Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Italy | Venice | Origins of the Dandolo Family


For the centuries the Goths, a Germanic people possibly originating in Sweden, had been fighting their way south towards the Mediterranean Sea. Prior to the beginning of the Christian era they had crossed the Baltic Sea into what is now Germany and by the second century the tall, light-skinned, largely blonde-haired marauders, notoriously for their ferocity, were causing havoc all along the northern borders of the Roman Empire. They eventually broke into two groups, the Ostrogoths and Visigoths. In the 390s the first Visigoth ruler, Alaric I, even dared advance on Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine, or East Roman, Empire. His attack on the capital having been thwarted by the Byzantines, he turned his army to the southwest, into Greece, where he sacked Corinth, Sparta, Piraeus (the port of Athens), and other cities. He then set his sights on the western half of the Roman empire and the city of Rome. Utilizing the superb Roman-built roads he and his army soon founded themselves in the ancient region of Veneto, positioned on the broad strip of land between the Adriatic Sea and the Dolomites and other mountains of the Alps to the north. Blessed with numerous rivers, plentiful rainfall, fertile soil, and bountiful forests, its famously industrious people had made this was one of the richest regions in the Roman Empire, dotted with prosperous cities like, Vicenza, Asolo, Patavium (modern-day Padau), Concordia, Altinum (Altino), and Montagnana. The largest city of the region, Aquileia, with a population of 100,000 (200,000 by some estimates), was deemed by the fourth-century Roman poet and scholar Ausonius (c. 310—c. 395) to be one of the nine great cities in the world, mentioned in the same breath as Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and other storied metropolises.
Click on photos for enlargement
Ancient Veneto
In 401 Alaric and his rampaging Goths pillaged Aquileia, but the next year they were defeated by Roman armies and forced to retreat eastward to the Balkans. In 408 they returned and again plundered Aquileia, sending shockwaves of panic throughout Veneto and beyond. Those with the means to do so fled in advance of the Goth onslaughts. Some sought refuge on the islands of the Laguna Veneta, the Venetian Lagoon, where it was hoped the Goths had neither the desire nor means to pursue them. Alaric was indeed focused on Rome, which he finally ransacked in 410. He moved south to Calabria, the toe of the Italian peninsula, planning from there to cross the Mediterranean and invade Africa, but he died the same year, 410, before this plan could be carried out. Meanwhile, some of the people who had fled to the islands of the Venetian Lagoon decided to stay there, perhaps surmising, correctly as it turned out, that Alaric would not be the last barbarian to rampage through their former abodes on the mainland to the north.

The citizens of Veneto at the time of the Goth incursions were a mixed lot. The belt of land between the Adriatic Sea and the mountains to the north served as a bridge between western Europe and the land to the east—the Balkan Peninsula, Greece, Asia Minor, and beyond, and for centuries people from both the Occident and Orient had been traveling through the region. Excellent roads, including the ancient Via Pustumia (built c. 148 b.c. by Roman consul consul Spurius Postumius Albinus Magnus), which began in Aquileia, the capital of Veneto, and continued the whole way across the top of the boot of Italy to Genoa on the western coast of the peninsula, facilitated travel and the relatively easy movement of trade goods. The ports of Veneto at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea attracted travelers and trade from the entire Mediterranean, linking the province with the ports of western Europe, northern Africa, and the Levant. With all the people passing through Veneto it was inevitable that some, attracted by its fertile countryside and rich cities, would decide to stay. Over the centuries this immigration resulted in a rich bouillabaisse of cultures. In addition to the ancient local stock, there were Romans and others from the Italian Peninsula, other Europeans from further west, Greeks, Levantines, north Africans, Arabs, and probably even Mesopotamians and Persians, backwash from the Roman Empires’s many wars in the Mid-East. These were the people who fled Veneto for the relative safely of the islands in the Venetian Lagoon. 

