Thursday, June 28, 2018

Turkmenistan | Gurganj–Konye Urgench | Temür Qutlugh Minaret

Wandered out to Konye Urgench in northern Turkmenistan. In the thirteenth century the city was known as Gurganj. Then located on the lower Amu Darya (the river has since changed course), Gurganj was the original capital of the Khwarezm Empire and one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Inner Asia. It may have reached the height of its florescence during the first two decades of the thirteenth century. The well-travelled Syrian geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi (1179–1229), who visited the city in 1219, deemed it perhaps the richest and most highly developed city he had ever seen. Thus it was only natural that it had attracted the attention of Chingis Khan. In the summer of 1220 he dispatched his two sons Ögedei and Chagaadai to the lower Amu Darya with orders to seize Gurganj and other cities in the area, including Khiva and Gyaur Qala. His oldest son, Jochi, who was then leading his own campaign on the lower Syr Darya River, was to rendezvous with his brothers on the lower Amu Darya. The following account of the investment and fall of Gurganj is from Chingis Khan Rides West: The Mongol Invasion of Bukhara, Samarkand, and other Great Cities of the Silk Road, 1215-1221:
. . . as we have seen, Terken Khatun, the Khwarezmshah’s mother and nominal ruler of Khwarezm province, had fled Gurganj several months earlier, leaving a power vacuum in the city. It soon became clear that those who remained behind were neither the best nor the brightest. According to Juvaini, the civil administration of Gurganj was seized by an officer named Ali Durughini, (because of his propensity for lying Nasavi nicknamed him Kuli-Durughan [Mountain of Lies], a play of words on his actual name). This worthy proceeded to loot what he could from what remained in the state treasury kept in Urgench. He did not, however, make any efforts to rally the 90,000 troops who still remained in the city. Then at some time during the summer of 1220 Timur Malik, the hero of Khojend who had just escaped from Jochi’s dragnet on the lower Syr Darya, as described earlier, arrived in town. An experienced commander and obviously a charismatic leader, he rallied a contingent of troops—it’s not clear how large—and rode north to attack Jochi’s troops who were still on the Syr Darya. He actually managed to seize the city of Yanikent and kill the Mongol governor. Instead of following up on this victory, however, he soon returned to Gurganj with his troops. Apparently there was dissension between him and the military faction which still remained nominally loyal to Terken Khatun, and once again the disputing parties were unable to decide on any concerted approach to the Mongol threat. 
In early winter of 1220 two officials who had been in charge of the Khwarezm treasury under Terken Khatun but who had earlier fled Gurganj arrived back in the city. They claimed that they had been in touch with the Khwarezmshah and that they were taking control of the province of Khwarezm on his behalf. The chronology is uncertain, but at this point the Khwarezmshah was probably somewhere in western Iran in headlong flight from Jochi and Sübedei. Whether these two officials were in fact speaking for the Khwarezmshah or simply acting on their own account is uncertain. 
Shortly thereafter the situation took a completely different turn. The princes Jalal-ad-Din, Uzlagh Shah, and Aq Shah and an entourage of seventy men arrived in the city with the dramatic news that they had been with the Khwarezmshah when he had died on the island in the Caspian Sea and that they had overseen his burial. Whether they were actually there or not is uncertain. Nasavi implies that they were, but Juvaini does not mention them. In any case, the princes now made a joint announcement proclaiming that before his death the Sultan had altered his will, making Jalal-ad-Din his heir instead of Uzlagh Shah. Terken Khatun had earlier prevailed upon her son, the now deceased Khwarezmshah, to name Uzlagh Shah as the heir to the throne of the Khwarezmian Empire instead of his older half-brothers Jalal-ad-Din and Rukn al-Din, no doubt because Uzlagh Shah’s mother and Terken Khatun were member of the same clan of Qangli Turks. WIth Uzlagh Shah as the new head of the Khwarezmiam Empire the Turkish military faction would at long last gained ascendency over the aristocratic party of the Khwarezmshahs.  
Apparently Uzlagh Shah agreed to step aside in favor of his older half-brother and was willing to accept Jalal-ad-Din as the new Khwarezmshah. He was relatively young at the time and as Juvaini notes, “not quick in his studies.” The tribal Turkish amirs who had made up the military faction under Terken Khatun could not reconcile themselves with the decision to sidestep Uzlagh Shah in favor of Jalal-ad-Din, however, and soon hatched a plot to eliminate the latter. The leader of the conspirators was one Tuji Pahlawan, who bore the title of Qutlugh Khan. He was considered the leader of the old Turkish military faction which had flourished under Terkun Khatun and had probably served as the governor of Jand and Yanikent on the lower Syr Darya before the invasion of the Mongols. He had roughly 7,000 men under his command. Now he and his co-conspirators intrigued to kill or imprison Jalal-ad-Din and put Uzlagh Shah on the throne, presumably as their puppet. Tipped off to the plot, probably by Moghol Hajib, a confederate of the prince who had earlier escaped from the debacle at Bukhara, Jalal-ad-Din and the ever-resourceful Timur Malik along with 300 loyal soldiers fled south to Khorasan. They were probably spurred on by reports that the Mongol armies under Chagaadai and Ögedei were rapidly approaching the city. Apparently the schemes of Tuji Pahlawan to enthrone Uzlagh-Shah fell on deaf ears, since three days later both Uzlagh-Shah and Aq Shah also fled the capital.  
Thus at this crucial moment the dead Khwarezmshah’s sons abandoned Gurganj and gave up all pretense of leadership in defending the ancient capital of Khwarezm. According to Juvaini, Khumar Tegin, a relative of Terken Khatun’s and a leader of the army faction, had elected to remain behind in Gurganj after the princes had fled. With him were other emirs including Moghol Hajib, Er Buqa Pahlavan, Ali “Mountain of Lies” Durughini (his earlier indiscretions now apparently overlooked), and, as Juvaini disdainfully adds, “others of the same sort.” Apart from these panjandrums, “there were so many notables of the town and learned of the age as could be neither counted or computed; while the number of inhabitants exceeded that of grains of sand or pebbles.” Aware of the threat posed by the Mongols and of the need for a united front these citizens now rose up and with “one voice” declared Khumar Tegin their new Sultan and “Nauruz King” (King for Day). Thus it was Kumar Tegin who would be tasked with confronting the Mongols who soon appeared outside the wall of Gurganj. 
