Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Occultation

Don Croner is in Occultation.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Iran | Esfahan | Abbasi Hotel

Wandered down to Esfahan, south of Tehran. I was especially looking forward to visiting Esfahan since I had booked a room at the legendary Abassi Hotel, which if not the city’s best hotel is certainly the most historic and picturesque.
Location of Esfahan (click on photos for enlargements).
The Abbasi Hotel was originally a caravanserai built during the time the the Safavid Sultan Husayn (1668—1726). It was restored and remodeled in the 1950s into an upscale hotel. Film buffs may recognize the hotel as the set for the 1974 movie Ten Little Indians starring Oliver Reed and German bombshell Elke Sommer. I had read some on-line reviews that groused about the small size of some of the rooms at the hotel. This was certainly not the case with my first floor room, which opened directly onto the courtyard. A troop of dancers, had one been available, could have bivouacked in the room with space left over for a camel or two. 
This etching was made in 1840. 
The basic layout of the building itself has changed very little since 1840. The two-story arched alcove near the right edge of the etching now hosts a charming little snack shop. The dome and minaret of the mosque seen looming over the top of the building are unchanged. Oh how I would have loved to have been in that courtyard when it still hosted camels! Note that the camels shown are Two-Humped Bactrians, the most noble of the world’s four-legged creatures, and not one-humped dromedaries. I would have had second thoughts about staying at the caravanserai if they had allowed in dromedaries, unless, of course, dromedaries were restricted to their own watering troughs.
Lobby of hotel. I took this photo at five o’clock in the morning. During the day and evening the lobby was a madhouse of milling tourists from England, Germany, Italy, Spain, China, and elsewhere. As far as I could tell I was the only American. 
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
I spent my late afternoons in the courtyard enjoying glasses of refreshing hibiscus tisane with rock sugar. Clinically proven to lower your blood pressure!
Hotel lobby coffee shop where I got my morning caffeine fix. In the afternoons it was jammed with Chinese tour groups.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Mongolia | Khovd Aimag | Baitag Bogd Mountains

The Baitag Bogd Mountains, located in Khovd Aimag at the southwestern-most corner of the country, are probably one of the least visited places in Mongolia. Which is a shame, since the flanks of the mountains cradle gorgeous little oasis-like valleys which make wonderful places to while away a week or two far from the madding crowd. To get there you have to drive from Khovd City, the capital of Khovd Aimag, over the Mongol-Altai Mountains to the town of Bulgan. 
Hotel in Bulgan. Notice the wolf pelt drying in the window (click on photos for enlargements)
 Streets of Bulgan
Along the Bulgan River west of Bulgan City we were able to hire two camel men and camels for the trip to across the desert to Baitag Bogd.
 Local camel man and camels
 Riding across the desert-steppe to Baitag Bogd
 Riding across the desert to Baitag Bogd
Approaching Baitag Bogd 
 Oasis-like valley in the foothills of Baitag Bogd—wonderful places to camp.
Small stream with superb drinking water running out of the mountains. 
We camped here for several days so I could drink tea made from this water. New Tie Kuan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) Oolong And Eight-Year Old Puerh Tea matched up especially well with Baitag Bogd water. 
Another excellent camping spot. Inveterate star-gazers will find the skies here are incredibly clear at night, the nearest sources of air or light pollution being hundreds of miles away.
The Baitag Bogd Mountains are right on the Mongolian-Chinese border. Here two Mongolian border guards ride along the fence which separates the two countries. Permits are needed to visit this border area. 
 Baitag Bogd Mountains

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Greece | Kavala | Apostle Paul

