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Destination Details

Turkmenistan
Tags : Butentau

Continuing on the road south beyond Shirvan Kala, you immediately cross the Deryalyk Collector, a deep channel which takes run-off water from the irrigated fields to the Sarygamysh Lake. Turn right at the crossroads reached after another couple of kilometres, to join the road heading lakewards. A checkpoint signals the Druzhba ('Friendship') Collector, another channel taking irrigation waters to the lake. Druzhba is crossed by means of a nervousness-inducing bridge of metal pipes. This channel also marks the end of the area under irrigation: from here, the pot-holed road draws a straight line across a wide expanse of arid scrub. Some 65 apparently unending kilometres from the crossroads at which you joined the road, take the signposted turning to the right towards the shrine pilgrimage site of Ibrahim Sultan, which lies 7km to the north, close to the village of Bent.

The Ibrahim Sultan site has a stunning geographical location. Three recently reconstructed domed mausolea stand at the top of the 25m escarpment of the Butentau Heights, the path up to which is flanked by a metal fence. The caretaker described Ibrahim Sultan as a holy man from far Arabia, who came here to help the local people. The mausolea, and adjacent tombs, are said to mark the graves of Ibrahim Sultan and various members of his family and followers. A square-based signal tower stands nearby. In the graveyard behind the mausolea are tombs labelled with the names of such figures as 'Imam Hussein', as well as one huge cloth-covered grave, perhaps 20m in length. This, said the caretaker, was the grave of one Shilgiz Baba who was, he added, very tall. At the bottom of the escarpment, an enclosure of stones several metres long is said to mark the burial place of Shilgiz Baba's lower right leg.

A little brick bowl to the side of one of the tombs contains some sheep vertebrae. The caretaker explained that these should be tossed five times. Every time one of the vertebrae landed 'upright' during the course of those five throws, the greater would be the good fortune bestowed upon the thrower. At the base of the escarpment, a complex of buildings includes accommodation for visiting pilgrims both indoors and in a yurt. They are happy to put up tourists, and, camping aside, there are no other accommodation options in the area.

Butentau Cave Settlement

Drive eastwards from the guesthouse at Ibrahim Sultan, along an earth track at the base of the escarpment. After 5km, you will see about two-thirds of the way up the escarpment a line of artificial caves, cut into the soft limestone. The Butentau Cave Settlement extends for some 2km northeastwards. Several hundred caves have been identified, probably occupied in early medieval times. Cave settlements have also been uncovered in several other escarpments in the region. The caves cannot be reached without climbing equipment, with a few possible exceptions where there have been rock falls, which may be accessible through a hard scramble, depending on your fitness and perception of risk.

Ak Kala

A few hundred metres in front of the Butentau Cave Settlement stand the mud-brick walls of Ak Kala, once the late medieval town of Adak. The walls are roughly square in plan, with five semi-circular towers along each side and a round tower at each corner. There is a walled rectangular 'suburban' space on the north side of the settlement. The proximity of the three very different attractions of Ibrahim Sultan, the Butentau caves and Ak Kala make the Butentau area a worthwhile destination for an excursion, overnighting at Ibrahim Sultan, into a little-known area of Turkmenistan.

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