By the mid-fifth century Veneto was threatened once again by invaders. Around 445 Attila became the sole ruler of a confederation of tribes known as the Huns. Like Alaric, he set his sights on Constantinople, but he and his assembled army were unable to breach the formidable Theodosian Land Walls that protected the city. 
Theodosian Land Walls of Constantinople
They did plunder and burn hundreds of cities and towns in Thrace, the region west of Constantinople, before advancing further westward into what is now Germany and France. By the early 450s Attila had turned eastward and crossed the Alps in Veneto. Padua, Altinum, Aquileia, and many other cities and towns were sacked and burned. Aquileia, the capital of Veneto, offered the strongest resistance. According to one tale, Attila was about to abandon his siege when he noticed that the storks that nested in the city had picked up their young in their beaks and flown away to the south. Interpreting this as a portent that the city was doomed, Attila launched another attack. The city was plundered and completely leveled. The residents who had not fled in advance to the safely of the islands in the Lagoon were either slaughtered or enslaved. It was said that for decades later it was hard to find even traces of the once flourished trade center. 
Restored Roman-era columns. The city was completely leveled by Attila the Hun.
Remains of stone wharfs from ancient Aquileia. Canals connected it to the Adriatic Sea,  now 6.5 miles away. 
The Mosaic Floor of the current-day Cathedral of Aquileia dates to the third and fourth century. The original church was destroyed by the Goths and Huns and the floor was apparently buried beneath rubble. It was not rediscovered until the early twentieth century.
The current Cathedral of Aquileia, which dates to the eleventh century, was built on the site of the church destroyed by the Goths and Huns. 
Roman-era mosaics that survived the attacks of Attila and others and have now been restored.
Roman-era mosaics that survived the attacks of Attila and others and have now been restored. 
According to legend, the city of Venice was founded at the stroke of noon on Friday, March 25, a.d. 421. According to the Catholic calendar, it was the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the day when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The story goes that around this time three Roman consuls from the city of Padua on the mainland came to a group of islands three miles from the coast known as the Rivoalto, or “high bank”. On slighter higher ground on both sides of a deep channel running through the area a small community had taken root. There were probably some long-time residents, including fishermen, hunters, salt gatherers, and other who eked out a living from the water and marshes of the Lagoon. Some may have been criminals, hiding out from the authorities on the mainland. Most, however, were refugees. In 421 they would have been those who fled from the deprecations of Alaric and the Goths. The area where they settled eventually became known as the Rialto, a corruption of rivoalto. The three consuls had supposedly come to the Rivoalto to set up a trading post and found a church dedicated to St. Giacomo (James), thus sanctioning the small settlement. The church was built just west of the narrowest part of the deep channel separating the islands. The channel became known as the Grand Canal, and eventually the Rialto Bridge was built here. 

Apparently nothing remains of this early church, according to most accounts the first ever in what is now Venice. The current church of St. Giacomo di Rialto, which supposedly stands on the site of the original church founded in 421, was built in the early 1170s and consecrated in 1177. This church was damaged in a fire which ravaged the area in 1514 and was remodeled in 1531 and again in 1599. Perhaps the most notable figure of the church now is the huge clock on the bell tower, supposedly dating to the fifteen century. If you visit the small square in front of the church, however, you can be reasonably sure you are standing in one of the very oldest parts of what eventually became the city of Venice. This early settlement on the Rivoalto islands was not the only community in the Venetian Lagoon, however, and in the years that followed it was nowhere near the most important. Not until 400 years later would it become the Venice that we know today.
The current church of St. Giacomo di Rialto
Later, when they were one of the most prominent families in Venice, the Dandolos would promote the notion that their ancestors were among the leaders of these refugees who had fled the deprecations of the Goths and the Huns in the fifth century and that thus they were one of the founding families of Venice. This was a common claim among the families of Venice who wanted to assert that they did indeed belong to the aristocracy, much like Americans who place great stock in the claim that their ancestors come to the New World on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock. According to the legend favored by the Dandolos themselves, they were prominent Roman residents of Padua, a city on the mainland twenty-two miles east of the Rivoalto islands, before moving to the islands in the Venetian Lagoon, where they took their rightful place among the elite. This assertion would have put them in the same league with the recognized founders of the first Venetian Lagoon communities, including families like the Contarinis, who by tradition traced their lineage back to Gaius Aurelius Cotta, consul, or chief magistrate of the Roman Republic from 252 b.c and 248 b.c.

