Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mongolia | Zaisan Tolgoi | Weather Update

Update From Yesterday: The temperature at 8:30 AM was 36º below 0 F, maybe cold enough to freeze twice-distilled arkhi. This is not supposed to happen until the Second Nine-Nine, so we seem to be having unseasonably cold weather. Last year the low for this date was 23º below 0 F. And the forecast for tonight is 44º below zero. Remember, 40º below is the Magical Moment when the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales coincide. This is the first time in my more than ten winters in Ulaanbaatar that I can recall the Magical Moment occurring in December.

Latest Update: We did not have to wait for tonight. We reached the Magical Moment at 9:25 this morning. Usually the temperature does not continue to drop after the sun comes up. It did this morning.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Mongolia | Zaisan Tolgoi | Winter Solstice | First of the Nine Nines | Nermel Arkhi Khöldönö

The Winter Solstice occurs today, December 21, at 7:12 PM (Ulaanbaatar Time), marking the Beginning Of Winter.

Yesterday, December 20, the sun rose at 8:39 AM and set at 5:02 PM for a day of 8 hours, 22 minutes, and 59 seconds. 

Today, the day of the Solstice, the sun rises at 8:39 AM and sets at 5:02 for a day of 8 hours, 22 minutes and 55 seconds, or four seconds shorter than the day before.

Tomorrow, December 22, the day after the Solstice, the sun will rise at 8:40 PM and set at 5:03 PM for a day of 8 hours, 22 minutes, and 56 seconds, one second longer than the previous day. So the days will be getting longer . . . 

In Mongolia the Winter Solstice also marks the beginning of the so-called Nine-Nines: nine periods of nine days each, each period marked by some description of winter weather. The first of the nine nine-day periods is Nermel Arkhi Khöldönö, the time when once-distilled homemade Mongolian arkhi (vodka) freezes. It was minus 35º F. at 9:30 a.m., cold enough, I think, to freeze Mongolian moonshine, which is not as strong as the store-bought vodka. The Second Nine-Day Period starts on December 30. Stayed tuned for updates.

As you all know, Venus has been dominating the dawn skies for the last couple weeks, but this morning also offers an excellent opportunity to see the elusive plant Mercury. Pull on your mukluks and get out there! You do not want to miss this!
As usual, Neo-Druids and others are whooping it up at Stonehenge, the granddaddy of all Solstice Celebration sites. 
Neo-Druids at Stonehenge
 Neo-Druids at Stonehenge
Neo-Druids at Stonehenge
See More Stonehenge Photos (click on photo for enlargement)
Winter Solstice Offering

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Uzbekistan | Tajikistan | Birthplace of Rudaki

The dispute over the birthplace of the Poet Rudaki (858–c.941) is heating up and may soon lead to wine-throwing and fist-fights among enthusiasts of tenth-century Persian poetry. It appears that both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are claiming Rudaki as one of their own. According to some sources Rudaki (or Rudagi, as it is often rendered in English) was born in the village of Rudak, sometimes called Panjrudak. This village does not show up on any available maps, but it is said to be near Urgut, twenty miles southwest of Panjakend, or twenty-three miles southeast of Samarkand. Urgut, however, is in Uzbekistan, seven miles from the Uzbek-Tajik border. Since Rudak or Panjrudak is described only as “near” Urgut, it could be across the border in Tajikistan. 
Places connected with Rudaki. The Uzbek-Tajik border is in yellow (click on image for enlargement).
Others, however, including some people in Tajikistan, insist that he was born in a small village on the upper reaches of the Kshtut River. There is a place named Kshtut 47 miles south of Panjakend, in Uzbekistan, just fifteen miles west of the border. This is an extremely mountainous area. Right on the border here is the highest point in Uzbekistan, 15,233-foot Khazret Sultan Mountain. Whether this is the Kshtut referred to by my informants I cannot say.

