Sairam: An ancient town where time stands charmingly still
text: Kazinform , exclusively for Gazeta.kz
Sairam in southern Kazakhstan is a unique place: There is nowhere like it in the entire country. It is an ancient village now grown into a small town of 42,000 people right beside the modern city of Shymkent.
Sairam starts immediately after the Shymkent boundary line. The nation's third largest city and this ancient village are separated only by a railway track.
Sairam, densely populated by Uzbeks, holds on to its ages-old rhythms of life, according to Ikram Hazhimzhanov, chairman of the regional Uzbek cultural centre.
"Families here still raise many children. Children grow up, get married and rather than leave for Shymkent, or elsewhere, they build homes next to their parents," he said. "In Sairam, we have preserved the values of maintaining large families through many generations."
"Our women usually do not choose to seek professional careers," Hazhimzhanov said. "They prefer to focus on housekeeping and looking after their children and grandchildren."
"Believe me, there is nothing like living in a big family in which everything is always moving on in a settled groove," he added. "That's the best school of life, in my opinion and there is nothing like it."
Despite its closeness to a major city, Sairam remains entirely free of the relentless rush of urban life. No hustle and hassle, no haste, it is as if time has slowed down there. Life follows a sedate course.
The central street of Sairam is defined by adobe houses, clay-fenced and invariably with well-tended flower beds in front of them.
Clay is the primary building material just as it was centuries ago. The homes stay pleasantly cool in summer heat and warm in winter, and they do not require big expenses on gas and coal.
In any courtyard you will see a tandoor (clay oven), or even two. Normally in Sairam people do not go to a store to buy a loaf of bread. Every housewife daily bakes her own scones and samsa. The homemade samsa and pilaf are everywhere. Tea-houses are abundant, and famous for the quality of their kebabs and pilaf.
Local elders hold court in the tea houses daily to discuss local and world news over a hundred-litre copper samovar and a dozen scones.
In Sairam, the word of these elders remains an unwritten law that may not be crossed. It would never occur to anyone to argue or challenge the council of elders. Many worldly matters are solved there by the mahalla committees that arbitrate conflicts between neighbours. There are 17 mahalla committees in the town.
This form of local quasi-government is an unshakable ancient tradition for the Uzbek community of Kazakhstan. In written sources, the history of Sairam can be traced back to the early 7th century AD. In those sources, the town is already referred to as a significant political, economic and strategic centre in many Arab, Turkic and Chinese records.
In this ancient settlement of the Silk Road we find the mausoleums of Ibrahim Ata and Karashash Ana, the parents of the great educator, Ahmed Yassawi. They mark the starting point of the traditional pilgrimage route to Turkestan. Without visiting these monuments pilgrimage to Turkestan is held as incomplete. The mausoleum of Qazi, who lived in the 17th century and is famous for the translation of the Quran into the Turkic language, is still there.
The town is also famous for its 17th century minaret, the underground cell for a 40-day fast, and the remains of an underground Buddhist monastery.
Sairam dwellers are proud of their rich history, and they want as many people as possible to know about it. It is common practice to bring to the local museum household relics and finds.
The Haytbaev family, while dismantling their old house, stumbled on a cache storing an ancient manuscript. Its pages had been damaged by exposure to moisture. But that could not prevent Mirhaldar Mirahmet, the director of Sairam History Museum, to identify the ancient manuscript as a copy of the Quran, written in a beautiful calligraphic hand. Only the first two pages of the manuscript were lost. This acquisition now occupies an honored place in the ancient books collection in Sairam museum alongside nearly 200 other rare old books and manuscripts.
The first museum appeared in Sairam in the 1960s. It was at first housed in two rooms of an old mosque, but then a two-storey old office building was dedicated to it.
Around the old town folk craftsmen retain their ancient skills. Tinsmiths and potters, jewelers and wood craftsmen all display their work on trade stalls. Bazaar Kapka at the entrance to Sairam is filled with colour and atmosphere. There used to be four bazaars in the old town. So far only one of them has been recreated thanks to surviving ancient maps and architectural documents.
A regional Uzbek theatre company, formed a few years ago in Sairam, works to preserve the town's folk traditions and culture. Its repertoire includes classical and contemporary works. Sairam's theatre testifies to a passion for art and literature that is passed on from generation to generation. The people of the town still speak perfect literary language. This too bears witness to a rich and ancient cultural tradition that is thriving again in modern Kazakhstan.
This article by Lubov Dobrota was first published in The Astana Times newspaper on 3 October 2011.
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