If you drive 30 kilometers from the city of Semey towards Pavlodar on the M-38 highway in the open steppe of North-Eastern Kazakhstan, you can see the carcass of the Akkulsk mosque, in its eponymous village of just a couple households. Neither the village nor the mosque are functioning in the literal sense of the word. The village was gradually abandoned during the Soviet period after the dissolution of the kolkhoz. Soviet authorities had closed the mosque in the early 1930s and used the building as a school and a club. The building of the mosque totally decayed in the later Soviet period, and without a roof, doors, and windows, and with a tilted minaret, it seems to have been letting out its last breath. This is how we, a group of scholars from Nazarbayev University who were engaged in the Sacred geography project of Kazakhstan, saw the mosque on a sunny day of May 2018. My first impression was a painful realization that it was about to fall apart, and very soon. However, as I came closer, I had a strong feeling that it would withstand the ferocious winds and the cold temperatures of the eastern Kazakh steppe for much longer. Each of us was puzzled with the question of how it could stand out for decades in this harsh climate, without absolutely any maintenance. There was something enchanting about the mosque - it stood so beautifully against the bright sun, a blue sky, and a fresh green grass of the spring.
After spending some time around the mosque, we headed to the nearby houses that seemed to be occupied and in a little while we were talking to an old lady whose name was Gulshira Saydakhmet kizi. We learned that, despite this somber picture, the mosque was being visited by the descendants of the former inhabitants of the village, who lived in Semey or other villages and cities of Kazakhstan, and by random visitors who have heard the stories about the mosque and about its mystic powers which helped it withstand the steppe winds. People came to visit the mosque, to touch its wooden walls and ask for blessings, which immediately shook all my conventional knowledge about what a mosque was. So, when I was asked to write an academic article about the Akkulsk mosque, I hesitated: How could I write about a mosque which had neither a proper building, nor an imam and a congregation around it? Even the village where the mosque stands was not functioning for at least a few decades. It was not until after my second trip in May of 2019 and meeting with the Fazylbekovs family whose ancestor built the current building of the mosque, that I started to gradually reconstruct its history.
The Akkulsk mosque is located in the historical village of Akkoltik, at 30 kilometers-distance from the city of Semey and organically interweaves in the history of Tatar Muslim religious institutions of north-eastern Kazakh steppe. The origins of the Tatar-Bashkir Muslim community of Semipalatinsk and its vicinity dates to the second half of the eighteenth century and Russian imperial expansion to the east. Histories of Semipalatinsk by Ahmad Walī al-Qazānī and Qurbān ‘Alī Khālidī provide detailed descriptions of the growth of Muslim mahallas, mosques and a network of religious scholars in the city but hardly mention anything about the Bashkir-Tatar villages around the city except for their names. The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a big wave of migration from inner Russia and a growth of population, turning the city into the center of the Semipalatinsk oblast’. Parallel to the process of consolidation of the Russian imperial rule in the east of the empire and the growth of the city into one of the largest and influential Islamic religious and educational centers, Bashkirs and Tatars also began to move to the countryside to engage in agriculture. Thus, we see the emergence of several Bashkir-Tatar villages not far from Semipalatinsk - Bashkul, Akkultik, Karamorza, Iziatulla, Absaliam, Zubair, Sary Nogai, Buker and a few more. According to the family archive of the extended Fazylbekovs family, with whom I was able to meet during my second trip, the village of Akkultïk was founded in 1812, by Nigmatulla Saifulla ulï Fazylbek, who came from the Kazan province, escaping the army service (soldatchina). The family archive is important because it provides information about their ancestor, Mutallap Sultangali uli Fazylbekov, who built the current building of the mosque between 1904-07 and provides a list of most imams who served in this community up until the end of the Soviet period.
Like with many other mosques, the fate of the Akkultik village and its mosque changed with the consolidation of the Soviet rule in eastern Kazakhstan. In the early 1930s, the mosque building was closed, and the crescent was removed from its minaret. The mosque building was used at different times as a school and a social club (dom kul’tury) where people watched propaganda films. The village was turned into a Soviet kolkhoz and later, once the kolkhoz started dissolving, the village inhabitants began to gradually move to a village across the road, Zhylandy, while others left for the city. By the 1970s, only a few houses remained there. With the disappearing community the mosque building also decayed, turning into a blackened and decaying wooden carcass with a tilted minaret. The more it was decaying under harsh climatic conditions, the more it was becoming like a shrine, and the more stories began to circulate about its resilience.
According to one story, the Soviet authorities wanted to demolish the mosque several times. Finally, they came to remove the crescent on its minaret and a man who was responsible for this lost his finger or his hand, per some other versions. Another story tells us that during the Soviet period a resident of Akkoltik tried to take away some wooden panels from the mosque and the next morning was found dead (hung up). It is also relatedthat the mosque was built without a single nail and the wood that was used was pine of special quality, soaked in a special solution. Therefore, thanks to such special construction methods, the building was able to withstand the steppe winds and cold.
