Margaret Morton’s Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan by Claudia Steinberg

Part of the Editor's Choice series.

BOMB 131 Spring 2015
BOMB 131

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Margaret Morton

University of Washington Press, 2014

Margaret Morton reports that on her first long drive through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan she was delighted when a skyline of minarets and domes appeared out of the silvery-blue, thin, stone-dry air, like a mirage. It had taken more than an hour until the ornate city—so eagerly anticipated after the endless ride from Bishkek (the country’s dreary, Soviet-style capital) through the austere and utterly unpopulated landscape—revealed its secret. “When we came nearer, the buildings seemed suddenly smaller than expected, and then they mysteriously contracted: they turned out to be completely flat, nothing but façades,” writes Morton, who had been invited to Kyrgyzstan to photograph locations that appear in famous national poems. With the discovery of this lonely necropolis near the southern shore of cobalt blue Lake Issyk Kul, she found her true calling for this region: to document the many elaborate cemeteries all over Kyrgyzstan. After her initial trip in 2006, the New York-based photographer, who also teaches at Cooper Union, returned for three more summers, meeting with the scholar Elmira Köchümkulova, who enlightened her about the burial rites of this Silk Road country with its many cultural influences.

Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan captures the intriguing panoramas of sprawling, lifeless cities whose inhabitants rest in underground chambers while the edifices above send reminders of their presence into the far distance. Up close, the houses for the deceased—most of them simply made of unfired mud—seem almost as unapproachable as a Rachel Whiteread monument, with mock windows and sealed doors. Indeed, after the funeral, no one enters them or even visits the site. These miniature mosques were, for centuries, the only structures erected by a nomadic people—until Stalin instituted settlement plans along with a secularization campaign. Many of the tombs are crowned with animal horns, representing an animist tradition that has coexisted with Islam; the religious practices of a country with just five million, widely dispersed people couldn’t be easily monitored by either the central government or by imams. Other, newer graves lie under round metal cages that symbolize the yurt: these skeletal versions of the tent became a popular, airy habitat for the soul when Russian-produced iron was cheaply available in the ’70s. Direct Soviet influences can be seen in the photographs of the departed—kiln-fired onto porcelain and attached to ornamented granite markers or steles built from dried mud. In one strikingly multicultural image a shamanistic eagle sits on top.

What originally attracted Morton to these weed-covered mausoleums was their fragile and simultaneously virtuosic quality. Ever since she was introduced to Bernard Rudofsky’s seminal book Architecture Without Architects in college, she has been fascinated by the inventiveness of the amateur: in the four books she has published in the last twenty-five years, she has lent her deep respect for the makeshift and her gentle eye for the personal to the architecture of shantytowns, the dark and dangerous quarters of outcasts in a New York train tunnel, the improvised shelters of squatters, and even the short-lived gardens of the homeless. Only during her last visit to Kyrgyzstan did she realize that the ephemeral quality of these tombs was not only due to natural decay; recently, the children and grandchildren of the dead have helped to reinforce it. Returning radicalized from their journeys to Mecca, a few members of the younger generation have begun destroying their ancestors’ burial sites (which had even been spared by the otherwise strictly anti-religious Soviet government), believing that pure Islam permits, at most, a simple stone as a grave marker. Margaret Morton’s hallucinatory, fine-toned images may soon be the final remains of Kyrgyzstan’s silent cities.

Claudia Steinberg is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She writes about culture and social issues for a variety of German and American publications.

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Originally published in

BOMB 131, Spring 2015

Featuring interviews with Rosa Barba, Soon-Mi Yoo, Agnieszka Kurant, Tatiana Bilbao, Alejandro Zambra, Tom McCarthy, Matana Roberts, and Barbara Kasten. 

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BOMB 131