Although all of our Persian sources comment at length on the battle of Gurganj, none of them bother to enlighten us about when the Mongols first arrived at the city walls. Nasavi says the city finally fell on April of 1221. The others say only that the siege lasted anywhere from five to seven months. From this we can conclude that the Mongols appeared before the city in the late autumn or early winter of 1220. A Mongol advance party led by Taji-Beg reached the Gurjganj first. According to Juvaini, the defenders of the city “beheld a small troop of horsemen like a puff of smoke, who arrived before the gates of the town and busied themselves with driving off cattle. Hereat some short-sighted persons became exultant thinking that they had come in so small a party out of bravado and that they had ventured on in such insolence out of sport.” Both calvary and foot soldiers rushed out the city gates to confront the Mongols. “The Mongols, like wild game, now startled, now cast a glance behind them and ran.” The Khwarezmians pursued them to a place called Bagh-i-Khurram (the Garden of Happiness, according to one rendering), about four miles from the city walls. 
It was a trap. A larger contingent of Taji-Beg’s men which had been held in reserve suddenly appeared on the flanks of the Khwarezmian contingent. “They cut off the road before and behind and fell briskly upon them wolves upon a flock without a shepherd.” The fighting continued most of the day and by early evening all the Khwarezmians had been massacred. Both Juvaini and Rashid al-Din (the latter perhaps relying on the former’s account) put the death toll among the Khwarezmians at 100,000. This was certainly an exaggeration. Barthold opines that Juvaini must have meant 1,000 and that Rashid al-Din was simply repeating what Juvaini said. In any case, the Mongols, emboldened by this sudden success, proceeded to Gurganj and entered the city via the Qabilan Gate. This daring sortie must have struck terror into the hearts of the populace, but the invaders were still relatively few in number and in no position to hold the city. Fearing that they would get trapped within the city walls they withdrew as night fell. The Khwarezmians did not venture out of the city the next day. The Mongols attacked one of the city gates, but 500 men under the command of Faridun Ghuri, one of the Khwarezmshah’s chief generals, managed to repulse them.
At this juncture the main Mongol army began trickling in. Ögedei’s corps arrived first, followed by a personal division of Chingis’s under the command of Bughurji-Noyon. Last came Chagaadai’s corps, under the command of Tulun Cherbi, Ustun-Noyon, and Qadan-Noyon. The amassed Mongol army, including auxiliaries who had rallied to the Mongol cause may numbered over 100,000. The Mongol chieftains made a show of strength by circling the entire army around city and then sent in emissaries to demand its surrender and submission. As no answer was immediately forthcoming they prepared for a protracted siege. Mangonels were set up, but since there were no large rocks in the area, projectiles had to be made from sections of large mulberry trees that were hardened by soaking them in water. Meanwhile, Mongol envoys continued to cajole the city fathers with “promises and threats, inducements and menaces,” all to no avail. 
Then Jochi’s corps from Jand on the lower Syr Darya arrived on the scene and with their help the Mongols were able to further tighten the noose on the city. Whether Jochi accompanied them is a matter of some dispute. Juvaini implies that he did not. Given his ongoing feud with his brother Chagaadai, he might well have wanted to keep his distance. Other Persian sources, however, say that he did accompany his troops and that he played in crucial role in deciding the ultimate fate of the city, as we shall see. 
The investment of the city continued. Levies, presumably seized in Khiva and other cities that the Mongols had already taken in Khwarezm and perhaps some brought along with Jochi’s corps from the lower Syr Darya, were pushed up to the city walls and made to fill in the moat with rubbish and whatever else came to hand. This operation took ten days, according to Rashid al-Din. Then the prisoners were tasked with undermining the city walls. All the while mangonels hurled hardened chunks of mulberry trunks into the beleaguered city. Then the Mongols attacked: “loosing a yell like thunder and lightning they rained down missiles and arrows like hailstones.” Terrified by these assault, Khumar Tegin, the “counterfeit Sultan and leader of the army,” as Juvaini styles him, quickly lost heart: “The signs of the Tartar [Mongol] army's victory agreed with his secret surmise.” He left his position by one of the main city gates and personally surrendered to the Mongols. His subsequent fate is unknown. 
Continuing the assault, the Mongols were soon able to plant their standards on the top of the city walls. But the fight for Gurganj was just beginning. What is now called urban warfare ensued. “The inhabitants opposed them in all the streets and quarters of the town,” according to Juvaini, “in every lane they engaged in battle and in every cul-de-sac they resisted stoutly.” The Mongols responded by torching whole quarters of the city with naphtha, a primitive form of napalm, and “sewing the people to one another with arrows”. This street-to-street fighting went on for at least two days, during which large sections of the city were completely destroyed.
At this point a rift developed in the Mongolian leadership. The whole point of attacking a city was to seize its wealth. If the entire city was burned to the ground before they had a chance to loot it, all their efforts would have come to naught. “By now,” Juvaini explains, “the greater part of the city was destroyed; the houses with their goods and treasures were but mounds of earth; and the Mongols despaired of benefitting from the stores of their wealth.” As we have seen, Juvaini maintained that Jochi was not present at the siege of Gurganj. Both Rashid al-Din and Nasavi claims that he was, however, and that he had serious objections about the scorched earth policy that was obliterating the city. Not only was he concerned about the loss of loot in the short term. Gurganj, the richest city in Khwarezm and one of the richest in Inner Asia, was to be a part of his patrimony when Chingis Khan died. If the battle for the city continued in the same fashion he would inherit nothing but a heap of ashes. According to Nasavi, Jochi himself did everything possible to halt the destruction of Gurganj, including sending numerous envoys to the town fathers seeking their peaceful surrender.
