Friday, September 24, 2010

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Xi Xia | Tanguts

With the Uighurs Securely in His Corner Chingis was ready to launch a full-scale invasion of Xi Xia. The people of Xi Xia, known as Tanguts, founded the Xi Xia Dynasty, or “Great State of White and High,” in 1038. The Tanguts were a people of Tibeto-Burman extraction who had developed a prosperous agrarian and livestock breeding culture and occupied well-fortified towns and cities. They aspired to some level of culture and soon developed their own Writing System, based on Chinese ideograms, which they used to translate both Tibetan Buddhist texts and the Chinese Classics. While espousing Chinese culture they also practiced Tibetan-style Vajrayana Buddhism. They also maintained a large army and at their height were one of the strongest military powers in Inner Asia. Like the Uighurs they sat astride the Silk Road, controlling the vital Gansu Corridor, a narrow strip of land between the rugged mountains to the south and the inhospitable deserts to the north through which Silk Road caravans had to pass.
A document in Xi Xia writing system, based in Chinese ideograms
Xi Xia Tantric Deity 
Xi Xia Buddha
Xi Xia Monk
Another Xi Xia Monk
Xi Xia Deity
Stele Base, without the stele, depicting a Xi Xia woman; let’s hope they all did not look like this.
The West Pagoda in Yinchuan, built in 1050, near the start of the Xi Xia Dynasty
The North Pagoda in Yinchuan; 1500 years old, it pre-dates the Xi Xia Dynasty.
Another view of the North Pagoda
Another view of the North Pagoda
Tomb of one of the Xi Xia emperors, located on the outskirts of Yinchuan
Two of the nine tombs of Xi Xia emperors on the outskirts of Yinchuan

The intertribal warfare in Mongolia itself at the beginning of the 13th century had decimated the livestock herds of the nomads, and the early Mongol raids into Xi Xia,  in 1205 and 1207, were mainly attempts to capture large amounts of livestock which were then driven back to Mongolia. These raids, however, were enough to alert the Tanguts to the danger of the nomads to the north, who like wolves swooped down on their herds, and the failure of the Xi Xia ruler at the time, Li Chunyu, to protect his domains may have led to the palace revolt which deposed him in late 1207. The new ruler Li Anguan, perhaps hoping to placate the Mongols and buy time, give Chingis one of his daughters as a bride. At the same time he strengthened the country’s defenses in anticipation of another Mongol attack. He didn’t have long to wait. Having subdued the Uighurs to the west without a battle, Chingis was now ready for a full-scale onslaught on the territory coterminous with north China plain controlled by the Jin Dynasty, his ultimate target. 

In early 1209 Chingis himself led an army 650 miles south to the domains of Xi Xia, and soon captured the border town of Wulahai. The Xi Xia armies rallied, however, and a stalemate ensued until the end of summer, when reinforcements arrived from Mongolia. The Tanguts were soon driven back to their fortified cites, including their capital of Ningxia, current-day Yincheng, on the Yellow River. A weakness of the Mongols was soon revealed. Although masters of horseback warfare on the open steppe they had very little if any experience in besieging fortified cities. Having surrounded the Xi Xia capital, Chingis attempted various stratagems to capture the city, including diverting the waters of the Yellow River in an attempt to flood the city, but by the end of 1209 none of them had succeeded. In the meantime, the Xi Xia ruler had sent messengers to the Jin ruler in Zhondu (near current-day Beijing), asking for assistance against the Mongols. His advisors recommended sending an army to relieve the besieged city, arguing that if Xi Xia fell the Jin themselves would be Chingis’s next target. The emperor responded, “It is an advantage to my state if its enemies attack each other. What grounds do we have for concern?” No relief army was sent, and the Xi Xia were left the to their own devices. This proved to be a fatal miscalculation on the part of the Jin emperor. 

In January of 1210 the Mongols themselves suffered a setback when the waters of the Yellow River, perhaps diverted by the Tanguts themselves, flooded their own camp. Faced with a stalemate, negotiations began between the Chingis and the Xi Xia ruler. Control of the countryside by the Mongols was a fait accompli, but Chingis offered to let the Tanguts keep control of their cities as long as they provided auxiliary troops for the Mongol army. The Xi Xia ruler declined, pointing out that “We are a nation of town-dwellers. We would not be in a state to fight as auxiliaries in the event of a long march followed by a heated battle.”  He did offer to provide the Mongols with herds of camels and other livestock, trained falcons, wool garments, silk cloth, and as a final sweetener another one of his delectable daughters as a bride for Chingis himself. Although the Tanguts were allowed to remain as figureheads in their own country, most of their territories were now effectively controlled by the Mongols. For the moment Chingis was satisfied with the outcome, but he would never forgive the Tanguts for refusing to provide him with troops. Before he died he would return to Xi Xia and exact a terrible revenge. 

