Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Trade Dome #2

Backtracking a bit along the Shah Rud Canal from the Khodja Mosque and Gaukushan Madrassa Complex and then turning left and proceeding 510 feet along a row of old caravanserais I soon come to Trade Dome Number Two, or the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon. This is the old Cap-Maker’s Bazaar where karakul and fur hats and embroidered skull caps were previously sold. The bazaar also served as a bookstore, with more or than twenty stalls selling rare and unusual books and manuscripts. This trade dome differs from the other two in having five portals instead of four leading to the large enclosed center.
Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon
Interior of Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon
In one corner of the interior is a niche holding the tomb of local holy man Ahmad I Paran. The tomb is currently overseen by an old graybeard who collects donations from local people passing through the bazaar. It is not clear if he has any official capacity or has just taken over the area on his own. With his enormous nose and traditional gown, cap, and boots, he appears to have stepped out of an nineteenth century Orientalist water color. He often shouts abuse at any strangers lingering too long by the tomb or attempting to take photos and if you attempt to take his photo he might just attack you with a broom. Now the dome hosts one large carpet store, a shop with fairly well done drawings and water colors, and the usual assortment of silk and woolen goods.
 Tomb of Ahmad I Paran
Tomb of Ahmad I Paran. Photo taken while the overseer was on a break.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Nogai Caravanserai | Gaukushan Madrassa | Khodja Mosque

Just south of the Tok-i-Saffaron, along the Shah Rud Canal, is the Nogai Caravanserai, built in the 1720s during the reign of the Shaybinids. This modest-sized caravanserai has a pleasant stone paved, tree-strewn courtyard surrounded by forty-five-odd room which once served as temporary quarters for traveling merchants  and caravan men. The rooms now serves as shops selling miniatures, puppets, and the usual array of silk and wool goods, including suzanis and wall-hangings. 
Shah Rud Canal in the foreqround; Nogai Caravanserai on the other side.
Front of Nogai Caravanserai
Nogai Caravanserai Courtyard (Enlargement for ames)
A few hundred yards down the Shah Rud Canal is the Khodja Mosque and Gaukushan Madrassa Complex. “Gaukushan” reportedly means “one who kills bulls”; in the early sixteenth century there was a slaughter-house on the site. In the years 1562–1566 a madrassa was built here; it soon became known as the Gaukushan Madrassa. In 1598 Juibar Sheikh Khodja Kalon built a Juma, or Friday mosque on the other side of the Shah Rud Canal from the madrassa.
Shah Rud Canal center; Khodja Mosque right, Gaukushan Madrassa left
Pond in front of the Complex (Enlargement for a mes)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Trade Dome #1

After returning from My Sojourn to Nurata I continued my peregrinations of Bukhara. I pretty much had the city to myself. From March 1 to March 12 I was the only guest in the Guesthouse Where I Was Staying, and as far I could tell I was the only Occidental tourist in the whole town. There were of course other tourists and pilgrims in Bukhara, but the vast majority of these seemed to be from other areas of Uzbekistan and from neighboring Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, with a smattering from other countries of the Asian-Islamic geosphere. The men from these all of these places were obvious from the fact that almost 100% of them wore black leather coats and jackets.

I had chosen to come to Bukhara in the off-season (as far as Occidental tourists were concerned) both to avoid the sweltering heat I had experienced during a Previous Trip to Bukhara in June and to take advantage of the cheaper off-season rates at the hotels. Having spent the winter in Ulaanbaatar, where the temperatures had gone done to 40 below zero Fº and where it still well below 0 Fº when I left I was not expecting the late winter/early spring weather in Bukhara to be a problem. Indeed, I had checked the temperatures in Bukhara every day for a week before I left and it was getting up into the 60s F. most afternoons. I had a down jacket in my portmanteau, but at the last moment, seeing these balmy temperatures, I had taken it out. 

Now the weather was not cooperating. It was below freezing every night and there was no central heating in the guesthouse where I was staying. I had to put on every piece of clothing I had brought along just to sit in the dining room for breakfast, and in the afternoons the temperatures outside remained in the low 30s F. Plus it was very windy and the air was surprisingly damp, all of which made it seem much colder than it was. I quickly discovered that the light jacket I had brought along was barely adequate. Still, I ventured out every morning and spent most of the day exploring the city on foot. 