Apparently even the Khwarezmshah, in the last days of his life on the island in the Caspian Sea, had sent a letter to the leaders of Gurganj advising them not to oppose the Mongols. Many of the town fathers had advocated coming to terms with the invaders in the hope of saving what they could of their city, but according to Nasavi the “blockheads” among them refused to surrender and in the end these die-hards prevailed. Jochi’s opponent in this, as might be expected, was his younger brother (half-brother actually) and long-time nemesis Chagaadai. The feud between them, which had come to a head at the conference in 1219 when Chingis Khan has named their younger brother Ögedei to be his successor as Great Khan now flared up again. Chagaadai apparently wanted to press on and take the Gurganj by any means possible. If this meant reducing the city to ashes it meant nothing to him. 
For the moment Jochi’s viewpoint prevailed. According to Juvaini, the Mongols “agreed among themselves to abandon the use of fire and rather to withhold from the people the water of the Oxus [Amu Darya], across which a bridge had been built in the town.” This is one of the Persian pen-pusher’s more perplexing passages. Clearly the Amu Darya did not run through the city. The main branch of the Amu Darya is now twenty-five miles east of Gurganj, but in the thirteenth century it apparently flowed by right to the south of the city. There were canals leading off the river, but Barthold, who has studied in some detail the layout of thirteenth century Guganj, maintains that because of a lack of space none of the ariqs, or canals, ran through the town in the thirteenth century. So where was this bridge to which Juvaini refers? Barthold does tell us that that some 300 feet from the walls of Gurganj a wooden dam had been built to deflect water of the river away from the city. Was this wooden dam the “bridge” to which Juvaini refers? Juvaini implies, however, that the “bridge” was within the city, while the wooden dam was clearly outside the city walls. In any case, the Mongols now attempted to seize the bridge or dam—wherever it might have been—apparently with the intend of destroying it and flooding the city. Here the Mongols suffered a setback. The 3,000 troops devoted to this task were quickly surrounded by the Khwarezmians and massacred. 
This fleeting victory in the battle of the bridge emboldened the defenders, but it also hardened the resolve of the Mongols. According to al-Athir, Mongol causalities during the siege had already outnumbered those of the city’s defenders. Rashid al-Din claimed that hillocks made of the bones of Mongols killed during the siege were still visible in his time, more than sixty years later. The lost of 3,000 men in one skirmish appeared to weaken the hand of Jochi, who wanted to save the city from total destruction, but apparently he was not yet ready to give in to Chagaadai and the hardliners who wanted to take the city by any means possible. The dissension between the two brothers was finally reported to Chingis Khan, and he responded by putting the entire army under the command of Ögedei, in effect taking the ever-quarreling Jochi and Chagaadai out of the decision-making process. Jochi’s attempt to save what he could of the city had failed. Under Ögedei the street-by-street assault on the city resumed. Quarter after quarter of the city fell into the hands of the Mongols until only three remained untaken. The inhabitants of these quarters finally decided to send a local dignitary, Ali ad-Din Khayyati, to Jochi and have him beg for mercy. But their entreaties were too late; not even Jochi could save them now. Sometime in April of 1221 the last resistance was overcome and the city of Gurganj was completely overrun by the Mongols.
The surviving inhabitants were driven out into the surrounding fields. The artisans and others with valuable skills, said to number over 100,000, were separated from the rest and, according to Juvaini, sent off to “Eastern Lands,” presumably in China and Mongolia. Juvaini, writing in the 1260s, adds, “Today there are many places in those parts that are cultivated and peopled by the people of Khorazm” (whether the Hui, a sizable Islamic minority now found in China, are the descendants of these forcibly resettlement craftsmen is a matter of some dispute). The women and young children were enslaved and parceled out to their new masters. Some skilled men had hidden their talents, believing that instead of being sent off of the East they would be allowed to return to the city as common laborers. They were sorely disappointed. The remaining men were divided among the Mongol troops and each soldier was tasked with executing twenty-four victims. 
According to al-Athir, the Mongols were not yet done with the destruction of Gurganj. After they had looted what they could from burned out ruins, they decided to flood the city: “They opened the dam which kept the waters of the Oxus away from the city, so that it was completely inundated and buildings collapsed. The site was left an expanse of water. Not one of the populace survived, although in other cities some of the people had survived; some hid, some fled, some got out and escaped and yet others threw themselves down among corpses and so were saved. However, from among the people of Khwarazm those who hid from the Tatars [Mongols] were either drowned or died under the rubble. The city became a deserted ruin.” 
The number who died is uncertain. Juvaini refused to speculate: “I have heard such a quantity of slain that I did not believe the report and so have not recorded it. ‘Oh God, preserve us from the ills of this world and torments of the world to come.’”
Some structures in Gurganj did survive the Mongol onslaught, although most if not all of them were heavily damaged. Perhaps the most notable pre-Mongol invasion monument was the 196-foot Temür Qutlugh Minaret. Based on its design and the techniques used in its construction some historians have posited that it was built in the tenth or eleventh century. Most agree that it was later repaired and restored by its namesake,  Temür Qutlugh (r. 1370 – 1399), a khan of the Golden Horde.
 Temür Qutlugh Minaret (click on photos for enlargements)
 Temür Qutlugh Minaret
 Temür Qutlugh Minaret
 Base of the minaret. Note that the pilgrims are circumambulating counter-clockwise, as is the custom with Islamic monuments. Buddhist monuments are circumambulated clockwise. 
Top of the minaret