Other people claim that his name Rudaki, or Rudagi, comes not from his village, but from the name of a musical instrument known as the “rood”, which Rudaki played to perfection. But then in certain Tajik dialects “roodek” is said to mean “blind”, and thus the poet’s name may refer to his alleged blindness and not to the village where he was born. So the origins of the poet’s name are not so clear-cut after all. Anyone who has any more information on this subject please feel free to weigh in. But please, no wine-tossing. Wine is too valuable to waste. As Rudaki himself said:
Were there no wine all hearts would be a desert waste, forlorn and black, 
But were our last life-breath extinct, the sight of wine would bring it back.
A modern-day version of the instrument known as a “rood”. 

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.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Magok-i Attari

Bukhara claims to be one of the world’s oldest cities. In 1997 the city celebrated its 2500th anniversary, although admittedly this date seems to have been chosen somewhat arbitrarily. According to archeological findings, the earliest levels of settlement in Bukhara date from somewhere between the fifth and second centuries b.c. A “large, sprawling settlement” and earliest manifestation of the Ark (Citadel) appear somewhere in this time frame. Whether they existed by the time Alexander The Great And The Greeks Swept Through The Region is unclear. An ark did soon appear however (apparently on roughly the same spot as the current-day Citadel). and by the third century b.c. it had been re-enforced with walls over twenty feet thick.
The current-day Ark is a much later structure, but it supposedly stands on the same site as the ancient arks of 2300 or so years ago. (Click on photos for Enlargements)
 At this time the Bukhara Oasis was part of the Bactrian Kingdom founded by the descendants of the Greek adventurer and centered around the city of Balkh (Bactria) in the current-day country of Afghanistan. In the second century b.c. nomads from the east known as the Yuezhi (also “Yüeh-chih”) occupied the land between the rivers. Later they expanded south of the Amu Darya and eventually established the Kushan Empire, from the first through fourth centuries a.d. a principal power in Inner Asia and what is now Afghanistan. Coterminous with India, the Kushan Empire was heavily influenced with Buddhism. Many Buddhist texts were translated into the Kushan language and from the Kushan into Sogdian and Chinese. Under the Kushans the first through fourth centuries a.d. Buddhism was introduced into the land between the rivers, although to what degree it flourished is unclear.

Archeological evidence suggests that the former Magok-i Attari Mosque in Bukhara may have been built on the site of a Buddhist monastery during the Kushan era. Magok-i-Attari, or Maghak-i Attari, means “scented pit” according to some renderings, or the “moque in the pit” according to others. The first rendering may refer to the aromatic herb markets once found in the area. Both renderings refer to the structure’s sunken structure, the base of which was lower than the surrounding area even in Sogdian days. Today the building remains in a sunken area approached from all directions by steps. The lowest levels of the structure date to at least as far back as the fifth century and maybe much further. The early use of the building is veiled in mystery, but it have have first been a Zoroastrian temple and later a Buddhist temple, or vice-versa. It or a adjacent structure, now missing, may also have been a temple to Moh, the lunar deity beloved by moon worshippers, myself included. Apparently it was converted to a mosque soon after the Arab invasion of Bukhara in the early eighth century. Nothing now remains of this early mosque. The southern portal, now the best restored part of the building, was built in the twelfth century by the Qarakhanids, who also built the Rabat-i-Malik, an immense caravanserai for the use of merchants and travelers on the Royal Road from Bukhara to Samarkand, and the Kalon Minaret. The Ashtarkanid ruler Abdulaziz Khan (r. 1645–1681), who also built the Abdulaziz Madrassa, updated the building to approximately its current configuration in 1546-47. The eastern portal is a twentieth century addition and clearly the production of a much more mundane era. The building now serves as a carpet museum.
Magok-i Attari. As can be seen, it is now ten or more feet lower than the surrounding area. 
The southern facade, added by the Qarakhanids in the twelfth century, with probably more additions by Abdulaziz Khan in the seventeenth. 

