Bright pages of Dehistan and Kunyaurgench history in the episodes of the opening ceremony of the Games

During opening ceremony of V Asian Games, the pages of glorious history of Turkmen nation were demonstrated in creative artistic way. We continue historical story line of grandiose performance in the Olympic stadium.

2. Dehistan – the oasis of bygone days

Sailboats of many nations that had an exit to the Caspian run across the sea in the Middle Age. It used to be called Hazar Sea during those times. Turkmens, who lived on the east coast of Hazar, were also professional seamen and fishermen as fish was their main food.

It is hard to find the settlement on the southeast coast, which residents were not involved in fishery one way or another. Such places of the coast as the mouths of Atrek, Karasu and Gorgan rivers were rich with various fish what attracted people to found the settlements there from old times.

Historical area on the southeast Caspian coast, which was called Hirkania in the ancient times, in the Middle Ages was referred as Dehistan or Mashat-Misrian. This was very old agricultural oasis where ramified irrigation network existed permanently from the end of III millennium BC until XIV century AC, in other words for three thousand years. Numerous archaeological monuments of this region remind of the level of urbanization of this area until water sources have dried out.

The largest settlement of mediaeval Dehistan is located 60 km way from Caspian Coast. This is Mashad-Misrian or Dehistan, the city that had two names and interesting thing is that it was not only administration centre with 200 hectares territory but also entire heavily populated province with number of fortified cities and small villages were called Dehistan.

Modern geographic maps call this part of the South-East Caspian Coast until the Kopetdag foothills as Misrian Plateau. The region was not developed in the XX century so historical landscape remained in the condition of natural conservation that came as the result of centuries-old desertification of the oasis that was left by people. Hence, old settlements with original architecture, complex irrigation network and once cultivated fields and gardens remained until our days in much better state than those where the channel was brought and where modern agricultural lands were expanded.

What was kept until our days is mostly the buildings of XI and beginning of XII centuries when Dehistan was a part of the State of the Great Seljuks and after of the State of Khorezmshakhs founded by Turkmens. Monumental buildings of burnt bricks used to be built in that period, different crafts were well developed. This is indicated by numerous findings of archaeologists, especially by faience glazed pottery. After Mongolian invasion, this region was slowly dying away as the caravan routes moved to other places and it came to complete desolation after destruction of the dam on Atrek river, which was used to feed irrigation network of the oasis.

The ruins of Misrian are surrounded by generally remained double fortified wall with numerous towers and moat, which are visual evidence of strong fortification. There are four 18-20 metres vertical pillars inside the shakhristan (the main part of the city surrounded by the wall), which are clearly visible on plain desert landscape from the distance. Two of the pillars are pylons of monumental portal of the mosque dated by the beginning of XII century.

The arch that connected them collapsed in the beginning of the XX century but it was captured on photograph by the first man who got there in 1902 with camera. It was Russian military engineer Boris Kastalskiy. Other two dominants are the minarets with round shaft and remained only the half of their original height.

The northern minaret is thought to be the oldest according to the signs remained on it. It was built by architect Ali Bin Ziyad in 1004 – 1005 together with the mosque, which is completely destroyed now. The name of the customer is also known; this is some Any Jafar Ahmed.

The second minaret was built 120 meters to the south but almost 200 years later next to the corner of the above-mentioned mosque. This was open yard type of mosque with column galleries. Its main building had square hall with dome cover.

Finishing of both pylons combines the texture of brick walls with rich ornamental decoration made of shaped bricks with blue glaze inlay. Stylized plant motif and signs mentioning the name of Shah Muhammed II and the architects prevail in it.

There were at least other four mosques in Misriana – two in shakhristan and two in the craft outskirt, the rabat. The image of country Friday mosque remained only on photo as it was destroyed in the middle of the XX century. The ruins of other mosque with minaret were discovered during excavations. Another mosque is famous by sketches and pictures made by the scientists in XIX-XX centuries.

Caravans used to move through Dehistan for many centuries and it is not surprise that there were many caravansaries. The cities of Dehistan have grown mainly owing to long existence of trade artery that run across the valley between Caspian Sea and Kopetdag range.

The pattern of coaching inn typical for the architecture of Khorasan and neighbouring regions was formed by the end of XI century. The planning of these rectangular or square but not necessarily symmetrical constructions includes internal yard surrounded by the premises by the perimeter for the guests, storages, sheds for pack animals and forage. The remains of two large caravansaries of this type lay in southern and eastern rabats of Dehistan.

