While Turkistan may be one of the most important and architecturally impressive pilgrimage sites in Kazakhstan, Beket Ata mosque is on par, if not a more mystical and raw counterpart in the west to the turquoise beauty in the south. The mind-boggling melange of Islam and Tengriism/Shamanism of the rites that make up this journey for thousands of people each year make it a shared and accessible site for people of all ethnicities and religions to partake in.
The choice of pilgrimage to Beket Ata has a revered status in western Kazakhstan, while usually being a more of a “dream” visit for the rest of the country. It is considered to be one of the holiest sites along with Shopan Ata, Shakpak Ata, Sultan-Epe, and Karaman Ata. Beket Ata was born in the 18th century in Atyrau region (western Kazakhstan) who went on to study in Khiva (Uzbekistan), after which he moved to the Ustyurt plateau to live an isolated life in a remote steep ledge, and founded several of the cave mosques. Due to his reputation as a respected sufi figure, the holy site is frequented by people of all walks of life, with all types of needs and prayers, especially those who are sick or have a strong wish for a radical change in their lives. So even if you’re not a “believer”, or the actual cave mosque carries little interest for you, it is still a worthwhile trip where you’d get to observe the local traditions, hear stories from pilgrims, share in a ‘besbarmaq’, and see incredible paysages on the way. And of course, camels.
My poor Grandma was worried sick for me making this trip, as she believed that the spirits of this place could “take me” or affect my life in a serious way. That is why Kazakhs say that in order to visit this place, truly benefit from it, and leave unharmed, you must first rid yourself of evil or angry thoughts, have an open heart, and a positive state of mind.
Since this spot is so well-known, you can easily book a tour with an agency in Aktau or other nearby cities. If you decide to take a more “local” trip, you can get in touch with Abdurahman agha (+8-701-163-55-84) who drives a mini van to and from Beket Ata for 5000 tenge (around USD15) total per person. I can’t say the mini van is the most comfortable day ride, but it isn’t bad. Abdurahman agha was a nice, accommodating, and funny guy, as we found out by the end of the trip (where he started firing one joke or “anecdote” after another!). I would not advise for first time travelers, especially foreigners, to try and make this journey on their own by car. The roads are rough and you can easily get lost.
We left early in the morning (around 7 am) and picked up a few other families who were well prepared for the day. Unlike us, most of them were going there for a specific reason: a Kazakh woman sitting next to us with her little boy said they had already gone there a few times, as he has eye problems and can’t see much (he was around 5 years old). Even though she still goes to doctors and will fly with him for an operation in Orenburg, Russia, all the way from her aul in Kazakhstan where she has a camel farm, she is going once again to pay respects to Beket Ata and pray that her son be miraculously healed.
Do note that 60 km before Beket Ata, your driver will make a stop at the Shopan Ata complex (another sufi figure that played a significant role in Beket Ata’s life, as the story goes). Otherwise, it is believed that your trip will not be successful, since Shopan Ata might get offended and create obstacles during your trip, and the driver might get lost and never make it to Beket Ata. From what I understood, Shopan Ata was a spiritual guide, or a guru of sorts for Beket Ata, and the student of Hoja Ahmed Yassaui (there is a connection between Turkistan and Beket Ata after all!). So paying respects to him first is pretty much obligatory, and will be part of your tour/trip without a doubt. Plus, the cemetery has impressive graves and ‘kulpytas’ (richly decorated grave stones/tomb stone stelae, usually with carved ornaments and Arabic script of the name, clan, tribe, dates of birth and death, etc.), so it’s a double win for those history geeks out there, as they are impressive. The necropolis itself is situated on an old caravan path, in the southeastern part of the region, and is said to be one of the biggest and maybe most ancient necropoles here.
As soon as we arrived, people seemed to know what they were doing: perfectly aligned, everybody headed for the “bathroom” area, where there were no stalls (although separated for men and women), and was not as “private” as some might prefer. Nevertheless this part has to be done, as entering or touching a holy site without being clean is not welcomed.
First, we walked over to one of Shopan Ata’s relative’s graves elevated on a hill, which consists of Arabic inscriptions, camels, horses, etc. After a prayer, people tied scarves, walked around the grave site, and headed back toward the cave mosque of Shopan Ata.
When you get to the Shopan Ata mosque, you have to wait, as the entry room can host only a certain number of people at a time. In the meantime, you can marvel at the nearby mulberry tree (on the left in the photo), which has an impressive trunk sticking out from under the earth. You will also probably see many women making circles around it, and going under the huge root, in order to bring good fortune for having a baby. It’s actually not an easy task, but it seems that everyone succeeds in the end! Also, near the entrance, you can see the little tubs with smoke. These seem to be placed almost everywhere, and pilgrims “wash” their faces with the smoke from the fire.
Once inside, one quickly realizes that the mosque occupies quite a bit of space (around 4 rooms), especially the entrance hall, and is much much cooler (at this point anything would be with 35+ degrees outside). Once inside, the mullah gets everyone in a circle, reads a prayer, after which people walk around the room (pillar) 3 times, donate money, hang scarves on the middle pillar, and go on into other rooms where they seek further blessings by touching the materials and other objects (one room serves as the tomb for Shopan Ata, the next for his wife, Bibi Han, and another for his daughter, Darhan Bibi). On the way out, the mullah gives each person another scarf, as this one has been blessed, so people can keep these and take home. It is believed that keeping these scarves in a close by place at home (or sharing with family and friends) can protect one from harm, and serve as a comforting object in hard or sad times.
Afterwards, we were led through the cemetery up the hill to Beket Ata’s father-in-law’s grave (Bayan Ata/Baba), which is also considered as holy. I didn’t get to snap a lot of photos, but the cemetery alone is impressive enough, where you can find a few of the graves dating to around X-XVI centuries BC. Really unique pieces.
Once at the mausoleum, one can leave another scarf tied around a tree, have the mullah read a prayer, and “wash” the face with fire. Apparently this procedure is said to be especially relevant to women who want a baby. For that purpose, a phallic shaped rock stands next to the grave site, where women sit and pray for a baby.
Finally, everyone walks over to the tea area that is shared among pilgrims/visitors. Once we find the long dining table (and it isn’t difficult), we join the rest of the ladies (and one guy) chit chatting about their trip and getting to know one another. They sure did wonder what I was doing here with my big camera..
A little about ‘dastarkhan’: the term refers to a meal setting in Central Asia (although the term can also be known to residents of South Asia due to the Turkic invaders who might have paid them a visit a long while ago). This space can imply anything from a lavishly decorated table to a tablecloth laid out on the floor to serve as the meal area, and has a special place in the Central Asian culture. Hence, you can’t really translate it as the “table”, as it also refers to the whole idea behind the food setting, location, lavishness, hospitality, the care that goes into guests enjoying this space, as well as the food that usually comprises it with a specific and unsaid seating plan. For example, for Kazakhs a ‘dastarkhan’ would usually imply baursaks, sour cream or another milk product (i.e. qurt), meat/besbarmaq, sorpa, and always tea tea tea.
From Turkic, ‘dastarkhan’ translates as the ‘great spread’. There ya go! Hence the many rites and procedures that are associated with this notion, such as approaching it with respect, usually followed by a prayer, eating, receiving food and tea from one specific person, and in no way disrespecting or stepping on the ‘dastarkhan’.
(Some of the information about ‘dastarkhan’ presented here was borrowed from the book “Food Culture in Russia and Central Asia”, chapters of which can be found here for further reading).
Next stop, Beket Ata.