The truth is less clear. There is no mention of the Dandolos in the earliest histories of Venice, written in the first half of the eleventh century. A history known as the Venetiarum Historia, dating to the 1360s, does aver that the Dandolos were among a later wave of immigrants who had fled the town of Altinum, on the mainland, in advance of an invasion of yet another band of marauders from the North, the Lombards. Altinum, now the tiny village of Altino, about five miles east of Marco Polo Airport, was once one of the major cities of Veneto. It was linked with the nearby Adriatic Sea by a canal that ran through the center of the city and with the important Veneto city of Aquileia by the Roman road known as the Via Anna. It was also the southern terminus of the Via Claudia Augusta, which ran northeast past Lake Constance in what is now Switzerland to the Danube River, a distance of some 300 miles. Thus Altinum became an important entrepôt for trade between the interior of Europe and the cities of Byzantium, including Constantinople. In the 450s Attila the Hun, following in the wake of the Visigoths, rampaged through Veneto. He razed Aquileia, completing the destruction of began by Alaric, and in 452 sacked the city of Altinum. Many residents fled to the safety of the nearby islands in the Lagoon before the arrival of Attila, but some stayed behind and resumed their lives as best and they could after the Huns had moved on. Some who had fled apparently returned to Altinum once the Hunnish threat had subsided. 

In the wake of the Huns, however, came another people seeking to plunder the rich land of Veneto—the Lombards. Originally from southern Scandinavia, by the first century a.d. they had settled in northern Germany. In the following centuries they drifted southward and by the fifth century occupied the Danube Valley. In the 568 the Lombards crossed the Alps into northern Italy, and for next five decades they would battle the Byzantines for control of Veneto. The Lombard king Rotari, who assumed the throne in 636, completed the conquest of the region by sacking Altinum in 638. 

Watching as the Lombards rampaged through the rest of the region, the residents must have realized that their city was doomed. A legend relates that upon learning of the approach of the Lombards the residents of Altinum held a prayer meeting in the city’s central square. While praying for guidance on how to deal with the threat of the Lombards they saw a flock of birds carrying newborn chicks in their beaks take off and fly south, towards the Lagoon. This was interpreted as a portent. Two leaders of the city, Ario and Aratore, along with several priests, followed the birds to an island about three miles offshore, and the rest of the residents of Altinum soon followed. The legend also relates that when they arrived on the island God appeared in a cloud and told them to build a church where the flock of birds had landed. One of the city gates of Altinum, the city they had just abandoned, was called Turicellum, so they decided to rename the island Torcello. 

There may have been a Roman colony on the island of Torcello—then apparently known by a different name—in the pre-Christian era. The residents were probably fisherman, duck hunters, and others who eked out a living from the sea and the nearby marches. The settlement was probably quite small and may not even been inhabited year-round. Recently uncovered remnants of a Roman pathway dating to the second century a.d. indicate that by then a more substantial settlement may have existed. As we have seen, some refugees from Altinum and other cities of Veneto had fled here during the earlier invasion of the Huns. The latest wave of immigrants fleeing the Lombards included the Dandolo family, ancestors of Enrico Dandolo, at least if we are to believe the Venetiarum Historia. 

The Bishop of Altinum, among the new arrivals on the island, transferred the headquarters of the bishopric from Altinum to Torcello and a year later, in 639, the new church, which according to legend, God had ordered the refugees to build, was dedicated. It was named the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. Before leaving Altinum the residents had stripped the city of building materials that might come in handy in their new home, including Roman columns from churches and pagan fanes and other stonework, including even paving stones from the Roman roads that passed by the city. Some of these columns and other stonework may have been included in the new church. The immigrants from Altinum had also brought the relics of their local saint, St Eliodoro, and these were placed in Santa Maria Assunta.