From Thessaloniki I took a bus 100 miles up the coast to the city of Kavala. Two thousand years ago Kavala was known as Neopolis (New City). It was one of the main ports in Europe for ships arriving from the Levant. The Apostle Paul, he of Road to Damascus Fame, first set foot in Europe here around A.D. 50. I do not know why, but I seem to keep visiting places where Paul had trod before. First there was Larnaka and Paphos on Cyprus Island, then Athens, Corinth, and Thessaloniki in Greece and now Kavala. This was not intentional, I assure you. I am not a Christian, and certainly not a fan of Pauline Christianity. Indeed, I am perfectly aware that many now consider Paul An Insufferable Douchebag Or Worse. However, I am more than willingly to entertain the idea, posited in the book Jesus and the Lost Goddess, that most if not all the books in the New Testament attributed to Paul are forgeries and that he himself was a secret Gnostic:
Of all early Christians, Paul was the most revered by later Gnostics. He was the primary inspiration for two of the most influential schools of Christian Gnosticism, set up by the early second-century masters Marcion and Valentinus. Christian Gnostics calling themselves 'Paulicians' ran the 'seven churches' in Greece and Asia Minor that were established by Paul, their 'mother Church' being at Corinth. The Paulicians survived until the tenth century and were the inspiration for the later Bogomils and Cathars. Marcion was originally a student of the Simonian Gnostic Cerdo, but when he set up his own highly successful school it was Paul he placed centre-stage as the 'Great Messenger'. 
Even his later Literalist critics acknowledged that Marcion was 'a veritable sage' and that his influence was considerable. Valentinus tells us he received the secret teachings of Christianity from his master Theudas, who had in turn received them from Paul. Based on these teachings, Valentinus founded his own influential school of Christian Gnosticism, which survived as a loose alliance of individual teachers until it was forcibly closed down in the fifth century by the Literalist Roman Church. The number of second and third-century Valentinians that we can still name is testimony to Valentinus' importance: Alexander, Ambrose, Axionicus, Candidus, Flora, Heracleon, Mark, Ptolemy, Secundus, Theodotus and Theotimus. Paul was such an important figure in the Christian community that at the end of the second century the newly emerging school of Christian Literalism could not simply reject him as a misguided heretic but felt compelled to reshape him into a Literalist. They forged in his name the (now thoroughly discredited) 'Pastoral Letters', in which Paul is made to spout anti-Gnostic propaganda. 
Throughout his genuine letters, however, Paul uses characteristically Gnostic language and gives Gnostic teachings, a fact that is deliberately obscured by Literalist translators. Like later Christian Gnostics, Paul addresses his teachings to two levels of Christian initiates, called psychics and pneumatics, describing the latter as 'having Gnosis'. Of himself he writes, 'I may not be much of a speaker, but I have Gnosis.' He sees his mission as awakening in initiates an awareness of 'the Christ within' — the one 'consciousness of God' — by 'instructing all without distinction in the ways of Sophia, so as to make each one an initiated member of Christ's body'. Paul tells us that when he personally experienced Christ it was as a vision of light on the road to Damascus. 'Damascus' was a code word used by the Essenes to refer to their base in Qumran, which suggests that Paul, like Simon, had Essene affiliations. He uses the same language as the Essenes, for example when he describes human beings as being enslaved by the powers of fate, imagined as 'the elemental rulers of the cosmos', the 'archons of this dark cosmos', from which 'Christ has set us free'.
If these assertions about the genuine Gnostic teachings of Paul are true, then what has become known as “Pauline Christianity”—basically mainstream Christianity as it is practiced today—must be regarded as one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated upon the human race.  
City of Kavala (click on photos for enlargements)
Greek Orthodox Church in downtown Kavala. In front is a mosaic commemorating the arrival  of the Apostle Paul in Kavala in A.D. c. 50. 
Mosaic commemorating the arrival  of the Apostle Paul in Kavala in A.D. c.50. 
Detail of mosaic, Note the view must be from north looking south, since Paul  is stepping onto Europe on the right. 

