Showing posts with label Narshakhi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Narshakhi. Show all posts

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | al-Bukhari | Narshakhi | Ibn Sina

The Persian Historian Juvaini (1226–1283) could barely contain himself when hymning Bukhara:
In the eastern countries it is the cupola of Islam and is in those regions like unto the City of Peace. Its environs are adorned with the brightness of the light of doctors and jurists and its surroundings embellished with the rarest of high attainments. Since ancient times it has in every age been the place of assembly of the great savants of every religion.
It was just before and during the Samanid Era that an array of religious scholars, philosophers, poets, historians, and writers first lit up the sky over Bukhara with their brilliance. The era was kicked off by Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari (d.870), who according to most accounts was born near Samarkand. He traveled widely as a youth and young man, making a pilgrimage to Mecca as a teenager, but then settled down in Bukhara and wrote his Sahih al-Bukhari, a compendium of hadith, or sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. He reported winnowed through more than 600,000 hadith before selecting 7,275 for inclusion in his collection. His Sahih was eventually recognized as one of six canonical collections of hadith accepted among Sunnis and in the opinion of some one of the two most important. The Sahih al-Bukhari is widely read to this day, and al-Bukhari’s mausoleum near Samarkand is now visited by pilgrims from throughout the Islamic geo-sphere. 
 Mausoleum Complex of al-Bukhari near Samarkand (click on photos for enlargements)
 Mausoleum of al-Bukhari
  Mausoleum of al-Bukhari
 Tomb of al-Bukhari
 Tomb of al-Bukhari
Al-Bukhari died just as the Samanids were ascending to power, but the afterglow of his work would add luster to the new regime. Historians were represented by Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Jafar Narshakhi (ca. 899–959), from the village of Narshak in the Bukhara Oasis. His History of Bukhara offers a unique view of both pre-Samanid Sogdiana and the Bukhara Oasis during the reign of the Samanids. The book, originally written in Arabic, was present to his patron the Samanid emir Nuh ibn Nasr in the 940s. It was translated into Persian 1034 and translations into English remain in print to this day. A Russian language scholarly edition with extensive commentary was published in 2011. 

Bukhara’s intellectual lustre, burnished by local talent, soon attracted the leading lights from throughout the Islamic geosphere. This concentration of scholarly and artistic firepower led to the creation of the Siwan-al-hikma (Storehouse of Wisdom), a library which soon boasted of one of the best collections in Inner Asia if not the world. Apart from the library, the Bukhara book bazaar achieved fame among bibliomanes as a place where books on even the most recondite and esoteric subjects could be found for sale. 

It was in Bukhara’s libraries and well-stocked book stalls that the towering intellectual figure who bookended the Samanid era found his early sustenance. This was Abu Ali Ibn Sina, born in the village of Afsana just outside of Bukhara in 980, two decades before the fall of the Samanids. A scientist, philosopher, physician, mathematician, poet, and belletrist, the polymathic Ibn Sina (better known in English language literature as Avicenna) was, and is, widely recognized as the greatest Islamic scholar of the Middle Ages. “At the age of ten years,” the twelfth-century biographer of poets Ibn Khallikan (1211–1282) tells us, “he had mastered the Koran and general literature and had obtained a certain degree of information in dogmatic theology, the Indian calculus . . . and algebra.”

Ibn Sina then applied himself to further studies in logic, natural science, the mystical teachings of the Sufis, astronomy, medicine, and a potpourri of other subjects.  His progress in medicine was so phenomenal that at the age of seventeen he was treating Nuh b. Mansur, one of the last Samanid emirs. It was this prince who allowed Ibn Sina to use his library (this may have been the Siwan-al-hikma mentioned above, or the ruler’s own library; the record is unclear). Here, Ibn Sina tells us, he found “many books the very titles of which were unknown to most persons, and others which I have not met with before or since.”

Unfortunately for Ibn Sina, the Samanid empire fell before he turned twenty, and he was forced to spend the rest of his life as a exile in courts of various potentates in Khorasan and Iraq-Ajami who were only too happy finance his intellectual endeavors as long as he keep his nose in his books and did not cause any trouble. Life was not easy—he was thrown in prison at least once and threatened with execution for rattling the chains of his patrons—but he was able to produce an immense corpus of work numbering almost a hundred volumes. He died in Isfahan, in Iraq-Ajami (modern western Iran), in 1037. Two of his most famous books, The Metaphysics of Healing and the Canon of Medicine, remain in print in modern editions to this day (both get five-star ratings on Amazon), and his birthplace at Afsana, on the outskirts of Bukhara, is a much frequented tourist and pilgrimage attraction with a medical school, a museum devoted to Ibn Sina, and breathtakingly gorgeous rose gardens.
 Statue of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) at the Ibn Sina Museum near Afsana, on the outskirts of Bukhara
 Grounds at the Ibn Sina Complex
 Breathtakingly gorgeous roses at the Ibn Sina Complex
Another example of a breathtakingly gorgeous rose.