Protecting the sailors: Sultan-Epe underground mosque in Mangystau

Nazerke Makhanova | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Western Kazakhstan is rightly considered as the motherland of the holy places. One of the popular religious places to visit is the protector of sailors in the Mangystau region:  the underground mosque of Sultan-Epe. This mosque is located only 57 kilometers from the Fort-Shevchenko town. Visiting this place, you will find a way to Mangyshlak Bay, and the view of the sea is located only 4 kilometers from the shrine of Sultan-Epe.

The protector of sailors

Sultan-Epe was the son of Hakim-Ata (“ata” in the Kazakh language means “grandfather”), who was one of the students of the famous poet and Sufi teacher who preached Islam - Kozha Ahmet Yasavi. Sultan-Epe helped and rescued everyone who got into trouble in the waters, and therefore, he is considered the patron saint of sailors, sea, and the victims of water. People come to the Sultan-Epe underground mosque to ask for help in healing and ask for patronage on the long journeys. Whenever talking about water or a trip by the sea, locals use the phrase “Sultan-Epe save and help”, which became a common phrase.

© Photo by Ilia Afanasieff, the best landscape photographer of Qazaqstan (QazPhoto 2016 and 2018), @Ilia_Almaty_Photographer +77017668113

The legend of the third son

Once, Hakim-Ata called his sons and asked them to visit him. The two sons managed to appear on the call of the father in time, and the third son, Sultan-Epe, was late. He explained his tardiness by the fact that he helped the sailors in trouble to pull the ship out of the assault. As proof of his story, Sultan-Epe showed his back to his father, on which there were traces of the rope from pulling out the vessel. His father still did not believe him, after which Sultan-Epe left his place and built an underground mosque in the desert area.

© Photo by Ilia Afanasieff, the best landscape photographer of Qazaqstan (QazPhoto 2016 and 2018), @Ilia_Almaty_Photographer +77017668113

Underground mosque 

The underground mosque is located in a small area which is surrounded by a fence. As the local and ancient attraction, it is under state protection. On the territory of the mosque, there is a well, the water of which is considered to have the healing properties. The underground mosque itself looks like a small hill of bricks as tall as a man. At first glance, it is hard to believe that there are 9 rooms and corridors in this mosque. To start exploring, you will need to enter the small door and go down the steep stairs. Passing the corridors, you can go to full height, but in some transitional hallways, you have to go on all fours, since the height will not allow you to stand up. How exciting and unusual this is?

© Photo by Ilia Afanasieff, the best landscape photographer of Qazaqstan (QazPhoto 2016 and 2018), @Ilia_Almaty_Photographer +77017668113

From heaven to earth

When you enter the territory of Sultan-Epe underground mosque, you notice the high sticks sticking out of the ground and horns of argali, the mountain sheep,** underneath them. The sticks are tied with cloth rags of different sizes. Are you wondering why so? In those days, it was believed that the sticks helped the saints to go down from heaven to earth and help the needy. The parishioners left the horns of the argali as a sacrifice and invitation for the saints to come down. People tie rags and fabrics so that they absorb the sanctity of this place during their visit to the underground mosque**. Afterward, the departing people take the rags that are saturated with the blessing of the saints and carry them with them as an amulet.

© Photo by Ilia Afanasieff, the best landscape photographer of Qazaqstan (QazPhoto 2016 and 2018), @Ilia_Almaty_Photographer +77017668113

There are many holy places in the world, but the uniqueness of this mosque is that it is placed underground.  I mean, how many other underground mosques in the world you know?  Aside from the spiritual purposes, even the non-believing visitors can enjoy the visit to such unique places. Mangystau region hides another underground sacred place, the Beket-Ata mosque. If you happen to visit the Fort-Schevchenko town, make sure to visit the Sultan-Epe mosque and learn about its history and legends about protecting the sailors.

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