Friday, April 5, 2019

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Bakharzi | Bayan Quli | Sorqaqtani

Wandered out to the Fathabad district, about two miles east of the old historical core of Bukhara, to visit the mausoleum of Saif ed-Din al-Bakharzi. The mausoleum complex is now in a nicely laid out park surrounded by four-lane highways and Soviet-era apartments blocks. Bakharzi was born in Khorasan (now northeastern Iran) and studied religion in Nishapur and Herat before moving to Gurganj (now Konye Urgench in Turkmenistan). Gurganj was the capital of Khwarezm, the land on either side of the lower Amu Darya River, including the broad delta estuary of the river on the southern edge of the Aral Sea. By the beginning of the thirteenth century Khwarezm had become the core province of the Khwarezmian Empire, which under the leadership of Muhammad Khwarezmshah (r. 1200-1220) included a huge swatch of Asia from the Caspian Sea to the Indus River. Bakharzi had early on shown an inclination toward mysticism, and he may have been attracted to Gurganj by the presence of Nadjm ed-Din Kubra, who would eventually be recognized as one of the thirteen century’s great mystics. In any case, he became a disciple of Kubra, apparently while still a teenager. 

Nadjm ed-Din Kubra was born in Gurganj in 1145, the son of fabric merchants who studied religion on the side. As a child he experienced what he called the “loosening of the bonds of the intellect,” apparently mystical experiences during which he was temporary removed from the strictures of consensual reality. Reining in these impulses, he devoted himself to the conventional study of hadith (sayings of the Prophet Mohammad), seeking out teachers in Nishapur in Khorasan, Hamadan and Isfahan in Iraq-i Ajam (northwest Iran), Mecca, and finally Alexandria in Egypt. From Alexandria he drifted on down to Cairo, where he fell under the sway of a Sufi teacher by the name of Ruzhedan. Under Ruzhedan’s supervision Kubra did several forty-day retreats and engaged in other Sufi practices. Ruzhedan was so impressed by Kubra’s progress along the Sufi path that he gave him one of his daughters in marriage. Kubra went on to study with a succession of Sufi teachers in Cairo and in Dezful, in Iraq-i Ajam. While in Dezful one of his teachers, Esmail il-Qaṣri, declared that Kubra was qualified to become a teacher himself. He returned to Cairo to get the blessing of Ruzhedan and then made the long journey back to Khwarezm, arriving in Gurganj in 1184. In Gurganj Kubra eventually gathered around him a group of some sixty students, including an inner circle of twelve particularly gifted devotees. Because of his teaching abilities, his followers gave him the nickname Shayk-e walitaras, the “saint manufacturing saint.” Bakharzi was apparently one of Kubra’s sixty students—whether he was in the inner circle or not is unclear—and it was later said that he was one the saints who Kubra “manufactured.” 

In 1219 Chingis Khan invaded the land of the Khwarezmshahs. Otrar, Bukhara, Samarkand, Termez, and other cities in Mawarannahr (Transoxiania) quickly fell to the Mongols. In the fall of 1220 Chingis ordered his two sons Chagaadai and Ögödei to invade Khwarezm and take the capital of Gurganj. Word of the holy man in Gurganj had Chingis Khan himself. According to one near contemporary account, Chingis Khan:
had heard of the Shaykh of Shaykhs and the Polestar of Saints [Kubra], and knew somewhat of his character [and] he sent him a message that he intended to sack Khwarazm [Gurganj] and massacre its inhabitant, and that one who was the greatest man of his age should come out from it and join him, now that the moment had arrived for the incidence of the catastrophe. “That I should come forth from amongst them,” replied the Shayk, “would be an action remote from the way of virtue and magnanimity.” 
The historian Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jamī (1414 –1492) tells what happened next:
When the Tartar heathen [Mongols] reached Khwarazm, the Shaykh (Kubra] assembled his disciples, whose number exceeded sixty . . . The Shaykh summoned certain of his disciples . . . and said, “Arise quickly and depart to your own countries, for a fire is kindled from the East which consumes nearly to the West. This is a grievous mischief, the like of which hath never heretofore happened to this people (the Muslims)”. Some of his disciples said, “How would it be if your Holiness were to pray, that perhaps this [catastrophe] may be averted from the lands of Islam?' “Nay,” replied the Shaykh, “this is a thing irrevocably predetermined which prayer cannot avert.” Then his disciples besought him, saying, “The beasts are ready prepared for the journey: if your Holiness also would join us and depart into Khunlsan, it would not be amiss.” “Nay,” replied the Shaykh; “’here shall I die a martyr, for it is not permitted to me to go forth.“ So his disciples departed into Khurasan . . . When the heathen entered the city, the Shaykh called such of his disciples as remained, and said, “Arise in God's Name and let us fight in God's Cause.” Then he entered his house, put on his Khirga (dervish robe), girded up his loins, filled the upper part of his Khirga, which was open in front, with stones on both sides, took a spear in his hand, and came forth. And when he came face to face with the heathen, he continued to cast stones at them till he had no stones left. The heathen fired volleys of arrows at him, and an arrow pierced his breast. He. plucked it out and cast it away, therewith passed away his spirit. They say that at the moment of his martyrdom he had grasped the pigtail of one of the heathen, which after his death could not be removed from his hand, until at last they were obliged to cut it off.
Later a mausoleum in his name was built on the outskirts of Gurganj. It can still be seen there today, but whether or not his body is actually in it remains a matter of conjecture. 

