The Kazakh peninsula of Mangyshlak, apart from its geographical specifics – there is a depression with the lowest altitude in Central Asia (-132 m) – can also boast cultural specifics. It is here that one can encounter the ancient Zoroastrian tradition, albeit already transformed by other, mainly Muslim, influences.
According to legend, in ancient times in the northern part of the Mangyshlak peninsula, an extraordinary healer, the old man Shakpak-ata, lived in a cave in a huge gorge. The rumour of his medical skill spread far and wide, for there was no disease he could not cure. His fame is said to have given the name to today’s Shakpak-Ata cave temple.
The caves were long inhabited by the servants of fire, the Zoroastrians, who came to Mangyshlak from Persia. Although Islam came to the area in the 10th century, the original purification rites associated with fire still have a place here thousands of years later. The present temple has a very unusual cross-shaped plan for a Muslim mosque. The origin of the cross can only be conjectured – it may have been the influence of Christianity, for which Sufi scholars often had great respect, it may also have been the depiction of the four elements in four perpendicular rooms, whose symbols are clearly visible on the walls of the shrine, or it may have been a completely different reason for the choice of the cross plan.
After the advent of Islam, Muslims created a mihrab, an alcove facing Mecca, and hermitages in the original temple. The final form of the shrine probably dates from the 15th century.
The largest space is the central square hall with a dome and exits to four sides. Individual columns with the symbols of air, water, earth and fire appear to support the vault, but in fact they were carved out of the limestone rock along with the rooms and thus serve only as decoration.
Artists and stonemasons certainly had a lot of work to do to build the temple – although more digging into the rock was done than building. The greatest merit for the extraordinary beauty of this place is, however, nature and its modelling of the whole valley and the limestone rocks on the slopes.
Sufism certainly does not indulge in excessive ornamentation. The interior of the temple is therefore furnished very simply – there are felt carpets on the floor, a few cushions by the walls and then a burning fire.
A flight of stairs leads up to the upper platform, from where you can see the large cemetery where nomads and settled inhabitants of Mangyšlak have buried their dead for centuries.
A path runs along the rocks with wooden posts fixed in the rocks where pilgrims tie their scarves – this custom also originated in pre-Islamic times.
There is another, much more recent, mosque near the shrine, and the shirakshi, the keeper of the fire, has his dwelling next to it. In addition to praying with pilgrims, he invites them to his house for a communal meal. The pilgrims already anticipate this and bring some food for the common table and for the shirakshi’s family. Although in Kazakhstan the vast majority of local Muslims belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, the influence of Sufism is very evident – and on the Mangyshlak Peninsula it is even more evident. The tolerance of the Sufis, and the fact that they were happy to be influenced by other religions, sometimes led to them being labelled heretics and persecuted by orthodox Muslim authorities. This is not only a matter of past centuries, but increasingly of the present. As the shirakshi says – „yes, for some Muslims we are heretics, but for us the most important thing is not exactly how one should pray, exactly what one must do, for us the most important thing is to have God in one’s heart“.
Interestingly, in addition to Muslims, local Christians sometimes visit the Shakpak-Ata pilgrimage site – they visit the mosque, tie a scarf on a pillar, cross themselves and go to shirakshi’s for a meal together.