Friday, March 22, 2013

Uzbekistan | Khwarezm | Gyaur Qala

Sixteen miles southeast of The Zoroastrian Tower Of Silence are the ruins of Gyaur Qala, or fortress, located right on the banks of the Amu Darya River not far from the edge of the Sultan Uvays Dag Mountains.
Driving through the Sultan Uvays Dag Mountains. These hills (they would not be dignified with the name mountains in Mongolia) are somewhat of an anomaly out here in the generally flat valley of the Amu Darya (click on photos for enlargements)
The founding of Gyaur Qala probably dates to about 400 BC, or roughly 2400 years ago. It was thought to be strategic stronghold guarding the important Amu Darya trade routes to and from Khwarezm, the ancient realm on the lower part of the river and its delta where it flows into the Aral Sea. Given its locale the fortress could have controlled both the land routes on the banks of the Amu Darya and the boat traffic on the river. At its prime of the two north-south trending walls of the fort measuring almost 1500 in length. The northern wall was about 650 feet long. Today only the northern wall and portions of the northwest corner remain. The nearby Janpiq Qala was supposedly sacked by Chingis Khan’s sons Chagatai and Ögedei in the winter of 1220-1221, but there is no record of them attacking Gyaur Qala. It is not at all clear when and why the fort finally was abandoned.
 The Amu Darya from Gyaur Qala
 Northern Wall
  Northern Wall
  Northern Wall
   Northern Wall
   Northern Wall
  
Northern Wall
Northern Wall
Northern Wall
 Northern Wall
 Northern Wall
 Northwest corner
 Northwest corner and northern wall
 Northern Wall
  Northwest corner and northern wall
  Northern Wall
Exterior of northwest corner

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Uzbekistan | Navroz Holiday | Tower of Silence

As I mentioned earlier one reason I came to Bukhara at this time was to observe the Perigee of the Moon. The other was to celebrate the Spring Equinox. As you all know, the Equinox occurred yesterday, March 20. In Bukhara the actual time was 4:02 PM. Navroz, the so-called Persian New Year, begins today, the first full day after the actual Equinox. This is a big holiday in Bukhara. Although it is now celebrated as an Islamic holiday its roots go back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism. According to legend Zoroaster himself, founder of Zoroastrianism, introduced the practice of celebrating the Spring Equinox as Navroz. The Equinox is also significant to various shades of Neo-Pagans, Wiccans, and even some Post-Modern Neo-Pantheists (I am looking at you, David Weinberger).

Given its allegedly Zoroastrian origins I thought the best place to observe Navroz was at Chilpak, the so-called Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, located on the banks of the Amu Darya 285 miles northwest of Bukhara. I have been to the Chilpak Tower of Silence before, in 2010, and had planned this trip then. 

I hired a car and proceeded to the site on the afternoon of the 19th. That night my driver and I stayed in a truck stop about five miles away from the Tower of Silence. We hired a private dining room with a low table and mats on the floor so that when we were done eating we could just stretch out and rest for the night. The room was $6 a night per person. The magnificent fish dinner we had, however, set me back $15. That was for one kilo of fish (you order by weight) fresh from the Amu Darya River just a couple of miles away, and all the fixings (bread (naan, actually), pickles, pickled tomatoes, carrot slaw, fresh onions, sour cream, tomato-based fish sauce, etc.) plus of course all the green tea you could drink (I will observe a dignified silence about the quality of the tea; this was, after all, a truck stop). 

The next morning at dawn we proceeded to the Tower of Silence. My driver waited in the car while I climbed to the top to perform the appropriate orisons. 
The Tower of Silence from the distance. The structure at the top is man-made (click on photos for enlargements)
The man-made addition to the summit of the hill. The dating is uncertain, but it could well be over 2000 years old.
 Entryway to the top of the man-made structure
 Cult site at the top of the monument. Zoroastrians brought their dead here and left them so that their bodies could be stripped down to the bone by vultures and the desiccating heat of the sun. The bones were later stored in ossuaries. I shudder to think of the scenes that must have been played out here. 
View from the top with the Amu Darya in the distance

