Francesco Carmignoto Kazakistan.Mangystau
In the Mangystau between faith and religious wonders. Beket Ata Shrine and Bozhira Valley
Ours is a long ride in the desert steppe of Mangystau, Kazakhstan. From this country we are preparing to discover the spectacle of nature, but also curious manifestations of religious faith.
We stop near a red brick building with a parade of blue tile domes. (1) It is the most revered Islamic shrine in Mangystau, dedicated to Beket Ata, a clairvoyant healer saint, born in 1750 and who had studied in Khiva in Uzbekistan. He retired here until his death, founding a school and the underground mosque that we will visit together with Kazakh pilgrims.
We are heading for a long descent towards the mosque. A huge rocky wall frames a messy forest of peaks, in a fairytale setting of colors and shapes. (2-3) In the broad plain below, rugged isolated peaks rise. (4) The path descends between the rocks with wide stone steps. But amazement seizes us, seeing that the stones we step on are shells and petrified corals, witnesses of Tethys, the great ancestral ocean that occupied the Mangystau.
A few tombstones, some sarcophagi and a lectern with an open marble Koran announce the mosque. On the wall of the vertical rock opens a door. No decoration. (5)
We enter with some pilgrims passing the threshold, as prescribed, with the left foot. The walls are carved into the light rock and rise high to a bright window. Some openings lead to dark, equally bare rooms. Wide stone elevations are covered with worn carpets. In one of them an iman waits for us to sit down. (6) Behold, in absolute silence, his song of praise to Allah rises lightly. A sweet and at first subdued lullaby that becomes an imperious invocation with acute and somewhat sad notes. We are all fascinated by it. The prayer seems to become multi-voiced with echoes coming down from the highest recesses, almost a response from someone. Up there!
Near the monastery, in a beautiful panoramic position on the escarpment, stand two small buildings that shine immaculately in the sun. They are ancient mausoleums with domes stretched in the blue and the corners of the walls elegantly arabesque. (7) The whiteness of everything, even small windows, is absolute. It shines in the eyes and raises the soul to heaven. It unites and reinforces the memory of the magnificent singing of the iman.
We resume the race in the steppe to a rocky balcony. The landscape intoxicates us with wonder. The Bozhira salar is a white expanse of salt, below sea level, which moves away to the distant horizon. On one side some mountains with white gullies descend to the wide expanse of the salar (8). In the white plain of chalk and salt rises a chain of Dolomite peaks. They rise sharp and vertical from immaculate slopes similar to snowfields. They are even more impressive than those of our glaciers. The proud name of “Monument Valley of Central Asia” is well deserved.
Not a blade of grass in the crystal-colored lunar landscape, no flight of birds in the silence of the images. The sky is tumultuous and the large dark clouds let through flashes of bright light, which enhance the contrasts. (9) Just further away, a pointed peak called “The dandelion” stands out between lights and shadows. The salar stretches without other contrasts to the horizon, where it merges with the gray shadows of the clouds. (10)
A light wind makes the profiles of the peaks even sharper, up to the clouds that seem to touch us. You don’t want to leave anymore and the soul becomes light, full of gratitude for the immense imagination of nature.
Later we descend into the valleys below and run between the peaks now high in the sky that becomes colorful for the approach of sunset. (11) Large snowfields of white salt rise to the rocks, so similar to our Dolomite peaks. We make camp in a verdant valley, at the mouth of a canyon of ochre-colored rocks. (12) I run away and climb towards some rock formations. The valley below is crossed by the meanders of a torrent of salt and on the horizon is interrupted by chains of rocks and sharp peaks. (9) The sky is always crossed by dark clouds and rounded mounds, but the flashes of light of the setting sun dart on the peaks that often seem suspended between the now dark earth and the race of clouds. (10)
NB: In brackets the number of the photograph.