The defeat of the Xi Xia served a number of purposes; the campaign had been good training for the upcoming war with the much for stronger Jin Dynasty, Chingis’s ultimate target, and it had revealed weaknesses in the Mongol army, namely their ignorance of siege techniques, which would have to be corrected before any further campaigns against fortified cities. A springboard for the invasion of the Jin Dynasty  domains from the west had been secured, and the Mongols now controlled the Gansu Corridor, the bottleneck through which most of the caravan routes which originated in Xian and other Silk Road terminuses had to pass. The Mongols now sat astride the Silk Road from the boundaries of the Jin Dynasty domains in the east to the western edge of Uighuristan in the Tarim Basin. The road has been cleared for Chingis’s attack on the Jin Dynasty, the current rulers of northern China, still considered the richest source of plunder and the ultimate prize by the nomads from the Mongolian Plateau to the north. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | The Uighurs

By the close of the year 1215 Temüjin, the Mongolian chieftain known to the world as Chingis Khan, was sitting pretty. Nine years earlier, in 1206, he had succeeded in defeating and bringing under his rule most if not all of the nomadic peoples of the Mongolian Plateau, and in a Great Assembly of the tribes on the Onon River he had been confirmed as Chingis Khan, the Great Khan of the Mongols. He then cast his gaze to the south, to the great sedentary civilizations of China which for over a thousand years had been the plundering grounds of the nomads to the north. As early as 1205 his forces had raided the borderlands of the kingdom of Xi Xia, centered around the modern-day Ningxia and Gansu provinces of China, and returned with huge hauls of camels and other livestock. In the autumn of 1207 an more ambitious raid raked in more plunder and even managed to capture the town of  of Wolohai, near current-day Tingyuan, in the Alashan region. Still not ready for a full-scale assault on Xi Xia, the raiders returned to their Mongolian homeland in the spring of 1208. 

Meanwhile, the people known as Uighurs, who occupied many of the oasis cities to the north and south of the Tian Shan Mountains in modern-day Xinjiang Province, China, were alerted to the rise of the Mongols and decided to make a strategic alliance with them. The Uighurs, who had originated in Mongolia (the Extensive Ruins of Their Old Capital of Ordu Baliq (“Royal Camp Town”‚ also known as Kharabalgasun), can still be seen near the town of Kharkhorin in Övörkhangai Aimag) had since the 1130s been under the thumb of the Kara-Khitai, the remnants of the old Liao Dynasty (907-1125) in China who had migrated westward and set up a powerful confedaration centered around current-day Uzbekistan and the western Tarim Basin in what is now Xinjiang Province, China. The Uighur ruler Barchuk, who held the the title of Idikut  (“Sacred Majesty”) may have sensed that the Mongols were the ascendent power in Inner Asia. If Chingis succeeded in defeating Xi Xia, immediately to the east of the Barchuk’s domains, he would no doubt soon turn his armies on the Uighurs themselves. By aligning himself with the Chingis early Barchuk may have thought could free himself from the Kara-Khitai  and at the same time avoid a devastating attack by the Mongols. He was of course gambling that the suzerainty of the Mongols would be less onerous than Khara-Khitai domination.

In the spring of 1209 Barchuk dispatched an embassy to the court Chingis with an offer to accept the suzerainty of the Mongols. “If you, Genghis Khan, show me favour, I will be your fifth son and will place all of my strength at your disposal.” Chingis agreed and even offered up one of his daughters, Altun, as a bride for the Idikut. Chingis stipulated, however, that Barchuk must come to the camp of the Mongols and make obeisance to him personally, adding that the Idikut should bring with him gifts of “gold and silver, small and large pearls, brocade, damask, and silks.” (Here, incidentally, was an early indication of the Mongol fascination with fine fabrics—brocade, damask, and, silks—which later motivated Chingis to turn his attention westward, to the Islamic realms of Transoxiania, one of the main sources of these rich materials.) Barchuk agreed to accept Mongol suzerainty in 1209, making the Uighurs the first sedentary people south of the Mongolian Plateau to come under Mongol rule, but just to be on the safe side he bided his time until 1211, awaiting the final outcome of the Mongol war against the Xi Xia, before finally appearing in person at the court of the Mongols on the Kherlen River in central Mongolia.