Bakharzi was one of the students of Kubra who escaped from Gurganj before the Mongols sacked the city. He settled in the outskirts of Bukhara, which itself had been sacked by the Mongols a year earlier and quickly attracted students of his own. They became the Bukhara core of the Sufi sect known as the Kubrawiya—followers of the teachings of Kubra. Eventually a complex of dwellings, meeting places, and schools for members of the Kubrawiya grew up the Fathabad district. Word of the illustrious Sufi teacher in Bukhara eventually spread far and wide. Berke Khan, the son of Jochi, Chingis Khan’s oldest son, and the Khan of the Golden Horde from 1257 to 1266, heard of Bakharzi and travelled to Bukhara to met him. The record is unclear, but Bakharzi may have been instrumental in the conversion to Islam of Berke Khan, the first important Mongol to do so.

Word of Bakharzi also reached Sorqaqtani, arguably the most influential woman in the Mongol Empire in the mid-thirteenth century. Sorqaqtani was daughter of Jakha Gambhu, the younger of brother Tooril (a.k.a. Tughrul, Wang Khan, Ong Khan, etc), ruler of the Keraits, a powerful tribe in Mongolia around the time of Chingis’s Khan’s rise to power. Tooril was the blood brother of Chingis Khan’s father Yesükhei and later Chingis’s own patron and ally. Tooril’s headquarters were in the Tuul River valley, near the site of current-day Ulaanbaatar. Later Marco Polo would retail the story that Tooril was the legendary Prester John, the Christian king who would come to the aid of European Crusaders in the Mideast by attacked Muslims from the rear, as it were. Tooril in all likelihood had never heard of the Crusaders and its doubtful if he had any interest in politics outside of the Mongolian Plateau. HIs name may have became connected with the Prester John legend because many of the Keraits, and possible Tooril himself, were Nestorian Christians. This branch of Christianity, declared heretical by the Council of Ephesus in 431 a.d., migrated eastward to escape persecution and eventually become known as the Church of the East. Following the great trade routes east, Nestorian Christianity reached Xian, the main eastern terminus of Silk Road, no later than the 780s. It eventually spread northward across the Gobi Desert and onto the Mongolian Plateau, where it found adherents among the Keraits and other tribes. It was not clear if Jakha Gambhu was a Nestorian Christian, but his daughter Sorqaqtani most definitely was. 

Around 1203 Tooril, afraid of Chingis Khan’s rising power among the tribes of the Mongolian Plateau, plotted to have him assassinated. The plot failed, and in retaliation Chingis Khan annihilated the Kerait nation. Jakha Gambhu attempted, however, to stay on Chingis’s good side, and to cement their relationship he offered up three of his daughters as peace offerings. The oldest of them was married to Chingis himself (he later gave her away to one of his favorite generals); the middle daughter was married to Jochi, Chingis’s oldest son; and the youngest, Sorqaqtani, was wed to Tolui, Chingis’s youngest son, while she was still a teenager. 

