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