Jarkurgan is a small dusty town about 60km north of Termez, the last place you’d expect to find a standalone medieval minaret, but in the early 12th century, this place was a bustling stop along the ancient silk road, and the minaret served as a beacon to travelers guiding them to the safety of the city’s many caravansaries, as well as providing the daily calls to prayer for local residents to the city’s cathedral mosque.
Today the mosque is ancient history, destroyed by the marauding army of Genghis Khan, but like the Kalon Minaret in Bukhara, for some reason the Jarkurgan Minaret was spared. No trace remains of the mosque today, and the minaret is located in a sleepy residential suburb alongside an irrigation canal all on its own. The 22 meter high remnant visible today is less than half its original height, and is one of the oldest in Central Asia, predating the Kalon minaret by 18 years.
When constructed in the year 1109, Uzbekistan was part of the Kara-Khanid Khanate, a vast empire which stretched from northwestern China, encompassing all of modern day Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and southern Kazakstan. After a brief period of Khwarazmian rule, Jurkurgan fell along with the rest of Uzbekistan to the Mongol invasion in the early 13th century.
The Cathedral mosque and entire city were completely leveled, save the Minaret which has stood in defiance ever since as one of the few surviving examples of Karakhanid architecture. The city of Jurkurgan was rebuilt 7km to the south, and until very recently the minaret stood alone in the desert. As the years passed, the minaret fell into ruin, and local residents used the bricks from the minaret and mosque for other purposes.
The current height of the Minaret is 21.6 meters (71 feet), with a base diameter of 5.4 meters (18 feet). Archeologists estimate that at the time of the minaret’s construction, it was actually substantially higher with a second section crowned by a lighthouse at least 50 meters tall (165 feet). The first photos of the minaret show remnants of this section which were removed when the structure underwent restoration and stabilization during Soviet times. Layers of dirt and debris were removed exposing the original ground level which revealed a doorway leading to the internal spiral staircase.
Today the minaret has been restored and leveled off. The site is enclosed by a brick wall separating it from the surrounding residential area and the octagonal base is now paved with tiles forming a depression where the excavations exposing the foundations took place. None of the foundation’s original decorative patterns are left, but remnants of extracts from the Koran can still be seen on the levels above. Extending upward from the base of the structure are 16 half columns with intricate herringbone brickwork capped by arches and crowned by Arabic script.
Today the city of Jarkurgan is a major hub for the region’s cotton industry situated along the Surkhandarya river, primary right tributary of the Amu Darya. On the drive from the minaret toward the city center on our lunch quest, we saw many big industrial cotton processing plants and warehouses full of bales awaiting export to Europe, China, and Southeast Asia.
The city center is a bustling hive of activity even on the weekends, but take note that on a Sunday during Ramadan, plov is hard to find. Not the least bit dissuaded, our faithful guide and unimpressed driver came through, and we were soon enjoying authentic Surkhandarya style plov cooked in a streetside kazan in a cool basement dining room to escape the oppressive 40°C heat of the Uzbek summer.