Monday, March 18, 2013

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Old Town | Dish Girls

This time of the year in Bukhara the sun rises about 7:00. Every morning fifteen minutes or so before sunrise I leave my guesthouse and wander around the city. There is hardly anyone on the streets at this hour and I pretty much have the place to myself. One morning the city was dusted with fresh snow. I walked through the First Trade Dome and past the old Magok-i Attari Mosque to the Second Trade Dome. The old codger who looks after the tomb of Ahmed I Paran, located inside the trade dome, was there, as he always is come rain, snow, or shine. He studiously ignores all foreigners and I do not bother greeting him
 Trade Dome #1 with fresh snow (click on photos for enlargements)
Trade Dome #2 with fresh snow
Abdullah Khan Tim
 Snow of the domes of Abdullah Khan Tim
From the Second Trade Dome I walked north past the Abdullah Khan Tim and through the Third Trade Dome into the so-called Old Town, located on slightly higher ground just east of the Ark, or Citadel. This is the very oldest part of Bukhara. Archeological findings here date back almost 2500 years. When Chingis Khan invested Bukhara in 1220 most of today’s old town was known as the Shahristan, or Inner City, and was surrounded by a wall. This inner wall was probably destroyed in the sack of the city and the fire which followed, and it is not clear if it was ever rebuilt. The outer wall, around the rabat, or outer city, was rebuilt or repaired, only to the damaged or destroyed again several times until the final version of the Outer Wall, sections of which still remain to this day, was built. 
Street in the Old Town
Wandering down one narrow street I pass by a man who looked to be in his sixties sweeping the snow off his steps with a twig broom. He greeted me in Russian and asked what country I was from. I said I was from America (I am an American citizen although I have not actually lived there in many years). Switching to English he said, “Come in and have tea.” I have never turned down a bowl of tea in my life. He welcomed me into his house and after I had taken off my shoes ushered me into a room furnished with nothing but carpets, a thin pad on the floor, and a low table. Actually, it pretty much like the tea room of my hovel in Ulaanbaatar and I felt very much at home. “Would you like black or green tea,” he asked. Since it was still early morning I said black. “Wait one minute, my daughter will bring you tea.” After a minute or two the door opened and in strode a young woman with a tea tray. Much to my surprise, it was one the “Dish Girls” I had met on my previous trip. She was momentarily startled to see me sitting in her home, but quickly recovered. Her sister, who also sells dishes and who I had also met, came and in and sat down. Both young women of course sat on their knees with their shins tucked under them. I find it almost impossible to sit this way and assumed a half-lotus position instead. A full lotus hardly seemed appropriate for morning tea with two young ladies. “Well, this is really a coincidence that I should meet you again,” I offered. “Bukhara is a very small place. It is not strange that we should meet again,” said the first young woman. We then chatted for half an hour about tea (the women allowed that they themselves never drank black tea), carpets (the carpet on the floor  was remarkably like the machine-made wool carpets produced in Ulaanbaatar), the dish business (already a lot more tourists in town this month as compared to this month last year), and of host of other ephemeral topics.

The women said that I must stop by the street where they sell dishes and visit them again. I did not say that I had been avoiding this street. Last time I was in town I had promised them day after day I would buy something and then finally sneaked out of town without getting anything. I had planned to stop by just to say hello near the end of my trip, when they would have little time to cajole me into buying anything, but now I said I would stop by today. 

I continued my peregrinations and at about ten o’clock wandered down the street where the girls sold their wares. This year their dishes were set out right by the side of the Mir Arabi Madrassa. They saw me coming two hundred feet away and started shouting “Don! Don! Come here, Don!” As I approached one woman with hair dyed a curious shade of orange ran up to me with arms outspread and gushed, “My darling, you are back!” This jest elicited gales of laughter from the other girls, since an old goat like me could hardly be anyone’s darling. The girls get bored standing out here all day, especially on cold and blustery days like this when they see very few tourists, and are eager for any diversions. I guess I qualify as a diversion. They had lots of news. The Queen Bee of the group had gotten married and was quick to show me a photo of her husband on her iPhone. To my amazement her husband was the co-owner and salesman of the Abdullah Khan Tim Carpet Store who I had talked to the day before. I had met him several years earlier when he was working at the different store. Small world! One of her friends pointed out that she was already pregnant, although she had only been married since last November. “Not wasting any time, are you?” I offered. She smiled demurely. Although I talked to the Dish Girls for at least thirty minutes, oddly enough not one of them said a word about buying any dishes. Apparently they had already decided that as a customer I was pretty much of a bust. 
Dishes for Sale
Breathtakingly lovely Dish Girl whose father invited me in for tea. Be still my heart!
Dish Girl married to the co-owner of the Abdullah Khan Tim Carpet Store on the right, and mouth-wateringly gorgeous friend.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Interior of Magoki-i Attari