Torcello, now inhabited by industrious former citizens of Altinum, flourished. Although founded 217 years after the quasi-official date of the founding of Venice on, it soon began the largest commercial center in the Lagoon, far surpassing the settlements on the Rivoalto islands in size and importance. Indeed, some consider it “the cradle of Venice” which would help populace the later much larger city. By the the twelfth century the island was home to probably 20,000 to 30,000 people, even 50,000 according to some estimates. By the thirteenth century, however, silt from nearby rivers entering the Lagoon began building up around the island. Trading ships were unable to land and eventually commerce dwindled. Also, some of the silt banks turned into marshland that became infested with malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Torcello became a very unhealthy place to live. By the beginning of the fifteen century many residents had fled to other, more salubrious islands in the Lagoon, including Burano, Murano, and Venice. In 1689 the Bishopric, after 1051 years in Torcello, was transferred to Murano. By the beginning of the nineteen century only some 300 people remained. Less than one hundred people (ten, according to one source) currently reside on the island full-time.

The island of Torcello is located 5.13 miles, as the tern flies, northeast of the water bus stops at the Fondamente Nuova, on the north side of Venice. Several water buses a day go directly to Torcello; more go to the nearby island of Burano, where other water buses can be taken for the short hop to Torcello. From the dock a pathway, most of it brick-paved, along side a canal to the right extends 2050 feet to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. On the left is deserted brush land. Closer to the church are a few restaurants and cafes, including the charmingly named “Throne of Attila” and the famous Locanda Cipriani, which also rents rooms. Just beyond the Locanda Cipriani soars the bulk of the Santa Maria Assunta. The original church that the Altinum refugees built was revised and enlarged in 864 and again around 1008. Apparently the basic outline of the church is unchanged since then. Several elements dating to time when the Dandolos lived here—assuming again that the Venetiarum Historia is correct about the origins for the family—remain, however, most notably the circular baptistery in front of later, larger church. A remnant of the original church, the baptistery is said to date from 639. Possibly members of the Dandolo family were baptized here. 
Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta as seen from Burano

Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta
Baptistery in front of later, larger church said to date from seventh century
The Locanda Cipriani. Queen Elizabeth II, Edward Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis Simpson, Queen Alexandria of Yugoslavia, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and a host of other Royals have visited here. Other notable guests included Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway (he stayed here when he came to Torcello on duck hunting expeditions; reportedly he himself drained six bottles of wine a night while in residence), John Dos Passos, Igor Stravinsky, Maria Callas, Somerset Maugham, Max Ernst, Nancy Mitford, Margaret Thatcher, and a host of others. 
Inside the church the roof is held up two rows of slender marble columns, nine to each row. Two of the columns, (the second and third on the south side) are said to date from the sixth century and were probably brought from Altinum by the original settlers on the island, perhaps including the Dandolos, along with numerous other smaller columns and capitals in the interior for the church. Behind the high altar is a Roman sarcophagus dating from the second or third century a.d said to contain the relics of St. Eliodoro, also brought from Altinum by the refugees. To the left of the altar, inset in the wall, is the stone tablet recording the consecration of the church in 639. This may be the oldest dated document of Venetian history. In the courtyard in front of the church can be seen the stone chair said to be the throne of Attila the Hun, although its provenance is almost certainly apocryphal. 

Throne of Attila the Hun?
Of course most visitors to Torcello today come not to ponder the historical remnants of Altinum but instead to gape at the magnificent mosaic entitled “The Last Judgement” that covers almost the entire west wall of the interior of the church. Although one of the crowning achievements of Byzantine art, it dates to the late eleventh century, long after the Dandolos would have left Torcello, and thus need not concern us here. 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Turkmenistan | Tagtabazar | Yekedeshik Cave Complex | Part 2

The Yekedeshik Cave Complex is located high above the east bank of Murghab River about fourteen miles north of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border. “Yekedeshik” is supposedly an archaic Turkish word meaning “single orifice”. The name refers to the single entrance to entire complex. There are five floors to the complex, although only the top two are now open to the public. The entrance opens into the fourth floor. The fourth and fifth floor contain forty-four rooms, so it is probable that the entire complex has well over 100 rooms. The chambers were carved out of soft sandstone with what were apparently pick-like implements. 

