Forgotten History: The City Buried Beneath the Snow

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Moonlight before my bed;
Perhaps frost on the ground.
Lift my head and see the moon;
Lower my head and I miss my home.

– Li Bai

To the Chinese, there is probably no higher art form than poetry, and there is perhaps no more celebrated practitioner of this art than the 8th-century poet, Li Bai. Even today, Li Bai is extolled across China for the beauty of his prose, having influenced generations of Chinese poets and writers.

Li Bai also passed a good deal of his life on the road. His early years were spent meandering through China before obtaining a position at court in his 40s. A decade later, civil strife would see Li Bai take to the road yet again. He was not one to set down roots, which may not be so surprising considering his life began in exile.

The great Chinese poet Li Bai

Although his family originally hailed from Jingning, Gansu, for some unknown reason they were sent packing during the Sui dynasty (581 AD – 618 AD) where they ended up in Suyab, known to the Chinese as Suiye Cheng, the “City of Broken Leaves.” But this was no provincial village. Situated in the Chuy Valley (modern-day
Kyrgyzstan), Suyab was an important military outpost for the Tang dynasty, protecting the frontier and the vital Tian-Shan corridor of the Silk Road. It would have been a frantic place bustling with traders, immigrants, and soldiers.

At Suyab, Li Bai’s father, Li Ke, prospered as a merchant. But five years later after the poet was born, the family packed up and left for Jiangyou in Sichuan province. It may have been for the best, as Suyab’s fortunes were about to change.

From its beginnings as the 6th century capital of the West Turkic Kaganat, Suyab’s safety had always been in question. But the 8th century saw a marked increase in warfare between Turkish tribes, the powerful Tibetan empire, and the Chinese. In 748, the city was raised to the ground, and in 766 it came under the control of the Uyghur Khaganate. Afterward, Syub would mysteriously fade from history and disappear altogether by the 12th century.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that archeologists finally determined that the ruins at a place called Ak-Beshim (discovered in the late 19th century) actually belonged to the fabled birthplace of Li Bai. Ak-Beshim had previously been misidentified as the city of Balasagun, founded nearby in the early 10th century by the Qara-Khan Khanate.

View of common houses excavated at Suyab

Balasagun was probably the cause of Suyab’s demise. The Qara-Khan Khanate was central Asia’s first Islamic dynasty, and its rulers wanted to mark the occasion with a city befitting the new religion, principally, by constructing a great mosque. Suyab would have been too crowded for such an architectural feat in its urban center, so a new city would have had to been built. Archeological evidence supports this theory as no mosques have been discovered at Suyab. In all likelihood, its inhabitants, by then predominantly Muslim, simply left for Balasagun to be closer to the source of power and the economic prosperity surrounding it.

Balasagun would also produce its own Turkic-language poet, Yusuf Has Hajib, much acclaimed within Kyrgyzstan today. However, this city also died out as a result of shifting trade routes brought on by the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.

The Burana Tower was once part of the Great Mosque of Balasagun

Today, most of what is left of Suyab is buried beneath the dirt (and for much of the year snow), mostly forgotten among the empty farmscape of the valley. Unlike Balasagun with its minaret, there is little to attract the attention of the typical tourist. But it’s easy to imagine the city rising from the white canvas laid out across the earth.

The archeological site is ringed by small mounds, the remains of the city’s ancient fortifications. Inside these walls would have been Suyab’s most important buildings: Buddhist monasteries, a Nestorian church, shops, villas, the governor’s citadel, and the abodes of humble citizens. Outside caravans from as far away as the Middle East would have streamed in and out of the city’s gates with precious cargos of incense and silk.

At its height, Suyab may have had a population of 20,000.  Certainly it was a cultural melting pot and a unique point of confluence between Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims. Yes, Suyab may have vanished, but its history remains, buried beneath the earth and snow, waiting to be rediscovered by future generations.

Getting There

Suyab has not been developed as a tourist attraction and consequently is poorly marked. To reach the archeological site, first, go to Tokmok. Marshrutka 353 (minibus) leaves Bishkek’s east bus station for Tokmok when full. There are multiple departures throughout the day (300 Som). From Tokmok it’s another 10KM to Suyab. A taxi (including waiting and return) will cost about 500 Som. Combine Suyab with Balasagun and the Burana Tower for 1000 Som. Alternatively, you can hire a private taxi from Bishkek for approximately 5,000 Som.

There is no entrance fee for Suyab, but Balasagun will cost an additional 150 Som, which includes climbing the Burana Tower and entrance to a small museum. Balasagun also has a number of pre-Islamic stelae, known as balbals, which are worth a glance.

  1. Abe, Masashi. “Results of the Archaeological Project at Ak Beshim (Suyab), Kyrgyz Republic from 2011 to 2013 and a note on the Site’s Abandonment.” Intercultural Understanding. 2014.
  2. Towns of the Great Silk Road – Suyab and Balasagun.” e-History. August 13, 2014.

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