Thursday, June 7, 2012

Mongolia | Turkey | Istanbul | Sultanahmet

I awoke at my regular time and after the usual orisons settled into the southeast tea nook of my Studiolum. Just the day before I had received a shipment of this Spring’s harvest of Imperial Mojiang Golden Bud Yunnan Black Tea and was looking forward to trying it again. All went well as I sipped the first two bowls. The tea was fresh and young, all knees and elbows, sassy without being impertinent. Notes of chocolate, tobacco, malt, and, if I am not mistaken, a hint of pachouli flared up and then drifted away. During my third bowl, however, my tea drinking revelry was interrupted by a somber note of unease which had insidiously crept into my mind stream. By the time I finished the bowl I was overtaken by a fissiparous existential crisis which finally congealed into one simple question: “What the heck am I doing here?”

Why was I sitting on this carpet, in this apartment in Zaisan Tolgoi, a suburb of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia? What concatenation of circumstances had led me be this exact spot as opposed to say, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, Urumqi, in Xinjiang Province China, or Istanbul? More to the point, what was keeping me here? I had just finished publishing three books and had seen them into distribution. I had a new project planned but had not really started on it yet. Where would I actually like to be right now if I was not to sitting on this carpet drinking Golden Bud Yunnan tea in Zaisan Tolgoi? As if in answer to my question the image of Sunset Across the Golden Horn in Istanbul floated up before my eyes.

It was the third week of May and would no doubt be hot in Istanbul, and the tourist season, when the city was jammed with out-of-towners, was already in full swing. Not the best time to visit the city, but still . . . On impulse I checked the the Turkish Airlines website and discovered that there was a flight leaving Beijing for Istanbul that night at 11:55 and there were still seats in the Comfort section. I checked the Mongolian Airlines site and found out that quite fortuitously there was a flight from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing leaving at 6:00 pm and arriving at 7:55, with seats still available. I bought a ticket to Beijing on Mongolian Airlines and then went back and bought a ticket to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. I then went to the website of the Kervan Guesthouse in Istanbul and to my surprise discovered that they had rooms available the next night, or at least that is what the website said. I immediately booked a room for two nights. The Kervan Guesthouse, where I had stayed several times before, had almost doubled its prices since the last time I stayed there, but I thought I would make at least make sure I had accommodations for the first two nights and then try to find a cheaper place.

I watered my plants and explained to them in Plant Language that I would be gone for awhile but that I would make arrangements for someone to come and check on them in my absence. I assured them that there was nothing to worry about. They seemed to take it in stride, but with plants you never know. They tend to hold in their feelings. I threw a change of clothes into a small portmanteau and added a copy of of John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice to read in Istanbul. As you surely know, the history of Venice is inextricably connected to the history of Istanbul. I kept checking my email throughout the day, but did not receive a confirmation of my reservation at the Kervan Guesthouse. This as a bit disconcerting, but I figured I would straighten out the matter I arrived in Istanbul. At 3:30 in the afternoon I took a bus into town and caught a cab at the airport. The plane left right on time at 6:00. 

The plane landed on time in Beijing but then took over thirty minutes to taxi to the terminal in the enormous Beijing airport. By 8:30 I was the International transit lounge, which was surprisingly quiet at this time of night. Apart from a couple of bars, the only place I could find open was a Starbucks. I settled in with a latte and The History of Venice. The Istanbul flight began boarding at 11:00 and left exactly on time at 11:55.

I have flown this route several times but always at night, which is a shame because the plane follows roughly the route of the old Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul. It would be extremely interesting to view this panorama from the air during the daytime. West of Beijing the plane flies right over Hohhot, in what is now the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia; then further westward we pass through the Zungarian Depression, with the Tian Shan Mountains off to the left; then over the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang Province; then over the Northern Spurs of the Tian Shan, passing over the city of Ili and the Ili Basin; then over the basin of the Syr Darya and the ancient city of Otrar, trashed by Chingis Khan and his boys in 1219 and now only ruins; then right over the northern shore of the Aral Sea; then over the northern part of the Caspian Sea; then over the Caucasus Mountains, home of Circassian Beauties; then over the city of Tiflis, capital of the country of Georgia, then along the southern shore of the Black Sea and on into Istanbul. 