The really surprisingly thing about the complex is how little is know about who built it, for what purpose, and when. Almost everything said about the caves is speculation. Legends and tall tales abound of course. One legend maintains that the caves are not of human provenance at all, but were instead created by jinns, which according to Arab and Muslim mythology are spirits of a lower rank than angels who can appear in both human and animal form. Another legend maintains that the caves were built and used as living quarters by the troops of the Greek adventurer Alexander the Great when they passed through this region in the fourth century B.C. According to this variant, the original caves were once thirty miles long and the current caves are just remnants of a much larger complex. Also according to this legend, the caves extended far into what is now Afghanistan and were later used for smuggling. 

Russian scholars who have studied the complex have opined that it was once a monastery, but even they hesitate to say whether it hosted Buddhists or Christians. Both Buddhism and Christianity were practiced in this area prior to the arrivals of Arabic Muslim invaders in the 650s A.D. Remnants of a Buddhist monastery can still be seen amidst of the ruins of ancient Merv 125 miles north of here, and there are many remains of Buddhist culture in Afghanistan just to to the south. Buddhism may have been in decline by the time the Arabs arrived, and what Buddhists did remain were probably stamped out, since they were viewed as idolators. Christians, on the other hand, were, like Muslims, “People of the Book” and thus tolerated by the Arab invaders. Indeed, from 553 A.D. to the eleventh century, some four hundred years after the arrival of Islam, Merv was a headquarters of the Nestorian Christian Church, sometimes called the Church of the East. A Nestorian college or seminary was operating in Merv as late as 1340. 

There is of course the possibility that the complex was first a Buddhist Monastery and later converted into a Christian monastery after Buddhism was stamped out. It is also not outside the realm of possibility that it once housed some heretical Islamic sect. No one has offered an opinion on when it was abandoned. Local people no doubt knew about the caves after they were no longer inhabited, but the complex did not come to the attention of the scholarly world until the early twentieth century when Turkmenistan became part of the Soviet Union.
The single entrance to the five-floor complex; hence the name “Yekedeshik”—One Orifice
Floor plan of the complex open to the public
The main gallery of the complex is about 120 feet long. Rooms are on either side.
A typical room in the complex
The rooms were apparently excavated with pick-like tools. The pick marks can clearly be seen here. 
Another room in the complex. The graffiti is modern.
Room with what could conceivable be an altar at one end
Linked rooms
Another view of linked rooms
Another view of linked rooms
Another view of linked rooms with curious wall concavities in the foreground
Curious wall concavities. It is tempting to think they were meditation chambers, but there is really no evidence for this. 
Vertical holes in the floor. The caretaker maintains they were used to store grain, flour, oil, honey, and other foodstuffs. Conceivably they could have also been used to store water. 
Another view of the vertical holes
Indentations in the floor. It is not clear what purpose they served. 
Portal linking two rooms and a storage hole
Stairway to a second floor room
Second floor room and stairway. This room also has an altar-like construction at one end.
A second floor room

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Iran | Esfahan | Khaju Bridge

While in Esfahan I wandered by the 436-foot long Khaju Bridge, built by the Safavid king Shah Abbas II in the 1650s.
The Khaju  Bridge (click on photos for enlargements)
The Khaju  Bridge
The Khaju  Bridge
The Khaju  Bridge
The Khaju  Bridge
The Khaju  Bridge
The Khaju  Bridge
The Khaju  Bridge
The 25 foot wide roadway across the top of the bridge

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Kazakhstan | Chingis Khan Rides West | Silk Road City of Otrār