The rabats adjoining from four sides to Misrian remained the traces of artisans’ neighbourhoods, numerous remains of potteries. Park and garden as well as bazar square were located in southern rabat while the one in the western had the traces of dence living construction. Eastern and southern rabats were the most populated ones: there were irrigation and main channels, which supplied the city with plenty of water.

Dehistan also had a madrasah, which is the only known in Turkmenistan related to pre-Mongolian invasion period. Urban planning of Dehistan indicates its high level of development: the presence of irrigation and sewage systems, bathhouses, brick pavements were ascertained there.

The territory of ancient cemetery Mashad, located seven kilometres away for the city, has several mediaeval mausoleums and one small commemoration mosque Mashad-ata, which is important local sanctuary. Number of publications of the XX century mistakenly call it Shir Kabir but this is related to another mosque – the one that was in the northern rabat of Misrian. They do look alike: both of them were cubical and crowned with the dome.

Square adobe bricks were initial building material of Mashad-ata Mosque. The building was reconstructed twice in the XII century and later in mediaeval time (probably in XVII – XIX). All walls of the mosque were tiled with burnt bricks, which were later used to build the dome. Some fragments of IX – X centuries including unique carved mihrab remained in the interior. It consists of three niches inserted to each other and completely covered with deep gancha carving with stylized plant ornament and Arabic writings by Kufic script.

Several years ago, this mirhab and entire interior were restored. At the same time, archaeological excavations have been carried out at the hill in front of the mosque entrance. As the result of the excavations, well paved yard with a pool in the middle was discovered. Cloisters – hanaka, where sufi monks used to dwelt in XI – XII centuries, were located around the yard. Numerous household items, from heavy millstones to bronze lamps, ceramic dishes and glass bottles for incense made a big collection of archaeological findings.

Caravan route from Khorasan to Persia run through Dehistan and that was visually demonstrated during the opening ceremony of Ashgabat 2017 Games. The route run along current bed of Uzboy river, which was a channel of the Amudarya and fell into Caspian Sea.

Mediaeval Arabic historian Al Makdisi called the names of twenty four Dehistan settlements but the archaeologists found around forty and some of them have the sizes of mediaeval cities. Highly developed fortification, artistic merits, performance technique and number of monuments of Dehistan put this province in the rank of such capital centres of urban life as Merv, Gurganj and Samarkand.

Besides, unlike other cities of Khorasan with mostly adobe constructions, burnt bricks were used there around one thousand years ago not only in public buildings but also in the residence of urban citizens what indicates high life level of local population. According to the specialists, familiarization even with limited number of the monuments of Misrian and Mashad demonstrates that the architecture of Dehistan as a large historical and cultural region with rich past undoubtedly had its own features, style and typical appearance.

Once the territory of ancient oasis in this region was declared as the State Historical and Cultural sanctuary, it was an object of the excavations of Turkmen archaeologists and their colleagues from France and Spain more than once.

3. Kunyaurgench, the city of masters and men of wisdom

Kunyaurgench, referred to as Gurganj in old manuscripts, is the largest archaeologic complex in the north of Turkmenistan on the left bank of old Amudarya river bed. It is presented by large protected territory with numerous ruins and relatively intact monuments adjoining modern Kunyaurgench.

Once upon a time, great thinker of the East Al Biruni, Al Khorezmi, Avicenna were working there. It was the main stronghold of the resistance to Genghis Khan Army. The Turkmens of Kunyaurgench preserved in their memory not only rich folklore but primordial crafts and many features of traditional life style. Several sanctuaries of Kunyaurgench, the Mausoleum of Sufi Sheikh Najmedin Kubra with attached ancient necropolis, which are called Uch Yuz Atlmys (three hundred sixty) by people remind of the number of holy people buried there and are the centre of Muslim pilgrims from remote Asian countries.

However, the main attractions of famous city of masters, architects, painters and decorators are architectural pearls built by them for the centuries. Their appearance was forestalled by long evolution of architectural art and artistic culture of ancient Turkmen country located in one of the most blessed place of the Central Asia.

The time of appearance of Kunyaurgench has not been established. Excavations of the hill, now known as Kyrkmolla, revealed the contours of strong antique fortress built on earlier cultural layer with ceramics of V-II BC. There is a legend explaining the origin of the name (translated from Turkmen languages as forty mullahs) according to which there was huge and beautiful palace on this place where 40 men of wisdom taught the sciences to 40 thousand students. It is thought that this place is related with large madrasah, which was called Mamun Academy or Hivaki Library.

It goes without saying that initial core of the city with developed fortification was located there. This just proves the assumption of the scientists that it was Urgench in Urva or Urga transcription that was mentioned in Avesta. Behistun Inscription of Darius I King that mentioned Khoresm as one of twenty three countries under the Achaemenid Empire indicates that people cultivated this territory in the I millennium BC.

