“You know why it was built, don’t you?” Suiunbek asked me one evening. We were discussing Kyrgyzstan’s material history, much of which has decayed with passing time. The problem is, when you have lived as a nomadic peoples for so many thousands of years, only forced into settlement with the coming of the Soviets, remains of architecture and art tend to err on the non-existent side. And whislt the history of the steppes has been kept alive with the epic of Manas, the oral tradition, songs and dances, and the resiliance of the yurtas against the concrete jungles of the USSR, in terms of crumbling ruins, Kyrgyzstan has very little to offer.
At the forefront of material history lies Tash Rabat, a caravanasi reportedly frequented by Marco Polo on his travels across the world. In the remote eastern edges of the country cradled by towering peaks, with the inhospitality of the landscape countered only by the hot, sweet chai and warmth of the Kyrgyz herdsmen whose yurts dot the pastures, Tash Rabat seems removed from the passage of time.
Further to the north-west, lies Burana, Kyrgyzstan’s second architectural remain. And it was the legend of Burana that was to be at the centre of our story-telling that night. Having visited the site, and read up on Kyrgyzstan before moving here several months earlier, this was one question I thought I could answer. “Yes of course”, I laughed, “the Balasaguns built it. It’s the minaret that used to lie at the centre of their city. And it used to be much higher, but then it was destroyed, wasn’t it, by an earthquake?”
It was, by history’s telling, a pretty decent, if brief, description of what the tower was. Then I glanced across at Suiunbek and saw his enigmatic smile. Remembering the last time I had seen this particular smile, one that must in the Kyrgyz genetic makeup as it only comes out when there is an ancient legend to be told, I sensed a story coming. And sure enough, Suiunbek began.
There was a time, long ago, when the fortune tellers counsel was sought for every decision. In this time, the was a great King, ruling much of what is now northern Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan. He was married to a beautiful Queen and ruled with benevolence. One day, his queen announced she was carrying his baby. Throughout the kingdom, his people rejoiced. Tributes of gold and felt were sent, and 1000 of the finest black steppe horses were bought to his palace. The day of the birth boughts feasts, the likes of which had never been seen, and dancing and music. Across the kingdom, it is said, the flowers bloomed that day, basking in the delight of the King.
As with all births during the time of the fortune tellers, the King called from the mountains the Royal fortune teller. When she arrived, she was not wearing the customary clothes of celebration, but instead was shrouded in dark, heavy winter wear. The King was cautious, but the fortune tellers were known to be unpredictable at best, and he was so caught up in joy that he didn’t heed the warnings, and allowed the reading to go ahead. It is said that only once the fortunes are told are they to be believed. If the fortune is never heard, then the future is open to change. But the King was bound by the traditions of his heritage, and no naming ceremoney was complete without a fortune teller’s prediction.
True to the ominous dress of the fortune teller came an ominous prediction. The princess would be happy and loved, but on the day of her 17th birthday, she would die. The King was devastated, for he had longed for a daughter. He swore he would do everything within his power to protect his daughter.
16 years passed, with the princess nothing but a source of delight and deep happiness for the King and Queen, and beloved by the kingdom. But as her 17th birthday approached, the fear felt by the King increased. The only thing the King could do to protect his daughter was to build her a tower, and high at the top she would stay until her birthday had passed. To keep away potential assassins and malignant spirits, he build the tower on a hexagonal base, with several false doorways so none but the King and Queen would know the true entrance.
He led his daughter to her new home, telling her again and again the importance of staying within her room at the top and not taking any risks. The days passed, and before long it was the eve of the princess’ birthday. As with every birthday previously, a sumptuous feast of sweet pastries, delicate fruits, and tender meats were bought by the King himself up the tower steps. They were joined by the Queen and only the most trusted of friends and servants. The feasting was a happy affair, lasting many hours, and accompanied by music and singing and laughter. Just as the moon was rising, the King was rejoicing at his efforts to keep his young princess safe.
As the princess reached for the last of the grapes, onto her hand crept a black spider. Before the King could do anything, the girl gasped as the spider bit her. The venom acted fast, and in the arms of her father, the princess succumbed. Shock soon gave way to anger, and the tower trembled as the King vented his grief. His rage and sadness was so deep that the ground shook, and the tower started tumbling down around him, burying the King, Queen, Princess and their closest friends. After their deaths, the grief felt by the kingdom was so deep that winter came to the land and did not leave for many years.
When the Balasagun empire settled in the area sometime later, the land spoke of it’s grief to their soothsayer, it is said, and he declared the site of the fallen King and his daughter a holy place where the minaret should be consecrated and constructed, to mimic the tower, built of love, that had once stood there. The soothsayed told the Balasaguns that the site of the tower should then become the centre of the empire. Hearing from the land of the tale of the King and his princess, the soothsayer insited that the tower be built with a hexagonal base, with only one small staircase winding it’s way to the top. And true to his advice, the Balasaguns built the minaret that stands their today, with one small staircase winding it’s way to the top.
“This is a sad story!”, I said to Suiunbek, “where is the happy ending?”
“The happy ending”, he replied, “is in the memory of the land of the greatest love of a father for his daughter, and in the tower that marks their resting place, together, for all of time”.