stone, before reaching Sayram in November 1221.

Genghis Khan camped in Sayram, and awaited the arrival of his sons in 1223.  Sayram’s neighbor to the west was not so lucky, the doomed city of Otrar, also called Utrar or Farab, and the birthplace of Al-Farabi, which was utterly destroyed by the Mongol leader.

The famous historian Rashid-al-Din (1247–1318)wrote that Sayram was also known as Kary Sailam (Old Sayram). At that time it was a large city with forty gates, and it took one whole day to cross the city.

Sayram under Timur

It is unclear when the city fell under Timur’s (Timerlane) rule. Under the Timurids, Sayram was an important border city, a center of trade, and Timur gave rule of the city to his grandson Ulugbek. In 1404, the right wing of Timur’s China-bound invasion force wintered in Sayram, Tashkent, and Banākath.  ‘Abd al-Razzāq wrote that in 1410 the fortress of Sayram was besieged by Moghul forces, and by the end of the 15th century was given to Yunus Khan of Moghulistan, where his son was reigning in 1496.

During the Ming dynasty, envoy Chen Cheng was sent by the Yongle Emperor to the Timurid khanate and subsequently dedicated one chapter of his book “A Record of the Barbarian Countries in the Western Region” to Sayram.

Toward the end of the Timurid power, in the middle of the 15th century, Sayram was raided regularly (along with Turkestan) by the Moghul amir Mir Haqq-Berdi Bekichek.

Sayram under Muhammad Shaybani

Shaybani Khan took Sayram in 1503.[26] With the coming of Uzbek power in the region, Sayram fell to Muhammad Shaybani Khan along with the rest of the region. However, peace in the region was elusive. The Kazakhs soon grew in power and Sayram became a common prize of raids and wars between the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Qalmaqs.

Sayram Under Kazakhs and Zunghars

In 1512, the keys of the city were given to Qasim Khan, Khan of the Kazakhs when he came to the city. In Babur’s account, no khan was as respected or authoritative as Qasim, who could command over 300,000 men.[30]

Manṣūr Khān led an Uzbek force against the Kazakhs in 1522 in response to their raids from the region of Sayram into the Fergana Valley.   The failure of this expedition to control Kazakh raids effectively ended attempts by the Uzbeks to control Sayram and its region.

The rise of the collection of Oirat clans into what became known as the Zunghar Khanate in the 1600s saw much of what is now southern Kazakhstan leave the control of the Kazakh Khans. The historian Barthold argued that only after Galdan Boshugtu Khan, the Khong Tayiji of the Zunghars, had successfully conquered and destroyed the power of Sayram did he move his encampment west to the valley of the Ili, ensuring his control of Zhetysu east of Sayram. Galdan sent forces against Sayram in 1681, which must have been unsuccessful because they returned in 1683, when Barthold tells us that his commander Rabtan  took the city and razed it.

Sayram was slowly rebuilt, likely with the support of the merchants of Central Asia and the leadership of the Kazakhs. This knowledge comes from the fact that the city appears again as a target of Zunghar aggression forty years later.

In 1723, the year of the Barefooted Flight of the Kazakhs, Sayram, Turkistān, and Tashkent passed under the control of the Qalmaqs and remained within their control until their destruction by the Chinese in 1758.

Sayram under the Khanate of Kokand

The city of Sayram was taken by the Ming of the Kokand Khanate in 1810. The local Qazaq population, and possibly the local sedentary population, revolted against Kokand control in 1820-1.[34] There is little mention of Sayram in regional histories until its fall to the Russians in 1864, by which time the nearby city of Chimkent had already begun to eclipse Sayram in local importance.

Sayram under the Russians

After the Russian conquest in 1864, several new villages were founded around Sayram. In the first decade of the 20th century,  Sayram was still noted for its superior wheat, horse market, historical background, and many tombs.

What to See in Sayram


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