Mangyshlak peninsula (or Mangystau) is a land of fantastic landscapes where you can feel like you are on Mars. The place would be perfect to shoot fantasy genre movies as the landscape is truly extraordinary with underground mosques and painted poems in the rocks. Mangyshlak Peninsula is located in the Southwest part of Kazakhstan, at the shore of the Caspian sea. According to the latest evidence, between the fifth and 14th centuries, the Caspian Sea’s water level was as much as seven meters lower than it is today, and there was a land bridge between Mangyshlak and the Caspian north shore. Caravans were thus able to pass through on the shortest route to Itil on the Volga River. The areas of old caravanserai can still be seen in the area next to the watering holes, which form green islands in the otherwise barren landscape.
The area is very dry, not having enough fresh water and low vegetation. Therefore it is not surprising that the peninsula is a mostly uninhabited deserted area. The area of the Mangistau region is about 165 thousand square kilometers, the population is 650 thousand people which means that there are only 3.5 inhabitants per square kilometer. However, the area is very rich with minerals and it is called the “treasure peninsula” due to the variety of mineral raw materials. The region owns a quarter of all oil in Kazakhstan together with the richest deposits of uranium that were discovered in the 1950s. In addition, it is one of the main regions in the world where strontium is found widespread.
Mangyshlak holds a lot of important sites of pilgrimage like mausoleums and a number of underground meditation chambers (retreats) used by famous Sufi figures of the past. The are commonly defined as mosques because of their sacred nature and the rock-hewn rooms in which pilgrims pray in.
Mangustau also offers things to see for the nature lovers with the abundant bird life at the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Sherkala “Mountain” rises to the height of 307,7 m and is called by the locals “God’s yurt”, perhaps, because it has a distinct form of a space object. It can take about half a day to get around the mountain completely but it is worth it as Sherkala has different shapes on each side. From one side you can clearly see the shape of the yurt and on the other side the shape reminds a powerful resting lion. There are plenty of legends that are associated with the mountain. According to one of them, a group of warriors defended themselves at the top from a myriad of enemies. The adventurers fought like lions, but because of the numerical superiority, they began to suffer defeat. Trying to flee from their enemy they hid in the underground passages of the mountain and remained forever in its womb. In Sherkala there are many other mysterious dungeons as well. On the northern part of the mountain, there are the remains of ancient settlements – small grottoes of artificial origin, below the approaches to the settlement were guarded by a wall of cobblestones.
Not far from Sherkala mountain, you can see the remains of an ancient city. Once it stood on one of the branches of the Silk Road that passed through the peninsula. Caravan routes went from Bukhara and Khiva to the Caspian Sea and merchants reached Europe by sea or further land routes. The history of the appearance and disappearance of this settlement has not yet been revealed, but scientists believe that it was a rather rich city and do not exclude that many valuable finds are still hidden in these places.
Mangyshlak's Sacred Caves
There are many cemeteries, mosques and places of pilgrimage for why Mangyshlak is considered a holy and sacred land within Kazakhstan. There you will find hundreds of necropolises in addition to “underground mosques”, which are always coupled with a tomb of a saint and huge cemeteries.
There are around 15-20 underground mosques on the peninsula all connected with the graves of local Sufi saints (362 saints are buried in the region, almost one for every day of the year), with cemeteries generally dating from the 9th to 19th centuries AD. They serve as an important destination of pilgrimage across the peninsula, the most visited ones being from West to East: Shakpak-Ata, Sultan-Epe, Karaman-Ata, Shopan-Ata, Beket-Ata and Beket-Ata. Some of these mosques have been dated to the period of the earliest tombs 9th- 10th centuries AD and are attributed to different peoples, listed in chronological succession: Khazar, Oguz, Kypchak, the Golden Horde, the Nogai Horde and Kazakh.
Shakpak Ata Mosque
The Shakpak-Ata Mosque is an underground mosque located on the Tyub-Karagan peninsula 90 km North of Aktau on the cliffs of the Northwestern top. It dates back to the 9th-10th century AD and is considered the oldest one in Mangyshlak. The idea of Shakpak-Ata is unique in Mangyshlak and presents similarities with some early Persian mosques and with the mausoleum-mosque of Shir-Kabir in Dehistan, Turkmenistan which is also dated to the same era. Another unique feature of this underground mosque is that large portions of its walls are covered with petroglyphs and graffiti.
Legend says that Shakpak-Ata was the grandson of Shopan-Ata. He was an ascetic dervish who took refuge in the cave with his disciples at a time when enemies were assaulting the region. He spent the last years of his life as a hermit never leaving the cave. It is also said that the ancient Sufi masters gave asylum to sick people in their underground shelters to heal them and that even today a night spent in these caves in the company of benevolent spirits will cure most diseases.
How to get to Mangyshlak Peninsula
Aktau is the usual starting point for tours in the region, you can take a car or join a tour. The best times to visit are autumn and spring since in the summertime the temperature can rise up to +40 C.
Page last updated 1.10.2020