In any case, Chingis had by 1209 gained a valuable ally in Barchuk and the Uighurs. He could now invade Xi Xia without fear of an attack from his western flank and he could utilize the administrative and intellectual abilities of the much more cultured Uighurs. Plundering a sedentary culture was one thing, ruling it and successfully collecting taxes was another.  The Uighurs would provide much of the expertise needed to govern the lands which Chingis would conquer, and they would provide the hitherto illiterate Mongols with a writing system adapted from their own Uighur vertical script. This Uighuro-Mongol vertical script would remain in use in Mongolia until the adaption of the Cyrillic alphabet in the 20th century, and since the early 1990s it has enjoyed a modest resurgence. 

Just as important as the Uighur’s intellectual acumen was the location of the land they occupied. With their summer capital of Qocho (also known as Gaochang, Qarakhoja, Houzhou, etc.) near current day Turpan, on the south side of the Tian Shan Mountains, and their winter capital of Beshbaliq, near current-day Jimsar, on the north, and controlling a host of other oasis cities strung out like beads on a necklace from Hami in the east to Kucha in the west,  the Uighurs sat directly astride the main trunks of the Silk Road between China and the great Islamic civilizations of Central Asia and the Mideast. 
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Buddhist Temple at Beshbaliq
The glacier-capped Tian Shan, one of the world’s most majestic mountain ranges, separating the Zungerian Basin in the north from the Tarim Basin in the south
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Uighuristan at this time was still largely Buddhist but Islam was inexorably advancing eastward, led not only by conquest but by ostensibly peaceful Muslim traders on the Silk Road. By adding Uighuristan to his domains without a battle Chingis gained an invaluable window to the West through which he may have gotten a first tantalizing glimpse of the fabulously rich and cultured Islamic civilizations shimmering like mirages on the western horizon, a world totally unlike anything the rude nomads from the steppes of Mongolia had hitherto imagined possible. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mongolia | Zaisan Tolgoi | Autumn Equinox | Harvest Moon

The Autumn Equinox Lady
You are all probably busy making your plans for the celebration of the Autumn Equinox, which occurs here in Mongolia on Thursday, the 23rd, at 11:09 AM. Here on the 23rd the sun comes up at 6:40 in the morning and sets at 6:49, making a day of twelve hours and nine minutes. Lately I have going each morning to the summit of Zaisan Tolgoi, near my hovel, to observe the sunrise and will undoubtedly be there on Thursday morning. I usually leave my hovel at 5:30, while most of you sluggards are still on bed, and arrive at the summit at about 6:00. Oddly enough, I am not alone at this hour. Three other people, two Mongolian men and a Mongolian woman, all looking to be in their sixties, also come to the summit each morning. The woman circumambulates the summit several times, stopping at each of the cardinal points to make prostrations. The men appear to be engaged in various and sundry meditations. 
The summit of Zaisan Tolgoi

Although I  intend to celebrate the Autumn Equinox I will not be engaging in any heedless bacchanals, unlike some people I could name, but will instead engage in Orisons more in tune with the sobering times in which we live. As I always do on these occasions, I am once again imploring people not to engage in any animal or Human Sacrifices. If you live in New York City I want to emphasis that Union Square is not a suitable venue for sacrifices of any kind, animal or human (if you are in Union Square, however, you might want to wander by the Strand Bookstore).

This year’s Autumn Equinox is especially auspicious because it occurs on the same day as the Harvest Moon. If you are still celebrating the Equinox on the evening of the 23th, as I suspect you will be, I suggest that before you stumble into your drinking dens for a night of senseless dissipation you glance up into the sky and watch the totally inspiring sight of the Harvest Moon sliding between Jupiter and the Great Square of Pegasus 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Uzbekistan | Khoresm | Zoroastrians | Tower of Silence

Zoroastrianism, founded in Persia in perhaps the 6th century BC by the mysterious character known as Zoroaster, a.k.a Zarathustra of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” fame, is probably the world’s oldest “revealed” religion, and as such Zoroastrians are even regarded as “People of the Book”, along with Christians and Jews, by at least some Muslims (sorry, Buddhists remain garden-variety Idolators). The major premise of Zoroastrianism, as you no doubt know, is the vast cosmic struggle between Ahura Mazdah, the God of Light (very roughly speaking), and Ahriman, the principal of Darkness and Evil. Zoroastrianism was very widespread in the Transoxiania and Khorezm regions before the arrival of the Islam in the eight and ninth centuries. For an utterly titillating account of Zoroastrianism see In Search of Zarathustra. For still more see Magi

Zoroastrian Burial Practices are of special interest. Bodies were placed on high hills or man-made summits and exposed to scavengers who soon stripped the bones clean. The bones were then preserved in containers known as ossuaries. A high place where the bodies were laid out was known as a Tower of Silence. One such Tower of Silence is located on the right bank of the Amu Darya River northeast of Khiva. After my stay in Khiva I wandered by this Tower of Silence.
Tower of Silence on the north bank of the Amu Darya 
This particular Tower of Silence a man-made structure on top of a natural hill
Closer view of the man-made platform at the top of the hill
The south side of the platform
View south from the entranceway
The flat top of the burial platform with the Amu Darya in the distance
Another view of the flat top of the platform. Bodies were left here to be stripped down to the bones by vultures.
Irrigated lands next to the Amu Darya
Another view of irrigated lands next to the Amu Darya
The Amu Darya from the top of the Tower of Silence