The Head of Ethnographic Society of Priirtysh’ye (Kraevedcheskoe Obshchestvo Priirtysh’ye) at Semipalatinsk, Marat Erkimbekovich Sasanov shared his personal story with us. When he came many years ago to this village to visit the mosque, the Akkulsk inhabitants immediately told him to refrain from going inside the mosque. When he asked why, he was told that the mosque had a ghost inside, the ghost was a woman in white clothes, and protected the building. Of course, this did not stop him and his group from entering the mosque; they went inside and examined the building. That night he had a dream in which he was inside the mosque, and he saw an old woman in white clothes floating in the air who asked him politely not to enter the mosque anymore and then knocked him down at a high speed. When he came later to visit the mosque, he did not enter the building as he wanted to be respectful about the request of the spirit. These stories are repeated and sometimes contradicted by another set of narratives which are circulated by the mosque keeper, Gulshira Sapariyeva.
The most important role in the creation of this sacred space from the decaying building of the mosque was played by the keeper of a mosque, an elderly woman, Gulshira Saydakhmet kizi Sapariyeva. Gulshira was born in a Tatar family in 1941 as the fifth and the last child. She lived all her life and never left this village for any other place. Gulshira knows the building of the mosque since her early childhood. Initially, she studied at an elementary school which was in the mosque building. Later she was involved in the administration of the social club and showed films and checked out books from its library to her fellow villagers. As she iterates, “I grew up here, studied and worked here, got married and had my children here, and now I am getting old here.” In the last two decades, she also assumed upon herself the role of the keeper of the mosque. It is remarkable how Gulshira builds her authority and legitimacy as the guardian of the mosque, how she interacts with the mosque and how she “maintains” its existence.
She upholds her authority by means of sacred narratives that trace her journey to become a religious person. Since there is no saint associated with the Akkulsk mosque (unlike in other shrines), she crafted her own story about a person who erected the mosque as a saintly figure. While records in the Fazylbekov family archive provide evidence that it was Mutallap Fazylbekov to build the mosque, Gulshira’s version takes Mutallap’s father Sultangali Fazylbekov, who performed hajj, as the main protagonist and almost as a saint:
Gulshira’s narrative is one of sacralization. She makes Sultangali the central figure in the construction of the mosque. The fact that Sultangali spent most of his life in the Holy lands and never married, that he prepared the wood for seven years, built the mosque on his own, and died at the age of 63, like the Prophet Muhammad, makes him a “saint”. Gulshira connects herself to the ominous powers of Sultangali and to his house to bolster her authority:
Gulshira’s intervention is clearly two-pronged: while her narrative presents the mosque as a holy place, it equally gives this sacred site a human touch. The mosque stands just across Gulshira’s house and Gulshira personifies it as a living friend. “We are always together; I look at it; and it looks at me”, said Gulshira, explaining her “friendship” with the mosque. In my interview with a member of Fazylbekov family it was also confirmed that Gulshira speaks to the mosque and the mosque speaks back to her by making sounds; for example, it informs her when a strong wind will blow. Gulshira keeps praying for the longevity of the mosque, as if praying for a dying family member. She is afraid that the building may collapse any time soon. Her concerns are shared by the Fazylbekovs who also worry that the building may not survive. For them, the mosque is deeply significant because it bears testimony of the history of their family and of a once vibrant Muslim community in Akkultik. They keep close contact with Gulshira, for she “keeps an eye” on the mosque. Moreover, she is the person who safeguards the integrity of this sacred space for future collective memory. Together with the Fazylbekovs and other members of the Tatar community of Semey, she strongly objected to the proposal of local ethnographers and regional authorities to move the mosque to an open-air ethnographic museum in the city of Uskemen.
Muslims visit a mosque for various reasons: to perform their ritual prayer on a daily basis, to be part of a congregation on a Friday, to listen to a sermon (khutba), and to meet an imam and receive his blessings. However, people visit the Akkulsk mosque for rather different purposes, and mostly as a shrine and as a beloved relic of what once was a prosperous Tatar village and community in the Kazakh steppe. While many old mosques were rebuilt and reopened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Akkulsk mosque remains in a deplorable and sorrowful state as if testing the resilience of Islam in the form of material culture. What is left is not so much a dilapidated building but mystical narratives about it. Indeed, such narratives themselves are the raison d'être of the mosque. Also, the Akkulsk mosque lives now an afterlife personified as it is by a female shrine keeper (Kaz. shyrakshy). See from this point of view, the Akkulsk mosque represents a case of transformation whereby a mosque morphs into a shrine. In doing so, a male religious culture recedes and gives way to a manifestation of mystical female authority. This metamorphosis, I’d argue, is one of the Soviet legacies of Central Eurasian Islam, which demonstrates the resilience of Islamic tradition in the Soviet and post-Soviet period, and the role of a woman in the survival of Islam.