Tucked away inland of Sarytash Bay is the 10th-century Shakpak Ata, one of Mangystau’s most well-known historical-religious sites. Tauchik, a small village, is the nearest settlement and 20km south-east. 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.

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 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0
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 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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.

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 here 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 are also a few cells previously used as a home for religious hermits.

Six kilometres east of Shakpak Ata is the rarely visited Ungaza Gorge. In 2022, the Sartas Hotel and visitor centre opened up near the secluded shoreline of Sarytash Bay, less than five kilometres north of Shakpak Ata. It’s the only place to stay in the area, offering bike rentals, comfortable rooms for 3–5 people, and a cafe-restaurant for meals.

Coordinates:

  • Shakpak Ata (Şaqpaq-Ata/Шакпак-Ата): 44.4334, 51.1382

  • Ungaza Gorge (Ungaza Şatqaly/Ущелье Унгаза): 44.4385, 51.2115

  • Mount Ungaza (Ungaza Tauy/Гора Унгаза): 44.4411, 51.2003

  • Sarytash Bay (Sarytaş Şyğanağy/Залив Сарыташ): 44.5123, 51.1417

  • Sartas Hotel (Sartas Qonaq Üiı/Отель Сартас):44.4722, 51.1142

  • Tauchik village (Tauşyq): 44.3461, 51.3504

Resources:

Planning a visit? Check out our debut guidebook

Other places included in our publication:

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