The plane arrived at in Istanbul Airport at 4:30 and by 5:00 I was out of immigration. It was still dark outside and I really did not want to get to downtown Istanbul before daylight, so I found the only place that was open outside of immigration—another Starbucks—and drank coffee until the sun came up. Then I caught the Metro Train to the Sultanahmet district.
Hagia Sophia (the Church of Divine Wisdom), later the Ayasofia Mosque, was build by the 530s a.d. by the Byzantine emperor Justinian and dedicated on December 26, 537. It is now a museum. 
The Sultanahmed district of Istanbul, centered around the huge square between Ayasophia and Sultanahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, is not the commercial or business center of Istanbul, but it might qualify as the spiritual heart of the city and is certainly the center of the city’s immense tourism business, and the iconic Ayasofia and Blue Mosque which anchor the area are two of the most recognizable tourist attractions in the world. Yet while Istanbul now boasts of a population of over 20 million, at 6 o’clock in the morning the square was totally deserted, without a single soul in sight. I walked over to the Blue Mosque, the courtyard of which is open all night, and finally spotted one person sleeping on a park bench. He was rather too well dressed to be homeless, and might have just been some hapless husband whose wife had booted him out for the night. The courtyard of Sultanahmed Mosque was deserted and eerily quiet. I sat down on the stone steps and chanted the mantra of Green Tara, the Protectress of Travelers. Fortunately there was no one there to accuse me of shirk
The Blue Mosque, built by Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I between 1609 and 1616. It is still an active mosque.
Courtyard of the Blue Mosque (Enlargement for a mes)
Courtyard of the Blue Mosque
Courtyard of the Blue Mosque (Enlargement for a mes). 
 Soon after the first trickle of early morning worshippers began arriving at the Blue Mosque I walked back over to the Kervan Guesthouse. Still no answer at the door. So I strolled up Divan Yolu, the main street leading to Beyazit Square. By now I was looking for some morning refreshment, but nothing seemed to be open. I noticed a Starbucks on the right side of the street but it too was closed. I walked up Divan Yolu to the turnoff to Vezir Han Street and walked around the small square looking for a tea shop. Still nothing. In the middle of the square stood the Column of Constantine, dedicated on May 11, 330 a.d. by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine in honor of the new capital of the Byzantine Empire. The city became known as Constantinople, after Constantine himself, and later Istanbul.
Column of Constantine
Walking back along Divan Yolu I noticed that the Starbucks had opened it doors, still apparently the only open place on the street, so I wandered in for a latte. This was my third Starbucks in the last twenty-four hours. Is the success of these international chains due at least in part to the fact that they are simply keep longer hours than any other places? A half hour later I walked back down the street to the Kervan Guesthouse. Still no answer to the bell, but a man who was just opening the restaurant next door informed me that the Kervan Guesthouse was closed for repairs. They were not taking any guests. Apparently that was why they had not answered my email. I had slept only a few winks on the plane and by now was pretty much exhausted, but still lugging my portmanteau I set out in search of another place to stay. I soon discovered that the city was jammed with tourists, most of them apparently still asleep. I tried a dozen places before I found a fleabag hotel on a side street which had a tiny room on the sixth floor. But it was not available until noon. So I stashed my portmanteau with the receptionist and went back out into the streets. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Uzbekistan | Nurata

From the Caravanserai of Qarakhanid Khan Shams-al-Mulk Nasr I wandered northward and soon crossed the Zarafshan River. This is of course the river which feeds the Bukhara Oasis; without this river the area would be desert and desert-steppe and the Bukhara conurbation would not exist. The Zarafshan River begins in the Pamir Mountains to the east, in current-day Tajikistan, and flows westward between spurs of the Pamirs known as the Turkestan and Zarafshan ranges before emerging onto the flat plain of Mawarannahr. Its name is derived from the Persian zar afshan, "sprayer of gold", a reference to the gold-bearing sands found in the riverbed of its upper reaches. For thousands of years the river has supported a dense population, the three major cities being Panjikent, in current-day Tajikistan, and Samarkand and Bukhara in current-day Uzbekistan. The river was once probably a tributary of the Amu Darya, but even by the time of Alexander the Great in the third century BC it was already petering out in the sands of the Kyzyl Kum Desert southwest of Bukhara. 

