From the Caravanserai of Qarakhanid Khan Shams-al-Mulk Nasr I wandered northward and soon crossed the Zarafshan River. This is of course the river which feeds the Bukhara Oasis; without this river the area would be desert and desert-steppe and the Bukhara conurbation would not exist. The Zarafshan River begins in the Pamir Mountains to the east, in current-day Tajikistan, and flows westward between spurs of the Pamirs known as the Turkestan and Zarafshan ranges before emerging onto the flat plain of Mawarannahr. Its name is derived from the Persian zar afshan, "sprayer of gold", a reference to the gold-bearing sands found in the riverbed of its upper reaches. For thousands of years the river has supported a dense population, the three major cities being Panjikent, in current-day Tajikistan, and Samarkand and Bukhara in current-day Uzbekistan. The river was once probably a tributary of the Amu Darya, but even by the time of Alexander the Great in the third century BC it was already petering out in the sands of the Kyzyl Kum Desert southwest of Bukhara.
The Zarafshan River
North of the fertile strip of irrigated fields along the Zarafshan River the country abruptly turns into steppe and begins ramping up towards the crest of the the east-west trending Karatau Mountains. In January or early February of 1220 Chingis Khan, his youngest son Tolui, and the Mongol army came this way after sacking the town of Nur (Nurata) to the north. Mongol horses must have felt right at home here. Even if the steppe was covered with snow in late January or early February the horses would have had little trouble pawing down to the dry grass, which they must have craved after passing through the bleak Kyzyl Kum Desert.
Steppe ramping up the crest of the Karatau Mountains
In the rocks along side the road can be seen numerous petroglyphs, probably dating to the Bronze Age (very roughly 3000–700 BC). They are almost identical to Rock Drawing Found Throughout Mongolia.
Rock drawings of goats or perhaps ibex
Rock drawings of camels
The road to Nur then crosses a 2641-foot pass through the Karatau Mountains: Nurata is fifteen miles to the north.
View north from the pass.
The ancient city of Nur (now Nurata), eighty-five miles northeast of Bukhara, had long served as a strategic outpost on the northern borders of Mawarannahr, a gateway between the nomad-dominated deserts and steppe to the north and the cultivated lands of the Zarafshan River basin to the south. Alexander the Great arrived here in 327 BC and either built or enlarged and strengthened an already existing citadel on a hilltop on the edge of the city, apparently hoping to use the area as a base for further advances into Mawarannahr. His men also built a network of underground water pipes, parts of which remain in use down to the present today. One of Alexander’s generals died here and was buried near the base of the citadel, where his tomb can still be seen. The town was also famous for its prodigious Chasma, or spring, at the base of the citadel. According to legend the spring was created when the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Khazrat Ali, struck the ground with this staff and water gushed forth. This story is no doubt apocryphal, but the spring—apparently because of its alleged association with family of the Prophet, would by the tenth-century become an important pilgrimage site. Writing in the 940s, the Samanid historian al-Narshakhi, noted:
Nur is a large place with a grand mosque. It has many ribats [caavanserais, especially in border areas). Every year the people of Bukhara and other places go there in pilgrimages. The person who goes on the pilgrimage to Nur has the same distinction as having performed the pilgrimage (to Mecca) . . . many of the followers of the Prophet are buried there (May God be pleased with them until the day of Judgement).
Having left the Siege of Otrar to his sons Chagatai and Ögedei, Chingis Khan and the rest of the Mongol army made a perilous crossing of the Kyzyl Kum Desert and approached Nur in January of 1220. A Mongol commander by the name of Dayir led the Mongol vanguard to to the city. On the outskirts of town they stopped in some groves of fruit trees—now barren, as it was January—and camped. That night they cut down trees and used the wood to fashion scaling ladders. The next morning they rode up the city walls holding the scaling ladders in front of them The sudden appearance of this Mongol vanguard via a route thought to be known only to merchants caused the watchmen on the walls to mistake it at first for a trading caravan. As the horsemen got closer the watchmen saw the ladders and realized that that the mounted men were invaders. The gates of the city wall were thrown shut and the city fathers commenced debating among themselves what course of action to take. After much argument it was decided that they had no choice but to throw in the towel. In Juvaini’s account of the fall of the city no mention is made of the Citadel. Either it was not longer an active fortification by the thirteenth century or the local panjandrums decided to surrender it without a struggle.
An envoy was sent to Chingis Khan, who was still advancing across the desert with the bulk of his army. Accepting the city’s surrender, he ordering the city fathers to submit to his general Sübetei, who had already arrived at Nur in the wake of the vanguard. Sübetei herded the inhabitants out of town, allowing them to take along only “what was necessary for their livelihood and the pursuit of husbandry and agriculture, such as sheep and cows . . .” He further ordered that “they should go out on to the plain leaving their houses exactly as they were so that they might be looted by the army.” In return for this acquiescence the Mongols agreed not to inflict bodily harm on anyone.
When Chingis Khan finally arrived in town he ordered the city’s inhabitants to cough up 1500 dinars, the same amount they paid in taxes to the Khorezmshah each year. Half of this sum, we are told, was paid in women’s earrings. The fact that the locals still had dinars to pay, and women earrings to hand over, would seem to indicate that individuals had not been robbed of the possessions on their persons, even though the town itself had been sacked and looted. As usual, young men were dragooned as levies, although according to Juvaini only sixty were taken.
Compared with the devastation the Mongols would later inflict on cities which resisted them, Nur got off rather lightly, even if the women did lament the loss of their earrings. The city was essentially а sideshow. The big prize was Bukhara, eighty-five miles to the southwest.
The city of Nurata (Nur) with the Chasma pilgrimage complex in the foreground
The prodigious chasma, spring, which attracts pilgrims from all over Inner Asia (see Enlargement)
The pool fed by the spring
Fish in the pool. They are fed by pilgrims; hence their prodigious numbers. Fishing is of course prohibited.
The purported tomb of one of Alexander the Great’s generals
On the hilltop behind the Chasma can be seen the ruins of the fortress either built or reinforced by Alexander the Great c. 327 BC
Ruins of the fortress
Ruins of the fortress
Ruins of the fortress
View from the top of the fortress