The Shakpak ata cave mosque

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Shakpak ata, an underground mosque, is a unique place worthy of the global attention, one of the most impressive monuments of Mangystau, a peninsula at the east coast of the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan.

As the legend implies, once upon a time in the north of Tyub Karagan peninsula, in the cave dug in the limestone slope of a huge hill there lived a healer of the incredible power, an old man called Shakpak ata. The word about his glory went all around the place, and there was no such disease that he could not cure. Centuries went by, but people still keep coming over here to be cured, either physically or mentally, for the power of this ancient doctor keeps saving people from different ailments.

In Shakpak ata cave archeologists used to find traces of Stone and Bronze Ages people’s activities. For a long time the cave was used by fire worshippers, who were adherents of one of the most ancient religions, Zoroastrianism, which was brought to these places from Iran. Surprisingly, population of Mangystau preserved their tradition of fire-worshipping, alongside with their Muslim tradition. On a special side altar called ‘shirak’ pilgrims burn up strips of fabric soaked with sheep fat, and appeal with their prayers to the fire. Waving their hands, hermits as if scoop the flames and splash the heated air into their faces. The local acolytes call themselves ‘shirakshy’.

It is believed that the mosque began its existence here in the 10th century, when the underground temple was re-built according to the traditions of the new religion. In its west flank there appeared the mihrab niche and a few cells for anachorets. The monument assumed its final look in the 13th-15th centuries. From below, if you look from the valley, there is a well-seen path, which ascends in stairs along the steep slope up to the entrance to the cave mosque. To the both sides of its portal one can see a few spacious niches cut out in the limestone. Here there rest buried dervishes.

All around the surface of the sandstone there are Arabic inscriptions and drawings of horses. Images of human hands with fingers splayed across strike your eye. This symbol has been well-known in the rock painting for a few millennia. What a bunch of fives has to do with the Shakpak ata portal and how it appeared there so far remains a mystery.

When your eyes become accustomed to the soft lighting in the mosque, coming from the hole under the dome, details of its interior architecture begin to take shape. The temple is cruciform in plan. The big square-cut domed hall has exits to four sides through the archways with columns. The columns seem to support the dome, although they are actually hewn from the bedrock and are just the decorative extension of the walls.  

The Nature created this temple by itself, and stonecutters came here later and only adjusted it to their needs, having made the finishing touch. Here you won’t see any fully symmetrical and geometrically perfect clear-cut shapes.  Everything is made simply and innately, in compliance and in harmony with the natural outlines. That is why the Shakpak ata mosque is so enchantingly and peculiarly beautiful.

Its floor is covered with the common felt carpet, near the wall there is a stack of mats and cushions and an oil lamp. There is a book of Koran wrapped into the piece of cloth and hung from the ceiling. When saying their prayers, pilgrims stop under it and touch the Sacred Book with their heads. No finery, no luxury, asceticism in everything – this is one of the basics of Sufism.  

Almost the whole space of the walls is used by artists of great originality as a peculiar kind of canvas. A lot of images of horses, riders, wild sheep, and matchlock guns on bipods are scratched on the walls. There are writings in Arabic script and names of our contemporaries, this time written in Cyrillic characters. In many spots you can see traces of soot from oil lamps that are being lit in here during thousand years.

If you climb up the stairs, you will reach the upper ground, where a square structure towers over the dome and keeps the vault safe from collapsing. From here, from above, standing at the edge of the precipice or cliff, you can see a huge necropolis that appeared in front of this sacred place in course of history. A number of kulpytas and koitas covered with delicate patterns decorate headstones and evoke thoughts about the evanescence of our lives. And in the distant haze the boundary line between the land, sea, and sky vanishes. 

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