Friday, September 10, 2010

Uzbekistan | Khoresm | Khiva | Kalta Minaret

The next morning I wended my way through the streets of the Old City, heading westward toward the Ata Darzava, or Master Gate. As I mentioned, the Old City is one vast museum, with people living within it. Early risers like myself can see many families, all in their pajamas, sleeping on their front porches, enjoying the fresh night air. Out of respect for the privacy of these people I will not include photos. 
Street in the Old City
Just to the east of the Master Gate and in front of the Muhammad Amin Khan Madrasa is the Kalta Minaret, also known as the Guyok (Green) Minaret. The Khivan Ruler Muhammad Amin Khan ordered its construction in the early 1850s. According to plan, this was to be the grandest minaret in Transoxiania, with a height of 70 to 80 meters (230 to 262 feet), but it was not finished when the Khan died in 1855. There are two legends as to why the minaret was not completed. One says that the Khan halted construction after he suddenly realized that anyone on the top of the minaret would be able to peer down into his harem and see his wives. Another legend maintains that when the Amir of Bukhara found out about the minaret he made a secret agreement with the architect to build an even taller one in Bukhara. Somehow Muhammad Amin Khan found out about this and he issued a secret order that the architect was to be killed as soon as the minaret was completed. This order somehow reached the ears of the architect and he fled the city while construction was still taking place. In any case, the minaret was never finished. It is now 29 meters (95 feet) high, with bottom diameter of 11.2 meters (37 feet). 
 The truncated Kalta Minaret
Another view of the mineret
The minaret is connected to the Muhammad Amin Khan Madrasa (School), built 1851–55. 
Shops in front of the minaret and madrasa 
The minaret and madrasa from the top of the Citadel

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Uzbekistan | Khoresm | Khiva | Samarkand | Bukhara | 1910 Photos

Below are some photos (cropped versions of the originals) by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) who traveled through the Russian empire, which then included modern-day Uzbekistan, in the years 1909–1912. The photos in Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand were taken around 1910. Who knew they had color photography back then?  Prokudin-Gorskii used an experimental color process which had apparently been invented in Russia. 
Emir Seyyid Mir Mohammed Alim Khan, the Emir of Bukhara
Isfandiyar Jurji Bahadur, Khan of the Russian protectorate of Khorezm (Khiva, now a part of modern Uzbekistan)
 A group of Jewish children with a teacher in Samarkand
A boy sits in the court of Tillia-Kari mosque in Samarkand
For the original versions of these photos and many more see Photos of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Thanks to a fellow Wanderer in Virginia USA for sending along this link . . . 

Monday, September 6, 2010

Uzbekistan | Khoresm | Khiva | Shaxrizoda Hotel

The entire inner city of Khiva, an area covering seventy-five or so acres, is one vast open-air museum. At least fifty historic buildings—mosques, tombs, palaces, caravanserais, etc.—and several hundred domestic dwellings have been refurbished and restored. Admittedly, this creates somewhat of a sterile atmosphere, but if you accept the place as a museum—which indeed is what it advertises itself as—then it has to rank as one of the world’s more intriguing museums. Reportedly some 3000 people live within The Walls of the Inner City—that is to stay within the museum—and most visitors also stay in guesthouses in the Inner City, making them live-in patrons of the museum. Most of the guesthouses are either refurbished eighteenth and nineteenth century merchants’ houses or replicas of merchants’ houses. And these old Silk Road merchants liked to live in style. Many of their homes qualified as mansions; today they make extremely comfortable guesthouses. Most of the guest houses seem to be run by single families who live on the premises. I stayed at the Shaxrizoda Hotel, right inside the south gate of the Inner City. Shaxrizoda is a Uzbek rendering of Scheherazade, the story-teller from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights
Entrance to the Shaxrizoda Hotel
Lobby of the Shaxrizoda Hotel
Dining Room and Balcony
Display Case in Dining Room
Second Floor Hallway
Bed
Silk Wall Hanging in Dining Room showing Shahryar, the King to whom Scheherazade tells her stories in the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights
 The hotel is managed by the wife in the family and her daughters. The husband is a wood carver and furniture maker. Here is one of his beds. The price is $50,000, not counting shipping to your home country. Within the past year he has sold three of these beds to European and American businessmen.