Friday, June 15, 2018

Iran | Julfa | Church and Monastery of St. Stephanos

At ten I met Hamid and Masud in the lobby for our trip to the Church St. Stephanos. Although of course mainly concerned with the history of the Ilkhanate in Iran, I am also interested in monuments which pre-date the Mongol occupation and have managed to survive down to the present day. There are wildly differing opinions about how old St. Stephanos Church is, but it is possible that at least some parts of it were built before the Ilkhanate period. 

An inch of fresh snow has fallen overnight, but the roads are bare by the time we start out. Just beyond our hotel we pass by a large parking lot where an Ashura ceremony is taking place. In front of a flat-bed truck with loudspeakers a group of actors in notionally seventh century costumes play out the deaths of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters at the hands of the Umayyads. The Umayyad villains are dressed in red. In a ring around the actors are several hundred spectators, almost all the women dressed in black chadors. Hamid does not offer to stop, and I do not ask to. I get the feeling this ceremony is not intended as a spectator event for non-Muslim foreigners. I read to him Evliya’s account of Ashura from 1640s, and he points outs the ritual blood-letting described by Evliya was outlawed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the president of Iran from 1981 to 1989, although it is still practiced in some other countries. 

The city of Tabriz sits in a bowl surrounded by rust-covered hills, now lightly dusted with snow. North of the city we emerge out onto rolling steppe broken up by outcroppings and ridges of red rock. When the Mongols first arrived in this region in 1220 the expansive steppe had immediately caught their attention, since it provided adequate grazing for their horses, something not always available in other parts of Persia. Also, the terrain was very similar to some areas of Mongolia, which may have helped assuage any homesickness they were experiencing on a long campaign far from their homeland. 