After completing the appropriate orisons at Magok-i Attari I wandered through some other districts of Bukhara before heading back to my guesthouse for lunch. Passing once again by Magok-i Attari I noticed that the carpet museum which the building houses was now open so I wandered in. 
In the northeast corner of the building is an archeological digging which has been keep open for public display. Shown here are parts of the ancient walls of building. The lowest level of this excavation dates back to at least a thousand years ago. 
Staircase leading to the eastern portal, which opens onto  the current street level some twelve feet or so above the floor of the structure. 

The eastern portal on the right, with the southern portal on the bottom. The eastern portal was built in 1546-7 by the Ashtrakhanid ruler Abdul Aziz Khan to accommodate for the rise of the surrounding terrain.
The Carpet Museum which now occupies Magok-i Attari
The interior looking upward towards one of the two domes
One the two domes
A typical kilim on display in the museum

Friday, March 8, 2013

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Magok-i Attari | Perigee of the Moon

As you are no doubt aware the Perigee of Moon, the moment when the moon got the closest to the Earth during the current lunar cycle, occurred at 4:21 a.m on Wednesday, March 6. This month the moon was 229,878 miles from earth at the Perigee. What better place to observe this month’s Perigee of the Moon than at the foundations of the old Moon Temple in Bukhara, Uzbekistan? I won’t bore you with the details of how I got from Zaisan Tolgoi in Mongolia to Uzbekistan; suffice it to say I  winged off from the Ulaanbaatar airport at 11:50 Monday evening and arrived in Bukhara at 8:55 a.m. on Wednesday morning. After quickly stashing my portmanteau at Komil’s Guesthouse I headed for the former Magoki-Attari Mosque, which apparently stands on or near the foundations of the old Moon Temple. 
Entrance to Komil’s Guesthouse (click on photos for enlargements)
I arrived 9:20 a.m., almost three hours after the Perigee, but no doubt early enough to catch the effects of the afterglow. The old Magok-i Attari Mosque is now a carpet museum, but the tourist season had not yet really begun yet in Bukhara and it was locked up tight.
As can be seen, Magoki-Attari now sits in a depression ten to twenty five lower than street level. The lower level is reached by staircases.
We first learn about this temple in Narshakhi’s The History of Bukhara, written in the 940s during the Samanid era (892 a.d.–999 a.d.), with addendum later added by another author. Although Narskhakhi‘s History is an invaluable source for the early history of the Bukhara Oasis, his accounts are at times less than concise and even muddled. Thus we have to tread quite carefully through his account of the temple that now serves as carpet museum. He speaks first of the market that existed on the site of the temple or grew up around a temple already located on the site. Twice a year, we are told, a fair was held in this market at which idols were sold. He does not specifically say what kind of idols these were but apparently they were dedicated to a moon God named Makh or Mokh. Anyhow, people would come and buy idols to replace ones that had become broken or gotten lost. In just one day of the fair 50,000 dirhams, an enormous amount of money at the time, were spent on these idols. “Everyone bought an idol for himself and brought it home,” Narshakhi tells us. Unfortunately he gives no description of these idols nor does he say how they used by their owners after they acquired them. “Later this place,” he adds, become a fire-temple.” By fire temple he probably meant a Zoroastrian temple, although this point has been disputed. Zoroastrianism was present in Bukhara in the pre-Islamic days of the Sogdians, whose contacts from one end of the Silk Road to the other had also brought them in contact with Buddhism, Christianity, and probably Judaism.
Southern side of Magok-i Attari
The sale of the idols—which we are still assuming belong to some lunar cult—continued after the Zoroastrian temple came into use. “On the day of the fair [where lunar idols were sold], when the people gathered, all went into the fire-temple and worshipped fire”, according to Narshakhi. “The fire-temple existed to the time of Islam [early eighth century] when the Muslims seized power and built a mosque on that place. Today [in the mid-tenth century] it is one of the most esteemed mosques in Bukhara”, according to Narshakhi. 

