Visit the ancient city of Otrar

In the middle of the vast Kazakh steppe lies what remains of Otrar, the ruins a stark contrast with its glorious past as a thriving town along the Silk Road in the first millennium. Thanks to its intricate irrigation system and prized location at the junction of two major rivers – Syr Darya and Arys – the once lush oasis was an agricultural haven. Sitting near the foothills of the Karatau Mountain, Otrar also served as an ideal base for military fortresses.

Today, however, Otrar is best remembered as the city that suffered the ire of Genghis Khan, the first Mongol Emperor. In 1218, Otrar’s governor had Genghis Khan’s envoys executed. In revenge, the emperor’s troops razed the city to the ground the following year, massacring its ruler along with the people. Otrar never recovered from this tragedy. Though partially rebuilt in the 1400s, the city was deserted by the early 19th century.

Up until a few years ago, what remained of Otrar was a mere mound. Excavation efforts have since revealed the treasures beneath, such as the iconic citadel, where the ruler of Otrar apparently hid before his execution at the hands of Genghis Khan. The ruins, spanning an area the size of about 280 football fields, used to house more than a hundred small settlements.

However, Otrar’s advanced irrigation system might be its most impressive feature yet. Dating back some 2,000 years, it is a testament to the genius of Otrar’s nomadic farmers. Though much of the extensive canal network has been eroded, the remnants offer glimpses of the past when agriculture thrived in Otrar.

If you wish to explore the region around Otrar, the Arystan Bab mausoleum, just 2km away, is recommended. This is the resting place of the famous Otrarian mystic Arystan Baba and is considered a sacred place for Muslim pilgrims.

To get there

To experience the magic of Otrar’s ruins, hire a driver for 4,000 tenge, or $12, from Turkistan. The journey should take about an hour.