Today there is no city known as Otrār, and very few people have even heard of the Otrār which flourished back at the beginning of the thirteen century. The scattered ruins of this once-sizable metropolis which still do exist turn up on the itineraries of only the most determined tourists who venture into what is now southern Kazakhstan. Yet when the Mongol-Sponsored Caravan of 450 Muslim Traders turned up at its gates in 1218 it was one of the most famous trade centers in Inner Asia and renowned for its arts and crafts and the intellectual accomplishments of its citizens. The caravan men were no doubt looking forward to resting in the city’s well-appointed caravanserais and refreshing themselves in its famous bathhouses. Little did they know that the events which soon overwhelmed them would, in the words of nineteenth-century Orientalist E. G. Browne, trigger: 
. . . a catastrophe which, though probably quite unforeseen, even on the very eve of its incidence, changed the face of the world, set in motion forces which are still effective, and inflicted more suffering on the human race than any other event in the world’s history which records are preserved to us; I mean the Mongol Invasion. 
Browne, who translated into English many of the thirteen-century documents which recorded the Mongol irruption, may from the vantage point of the twenty-first century sound overwrought here, but his appraisal did contain a kernel of truth. The events which followed in the wake of the calamity at Otrār did rock all of Inner Asia, led to the fall of at least two empires, and inflicted on the entire Islamic geosphere a blow from which some might argue it has never fully recovered. 

Otrār was located on the north bank of the middle stretches of the Syr Darya River (the Jaxartes of Classical Antiquity) near its confluence with the Arys River, about 105 miles northwest of the current-day city of Shymkent in Kazakhstan. It was situated just west of the so-called Zhetysu, or Seven Rivers, Region, an area which included the watersheds of the Talas, Ili, Chu, and other rivers in eastern current-day Kazakhstan and western China (Xinjiang Province) which flowed into either Lake Alakol or Lake Balkash or petered out into the barren desert-steppes to the west. Much later this area would become known as Semireche, Russian for “Seven Rivers”. As one geographer points out, “Semireche is an area where sedentaries and nomads have met at various points in history—coexisting, overlapping, or competing—because it lends itself to both ways of life . . .” 

Otrār’s location on the boundaries of vast Kazakh Steppe to the north and the fertile valleys of Transoxiana to the south made it natural entrepôt for trade between these two divergent cultures. It was also at the nexus of several east-west trending Silk Road trading. One branch of the Silk Road went east along the Arys to Taraz and Balasagun (current-day Tolmak in Kyrgystan). From here a southern branch went on over the Tian Shan Mountains to Aksu (in current-day Xinjiang Province, China), on the Silk Road route that ran along the northern side of the vast Tarim Basin and on through the Gansu Corridor into northern China. From Balasagun a northern branch proceeded up the valley of the Ili River and over the spurs of the Borohogo Shan Range to the Zungarian Basin on the north side of the Tian Shan. From here routes went to both Mongolia and China. Another route followed the Syr Darya to Shash (modern-day Tashkent) and then versed southwest to Merv (Mary) in current-day Turkmenistan and Nishapur in what was in the thirteen century known as Khorasan, now western Iran. From here various routes continued on the Mediterranean. The road west from Otrār followed the Syr Darya to the Aral Sea before continuing on to the Caspian Steppe Straddling The Volga River. From the old city of Xacitarxan on the Volga, just upstream from Modern-Day Astrakhan, branches led north up the Volga into Kievan Russia and east to the Black Sea, where land and water routes continued on to Istanbul, the main western terminus of the Silk Road. On this vast network of trade routes moved a wealth of various fabrics and textiles, leather, furs, porcelain, pottery, salt, spices, honey, jade and precious stones, musk, herbal medicines, weapons, slaves, and much else. By attempting to open trade with Otrār Chingis Khan hoped to gain access to the rest of the world. 

The Silk Road trade had made Otrār a rich and influential city. It had its own mint, the coins of which now grace museums, was famous for its locally produced pottery, including beautifully decorated bowls, and boasted of one of the biggest libraries of Inner Asia, with a collection of over 33,000 items, including such exotica as Babylonian clay tablets and Egyptian papyrus scrolls which had somehow found their way hither. The library also contained the works of the city’s most famous intellectual, Abu Naṣr Moḥammad Fārābi (died c. 950), a polymathic Philosopher, mathematician, linguist, poet, and composer who was called “the Second Teacher” by his students, meaning that he played second fiddle only to Aristotle. He is also credited with heavily influencing Abū Alī Sīnā, a.k.a. Avicenna (c. 980–1037) perhaps the greatest Medieval Islamic philosopher, who was born near Bukhara, also in the Khwarezmshah’s domains. 