After passing through several small towns we arrive at the small city of Julfa, on south bank of the Aras River, about seventy miles northwest of Tabriz. The river here is the border between Iran and Azerbaijan, or, more precisely, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an exclave separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by a southern extension of Armenia, which joins with the Iranian border about twenty-seven miles east of here. Although considered a part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan, covering 2120 square miles—almost twice the size of Rhode Island—and with a population of 410,000, has been an autonomous region since 1990 and is governed by its own elected legislature. On the north side of the Aras River is the Azerbaijan (Nakhchivan) city of Julfa. This Julfa made international headlines back in the 1990s when the nearby Armenian Christian cemetery containing thousands of elaborately carved tombstones, many considered historical monuments, were reportedly destroyed by Azerbaijanis, despite the protests of UNESCO and other international bodies. 
Map courtesy of Nationsonline (click on photos for enlargements)
According to legend, the Julfa on the north side of the Aras was found by Tigranes I, King of Armenia from 115 b.c. to 95 b.c. It would have been part of the Kingdom of Greater Armenia, which lasted from  321 b.c to 428 a.d., and at its height stretched from the the Caspian Sea in the east to near the Black Sea in the west and from Georgia in the north to the Mesopotamian plain in the south. 
Greater Armenia (© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons)
By the time the Mongols arrived in the thirteenth century it was a sizable city populated almost entirely by Armenians. In the following centuries it became a major trade entrepôt linking the Iranian Plateau, Inner Asia, and India with Russia, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean Basin. In the late sixteenth century is was captured by the expansionist Ottoman Turks. In 1603 the Safavid ruler Abbas Shah retook the city, but he soon realized he could not hold it against the continuing onslaughts of the Ottomans. In 1605 he deported the citizens of the city—over three thousand families —deep into Safavid territory, most of them eventually taking up resident near Esfahan, and burned the city to the ground rather than let it slip into Ottoman hands. Later a village grew up amidst the ruins and a larger settlement was established adjacent to it. The Persians eventually retook the area, and this new settlement became part of the Nakhchivan Khanate, a Persian vassal state. Following the Russo-Persian War of 1826–1828 the Khanate was ceded to Russia, and Sulfa became an official border crossing point between Persia and the Russian Empire. In time the Iranian city of Sulja grew up on the south side the Aras River. The two Julfas are currently linked by a road bridge and a railway bridge. 

Iranian Julfa is now the center of the Aras Free Trade Zone (AFTZ), established by the Iranian government in 2003. The thirty-seven square-mile free trade zone, which borders on the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, Armenia, and the Republic of Azerbaijan, serves as a conduit for goods to and from Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the UAE, and Taiwan. Machinery parts, electrical   appliances, helicopters, glassware, glue, tea, turmeric, various types of dried nuts, clothes, tires, and much else pass through the free trade zone, but perhaps the most important trade items, and certainly the most visible, are cars. The approaches to Julfa are lined with car dealers with hundred of cars lined up on their lots. Hamid, it turns out, is a car buff. His dream, he says, is to own the latest model BMW. He ogles the cars on the lots and at one point shouts, “Look at that! An American muscle-car!” (I didn’t catch the make, and I forgot to ask what a “muscle car” actually is). He asks if on our return from Church of St. Stephanos he can make a couple of quick stops at car dealers to check prices. Expensive cars, like Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, he claims, are five to ten thousand dollars cheaper here than in Tehran, where he lives. 

In Julfa itself we drive by another Ashura ceremony much like the one we saw in Tabriz. In front of a flatbed truck with loudspeakers a group of costumed actors, the Umayyad villains in red, play out the solemn drama of the deaths of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters. Several hundred spectators surround the actors. Just past the Ashura ceremony our driver spots a crowd of men in front of a one-story shopping center. Many are holding plastic clamshell containers in their hands and shoveling what looks like rice into their mouths with their fingers. Apparently part of the Ashura ceremony involves dispensing free food to the public. Evliya Celebi commented on this practice in Tabriz in the 1640s:
Another marvelous and noteworthy spectacle is the Ashura ceremony held every year on the tenth day of Muharram. All the notables and citizens, young and old, come out to [the] polo grounds where they pitch their tents and stay for three days and three nights. They boil innumerable cauldrons of Ashura pudding, in remembrance of the martyrs in the plain of Karbala, and distribute it among rich and poor alike, devoting the religious merit accrued thereby to those martyrs’ spirits.
 “You should try the Ashura meal. It’s free!” says Hamid. In the vestibule of the shopping center four men are ladling a simple rice and mutton plov out of an enormous basin. The leader spots me, an obvious foreigner, and asks Hamid where I am from. Hamid says I am an American. “From America!” shouts the man, “Tell him if he accepts this food he must convert to Islam!” This was apparently meant as a jest, since many of the bystanders burst out laughing. He handed me my clamshell portion with a big smile on his face. Several men came forward to shake my hand. A couple guys insist I pose with them while their friends take photos with their cell phones. Another guy hurries up with spoons for the city guys and their foreign guest who of course cannot be expected to eat with their fingers. Masud has instant coffee, tea bags, a thermos of hot water, and a big box of Persian pastries in the trunk of our car. We stand around the open trunk and enjoy our impromptu lunch of rice and mutton. I am reminded of the rice with raisins often handed out during ceremonies at Buddhist temples in Mongolia. 