The Zarafshan River
North of the fertile strip of irrigated fields along the Zarafshan River the country abruptly turns into steppe and begins ramping up towards the crest of the the east-west trending Karatau Mountains. In January or  early February of 1220 Chingis Khan, his youngest son Tolui, and the Mongol army came this way after sacking the town of Nur (Nurata) to the north. Mongol horses must have felt right at home here. Even if the steppe was covered with snow in late January or early February the horses would have had little trouble pawing down to the dry grass, which they must have craved after passing through the bleak Kyzyl Kum Desert.  
Steppe ramping up the crest of the Karatau Mountains
In the rocks along side the road can be seen numerous petroglyphs, probably dating to the Bronze Age (very roughly 3000–700 BC). They are almost identical to Rock Drawing Found Throughout Mongolia.
Rock drawings of goats or perhaps ibex 
Rock drawings of camels
The road to Nur then crosses a 2641-foot pass through the Karatau Mountains: Nurata is fifteen miles to the north.
View north from the pass.
The ancient city of Nur (now Nurata), eighty-five miles northeast of Bukhara, had long served as a strategic outpost on the northern borders of Mawarannahr, a gateway between the nomad-dominated deserts and steppe to the north and the cultivated lands of the Zarafshan River basin to the south. Alexander the Great arrived here in 327 BC and either built or enlarged and strengthened an already existing citadel on a hilltop on the edge of the city, apparently hoping to use the area as a base for further advances into Mawarannahr. His men also built a network of underground water pipes, parts of which remain in use down to the present today. One of Alexander’s generals died here and was buried near the base of the citadel, where his tomb can still be seen. The town was also famous for its prodigious Chasma, or spring, at the base of the citadel. According to legend the spring was created when the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Khazrat Ali, struck the ground with this staff and water gushed forth. This story is no doubt apocryphal, but the spring—apparently because of its alleged association with family of the Prophet, would by the tenth-century become an important pilgrimage site. Writing in the 940s, the Samanid historian al-Narshakhi, noted: 
Nur is a large place with a grand mosque. It has many ribats [caavanserais, especially in border areas). Every year the people of Bukhara and other places go there in pilgrimages. The person who goes on the pilgrimage to Nur has the same distinction as having performed the pilgrimage (to Mecca)  . . . many of the followers of the Prophet are buried there (May God be pleased with them until the day of Judgement).
Having left the Siege of Otrar to his sons Chagatai and Ögedei, Chingis Khan and the rest of the Mongol army made a perilous crossing of the Kyzyl Kum Desert and approached Nur in January of 1220.  A Mongol commander by the name of Dayir led the Mongol vanguard to to the city. On the outskirts of town they stopped in some groves of fruit trees—now barren, as it was Januaryand camped. That night they cut down trees and used the wood to fashion scaling ladders. The next morning they rode up the city walls holding the scaling ladders in front of them The sudden appearance of this Mongol vanguard via a route thought to be known only to merchants caused the watchmen on the walls to mistake it at first for a trading caravan. As the horsemen got closer the watchmen saw the ladders and realized that that the mounted men were invaders. The gates of the city wall were thrown shut and the city fathers commenced debating among themselves what course of action to take. After much argument it was decided that they had no choice but to throw in the towel. In Juvaini’s account of the fall of the city no mention is made of the Citadel. Either it was not longer an active fortification by the thirteenth century or the local panjandrums decided to surrender it without a struggle. 

An envoy was sent to Chingis Khan, who was still advancing across the desert with the bulk of his army. Accepting the city’s surrender, he ordering the city fathers to submit to his general Sübetei, who had already arrived at Nur in the wake of the vanguard. Sübetei herded the inhabitants out of town, allowing them to take along only “what was necessary for their livelihood and the pursuit of husbandry and agriculture, such as sheep and cows . . .” He further ordered that “they should go out on to the plain leaving their houses exactly as they were so that they might be looted by the army.” In return for this acquiescence the Mongols agreed not to inflict bodily harm on anyone. 

When Chingis Khan finally arrived in town he ordered the city’s inhabitants to cough up 1500 dinars, the same amount they paid in taxes to the Khorezmshah each year. Half of this sum, we are told, was paid in women’s earrings. The fact that the locals still had dinars to pay, and women earrings to hand over, would seem to indicate that individuals had not been robbed of the possessions on their persons, even though the town itself had been sacked and looted. As usual, young men were dragooned as levies, although according to Juvaini only sixty were taken.

Compared with the devastation the Mongols would later inflict on cities which resisted them, Nur got off rather lightly, even if the women did lament the loss of their earrings. The city was essentially а sideshow. The big prize was Bukhara, eighty-five miles to the southwest. 
The city of Nurata (Nur) with the Chasma pilgrimage complex in the foreground
The prodigious chasma, spring, which attracts pilgrims from all over Inner Asia  (see Enlargement)
The pool fed by the spring
Fish in the pool. They are fed by pilgrims; hence their prodigious numbers. Fishing is of course prohibited. 
The purported tomb of one of Alexander the Great’s generals
On the hilltop behind the Chasma can be seen the ruins of the fortress either built or reinforced by Alexander the Great c. 327 BC
Ruins of the fortress
Ruins of the fortress
Ruins of the fortress
View from the top of the fortress