By the early thirteen-century the city consisted of the triangular-shaped Ark, or citadel, located within the tightly packed Shahristan (walled inner city). The Shahristan itself was in the shape of a pentagon and covered about 200,000 square meters, or about fifty acres The city was famous for its baths and most homes were served by a city-wide sewage system. The big Friday mosque was also probably within the Shahristan. Surrounding the Shahristan was the Rabad, or trade quarter, which was also walled. Covering some 420 acres, it contained the extensive markets and caravanserais connected with Silk Road trade, local bazaars, craft shops, and low-class residential areas. The medieval Arabic historian Moqaddasi claimed the city had 70,000 inhabitants, but at least one modern historican has opined that this was a misprint and that he must have meant 7,000. In any case, numerous small towns and villages in the immediate environs of the city contributed to a sizable urban conurbation.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Uzbekistan | Samarkand | Khazret Khizr

Although there were several more sights of interest in Tashkent I decided I better focus on places connected with the Mongol invasion of Transoxiana in 1219-20 and thus hurried on to Samarkand. Almost everyone has heard of Samarkand, in large part because it pops up so often in literature. Milton, Keats, the Persian poet Hafiz, Oscar Wilde, and who knows how many others took a crack at it. 

Oscar Wilde:

The almond groves of Samarkand, Bokhara, where red lilies blow
And Oxus, by whose yellow sand
The grave white-turbaned merchants go. 

Then there is the novel Samarkand, by Amin Maalouf, one of my favorite authors, which I recommend most highly. But of course the most famous work about Samarkand is that old chestnut of early twentieth century Romantic  Orientalism, Hassan: the Story of Hassan of Baghdad and How He Came to Make the Golden Journey to Samarkand, or more simply, The Golden Road to Samarkand, by James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915):

 Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,
 When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
 And softly through the silence beat the bells
 Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

 We travel not for trafficking alone;
 By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
 For lust of knowing what should not be known

Although Samarkand is fairly dripping with historical sites—the Registan, the tomb of Amir Temür (Tamurlane), the tomb of his favorite wife, the Mongolian princess Sarai Mulk, etc, etc, etc, all of which I will get to eventually, I thought that I, World Wide Wanderer that I am or aspire to be, had better head first for the mosque and tomb of Khazret Khizr, known as the Eternal Wanderer and Patron Saint of Travelers (some folks might be interested to know that Khizr is also the Patron Saint of Marijuana)
Mosque of Khazret Khizr
Located in a low hill overlooking Sarai Mulk’s tomb the Khazret Khizr complex is certainly not the most imposing edifice in Samarkand, but it does boast of some extremely intriguing associations. Its namesake, Khizr (also Khidr, Khidar, Khizr, Khizar, Hızır, etc), is an enigmatic figure in Islam (he is also identified with Elijah from the Christian Bible):
There are differences amongst the scholars regarding whether Khidr is still alive, or has died.  There also exists questions regarding whether Khidr was a Prophet or a saint. Many scholars are of the opinion that he is still alive, while others, such as Hafidhh Ibn Taymiyyah and his followers are of the opinion that he has died.
If he is still alive he must be several thousand years old, since he was famous for gallivanting around with Moses, the Ten Commandments Guy from the Old Testament. 

In any case, he is particularly venerated by Sufis:
In Sufi tradition, al-Khiḍr has come to be known as one of those who receive illumination direct from God without human mediation. He is the hidden initiator of those who walk the mystical path, like some of those from the Uwaisi tariqa. Uwaisis are those who enter the mystical path without being initiated by a living master. Instead they begin their mystical journey either by following the guiding light of the teachings of the earlier masters or by being initiated by the mysterious prophet-saint al-Khiḍr.
The courtyard of the complex

The ceiling of the porch in front of the mosque is reminiscent of those found in Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist temples.
Behind the mosque is what purports to be the grave of Khidr. Of course those who believe that he was only a legendary figure who never actually lived or that he was/is a living entity who has never died but now lives in Occultation in this or some other dimension, appearing in our mundane three dimensional world only when his services are required, will not accept that this is actually his tomb. In any case, the tomb has become an object of veneration. He belongs to the category of saints whose bodies  grow or increase in length after their deaths thanks to the devotion shown them by the faithful. The prophet Daniel, he of Lion’s Den fame, who as we shall see is also reputed to be buried in Samarkand, is another such figure whose body supposedly keeps growing.)