Tolui and Sorqaqtani went on to have four sons: Möngke, Khubilai, Khülegü and Ariq Böke, Tolui died relatively young, at the age of 40, in 1232. According to the Persian historian Ata Malik Juvaini, he became a victim of his own successes: “the world his thrall and the heavens subservient to his wishes, he became excessively addicted to the circulating of cups of wine from morn till eve, and a malady over took him such that two or three days did not pass before he died.” Juvaini was the hired pen of Khülegü, Tolui’s son, so it seems unlikely he would so relate such an unflattering story if there was not some truth to it. Chingis’s third son, Ögödei, offered to marry the newly widowed Sorqaqtani, but she refused. She also turned down an offer to marry his son, Güyûk, explaining that she needed all of her energies to raise and educate her sons. Thus began two decades of maneuvering which eventually made at least three of her sons rulers of immense khanates. According to Juvaini, 
. . . in the management and education of all her sons, in the administration of affairs of state, in the maintenance of dignity and prestige and in the execution of business, Beki [Sorqaqtani], by the nicety of her judgement and discrimination, constructed such a basis and for the strengthening of these edifices laid such a foundation that no turban-wearer [men, in general] would have been capable of the like or could have dealt with these matters with the like brilliance. 
Even the spurned Ögödei listened to her counsel and bowed to her wisdom in matters of state: 
In any business which [Ögödei] undertook, whether with regard to the weal of the Empire or the disposal of the army, he used first to consult and confer with her and would suffer no change or alteration of whatever she recommended. The ambassadors . . . too held her in great honour and respect; and the dependents and subjects of her Court in nearest and farthest East and West were distinguished from those of all the other princes by the dignity and protection they enjoyed, and because of her zealous concern for each of them individually their lives were contented and carefree.
Ögödei’s eldest son Güyük had been named Great Khan of the Mongols in 1246. He transmigrated in 1248, and for three years his widow Oghul Qaimish ruled as regent. Sorqaqtani had been busy behind the scenes, however. According to Juvaini, after her husband Tolui had died,
. . . she had won favor on all sides by the bestowing of gifts and presents upon her family and kindred and dispensing largesse to troops and strangers and so rendered all subject to her will and planted love and affection in everyone's heart and soul, so that when the death of Güyük Khan occurred most men were agreed and of one mind as to the entrusting of the keys of the Khanate to her son Möngke Khan. For the report of her wisdom and prudence and the fame of her counsel and sagacity had spread to all parts, and none would gainsay her word. Furthermore, in the management of her household and in the ceremonial of her court she laid for kinsmen and stranger such a foundation as the khans of the world had not been capable of.
 Sorqaqtani’s politicking succeeded, and she lived to see her first son Möngke Khan named Great Khan in 1251. Her second son Khülegü would overthrew the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad in 1256 and found the Ilkhanate in what is now Iran, Iraq, and parts of Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey. Her third son Khubilai ruled as Great Khan of the Mongols from 1260 to 1294 and founded of the Yuan Dynasty in China. For a brief time in the early 1260s Ariq Böke, her fourth son, claimed the title of Great Khan, but he was eventually overthrown by his brother Khubilai. Such was Sorqaqtani’s legacy to world history. 

Although she remained a Nestorian Christian to the end of her life, Sorqaqtani, like many of the Mongolian ruling class, was remarkably ecumenical when it came to religious matters. According to Juvaini: 
 . . . her hand was ever open in munificence and benefaction, and although she was a follower and devotee of the religion of Jesus she would bestow alms and presents upon imams and shaikhs and strove also to revive the sacred observances of the faith of Mohammed (may God bless him and give him peace!). And the token and proof of this statement is that she gave 1000 silver balish that a college (madrasa) might be built in Bukhara, of which pious foundation the Shaik-al-Islam Saif-ad-Din of Bakharz should be administrator and superintendent; and she commanded that villages should be bought, an endowment made and teachers and students accommodated [in the college]. And always she would send alms to all parts to be distributed among the poor and needy of the Moslems; and so she continued until . . . the year 649 [February-March, 1252], when the Destroyer of Delights sounded the note of departure.
Bakharzi became the mudabbir (principal) of the madras and mutavalli (administrator) of the endowment set up by Sorqaqtani, and under his leadership the Sufi complex continued to grow until he transmigrated in 1261. HIs son Abu al-Muzaffar Ahmad succeeded him as leader of the Kubrawiya in Bukhara. Around this time the region was thrown into upheaval by the internecine wars between various feuding Mongol factions and as a result very little is known about the fate of the Kubrawiya in Bukhara for the next forty or so years. 