Amazing enough, the fair at which lunar idols were sold continued on even into Islamic times. Narshakhi tells of one important local Muslim personage who “was very astonished that this should be allowed. He asked the elders and sheiks the reason for this. They said that the inhabitants of Bukhara in olden times had been idol-worshippers. They were permitted to have this fair, and from that time on they had sold idols in it. It has remained thus today.” Thus tradition and custom seemed to override the strict prohibitions against idol worship found in Islam. It is not clear exactly when the sale of idols did stop.

Other sources, some of them admittedly ephemeral, suggest that the temple known as the Mokh (moon) Temple which apparently stood on the site of the later Zoroastrian temple may have served as a cult center for a Moon God originally worshipped in ancient Assyria and Babylonia. This god was known as Sin (or Suen) in the Akkadian language and Nanna in the Sumerian language. The chief centers of the cult were the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, which dates to a least 5800 years ago, and Harran in northern Mesopotamia. The moon God Nanna was considered the tutelary deity of Ur. The Ziggurat of Ur, which contained the shrine of the moon god Nanna, was built in the 21st century b.c. and its partially restored ruins still stand today. Gradually this cult seeped eastward across the Iranian Plateau and eventually northeastward across the Amu Darya River into Transoxiania, eventually seeding itself in Bukhara. The exact connections between the moon god of Mesopotamia and the moon god apparently worshipped at the Mokh Temple must, however, remain a matter of speculation. In any case, Islamic orthodoxy at some point reasserted itself and the moon cult was stamped out, and by the middle of the tenth-century it was, as Narshakhi noted, one of the most important mosques in Bukhara. 

According to archeological sources, the building stands at the core of the ancient Sogdian city of Bukhara dating back some 2500 years. By the fifth century a.d. the site was occupied by a Zoroastrian Temple and still later by a Buddhist temple, an detail which Narshakhi fails to note. In any case, by the eleventh century the mosque and attendant market was located just south of the Shahristan, or Inner City, Wall, one of two walls around the city of Bukhara proper. Narshakhi mentions that a river ran along one side of the bazaar. This may refer to an old water course now occupied by the Shah Rud Canal, which currently runs along the south side of the mosque complex. 

The name by which the mosque became known is subject to dispute. Some maintain Magok-i Attari means “mosque in the pit” or “the scented pit. The former name refers to the fact that the surrounding area, has been filled in and elevated with the passage of time, leaving the mosque in a depression now from ten to twenty feet lower. The level of the mosque is now reached by flights of stairs from the nearby streets. The name “the scented pit” supposedly refers to the nearby market which by Islamic times specialized in aromatic herbs.

The mosque, especially its southern portal, underwent extensive repairs during the reign of the Qarakhanids in the twelfth century. More restoration and construction was carried out in 1546-7 by the Ashtrakhanid ruler Abdul Aziz Khan. Indeed, most of the present building, with the exception of the southern portal, dates to this time. Additions included the eastern portal, built at street level to allow access to the mosque which by that time was over ten feet lower than the surrounding neighborhood. 
Southern Portal of Magok-i Attari
The ruins of the old bazaar in front of Magok-i Attari. This is presumably the market where the moon idols were sold and later aromatic herbs and other goods. 
 The ruins of the old bazaar in front of Magok-i Attari
 The ruins of the old bazaar in front of Magok-i Attari
The ruins of the old bazaar in front of Magok-i Attari

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Mongolia | Zaisan Tolgoi | Ninth Nine-Nine | Ерийн дулаан болно

The ninth and last of the Nine-Nines—nine periods of nine days each, each period marked by some description of winter weather—begins today, March 3. This last Nine is Ерийн дулаан болно: the time when warm weather starts, signaling the end of winter. The Eighth Nine-Nine, you will recall, was the Time When Puddles Appear. Indeed, several afternoons last week I did notice puddles along the road from my hovel to Zaisan Tolgoi. Yesterday the temperature got up to 28º F. in the afternoon, and today is calling for the same. In fact yesterday afternoon my finely attuned olfactory organs detect a whiff of spring in the air, so we can start looking forward to the next big event in Zaisan Tolgoi, the Appearance of the First Wild Flower.

The Spring Equinox, signaling the arrive of Spring, does not course of course occur until March 20, but with the beginning of the last of the nine Nine-Nines winter, my favorite time of the year in Zaisan Tolgoi, is except for the shouting pretty much over.  So I am out of here!!!