About two miles west of Julfa, hard by the banks of the Aras River, we stop at the Khajeh Nasar Caravanserai. Usually, Hamid claims, it is possible to enter the interior of the caravanserai, but today the big entrance door is closed and locked, perhaps because of Ashura, and we must be content with viewing the outside of the structure. The caravanserai had been built by the Armenian trader Khajeh Nazar Armani. He was one of the Armenians deported, as mentioned earlier, to the Esfahan area by Shah Abbas back at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In Esfahan Khajeh Nazar Armani flourished as a trader, amassing a sizable fortune, and soon caught the attention of Shah Abbas himself. With Shah Abbas’s approval he returned to his homeland and built two caravanserais, the one here and another directly across the river. The caravanserai on the north side of the river apparently no longer exists. The remaining caravanserai, measuring about 130 feet by 200 feet, consists a courtyard lined on three sides by quarters for traveling merchants and storage rooms. A handsome structure of brick and cut stone, it no doubt rated the seventeenth century equivalent of five stars. In the seventeenth century the next stop south of the caravanserai was reportedly the town of Shoja, about six and half miles away. This may indicate the the Iranian town of Julfa, now three miles from the caravanserai, may not have existed at this time. 
Khajeh Nasar Caravanserai. The cliffs in the distance are in Azerbaijan.
Unable to enter the building I stroll to the bank of the Aras to take photos. About two hundred yards away two soldiers step out of a checkpoint guardhouse and stare in my direction. “We better go,” says Hamid, “Taking photos of the caravanserai is OK, but they may wonder why you are taking photos of Azerbaijan, across the river.” 
Aras River, with the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic on the other side
We drive on to checkpoint, where we are stopped, but Masud banters with the two young conscripts, who look to be teenagers, and they wave us on without asking to see our papers. Not far past the checkpoint, at the base of the cliffs on the left, a stone tower with a cone-shaped roof looms above high stone walls. This is the Nakheirchi Church. Hamid explains that in Azeri, the language of Azerbaijan which is spoken by most people in this area, nakheir means “herd of cattle”. A nakheirchi is a cattle herder. According to local legend a cattle herder built this church so that his fellow herders would have a place to pray while they were out tending their cattle. The gate to the high-walled compound is locked, whether for Ashura or not Hamid does not know, so we drive on. 
Nakheirchi Church
The Aras River valley narrows here, flanked on either side by barren rust and mustard-tinted cliffs and ramparts. I would like to take photos, but Hamid points to the  manned guard towers on the Azerbaijani side of the river and suggests that this is not a good idea. Another six miles west up the Aras valley a defile lined with trees leads into the soaring ramparts to our left. We turn off on a narrow lane and half a mile later come to the Church of St. Stephanos parking lot. It is deserted except for a guy with a broom sitting on a bench. He informs us that church grounds are open, but the church itself is closed for Ashura. 
Lane leading to the church 
A short walk up a tree-lined lane brings us to the substantial walls of of the church compound. Off to the right is a prodigious spring which debouches into pond where a small flock of ducks gambol. This spring is no doubt why the church was originally established on this site. Scattered among the trees are benches and picnic areas. Hamid, who had been here before, says that the lush oasis-like surroundings tucked in here amidst the otherwise sere and barren terrain  attract day-trippers from as far away as Tabriz and beyond. On other holidays the place can get quite crowded. This is first time he has ever seen the place deserted. We check the large gates leading into the church compound, but they are indeed locked. I will have to be content with viewing the church from outside the compound.
 Spring with wonderful water; no doubt why the church was found here.
Pond fed by the spring
 Fortress-like walls of the Church compound
 Church behind the fortress walls
 Entrance to the church compound
 Front of the church
Greater Armenia, which included the valley of the Aras River, became Christian in a.d. 301, making it the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion. (The little known statelet of Osrhoene, in what is now southeastern Turkey, with its capital in Edessa (modern-day Sanliurfa), may have actually been the first officially Christian state, but it proved so ephemeral that most historians ignore it and credit Armenia). In the centuries following its adoption of Christianity Armenia would have been in the heartland of the Faith, not an outlier as it is today. The name of the church here in the Aras valley links it to the very earliest days of Christianity. Stephen (Greek = Stephanos), was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Twelve Apostles to distribute food to the poor and needy. According to the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, he was stoned to death after he made a speech which was deemed blasphemous by the local Jewish authorities. This won him the title of Protomartyr, the very first martyr of Christianity. Saul of Tarsus, later the Apostle Paul, witnessed the execution, and Stephen’s steadfast devotion to Christianity may have had something to do with his own eventual conversion to the faith. 

According to legend, a church was founded on this spot in the first century a.d. by Saint Bartholomew, one of the original Twelve Apostles. This tale is no doubt apocryphal; in any case, no one is claiming that any of the current structures date from this era. According to a sign post on the grounds at least one part of the church does date back to at the seventh century. Other sources, most of them admittedly ephemeral (scholarly literature on the subject is scarce), make no mention of this seventh century edifice but instead claim that the complex was built sometime in the ninth, tenth, eleventh, or twelfth centuries. 