Chinese chronicles of Han Dynasty epoch (I AC) also has a message about Urgench in Yue-gan transcription. The next mentioning was found in Chinese sources as well and related to VII century. The revival of Khoresm has started in this period, which brought the life to the cities where it stopped by some reasons in IV century. These are Kunyauaz, Izmykshir, Diyarbekir, Shasenem and other cities on the left bank.

In 712, entire Khoresm was conquered by Arabs and started to be called Jurjaniya in Arabic manner. It was rapidly growing as it has favourable location at the intersection of trade routes from the south to the north-west towrd Volga River and to the east to Mongolia and China. During the Samanids, the city of Kyat on the right bank of the river was the capital where local dynasty of Khoresmshakhs ruled on vassalic terms.

Left bank of Khoresm with the main city was ruled by the governors appointed by Samanids. With the time, they declared their lands independent from Kyat what led to separation of the north from the south. In 995, emir Al Mamun Ibn Muhammed managed to conquer Kyat and overthrow pre-Islamic dynasty and unite Khoresm again and transfer the title of khoresm shah to their family.

In the beginning of the XI century, filled with cruel bloody military actions, long campaign and complicated political intrigues, the reign of Mamun I after short period of his elder son Ali Ibn Mamun on the throne is changed by outstanding period of reign of his other son Mamun Ibn Mamun. Under his leadership, a unique circle of the scientists of royal academy was formed in Gurganj that eclipsed the fame of Bukhara - the capital of defeated Samanids. Encyclopaedist Abu reyhan Muhammed Ibn Ahmed Al Biruni (973 – 1050) and genius scientist, doctor and philosopher Abu Ali Ibn Sina (980 – 1037), also known as Avicenna, used to be the famous member of the Academy.

This outstanding period in the history of the city lasts up to the time when educated monarch Mamun II was killed in 1017 when Khoresm was conquered by Sultan Mahmud Gaznevi. And after a quarter of the century, victorious Seljuk took over the power of all Gaznevis’ Possessions.

The year of 1097 gave rise to the beginning of the last but most remarkable dynasty of Khoresm shahs – the Anushteginidis. The Seljuks appointed Kutb Ad Din Mohammed I as a ruler of Khoresm. He reigned for 30 years and until his death was loyal subject of Sultan Sanjar who approved his son Atsyz on the throne of Khoresm shahs. Gradually, he subdued entire northern-western part of the Central Asia. His grandson Tekesh Ibn Il Arslan expanded his territory until the sizes of mediaeval empire back in 1194.

Son of Tekesh, Ala Ad Din Mohammed II accomplished the formation of the State of Great Khoresm Shahs, which reached the peak of the power – it stretched from the northern region of the Caspian coast until the Persian Guff, from Caucasus to Hindu Kush. Gurganj was the centre of empire with arts, crafts and trade in this outstanding period.

Bright traces of the epoch of Khoresm shahs was left in Kynyaurgench settlement in the form of archaeological architectural monuments. There are two steepled mausoleums with different names as there was no any evidence or writings with reference to certain names were found.

The first one, which is the oldest, is called the mausoleum of Khoresm Shah Il Arslan, however, people used to call it Pahrazi-mazar, by the name of the scientist Encyclopaedist Fahr Ad Din Razi who lived in Gurganj. According to common opinion of the specialists, this oldest remained buildings of the capital is one of the most outstanding structures of entire pre-Mongolian Central Asia, combining unique features, both technical and artistic, with the images and ideas of future not realized architecture.

That is why several generation of arts scientists come back to this miniature and unique miracle of mediaeval architecture trying to solve the secret of its origin and harmony of its simple forms, proportions and finishing.

The second mausoleum raises more questions to the scientists. It also has two names. People call it mazar Sharap baba or Gyok Gumbez (blue dome) but written sources clearly point that this is nothing but the mausoleum of Khoresm Shah Tekesh, the son of Il Arslan, who has built his tomb in the complex with large madrasah while he was still alive.

The excavations proved that the mausoleum crowned with cone-shaped dome raising in splendid isolation above the city was a part of some large building that left only several parts of the foundation. However it was, the monumental structure that has no analogues by the originality of the concept and mastery of performance, boldness of engineering thought, beauty of details and elegance of interior remained as it was until our days. At the first glance, there are many unusual things that do not merge into architectural canons of that time.

Nevertheless, comparing this building with other monuments of Islamic world from Asia Minor to Caucasus, from China border to India, one can see organic combination with many of them, in some part developing and in other anticipating the best achievements of unknown masters of architecture art.

