Celestial Cities of the Dead

By    Wednesday December 14, 2011

Editor's note: Margaret Morton's haunting photographs of Kyrgyz Muslim cemeteries are currently on view at the Wolk Gallery, at M.I.T.'s School of Architecture and Planning. Intrigued by these images, which I first saw back in 2007, I asked Margaret to contribute her expedition notes for a feature in DART. Here is what she wrote:

A Kyrgyz Muslim cemetery seen from a distance is astonishing. At first it seems a mirage. The ornate domes and minarets are so completely at odds with the desolate mountain landscape. As one approaches, the scale contracts. The opulent structures are surprisingly smaller than they seemed from afar. Graceful crescent moons float above cupolas and peaked towers, balanced on fragile metal rods. These miniature walled cities of the dead reveal the complex nature of the Kyrgyz people’s religious and cultural identity, which combines early Shamanistic and Buddhist customs with Muslim architectural forms and Soviet influences.

My first trip to Kyrgyzstan was in July 2006, with Virlana Tkacz, Manhattan theatre director of Yara Arts Group, who had invited me to photograph sites referenced in a Kyrgyz epic poem that she planned to perform at LaMaMa Experimental Theatre.

As we traveled a deserted road along the windswept south shore of Lake Issyk-kul, one of the largest mountain lakes in the world, a magnificent miniature city suddenly came into view. As we drove by, the majestic forms compressed and flattened. I was transfixed by the illusion.


Over several days, I continued to photograph cemeteries as we traveled from Kyrgyzstan’s northern border with Kazakhstan, south through Naryn, At-Bashy, and continued south along Silk Road routes, sites of the oldest cemeteries, and off-road through the valley of Arpa, where we encountered a Kyrgyz patrol and realized we inadvertently had strayed too close to the border with China.

I photographed cemeteries when we could stop and mapped those I saw on distant mountains. Determined to photograph additional sites, I postponed my return flight and extended my stay from six to ten weeks. Back in New York, I applied for research and travel grants to continue to photograph, with a book and exhibition in mind.

When I returned to Kyrgyzstan, in July 2007, Virlana introduced me to Kyrgyz scholar, Dr. Elmira Kochumkulova, Research Associate at University of Central Asia, in Bishkek, the capital city. Dr. Kochumkulova had written her doctoral dissertation at University of Washington, Seattle, WA on Kyrgyz nomadic traditions, including a chapter on the funeral rites. As an insider/native researcher she also had participated in funeral rites of family members and sung women’s ritual lamentations.


The cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan are architecturally distinctive and culturally revealing. At various historical periods, major religions such as Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Islam and Sufism all made their way to the nomadic populations living along the Silk Road. Since their adoption of Islam, a process that lasted for several centuries, the Kyrgyz incorporated many Muslim funerary traditions and burial customs, but did so without replacing their core pre-Islamic funeral customs and rites, that are still evident today.

Unlike other Muslim cultures, where religious laws forbidding high tombs and markings on graves are strictly observed, Kyrgyz traditionally mark their graves with a variety of structures to honor the deceased. The majority of Kyrgyz cemeteries present this very complex nature of the people’s religious and cultural identity and include many “un-Islamic” motifs based on pre-Islamic beliefs in animism, shamanism, and ancestor worship that combine with Islam and Sufism and, in more recent years, Russian and Soviet influences. During the seven decades of Soviet-led secularization and de-Islamization of Central Asia, most of the country’s mosques were destroyed or turned into public buildings.

The Muslim cemeteries, however, survived unscathed. The local state officials and Muslim clergy rarely interfered with people’s traditional customs, especially the life cycle ceremonies, including the funerals in rural areas. One of the more surprising juxtapositions of the spiritual and secular is a tomb on which the Muslim star and crescent is paired with the Soviet hammer and sickle.

In southern Kyrgyzstan, Dr. Kuchumkulova brought my attention to a row of trees with branches bowed from the weight of overripe apricots and remarked, “Trees that bear fruit in Kyrgyz cemeteries are left untouched.” Although we rarely saw people in Kyrgyz cemeteries, horses, donkeys, and cows quietly grazed where walls had crumbled.

When people pass by a roadside cemetery, they often make amen by brushing their face with two palms. If people pass by a cemetery where a close family member is buried, they might stop and recite from the Quran for the spirits of the deceased, as Dr. Kuchumkulova and her mother did in her tribal cemetery.

This map shows the sites that I photographed and also locates Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, with Kazakhstan to the north, China along much of the eastern and southern border, and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the south west borders. Kyrgyzstan is about the size of Great Britain. 90 per cent of the land is above 1500 meters and 40 per cent above 3000 meters. The highest peak is almost 7,500 meters. Two fifths of the country’s five million people live in the two largest cities, Bishkek, the capital to the north with a population of 1 million and Osh, an ancient trading city, on the Uzbekistan border with slightly less. The remainder of the country is sparsely populated. View more images.

Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan continues through December 30 at the Wolk Gallery, at M.I.T.'s School of Architecture and Planning. MIT Building 7, Room 338, at 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA. Information.

Margaret Morton has been engaged with the photographic representation of alternative built environments for more than twenty years and has published four books: Fragile Dwelling (Aperture Foundation); The Tunnel: The Underground Homeless of New York City (Yale Press and Schirmer/Mosel, Germany); Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives, co-authored with Diana Balmori (Yale Press); and Glass House (Penn State Press). Morton received her MFA from Yale University and is a full-time professor at The Cooper Union, School of Art, New York City.

Correction: The date for Ken Schles's book signing at ICP Bookstore is Thursday, December 15:  6-7:30 pm:  Ken Schles | Oculus. ICP Store, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, NY, NY. Information.