Historically West Kazakhstan is known to be famous for its sacred places. Within almost 3 hours driving from Aktau, you will find the Shopan ata underground necropolis with 4000 burials, dating back to the X-XIV century. Before heading to Beket Ata underground mosque, it is recommended to visit the Shopan ata mosque for understandable reasons. The Kazakh history would tell you, "Before the student, bow to his teacher first."
Historians have studied and investigated Shopan ata's biography, and until now, nobody knows for sure if this person ever existed in history. However, according to legends throughout centuries, Shopan ata was a saint person who built an underground mosque. He was one of the 360 students of Saint Khoja Akhmed Yasawi, the face of national saints of all Turkic people. Originally Shopan ata means "grandfather shepherd" in the Kazakh language. He became famous by this name among people, as nobody knew his original name. After studying at Khoja Akhmed Yasawi, he started improving and spreading the word about Islam as a religion. He became the teacher of the Beket ata, who also built an underground mosque later.
The legend states that one day Khoja Akhmed Yasawi ordered his students to shoot an arrow: wherever the arrow landed, they would build a mosque and preach for Islam. An arrow landed in the Mangystau region, where Shopan ata also found his teacher's stick: a mulberry tree grew there and is nowadays 800 years old. Another legend says that his arrow landed near the house of a rich man who, in the end, hired him as a shepherd for his flock of sheep. The rich man's first condition for him was to work for free, and if there were white lambs born, he would grant them to him as payment. Within a year, only white lambs would be born, making him a unique shepherd in his eyes. In the end, he decided to marry his daughter to this wise and lucky young man. Later on, Shopan ata would build an underground mosque in the place where he worked as a shepherd. In this family, he had two sons and one daughter. During his life, Shopan ata did many great and unbelievable things that continued existing even after his death.
The Shopan ata underground mosque is located in a deserted place, 20 km away from the Senek village. The closest and biggest administrative center is Aktau, the capital of the Mangystau region, which lies 210 km away. From Aktau, you can take a tour bus and reach the Shopan ata necropolis within around 3 hours. The tour usually comes in a package: you can visit first the two underground mosques of Shopan ata and the Beket ata second. If you leave the city at 7 am you will most probably return by midnight. Usually, many people stay for a sleepover in Beket ata, which has a free of charge hostel for pilgrims. It all depends on the bus tour you choose.
When coming to visit the sacred places of the Mangystau region in summer, do not forget to bring sunglasses, a hat or a cap, and a bottle of water with you. The region's dry weather can give you a sunstroke, as there is a minor number of trees to protect you from the sun. In some places, you can see camels walking back and forth, and certainly the surrounding of the mosque consists of lots of burials. It is allowed to take photos outside, however, inside the underground mosque, it is forbidden: unless you ask for permission. In around 5-7 min walk, you will see a well with holy water. There is also a legendary 800 years old mulberry tree near the well, which you can touch, hug, and make a wish. Before the underground mosque, first, you will enter a house which looks like a simple village house. Pilgrims live there and take care of the historical objects. There you will be taken care of as a guest and a visitor who came to see the sacred place and get a blessing.
The burials around the Shopan ata necropolis in Mangystau are simply impressive and should not be missing from your agenda while in the area. Enjoy!
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