Like the ghost town of Otrar, the ruins of Sauran in South Kazakhstan serve as a window into its storied past, when trade along the Silk Road flourished.
Occupying a major juncture of the Silk Road, Sauran, like the once prosperous Otrar, was recognised as a key node between the East and West. But unlike Otrar some 140km away, Sauran survived the Mongol onslaught in the 1200s by surrendering to Genghis Khan’s army. At the height of its fortunes in the 14th century, Sauran stood as the capital of the Mongol White Horde and grew to become the largest city in Kazakhstan. Yet, it, too, could not withstand the ravages of time. As the nearby city of Turkistan rose in prominence in the 18th century, Sauran was abandoned.
Though long past its golden age, echoes of its former glory remain. The city was once a formidable military fortress under the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur, who was regarded as one of history’s greatest military leaders. Today, it is the only medieval city in Kazakhstan whose surrounding walls still stand, driving home the importance of preservation efforts.
Visitors to the ruins can make out the layout of the ancient city, while partial excavation of its buildings has revealed structures such as stairways, prayer rooms and cooking areas, which give an idea of life in the bygone days.
More tellingly, fragments of crockery bear witness to Sauran’s past fame as a major centre for ceramics production. Its pottery, largely painted using a metal called antimony, was unique – potters in other cities could not recreate the striking shade of yellow. Thus, from its large brick walls down to the carpet of ceramic remnants, the grounds of Sauran hint at a proud past – and, perhaps, also an uncertain future.
To get there
Sauran might be off the beaten path but it is relatively accessible. A taxi round trip on the M32 highway from Turkistan, about 50km away, costs about 8,000 tenge or $25. Do specify that you intend to visit “Krepost (fortress) Sauran”. Otherwise, you could end up at Sauran village 10km away.
You might be one of Sauran’s few visitors, but the trip could be one of the best ways to enjoy the tranquility of the Kazakh steppe.