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Uzbekistan | Caravanserais | Vabkent Minaret | Tavois | Rabat-i-Malik

Before indulging in further Ambulations of Bukhara City itself I decided to wander north through the Bukhara conurbation and look for other monuments which pre-dated the Mongol invasion and managed to survive down to the present day. My first stop was Vabkent, seventeen miles north-northeast of Bukhara. When first Chingis Khan and his army approached the Bukhara Oasis they may well have  homed in on Vabkent’s minaret, which was visible for miles around and served as a beacon for caravans and travelers approaching from the north. Commissioned by Abd al-Aziz II, a member of a powerful Bukhara family during the time of the Qara Khitai Khanate (c. 1125–1218), the 127-foot high minaret, completed in 1198–1199, was the second highest in Mawarannahr, after the Kalon Minaret in Bukhara itself. The Qara Khitai, as you probably know, were a remnant of the old Khitan Dynasty in China—they also Controlled Most of Mongolia At The Time)—who had migrated west and established an empire in Inner Asia. They were Buddhists, with perhaps a smattering of Nestorian Christians among them, but they left the local people to whom they were suzerains practice their own religions, hence  this imposing minaret and accompanying mosque in Vabkent. The Mongols left it unharmed, although the mosque it was once attached to has long since disappeared.

 Vabkent Minaret 
Vabkent Minaret 
 Vabkent Minaret 
 Vabkent Minaret 
Vabkent Minaret 
Sixteen miles east of Vabkent is Tavois. In the thirteenth century it was large town or even city, but now it is a mere village overshadowed by the nearby modern town of Kizil Tepe. Up until the eighth century the town was known as Arqud. Arab invaders renamed it Tawais (“Endowed with Peacocks”) in 710 because it was here they saw their first peacocks—not a native bird of Arabia—in the gardens of the town’s prominent citizens. The town had a large Friday mosque, but by the time Chingis arrived the local fortress had fallen to ruins, already destroyed in earlier fighting between the various contestants for the Bukhara conurbation. The town was formerly famous of its Zoroastrian temple, although presumably it too had disappeared by the thirteenth century, by which time Islam had long since dominated the area.

Every autumn Tawais hosted a great trade fair which lasted seven to ten days. Merchants from all of Mawarannahr and the Fergana Valley attended this fair, which operated under one unusual condition: no item bought could be returned, even if it was later proven that the seller had engaged in illegal trickery and deception. Although probably in a hurry to get to Bukhara, presumably the Mongols took time to engage in at least a cursory looting of the town and to dragoon levies for the anticipated lengthy siege of Bukhara. Now, as in the thirteenth century, it marks the place where the cultivated land of the Bukhara Oasis abruptly ends and the desert steppe begins. 

Tavois, the current name of the village, is a corruption of the original Arab word Tawais.
Tawais was located just inside the great wall known as “Kanpirak”. This wall, measuring some 150 miles in length, had once surrounded the entire Bukhara Oasis. Kanpirak is supposedly an archaic term for “Old Woman”, which would at first glance seem an inappropriate term for a wall. One local historian points out, however, that “old virgin” might be a more accurate translation, in which case the term might connote that the wall was thought to be impenetrable. In any case, the wall was probably built in the fifth or sixth century a.d. Between the years 782 and 830 it was repaired and upgraded as a bulwark against the continuing incursions of nomadic peoples from the north. Maintaining the lengthy wall was an immensely expensive undertaking, however, and required enormous outlays of man-power. At the beginning of the Samanid era in the ninth century Amir Ismael famously declared, “While I live, I am the wall of the district of Bukhara,” implying that he would guarantee the safely of the area by force of arms and that expensive walls were no longer needed. The Kanpirak was henceforth abandoned, and by the time the Mongols arrived it may have been in ruins. In any case, neither Juvaini nor any other Persian historians of the thirteenth century even mention the wall and it proved no obstacle whatsoever to the Mongol invaders. Some commentators insist that ruins of the wall can still be seen at places, but local historians could not point me to any remnants and I was unable to find any traces of it. I apologize for this failure and will attempt a more diligent search during my next trip to Uzbekistan. 

Tavois also marks the beginning of the so-called Royal Road to Samarkand, further on east. An ancient trunk of the Silk Road connecting the two pearls of Mawarannahr, Bukhara and Samarkand, the route still serves as the main highway between the two cites. Eighteen miles east-northeast of Tavois are the ruins of Rabat-i-Malik, a immense caravanserai built by the Qarakhanid Khan Shams-al-Mulk Nasr (r. 1068–1080) for the use of merchants and travelers on the Royal Road. Nearby was a huge well of sweet water which would have slaked the thirst of the men and their horses (the huge brick dome which now covered the well was not added until the 14th century). 