It is tempting to think that the St. Stephanos complex was built during the rule of the Bagratuni Dynasty (884–1045) when Armenia freed itself from Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate and went on to enjoy more than a century and a half of independence. During this period Armenia experienced a cultural renaissance, especially in the field of architecture. The capital city of Ani (now in Turkey) became known as the city of “40 gates and 1001 churches.” Among the churches was a magnificent cathedral built in 998-1000 under the direction of the renowned architect Tiridates. There is, however, no direct evidence linking the Church of St. Stephanos to the Bagratid era. 
Bagratuni Armenia (© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons)
In 1236 Armenia, then ruled by the Zakarian Dynasty, became a vassal state of the Mongols, who had arrived in the area as early as 1220. At first Christianity flourished under the Mongols. Sorqaqtani, the mother of the first Ilkhan, Khülegü, was a staunch Nestorian Christian, as was Khülegü’s wife, Dokuz Khatun, who like a true nomad maintained a movable church in her camp. Khülegü’s son, the second Ilkhan Abaqa, likewise encouraged Christianity, although he himself apparently leaned toward Buddhism. He did marry a Christian, the Byzantine princess Mary Palaiologina, the illegitimate daughter of Byzantine emperor Michael VIII. Christianity’s favored status in the Ilkhanate ended with the accession of the Ilkhan Ghazan in 1295. He converted to Islam the same year and almost immediately launched a campaign against other religions. Buddhists, not being “People of the Book”— followers of the Abrahamic religions who have a revealed scripture and recognize one and only one God—were ordered to convert to Islam or leave the territory of the Ilkhanate and their temples were destroyed. Christians and Jews lost the privileges they had enjoyed earlier and were forced to pay a special poll-tax. In effect, they  became second class citizens. Apparently they were allowed to keep their churches and synagogues, so it is possible that the Church and Monastery of Stephanos survived the Mongol era intact. 

One Armenian scholar goes on to claim, however, that over the centuries many of the original buildings in the complex, including those which survived the Ilkhanate, were destroyed by earthquakes and that most of the now remaining structures were built or rebuilt during the reign of the Safavid Shah Abbas the Second (1642–1666). Thus the history of this notable landmark—it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—remains surprisingly speculative. 

According to one modern source:
The beautiful murals on the dome and the relief works above and below it are crafted with a precision that must place this work among the few artistic marvels of the world. Not limited to the domes, the murals, and the ornamentation of the vaults and arches at the entry, this beautiful artistry extends to all the arches and vaults of the western walls, to the pillars, columns and capitals, and to the decorative work both in the interior and exterior of the building.
Unfortunately, none of this is visible from outside the compound walls. I climb the hill behind the complex in hopes of getting a view of the interior of the compound. I am rewarded with panoramic view of the church set against the background of the colorful cliffs on the other side of the Aras River, but few of the details of the church itself or the monastery buildings can be seen. I tell Hamid to go back to the car and wait for me while I spend an hour mediating on the thousand years or more of history encapsulated here. A kaleidoscopic array of images flit through my mind, but when I try to envision what will be here one thousand years hence my mind comes up blank.
 View of church from above
 Detail of church 
 Detail of church. Notice how the stones of the steeple seem to mimic the colors in the cliffs beyond. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Iran | Yazd

Wandered by Yazd, a city of about one million people located near the middle of Iran. It is known as one of the hottest cities in the country. As with many cities in the desert water is held in high regard. 
 Main square of Yazd (click on photos for enlargements)
 Main square of Yazd
 Main square of Yazd
Kids playing in the main square of Yazd. The city’s famous wind-catchers, which catch cool breezes and funnel them down into the buildings below, can be seen in the background. The wind-catchers were an early form of air-conditioning. 
 Skyline of Yazd with more wind-catchers
Wind-Catchers
Streets of Yazd
 Mosque in Yazd
 Detail of mosque in Yazd
  Detail of mosque in Yazd
 Hotel where I stayed in Yazd
 Courtyard of hotel where I stayed in Yazd
  Courtyard of hotel where I stayed in Yazd
Courtyard of hotel where I stayed in Yazd. The perfect place for sipping a saffron tisane as the air cools off at twilight. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Iran | Shiraz | Nasir al-Mulk Mosque

Wandered down to the city of Shiraz to visit the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque. Mirza Hasan Ali Nasir al-Mulk, a panjandrum in the Qajar Dynasty (1785–1925), commissioned the mosque in 1876 and it  was finally finished in 1888. The mosque is known locally as the Pink Mosque because of the pink color incorporated in many of the tiles decorating its exterior and interior. According to local sources tile makers developed a method of using the color pink in tiles only in the mid-nineteenth century. They used the color with exuberance here. The mosque is also famous for its stained glass windows. While I was there a professional Chinese photographer was taking photos of luxuriously dressed Chinese models lolling in the pools of colored light cast by the stained glass. The models were wearing full-length dresses and headscarves. Some had donned beaded veils covering their faces below their eyes. The poses they had assumed were rather suggestive, however, and I could not help but wonder how they got away with this in a mosque. I waited until they left to take my own photos
 Entranceway to the  Nasir al-Mulk Mosque (click on photos for enlargements)
 Courtyard of the  Nasir al-Mulk Mosque
 One end of the courtyard
 Interior of the mosque
  Interior of the mosque
 Inset in the interior of the mosque
 Interior decoration 
Detail of interior decoration