It is known from mediaeval sources that Kunyaurgench had the buildings of the above-mentioned Mamun Academy, madrasah and Nizam Al Mulk Library, Muhammed An Nesevi and Shihab Ad Din Hivaki madrasah, Imam Az Zamahshari mausoleum and palaces, msoques, caravansaries and city gates.

The ruins of Juma Mosque dated by Xi century are well studied. It left numerous stone bases of the column hall and foundation of the minaret, which were reconstructed and renovated several times in the history, it was the place where according to the legend, 40 thousand Muslims were able to prey simultaneously. The minaret was build thousand years ago - lead slab found there by local residents in the end of XIX century says that construction was carried out by the order of Khoresm Shah Mamun in 1011.

Pre-Mongolian part of the city (Dash-kala) occupies southern part of the settlement. Location of three of the city gates was established. Mediaeval authors wrote about numerous neighbourhoods and two government palaces, about entertainment parks in the outskirts and large canal that used to cross Gurganj. There are no any traces left, just heavily slipped walls of Tash-kala raises for five meters in some places.

In 1221, after half year of siege, the city was captured and destroyed by the Mongolians, however, owing to its favourable location, Gurganj, which started to be called Urgench, was able to revive quite quickly and keep the status of trade, crafts and administration centre. Having been included to the structure of Juchi ulus and lately having become almost independent in the system of the Golden Horde, Khoresm entered successful phase that lasted until the Timur’s war campaigns. This is indicated by great Arabic geographer and traveller Ibn Battuta who arrived in Urgench in 1333 and called it as the biggest and most prosperous Turkmen city.

Indeed, it was one of the best periods of its history. Special role in the development of Urgench in the first half of XIV century was played by local ruler Kutlug Timur and his wife Tyurabek Hanym. Under their patronage, the restoration of remained monuments of pre-Mongolian period was carried out, completed or overhauled the minaret of XI century at country side mosque that became one of the tallest buildings in the world. At the same time, large part of the land was developed within the city walls that remained as 10 km rampart but now partially erased from the earth. It stretches to the north from Ak Gala fortress, rounds the whole territory of current sanctuary and turns to the south to Khoresm Dag fortress. Amudarya waters (Daryaluk canal) used to run along its southern wall.

The mausoleum of Tyrabek-hanym was built at the same time, this is a true masterpiece of mediaeval architecture remained until our days. It combines the elegance and monumentality, impetuous play of colour in classical arabesques represented by filigree mosaic panels. The architects used the gloss of the glaze in austere setting of noble matte terracotta of the tiling made of polished bricks. Never before, the architecture of the Cnetral Asia new such luxurious decoration, such rich decoration, such artistic freedom in organization of space subdued to the solution of single artistic objective.

Kutlug-Timur died in 1335 having became immortal in the script on the minaret, which has his name ever since. Other several monuments of Kunyaurgench like the gates of caravansary and Najmeddin Kubra Mausoleum are related with his name. However, back in 1388, another catastrophe had happened – Timur ravaged Urgench, having destroyed the majority of the buildings and drove away the remained population as captives to Samarkand, but what is most important is that Tamerlan have taken prisoners the artels of architects and builders who constructed beautiful buildings of Samarkand for him later. After this event, the ancient Urgench was not able to recover again, even though there were several attempts of its restoration.

Global processes that prevented the restoration of the city have been started in XV century - the riverbed of Amudarya has changed its course and the river moved 40 km away from the city. Besides, the development of sea routes between Europe, India and China as well as discovery of America led to gradual decay of the economy of the Central Asia that appeared on the outskirts of world civilization.

Hundred years after, total decay was increased by full dehydration of the area and the population of Urgench had to escape form native place. N 1646, the Han of Hiva Abulgazi allowed them settling in 190 km away to the south-east between Hiva and the main stream of Amudarya. They established another new city there, which received the same name Urgench and the ruins of once famous Gurganj are called as Old Urgench (Kunyaurgench in Turkmen language). The life started to come back there in 1831 after the opening of irrigation channel Han Yab to the north from Nadjmeddin Al Kubramausoleum. Small settlement that bacame the foundation of modern Kunyaurgench was established on its banks.

…The years and centuries march away but true art never dies but shines with new edges. The world received an opportunity to enjoy the genius of unknown architects of Kunyaurgench only in XXI century when this historical city was included to the UNESCO World Heritage List, it happened in the summer of 2015, twenty years after the State Historical and Cultural Sanctuary Kunyaurgench was established. Since then, steadfast work for study, conservation and restoration of numerous facilities with protected zone boundaries is carried out, all detected monuments are detected not only within the city but in entire Dashoguz Velayat.