The well, with 14th century brick dome
Entrance to the well 
Entrance to the well 
The huge portal of the Malik Caravanserai
Another view of the portal 
Detail of brick work on the portal (see Enlargment
Interior of the caravanseria, showing layout of the rooms. The entire complex measuring about 300 feet by 300 feet. 
These now-truncated columns may have belonged to a mosque in the middle of the caravanseria. 
View of the portal from inside the caravanserai.
Ruins within the caravanserai
Ruins of what may have been ovens

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Kalon Mosque

The first big mosque in Bukhara was constructed in 713 within the walls of the Citadel. In 770 a new congregational mosque with accompanying minaret was built outside the Citadel, apparently on the site of the current Kalon Mosque. From the eighth to the eleventh centuries the mosques on this site was repeatedly damaged or destroyed by earthquakes and fires and subsequently rebuilt and enlarged. In 1121-22, during the rule of the Qarakhanids, a still larger mosque and minaret was built on the same location using wood from the previous structure. The minaret soon collapsed, seriously damaged the mosque. In 1127 the mosque was rebuilt yet again, along with the accompanying 153-foot high Kalon Minaret.

In the year 1220, on the 10th, or the 16th of  February, depending on whose account we believe,  the hitherto noble city of Bukhara Fell To Chingis Khan and his army. He and his son Tolui rode their horses into the big Friday Mosque on the site of the current Kalon Mosque, where Tolui dismounted and ascended the minbar, or pulpit. According to the Persian historian Juvaini, Chingis then asked if this was the palace of the Khorezmshah: he was informed by the imams in attendance that it was not the palace of an earthly ruler but the House of God. He too then dismounted and climbed up onto the pulpit. Although it may have been the House of God, he had more earthly concerns. The Mongols’ horses were hungry and must be fed, he ordered from the pulpit. The city’s granaries were opened and the grain dispensed for horse feed. Chingis’s men dragged the cases which were used to store Qurans out of the mosque, dumped out the sacred books, and used them as feeding troughs for their horses. Their horses having been seen to, they ordered up wine and dancing girls for their own entertainment. Soon the mosque rang with the sound of Mongol songs bellowed by the celebrating inebriates. 

Juvaini, although a scribe in pay of one of Chingis’s descendants, was a Sunni Muslim himself, and he could not keep a note of disapproval out his account of these carryings-on. Hitherto dignified imams, sheiks, and sayyids, he tells us, were made to look after the Mongol horses while their owners partied. When the bacchanalia was over the Mongols rode away, trampling under the feet of their horses the leaves of the Qurans which had been scattered around the courtyard of the mosque. At this point, an imam named Jalal-al-Din Ali b. al-Hasan Zaidi, “chief and leader of the sayyids of Transoxiania . . . famous for his piety and asceticism,” turned to an imam named Rukn-ad-Din Imamzada, “one of the most excellent savants in the the world,” and lamented, “ . . . what state is this? That which I see do I see it in wakefulness or in sleep, O Lord?” Apparently all of which he had just seen seemed like a nightmare to him. His companion replied, “Be silent: it is the wind of God’s omnipotence that bloweth, and we have no power to speak.” 

The mosque was totally destroyed in the fires that followed the Mongol sack of the city. It is not clear when a mosque was first rebuilt on the site. In 1539, under the Shaybanids (r. 1500–98), whatever structure did exist was replaced by a completely new mosque with 289 vaulted bays. This is the version of the mosque which has survived down to the present. 
The Kalon Minaret, center, survived the sack of the city by the Mongols and can be seen to this day. On the right is the entrance to the current Kalon Mosque. On the left is the front of the Mir-i-Arab Madrassa
Front of the Kalon Mosque
Another view of the front of the Kalon Mosque
Entrance to the Kalon Mosque
Courtyard of the Kalon Mosque. It can reportedly hold 10,000 people. 
Courtyard of the Kalon Mosque
 Courtyard looking the other way (Enlargement for a mes)
The Courtyard
Courtyard of the Kalon Mosque
Current Minbar (pulpit) in the mosque, obviously not the one mounted by Chingis Khan and his son Tolui.
Vaulted bays on either side of the Courtyard
Vaulted bays on either side of the Courtyard (Enlargement for a mes)
Vaulted bays on either side of the Courtyard
Graybeard fingering his beads in the courtyard
Dome of the Kalon Mosque
Bukharan Skyline, with the Kalon Mosque on the right