Abu al-Muzaffar Ahmad died in 1312 or 1313 and was replaced by Barkhazi’s grandson Abu al- Mafakhir Shaykh Yahya. Under his leadership the Kubrawiya again flourished. He had over the years managed to became quite wealthy, and he used his money to purchase eleven agricultural villages. A portion of the income from these villages he placed in an endowment which was to provide for the upkeep of the Kubrawiya complex, including a mausoleum for the remains of his grandfather Barkharzi. Three copies for the deed of endowment, signed on August 1, 1326, can still be found in Uzbeg archives. Presumably Sorqaqtani’s endowment was also still contributing to the upkeep of the complex. 

Seven years later, in 1333, legendary Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta (1304–1368-69), who spent almost thirty years traveling around the Islamic world, arrived in Bukhara. At the time, according to Ibn Battuta, the city was still feeling the effects of the Mongol irruption: “This city had once been the capital of the cities lying across the Jaihun River [Amu Darya], but the cursed Tatar Tinghiz [Chingis Khan] . . . destroyed it so that all of its mosques, madrassahs and market-places lay in ruins, with a few exceptions.” Ibn Battuta was wrong to blame Chingis Khan himself for the desolation he saw. Chingis had sacked the city 113 years earlier, and according to most sources, including Juvaini, Bukhara had rebounded in the aftermath. The desolation which Ibn Battuta claims to have seen was the result of the vicious infighting between the various contestants for control of the Chagaadai Khanate. 

The one exception to the gloomy picture of Bukhara painted by Ibn Battuta was the Kubrawiya complex. According to Ibn Battuta:
We alighted in a suburb (rabat) of Bukhara known as Fathabad, where there is the tomb (qahr) of the learned, devout, ascetic shavkh Sayf al-Din Bakharzi, one of the great saints . . . This lodge is connected with the shaykh; it is immense, and has vast endowments from which travellers are fed. Its superior, Yahya al-Bakharzi, is one of his descendants. He entertained me in his home, and invited the prominent men of the city [Bukhara] for the occasion. The Koran-readers recited with beautiful modulations, the preacher delivered a sermon, and they sang melodiously in Turki and Persian . . . We passed there a wonderful night.
In 1358 the mausoleum of the Mongol ruler Bayan Quli was added to the complex. He had reigned as the nominal khan of the Chagaadai Khanate, to which Bukhara belonged, from 1348 to 1258, when he was assassinated by a rival. It is not clear if he himself belonged to the Kubrawiya sect, but he apparently was inspired by the spiritual legacy of Barkhazi and wanted to be entombed near Barkhazi’s own mausoleum. The mausoleum of Bayan Quli still stands, heavily restored, next to the mausoleum of Barkhazi.

