Situated 4 km south of Sarytash Bay, the 10th-century Shakpak-Ata is one of Mangystau’s most interesting historical-religious sites. Tauchik, a small village, is the nearest settlement and 45 km southeast. Hewn out of a cave on Mount Ungaza’s slopes, the underground mosque has three entrances and four chambers serving as prayer rooms. It’s free to enter and open from sunrise to sunset, but be sure to respect local practice and cover up your arms and legs.

Incised on its chalk white walls are depictions of animals, plants, Arabic inscriptions and ornately-sculpted designs. There are also drawings of open palms, which is unusual considering traditional Islam prohibits depicting the human form. The explanation for this is because it was a Sufi religious site, and the open palm symbolises protection from evil. One of the most notable inscriptions is an old Sufi poem ruminating about the temporality of life. Scholars believe that Shakpak-Ata was a monastic Sufi sanctuary specialised in healing.

Inside Shakpak-Ata's cruciform chamber with a hole in the roof.
Photo by Yakov Fedorov is licensed with CC BY-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit
A bus parked beside a large collection of graves in Shakpak-Ata.
Photo by Valeria Bolotova is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Elsewhere on the cliff are 2,000 more tombs hidden away in numerous niches beneath the mosque. According to local folklore Shakpak-Ata was renowned throughout Mangystau because a spiritual healer lived there who had the powers to cure people of illness and disease. A spiral staircase leads from the ground floor up to a pavilion. In the centre of the crypt there’s a section with an open roof to let the light in. Nearby there’s also a few cells previously used as a home for religious hermits.

Six kilometres east of Shakpak-Ata is the rarely visited Ungaza Gorge.

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  • Shakpak-Ata (RUS—Шакпак-Ата): 44.433484304527155, 51.13822611391164
  • Ungaza Gorge (RUS—Ущелье Унгаза): 438552641907215, 51.21151671795467
  • Sarytash Bay (RUS—Залив Сарыташ): 512328893302126, 51.14172811050781
  • Mount Ungaza (RUS—Гора Унгага): 44.441106682732574, 51.2003362021094