From my guesthouse I would walk about 800 feet to the first of Bukhara’s three trade domes. Originally there were five of these trade domes at the intersections of the main commercial streets, all built in the 1580s during a resurgence of commerce on the old Silk Road. Today only three remain. The one nearest to my guesthouse is known locally as Trade Dome Number One, or the Tok-i-Sarrafon (a tok is a vaulted and domed bazaar). This was originally the Money-Changer’s Bazaar. Here congregated Armenians, Afghans, Punjabis and others who exchanged the wild array of notes and coins that flooded into Bukhara from the far reaches of the Silk Road for the bronze, silver, and gold coins that served as legal tender in the city’s markets. The Armenians, who were Christians, and the Punjabis, who were probably Hindus (although there could have been some Jains among them) also engaged in lending out money at interest, something with the Moslem money-changers were prohibited from doing by the strictures of their religion.
Trade Dome Number One, or the Tok-i-Sarrafon (Enlargement for a mes) 
Another entrance to Tok-i-Sarrafon
View of the Dome in Tok-i-Sarrafon.
The money-changers are long-gone (except for the black market money changers who now loiter around just outside the entrances to the dome). During the day the shops inside now sell the usual assortment of silk scarves, woolen tote bags, pillow cases, small carpets, and various souvenirs; one shop displays the work of a fairly good miniaturist. There is usually stuff laid out on the floor for sale also. This photo was taken in the morning before the shops were open. The dome itself stays open all night; there are no doors on the entrances.
View of two of the four entrances to Tok-i-Sarrafon (Enlargement for a mes)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mongolia | Zaisan Tolgoi | Blue Moon

Last night, August 31, the Full Moon occurred at exactly 10:58 pm. It was also a Blue Moon. As noted below, I went into Occultation on September 2, the date of the previous Full Moon. I always go into Complete Occultation for the entire lunar cycle leading up to a Blue Moon. I am not at liberty to tell you how or where I spent my Occultation. The reasons for occultation are occult, so I cannot explain them here, but a little research on the internet will reveal the details to those you who are interested. Anyhow, today, September 1, the morning after the Blue Moon, I am coming out of Occultation. I am also back on the internet (it is amazing what has happened in the world since I last checked the news: Snooki Had a Baby and Anal Tattooing Is the Next Big Thing).

I must note, however, that this was a Blue Moon only by what might be called the Folkloric Definitionor, as Sky and Telescope Magazine calls it, the Trendy Definition. This is when two full moons occur in one month. There was a full moon on August 2, the date I went into Occultation, and on August 31, hence the second full moon is a Blue Moon. The phenomenon of two full moons in one month occurs once every 2.7 years on average. The next is on July 31, 2015. The relative rarity of the phenomenon is the source of the expression “once in a Blue Moon.” 

Some claim, however, that the more accurate definition is the so-called Farmer’s Almanac Rule, so named because it was made popular in the Farmer’s Almanac. This takes into account the solstices and equinoxes and the seasons of the year. Since there are four seasons and (usually) twelve Full Moons a year each season should have three full moons. Occasionally, however, one year will have thirteen full moons, leaving one season with four full moons. When this happens the third full moon of the season is a Blue Moon. Just to be on the safe side, I also observe Occultation in the lunar cycle leading up to a Blue Moon according to this definition. 

While on the subject of the Farmer’s Almanac, I can add parenthetically that my grandfather kept a copy on the stand by his easy chair at all times; this and the Bible were the only publications allowed in the house, although my grandmother would occasional sneak in a Saturday Evening Post (the old Post, before they started doing profiles of Kim Novak, Thelonious Monk, and other outré personages) or a Reader’s Digest. Also, do not confuse the Farmer’s Almanac with the Old Farmer’s Almanac.  This is like confusing a John Deere with a Farmall. But I do like the Old Farmer’s Almanac Moon Page. And their Full Moon Finder App for the iPhone is almost enough to make me want to buy on iPhone.

Although long a subject of occult speculation—according to legend the loathsome necrophiliac Abdul Alhazred was Consumed by a Fleshing-Eating Demon in the copperware market of Damascus on the morning after a Blue Moon in 738 AD.—“Blue Moon” entered the popular lexicon perhaps by means of the song “Blue Moon”, written in 1934 by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and covered by a host of performers, including Billie Holiday, Mel Torme, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Cliff Richard:

Blue Moon
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own

Blue Moon
You know just what I was there for
You heard me saying a prayer for
Someone I really could care for . . .

Blue moon
Now I'm no longer alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own

Next up: The Autumn Equinox on September 22—I don’t have to tell you what that means!—then the  Harvest Moon on September 30, and then the best moon of the year—The Hunter’s Moon on October 30! Fasten your seat belts, people! It is going to be a Wild Ride to the Winter Solstice on December 21, when all Hell is expected to break loose . . . 

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Don Croner is in Occultation.

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