Portal on the southern facade
Details of the southern facade
Details of the southern facade
Details of the southern facade. The insert ornaments are thought to be Zoroastrian symbols. They were frequently incorporated in the designs of mosques and Other Islamic Buildings.
Details of the southern facade
Details of the southern facade
Inside the building is a archeological digging which reportedly goes down to the Zoroastrian and/or Buddhism levels of the building. 
I drooled over carpets now on display in the museum.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mongolia | Russia | Buryatia | Mayan–Shambhala Endgame

In a post back in September about the Blue Moon I wrote: “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 . . . ” Well, things are already heating up in Russia, according to this Story in the New York Times
There are scattered reports of unusual behavior from across Russia’s nine time zones. Inmates in a women’s prison near the Chinese border are said to have experienced a “collective mass psychosis” so intense that their wardens summoned a priest to calm them. In a factory town east of Moscow, panicked citizens stripped shelves of matches, kerosene, sugar and candles. A huge Mayan-style archway is being built — out of ice — on Karl Marx Street in Chelyabinsk in the south. For those not schooled in New Age prophecy, there are rumors the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012, when a 5,125-year cycle known as the Long Count in the Mayan calendar supposedly comes to a close. Russia, a nation with a penchant for mystical thinking, has taken notice.
Not to worry, however. The director of the Russian Government’s Ministry of Emergency Situations was quoted as saying that he had “‘methods of monitoring what is occurring on the planet Earth,’” and that he could state with confidence that the world was not going to end in December. But this is  the head of Russia’s equivalent of FEMA. Should we believe him?

The Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has taken a more ambiguous position. He issued a statement “assuring the faithful that ‘doomsday is sure to come’, but that it will be provoked by the moral decline of mankind, not the ‘so-called parade of planets or the end of the Mayan calendar.’” Thanks for the reassurance, Patriarch. 

Of course, the French too are acting up: “In France, the authorities plan to bar access to Bugarach Mountain in the south to keep out a flood of visitors who believe it is a sacred place that will protect a lucky few from the end of the world.” It may or may not be significant that Bugarach Mountain is not far from Montsegur, the home of the Cathars, who in 1243-44 were annihilated by the Catholic Church.

The story gets really interesting with reports coming out of Ulaan-Ude, in Buryatia, part of Russia just north of Mongolia (I visited Ulaan-Ude many times when I was living in Irkutsk, on the other side of Lake Baikal): 
In Ulan-Ude [sic], the capital of the Buryatia region, citizens have reportedly been hoarding food and candles to survive a period without light, following instructions from a Tibetan Monk Called The Oracle Of Shambhala, who has been described on some Russian Television Broadcasts
Back in November of 2005 I posted about the predictions of Lama Gombo (who, sadly, has since transmigrated). He told me back then that 2012 just might be the year the 25th Khalkin King of Shambhala returns with General Hanuman to lead the Final Battle Against The Enemies Of Buddhism. His predictions had nothing to do with the Mayan calendar business, which he apparently had never heard of, but were based on his own insights into the Shambhala endgame.

I have not, however, heard anything here in Mongolia about this new Oracle of Shambhala apparently living near Mount Kailash in Tibet, nor have I heard about any hoarding. Of course there is still nineteen days to go . . . I myself am not worried. I have Stockpiled Fifteen Kilos Of Puerh Tea and  am thus prepared for any eventuality. 
Shambhala (Click on photo for Enlargement)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | The Poet Rudagi

When I woke up unexpectedly at three a.m. last night it suddenly dawned on me that I have not said nearly enough about the Samanids, who ruled Bukhara from c.875 to 999 a.d.
Bukhara, under Samanid rule, was the Focus of Splendour, the Shrine of Empire, the Meeting-Place of the most unique intellects of the age, the Horizon of the literary stars of the World, and the Fair of the great scholars of the Period.
So intoned historian Abu Mansur Abdu l-Malik ath-Thaalibi (961–1038), who as a young man was privileged to sit at the feet of the savants of Bukhara. One literary star of the time was Rudagi (858–c.941), who was born in a village near Samarkand on the middle Zerafshan River (some say a village near Panjakant, in current-day Tajikistan). 

