On the northern edge of the Kara Kum desert in Turkmenistan are the remains of the important Silk Road trading post of Gurganj. It was the capital of Khorezm, a small country surrounded by the Persians and Uzbeks. It was a place of great beauty, with palaces, gardens and the mighty Oxus river providing both transport and irrigation. Its beauty was no protection from invasion.
Gurganj was brought to its knees and totally destroyed. The first attack was by Genghis Khan (continuing on his own private destruction tour of the Silk Road) in 1220. He performed his customary massacre of nearly every civilian before moving onto another city. The remaining inhabitants gradually rebuilt Gurganj before Tamerlane arrived in 1388 and he was so determined to remove the city from the map that the city dwellers were forcibly removed to Samarkand and seeds were spread amongst the ruins.
All buildings were destroyed, except…
The minaret of Kutlug Timur was left standing. Tamerlane was so in awe of its size he ordered it to be spared. The minaret stands over 200 ft high and still dominates the surrounding desert. Finished in 1330 it was the tallest building in the world.
Getting to Gurganj is not as easy as it was. Barely 20 km from the Uzbekistan border, even five years ago you could get a day visa and wander among the magnificent ruins. Today you have to navigate the archane visa rules, but it is worth it to be one of the very few tourists who make it to Gurganj. There are more details on the farflungplaces website.
Today, it stands alone in a featureless desert. Having survived invasions and earthquakes it has now become one of the most holy sites in Turkmenistan. Pilgrims come from all over the country to walk counter clockwise around the minaret three times while saying their prayers. While foreigners come, and struggle to fit the whole minaret into their viewfinders.