Elongated tomb of Khidr
The current mosque is a relatively new construction, dating to only 1823. A mosque in one form or another has stood on this site at least back to the eighth century, however. This original mosque, said by some sources to be the very first mosque built in Samarkand after the Islamization of the area, was in turn built on a site of what one source describes as a heathen temple of idol worshippers. This is often a code name for Buddhists. This brings to mind Xuanzang (602?–664 AD), the peripatetic Chinese pilgrim and inveterate gadabout who starting in 1629 made a monumental seventeen year journey from Xian in China to India and back, passing through Transoxiana in the early 630s. The first place of note he visited was Shash, or Chach, a place usually associated with modern Tashkent, the current capital of Uzbekistan. Called Che-Shi by Xuanzang, the area was more a collection of oasis towns than a city itself, perhaps some but not all of them within the current boundaries of Tashkent. He has little to say about Che-Shi, other than that the land was very fertile and and that is was under the dominion of the Western Turks. 
Statue of Xuanzang at Jiayuguan in Gansu Province, at the very end of the Great Wall
Like me, he turned up next in Samarkand, which he calls Sa-Mo-Kien, and was clearly impressed: 
It is completely surrounded by rugged land and very populous. The precious manufacture of many foreign countries is stored here. The soil is rich and productive, and yields abundant harvests. The forest trees afford a thick vegetation, and flowers and fruits are plentiful . . . The inhabitants are skilful [sic] in the arts and trades beyond those of other countries. The climate is agreeable and temperate. The people are brave and energetic . . . They are copied by all surrounding peoples in point of politeness and propriety . . . 
Xuanzang’s disciple and biographer, Shaman Hwui Li, adds that “The king and people do not believe in the law of  Buddha, but their religion consists of sacrificing to fire” (Zoroastrians). He also mentions two Buddhist temples in the city but adds that no monks dwell in them and that they appeared to have been abandoned long before. Apparently two of Xuanzang’s young disciples tried to enter one of them and were chased away by “barbarians” with “burning fire” (apparently Zoroastrians). 

Xuanzang was granted an audience with the king of Samarkand, a vassal of the Western Turks, and was at first treated disdainfully. After a night’s rest Xuanzang had another meeting with the king and this time,
discoursed . . . on the destiny of men and Devas; he lauded the meritorious qualities of Buddha; he set forth, by way of exhortation, the character of religious merit. The king was rejoiced, and requested permission to take the moral precepts as a disciple, and from that time showed him the highest  respect.


This of course according to his faithful disciple Shaman Hwui Li, who never tired of heaping his Master with laurels. In any case, the king did not seem to take the precepts of Buddhism entirely to heart, since when he heard that two of his subjects had chased away Xuanzang’s disciples with burning brands when they tried to enter the old Buddhist temples he ordered that their hands be cut off. The Master of the Law—Xuanzang—intervened and begged the king not to mutilate the two culprits. Instead the king ordered that they be given a sound thrashing and then expelled them from the city. 

Although it is possible that the “heathen” temple which first occupied the site of the mosque was Zoroastrian, it is intriguing to speculate that it was one of the Buddhist temples described by Xuanzang. The mosque built on this site, or a subsequent version of it, was destroyed by Chingis Khan in 1220. Later mosques also occupied the site, the latest version built, as noted, in 1823. Even this last version, however, is said by local historians to be built on the stone foundation of the mosque which was destroyed by Chingis in 1220. Thus I appear to have found a remnant of old Samarkand which existed before the Mongol invasion of the area. 
Another view of the Khazret Khizr Mosque