According to some accounts, he was blind from birth or early childhood, although this has been disputed. He flowered early as a poet and as a lyricist who may have sung his effusions and accompanied himself on the harp. He was soon noticed by the Prime Minister of Samanid Ruler Ismael (892-907), who declared that as a poet Rudagi was “peerless among the Arabs and Persians.”
Mausoleum of Ismael Samani in Bukhara (Click for Enlargement)
Inside of Mausoleum, with what is purported to be Ismael Samani’s tomb, although it is not clear if his body is actually inside it. 
Eventually he caught the attention of Ismael’s successor, Nasr II (r.914–943) and went on to became his court poet. According to one thirteen-century historian, Rudagi was “the first to compose good poetry in Persian . . . that poet so piquant in expression, so fluent in verse, whose Diwan is famous among the Persians, and who was the leader in Persian poetry in his time beyond all his contemporaries.”
The Samanid Amir Nasr b. Ahmad, although a native of Bukhara, set up a court in Herat,  the environs of which he thought more salubrious. Apparently army officers back in Bukhara, after his four year absence, wanted the Amir to return and lead them, and so they appealed to Rudagi to lure him back with his poetry. Rudagi come up with this verse in praise of Bukhara, which may well have been a ballad sung to the accompaniment of a harp.

The sands of the Oxus, toilsome though they be, 
Beneath my feet were soft as silk to me.
Glad at the friends’s return, the Oxus deep
Up to our girth’s in laughing waves shall leap.
Long live Bukhara! Be thou of good cheer!
Joyous toward thee hasteth our Amir!
The moon’s the Prince, Bukhara is the sky;
O Sky, the Moon shall light thee by and by!
Bukhara is the Mead, the Cypress he;
Receive at last, O Mead, thy Cypress-tree!

Upon hearing these verses, claimed the near-contemporary historian Nidhami-i-Arudi:
The Amir was so much affected that he descended from his throne, bestrode the horse of the sentinel on duty, and set off for Bukhara in such haste that they carried his riding boots after him for two parasangs [about eight miles], as far as Burana, where he put them on; neither did he draw rein anywhere until he reached Bukhara.
The historian also claims that Rudagi received for his efforts 10,000 dirhams from the army officers who wanted Nasr b. Ahmad back in Bukhara. 

Rudagi’s successes as a improvisational poet, lyricist, and harper, however, earned him the scorn of traditionalists who favored a more formal style. The famous fifteenth century literary critic Dawlatshah, in his Memoirs of the Poets,  scoffed at one of Rudagi’s efforts: “If anyone were to produce such a poem in the presence of kings or nobles, it would meet with the reprobation of all.” Dawlatshah appeared to be off the mark in regard to Rudagi’s popularity, however. At one point the poet owned two hundred slaves, and a hundred camels were necessary to carry his baggage when he traveled. His verses, it was said, filled a hundred volumes; he reportedly wrote 1,300,000 couplets. Almost all of his work has been lost. Unfortunately, the poet came to a bad end. He may have fell under the sway of the Ismaili Sect, considered heretical in the domains of the Samanids, and eventually fell out of favor with the court. His lament:

Who had greatness? Who had favour, of all people in the land?
I it was had favour, greatness, from the Saman scions' hand;
Khurasan's own Amir, Nasr, forty thousand dirhams gave,
And a fifth to this was added by Prince of Pure and Brave;
From his nobles, widely scattered, came a sixty thousand more;
Those the times when mine was fortune, fortune good in plenteous store.
Now the times have changed--and I, too, changed and altered must succumb,
Bring the beggar's staff here to me; time for staff and script has come!

He reportedly died in abject poverty. Perhaps in his final days he repeated one of his couplets:

Were there no wine all hearts would be a desert waste, forlorn and black, 
But were our last life-breath extinct, the sight of wine would bring it back.

See More Rudagi Poetry.

In 1958 the Iranian government celebrated the 1100th anniversary of Rudagi’s birth by issuing postage stamps in his name. 
 Iranian postage stamp honoring the 1100th birthday of Rudagi 
 Another Iranian postage stamp honoring the birthday of Rudagi 
In 2008 his 1150th birthday was celebrated by a international seminar held in Tajikistan (the Tajikistanis go with the idea he was born near Panjakant in current day Tajikistan) and attended by Iranian panjandrum President Ahmadinejad. One can only wonder that Rudagi would have to say about Ahmadinejad.