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Turkmenistan | Dehistan

After our Visit To Nohur we continued west across the plateau of the Kopet Dag Mountains, finally dropping back down to the desert near the village of Kruzde. 
Village of Kruzde (click on photos for enlargements). 
Continuing on the main road west through the desert fronting the Kopet Dag Mountains we eventually arrived at a tiny town called Garaagas where we pulled into a truck-stop for lunch. If the old American saw that lots of tractor-trailer trucks in front of a diner indicated good food it looked like we were in for a treat. There were nine trucks, all but one with Iranian plates, in the parking lot. The Iranian border was less than five miles away, although the actual border crossing was about forty miles to the west. This may be the first truck stop in Turkmenistan after crossing the border. Actually there were only two drivers in the diner. The rest were apparently sleeping in their trucks. There were two tables with chairs and two low tables on platforms equipped with pillows so you could stretch out and relax while you ate. The cook, a saucy looking woman in her twenties, took your order at a window opening into the kitchen. She must take a lot of guff from the clientele in a place like this, but she appeared fully capable of taking care of herself. She announced that the only thing on the menu was fish, fried. It seemed a bit odd to have fish out here in the middle of the desert, but my driver reminded me that we were only about seventy-five miles from the Caspian Sea. He assured me the fish was fresh and had never been frozen. The fish were probably dropped off here every couple days by dealers plying the highway between the sea and Ashgabat. With the fish we had cabbage slaw, fresh naan (flat bread), and green tea. The fish was white, flaky, not too bony, and delicious. The tea wasn’t fit to slop down hogs (perhaps in part because of the local water) but hey, this was a truck stop. The truckers, I noticed, were drinking Nescafe, probably for its more pronounced caffein buzz (it also disguises the taste of bad water better than tea).  

Just beyond Garaagas we turned off on a gravel road and headed west-northwest through the desert. Soon we stopped. It was time for my driver’s afternoon prayers. Rolling his prayer mat out on the sand, he performed the appropriate prostrations and orisons while I examined the flora of the desert. 
Flora of the desert. Unfortunately my driver did not know the name of this interesting plant. 
My driver reminded me in both appearance and demeanor of a Turkish David Puddy, Elaine’s on-again-off-again boyfriend on the old Seinfeld comedy show. He seemed calm and unflappable but with a sometimes eerie sense of detachment. For someone who had worked extensively with tourists like myself he knew very little English, only a few words in fact. We communicated entirely in Russian. In our time together he never made the slightest attempt to initiate a conversation, which was reason enough to like the guy. That we could drive for hours without exchanging a word was probably even a bigger relief to me than it was to him. In any case he was an excellent driver, and I had no reason to complain about anything. 

After thirty miles we came to the bleak and isolated village of Madau. Sand dunes loomed on all sides and there was not a stick of vegetation around any of the single-story abode houses. The sandy streets were completely deserted. Apparently everyone was indoors. I asked my driver what people here did for a living and he answered laconically with one word: “Gas.” Beyond Madau we veered northward and after about fourteen miles I spied two minarets looming on the horizon. These signaled that we were approaching Dehistan. 
Minarets and ruins of Dehistan looming in the distance

Map depicting the caravan route from Gorgan to Khwarezm via Dehistan
Located on a major caravan route running from Gurgan in what is now Iran to Urgench on the Amu Darya River, Dehistan was the main city of western Turkmenistan from the 10th to 14th centuries. It flourished especially during the reign of the Khwarezmshahs, who ruled Khwarezmia from the 1150s to 1220. 
The walls of Dehistan. The walled city measured 4200 feet long on the southeast side, 2200 long on the northeast side, 4860 feet long on the western side, and 2620 feet long on the southwest side.
The closest tourist facilities to the ruins were probably eighty-seven miles to the north in the town of Balkanabat. We had brought tents and were prepared to camp out on site, but the caretaker of the ruins, who lives with his wife about half a mile away, agreed to let me sleep in a spare room in his house. His wife made us omelets using fresh eggs from the hens pecking around aside the house. They also had the best fermented camel milk I have had outside of Mongolia.
Another view of the ruins from outside the city walls
Ruins of a portal to a mosque and a minaret built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II (r. 1200–1200). Khwarezmshah Muhammad II was ruling Khwarezm when Chingis Khan Invaded Khwarezmia.  
Ruins of a portal to a mosque and a minaret built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
Ruins of a portal to a mosque and a minaret built by Khwarezmshah Muhammad II
The minaret of Khwarezmshah Muhammad II 
Minaret of Khwarezmshah Muhammad II in the foreground and another minaret built by Abu Bini Ziyard in 1004 A.D in the background
Minaret built by Abu Bini Ziyard in 1004 A.D
Minaret built by Abu Bini Ziyard in 1004 A.D
Restored foundations of buildings within the walled city
Restored foundations of buildings within the walled city

Restored foundations of buildings within the walled city
Restored foundations of buildings within the walled city
Original paving stones from the old city
The double wall around the city
The double wall around the city

Ruins of a tower in the city wall
The double wall around the city
The double wall around the city
Denizen of the ruins
Dehistan was apparently invested and sacked by the Mongols when they moved through Khorasan in 1221. The details of this campaign are sparse, but perhaps Chingis Khan’s youngest son Tolui, or a raiding party sent by him, took the city after he had captured Merv. The city recovered, but was abandoned in the 15th century, apparently after the water table dried up, leaving it high and dry in the middle of the desert.