Sayram: of saints and samsas

On the surface it’s an unassuming dusty little town, but Sayram (Сайрам) is known over Kazakhstan and Central Asia for being the resting place of many holy men and called “a city of countless saints” («Сайрамда бар сансыз баб»). While researching the things worth seeing here, I’ve found some flattering opinions of local samsa-makers. History AND food? I couldn’t omit Sayram on my itinerary.

The history of this place traces back long before the Islamization. Some state that it was inhabited three, others say two thousand years ago. Serious excavations never took place in the area and the historiographical traces are too scarce and uncertain.

Over an extended period of time, today’s Southern Kazakhstan was the borderzone between the settled down south and nomadic north. As such, it was also the frontline of religious conquests. One of the saints buried in Sayram is Abdel-Aziz-Bab, one of the Arab soldiers who came here to spread Islam around 776. His mausoleum was first built in the 16th, but what we see today is mostly a 19th century reconstruction.

The most famous Sayram native was without a doubt Ahmed Yasawi, born here in 1093. His importance for Turkic poetry and Sufi mysticism cannot be overestimated. Yasawi was buried 200 kilometers from here, in the city of Turkistan, which today is Kazakhstan’s most holy site of pilgrimage. The pilgrims who head there often pass Sayram on their way and pay respect for the many members of Yasawi family buried here. Mausoleum of Karashash Ana (originally 13th, rebuild in 19th c.) entombs Yasawi’s mother.

There’s a nice (and “food related”) legend about Yasawi. It has it that the Prophet Muhammad was once sitting with his pupils and eating persimmons. One fruit fell on the ground and the Prophet had a vision: this persimmon shall be passed to a pious Muslim named Ahmed, who will live 400 years later. Muhammad picked up the fruit and asked who wants to volunteer in this mission. One of the companions, Arystan-Bab, said: “If God grants me 400 years of life, I will be the one to hand on the persimmon”. Four centuries later Arystan-Bab met young Ahmed Yasawi in Sayram, gave him the persimmon seed and became his master.

I saw several other mausoleums, including Maryam Ana, Mirali Bobo and Botbay Ata. I also paid a visit to the excavations of the Khyzyr (Kydyra) Mosque. Some believe that it was built a millennium ago, but opinions vary. The tower on the site is a 20th century reconstruction of a 19th century minaret.

I’m here for the mausoleums, yes, but also for the samsas! I wandered for quite a while along the town’s meandering streets, enjoying its rural feel and looking for the right place to try them.

In front of one of the houses was a big tandoor under a tin roof. It caught my attention so I approached and ordered a samsa. A woman invited me inside – the steps behind the oven were leading to a basement which happened to hide a small restaurant with some locals enjoying their tea and newspaper. I found it very relaxing. Soon on my oilcloth appeared what was to be one of best samsas I had in Kazakhstan!

That succulent meat and onion combo encapsulated in a deliciously crispy crust will be hard to forget. As I walked around the town I tried samsas from other vendors and I was happy with most of them.

It’s Kazakhstan but the overwhelming 95% of Sayram residents are ethnically Uzbek. Maybe that explains the local „samsa scene” – after all, stereotypically, Uzbeks are considered the best cooks in Central Asia. But I have also had mouth-watering ones in Xinjiang and in Kyrgyzstan. The truth is that all the region simply loves samsas!

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