Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain, Osh, Kyrgyzstan
How does somewhere become sacred? Is it just… declared? Does someone one day just say that a place is sacred and nobody questions it?
It seems there normally has to be some kind of event associated with it – a miracle, for instance. But, more often than not, there’s no actual evidence of this event. People tend to believe what they want to believe.
That makes you wonder about the motivation sometimes. Why has someone gone to the effort to declare a sacred place? Often it is probably because of genuine religious devotion. But sometimes… well… sometimes it could just be a clever marketing tactic.
Is that what happened more than a thousand years ago at Sulaiman-Too, the sacred mountain in the city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan?
Before we come to that, let me first give you a picture of what Sulaiman-Too is.
What is Sulaiman-Too?
It’s called a mountain but it’s not really that big – only about 200 metres high. But this part of Kyrgyzstan is mainly long flat plains so a sudden jutting of rock from the ground certainly stands out.
Because it’s not huge, you don’t climb up it so much as you climb along and over it. The main path takes you gradually upwards along one side of the mountain and then quickly down the other.
Along the way are more than a dozen different places of worship – small mosques, caves, and stones – none particularly impressive in its own right. The mountain itself is why the pilgrims come.
And they have been coming for a long time. Researchers estimate that Sulaiman-Too has been a place of worship for at least 1500 years. But before that it still had some sacred significance for another thousand years or more. The ancient petroglyphs created on the walls of caves here are evidence of that.
Why is Sulaiman-Too sacred?
So how did this mountain change from being simply a spiritual natural landscape into a focus of intense worship? Well, this is where the legend of the marketing genius comes in.
To understand it, you need to step back and look at the big picture. The city of Osh is right in the middle of the network of paths that today we call the Silk Road. To the north, to the east, and to the south are huge mountains – and travellers who made the arduous journey over these peaks would need somewhere to stop for a while to rest and feed their animals.
However, Osh was not normally the first city that travellers would have arrived at after coming down from the mountains. That was Uzgen, about 50 kilometres away.
So, as the legend goes, the leaders of Osh wanted to come up with a good reason for why weary travellers should continue an extra 50km before having their break.
The answer? Religion!
And it worked. Even though Uzgen was the first stop; Even though Uzgen had a river, offering a perfect water supply; And even though Uzgen was already an established trading city, travellers started to choose Osh because they thought they could pray and worship at the mountain of Sulaiman-Too and that would bring them better luck for their onward journeys.
Although there are mosques on the mountain these days, they are relatively new – from just a few centuries ago. For most of the travellers who were stopping here at the zenith of the Silk Road period, it was a more spiritual type of worship, not tied to a particular religion. (This would’ve been no coincidence if you believe the story about the marketing plan, because people of many faiths were crossing paths here and the leaders of Osh wanted them all to come!)
So what you would’ve found – and what you still find today – are different spot across Sulaiman-Too dedicated to different things that people would come to wish for.
There’s an opening in the rock that women who wanted to conceive a child would climb through. There’s another rock that people would slide down if they wanted to cure back pain. There’s another spot to help headaches, and another for longer life, and so on.
The people came because they believed… not because of any evidence but because people believe what they want to believe, right?
When you visit Sulaiman-Too today, it is not too hard to imagine how it was on the mountain for all those hundreds of years that travellers would come and ask for some good luck.
You can still go into a lot of the caves. You can still see some petroglyphs on the walls. You can even still slide down the rock that is supposed to cure back pain.
But there’s one thing that has changed – and it’s controversial. It’s the enormous museum that has been built inside a cave, with the communist-style facade of glass and metal. It was added by the Soviets during their time in Kyrgyzstan and, I’m sorry, it’s an eyesore!
If you go inside, you’ll find some displays showing the history of the mountain but it’s quite a poor exhibition and there’s not much information in English. I would suggest you save your time and money – and not help the museum profit.
I’m actually a bit surprised that UNESCO added Sulaiman-Too to the World Heritage List, considering the impact this museum has on its appearance. But this is acknowledged in the official listing, which say, “The authenticity of the mountain, its cult places, uses and functions are without doubt, even given the numerous interventions over the past 50 years.”
Still, all of that aside, Osh is a really interesting city with lots to see and do – and I think Sulaiman-Too is one of the highlights. Even today it is bringing travellers to the city. That’s what I call a good long-term marketing plan!