The original mausoleum of Barkhazi seen by Ibn Battuta was later replaced with the mausoleum which now stands on the site. Historical data on the current mausoleum is lacking. The caretaker of the mausoleum and various ephemeral sources—tourist guides to the city, brochures, etc.—indicate only that it was built in the latter part of the fourteenth century. The generally accepted date for the end of Chagaadayid rule in the region and the beginning of the reign of Amir Timur—Tamerlane—is 1370. Thus it is not clear if the mausoleum was built during  the Chagaadayid or Timurid eras. If it was built in Timurid times then the mausoleum of Bayan Quli, built in 1358, may be the only remaining Chagaadayid—Mongol—monument in the city of Bukhara. It is indicative of those turbulent times that the mausoleum contains the body of a Mongol killed by another Mongol.
The Mausoleum of Bakharzi, dating to the latter part of the fourteenth century. The mausoleum of Bayan Quli can be seen in the background to the right (click on photos for enlargements).
The tomb of Bakharzi. According to the caretaker the skull of Bakharzi was removed from the tomb, in 1940 he believes, and taken to Moscow for study. It was later returned and is now in the tomb with the rest of the body.
The Mausoleum of the Mongol khan Bayan Quli. This may be the only Mongol-era monument remaining in Bukhara.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Turkmenistan | Nohur | Kopet Dag Mountains

I was extremely eager to see the ruins of the city of Dehistan, 195 miles northwest of Ashgabat as the crow flies. The city was located on the old flood plain of the Amu Darya River back when the river flowed into the Caspian Sea and not the Aral Sea, as it now does. Dehistan was founded by the Khwarezmshahs who ruled the Khwarezmian Empire up until the early thirteenth century when Chingis Khan And His Boys invaded the region. The buildings and minarets found there, now in ruins, are probably the only examples of structures built under the direction of the last Khwarezmshah, Muhammad II. Now you can understand why I was so determined to visit the site. 

It is possible to drive to Dehistan directly from Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. The tourist agency from which I had hired a car and driver suggested, however, that I make a detour through the Kopet Dag Mountains and visit the small village of Nohur, where I would be able to spend the night with a local family. Although I was raring to go to Dehistan I thought that it might be interesting to get of glimpse of the Kopet Tag Mountains on the way and so agreed to the detour. 
The Kopet Dag Mountains rearing up along the southern border of Turkmenistan (click on photos for enlargements).
The Kopet Dag Mountains, which constitute the northern edge of the Iranian Plateau, run for some four hundred miles along the southern border of Turkmenistan. From Ashgabat we drove fifty-two miles west through the desert fronting the Kopet Dag to the town of Barharly and then turned southwest onto a gravel road which climbed into the mountains. Nohur is about twenty-four miles from Barhaly as the crow flies, at an attitude of 3100 feet, some 2650 feet above the desert immediately to the north. The Iranian border is just sixteen miles away to the south. 
 Climbing into the Kopet Dag Mountains. An apricot orchard can see seen in the bottom of the valley. 
The village of Nohur is inhabited by an ethnic group known by the same name, the Nohurs. According to one legend, perhaps apocryphal, the Nohurs are descended from the soldiers of the Greek adventurer and gadabout Alexander the Great. Whatever their origins, they are decidedly different from the usual Turkmen and speak a dialect incomprehensible to outsiders. They maintain their ethnic purity by marrying only within the group. Although known for their strict adherence to Islam, elements of animism and Zoroastrianism can be detected in their religious practices. They are also famous for their work ethnic and members of the group who have established businesses in Ashgabat and other cites have achieved considerable wealth and power.

One of the most unusual features of the town of Nohur is the local cemetery. Almost all grave markers are topped by the horns of mountain sheep and ibex collected by local hunters.
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
 Nohur Cemetery
Nohur is also known for its silk weaving. The silk itself is imported from Iran and hand-woven using traditional local designs. 
 Silk Weaver. As can be seen, the woman has a scarf over her mouth. Nohur women traditionally wear a scarf over their mouths “so that they will not say silly things,” at least according to local lore. 
Silk Weaver
The house where I spent the night. The owners were a man and woman in their sixties. They had a daughter with a small baby who was the apple of everyone’s eye. The woman made a mean mutton plov. They also had wonderful local butter, honey, and cherry juice.
 Plateau west of Nohur
Plateau west of Nohur
Ramparts at the edge of the plateau
Village at the base of the ramparts. This village had wonderful honey for sale.
Two silk hangings I bought in Nohur, now in the galleria of my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi. The painting is by the father of Mongolian Artist Mönkhtsetseg.