Friday, October 14, 2022

Chingis Khan Rides West

Since the time of the Xiongnu two thousand years ago the nomads of the Mongolian Plateau traditionally looked south toward China for both plunder and trade. In 1215 Chingis Khan turned his attention westward and by 1219 he had decided to invade the Islamic realms of Inner Asia, unleashing a sequence of events that would result in the sack of Baghdad in 1258 by his grandson Khülegü and the fall of the 508 year-old Abbasid Caliphate. The dissolution of the Caliphate by Khülegü dealt a blow to the Islamic world from which some might argue it has never fully recovered. We are still to this day living with the consequences of the Mongol invasion.  

Chingis Khan Rides West examines the motivation behind Chingis Khan’s ride westward to attack the Islamic world and recounts the fall of the great Silk Road cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, Termez, Gurganj, and others.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Mongolia | Wanders in Northern Mongolia

Excerpts from Wanders in Northern Mongolia:

Zagastai Pass is also of some geographical interest, marking as it does the Continental Divide of Inner Asia. Little Khatarch Creek, which we had followed toward the pass, flows into a river system draining westward into one of the salt lakes of the Great Lakes Depression, none of which have an outlet to the ocean. On the north side of the pass begins Zagastai Creek which flows into the river systems eventually draining into the Arctic Ocean thousands of miles to the north. To find the source of the greatest of these river systems, the Yenisei-Angara-Selenge-Ider, is of course the raison d’être of this trip.
from Part 1, The Source of the Ider

The little boy born here in 1635 on the steppe of this broad valley bottom would later be named the Bogd Gegeen at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur; he would travel to Tibet and study with the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama; he would become the most revered leader in all of Khalkh Mongolia, founding many monasteries and creating great works of art; he would spend over a decade of his life in the Chinese capital of Beijing as a guest of the great Kangxi emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and his fame as miracle worker would spread throughout China; he would eventually die in Beijing and later the magnificent monastery of Amarbayasgalant would be built in his honor and serve as the final resting place of his remains; and in 1937 those remains would be destroyed in a bonfire by Mongolian and Soviet soldiers under the orders of a communist government goaded on by Joseph Stalin.
from Part 11, In Search of Zanabazar

According to the thirteenth-century chronicle entitled The Secret History of the Mongols the people now known as Mongols first appeared at the headwaters of the Onon River just north of a mountain called Burkhan Khaldun in the latter half of the eighth century. These people, then still just one tribe among the many which inhabited what is now Mongolia, soon expanded into the valleys of the nearly Kherlen and Tuul rivers. The upper basins of these three rivers—the Onon, the Kherlen, and the Tuul—make up the so-called Three Rivers Region considered to be the traditional homeland of the Mongols. Also, the mountain known as Burkhan Khaldun, located between the headwaters of the Onon and Kherlen, figured in several episodes recounted in the Secret History and was the scene of a crucial event in the life of Chingis Khan himself. As a result he worshipped this mountain, and he gave specific instructions that it should be honored by his descendants’ descendants forever. As I would learn, modern-day Mongolians have not forgotten this injunction.
from Part 111, The Birthplace of the Mongols

Friday, October 15, 2021

Uzbekistan | Khorezm | Nukus | Fifty Forts Region

From Khiva I wandered on down the Amu Darya River (also known as the Oxus)  to the city of Nukus. Actually I did not want to go to Nukus. I was much more interesting in the ruins of the old Silk Road cities and fortresses scattered along the north bank of the Amu Darya, but my driver insisted that all tourists who come this way go to Nukus to visit the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art. Unfortunately he did not point out why all tourists go to the Karakalpakstan State Museum. It turns out, according to A Recent Story In The New York Times, that this “museum in the parched hinterland of Uzbekistan . . . is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Russian avant-garde art.”

I did not know this at the time. I did peek through a few doorways into galleries containing what looked like avant-garde art, but of course I did not go in, since I have not the slightest interest in anything avant-garde and indeed little interest in any art created since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. I did spend an enjoyable couple of hours examining the museum’s fair to middling collection of Zoroastrian Ossuaries, which was especially interesting to me since I had just recently visited a Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, also on the banks of the Amu Darya, where human corpses were stripped of their flesh so their bones could be collected and placed in funeral urns like these. I also drooled over the museum’s small but mouth-wateringly delectable collection of antique Turkmen Carpets.  

But enough of that. From Nukus we proceeded eastward along the northern bank of the Amu Darya through what is known as the Ellik Kala, or Fifty Forts Region. The area is dotted with ruins of cities and forts dating from perhaps the third or fourth century BC to the seventh century AD. At one time many of these settlements would have served as important way-stations on the Silk Road between Bukhara and Samarkand to the east and Kunya Urgench, farther on down the Amu Darya. 
 Kyzyl Kala (Fortress)
 Ruins of Toprak Kala, dating to about 2000 years ago
  Ruins of Toprak Kala
  Ruins of Toprak Kala
  Ruins of Toprak Kala
  Ruins of Toprak Kala
Aerial view of the ruins of the lower fortress of Ayaz Kala. Built sometime in the 4th–7th centuries AD, the fortress may have been destroyed during the Mongol Invasion of Khorezm in the 1220s (see Enlargement). The ruins of the old city can be seen to the left of the fortress. 
Ruins of the lower fortress of Ayaz Kala
Ruins of the lower fortress of Ayaz Kala
 Ruins of the lower fortress of Ayaz Kala
Just north of the Lower Fortress on a higher summit is another larger fortress dating back to the 4th century BCE.

Aerial View of Upper Fortress (see Enlargement)
 Ruins of the upper fortress of Ayaz Kala
 Ruins of the upper fortress of Ayaz Kala
Ruins of the upper fortress of Ayaz Kala

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Uzbekistan | Khwarezm | Mizdakhan | City of the Dead

From Janpiq Qala we proceeded forty-eight miles as the crow flies downstream to the no-account city of Nukus, which I had visited before and certainly did not want to visit again. Hurrying through Nukus we crossed the Amu Darya River and drove about twenty-five miles southwest to the immense burial grounds of Mizdakhan. Apparently there was a settlement on this site as far back as the fourth century b.c. when Khwarezm was freeing itself from the Persian Achaemenid Empire. This original settlement was destroyed by fire around the end of the second century b.c. Another settlement existed here between the first and fourth centuries a.d. but it too was eventually destroyed by agents unclear. Around the second century b.c. a cemetery was established here and after the settlements disappeared the area eventually became devoted to burials. Between the fifth and eight centuries it became an important Zoroastrian burial site with many ossuaries containing bones which had been had stripped of their flesh at places like the Tower of Silence which I had visited earlier. There are also some Christian burials here dating to the seventh century. These probably involve members of the Melkite sect who had settled in Khwarezm. Interestingly they had apparently adopted Zoroastrian burial customs and interred the bones of their dead in ossuaries. 

In 712 a.d. the Islamic Arabs conquered the area, destroying many of the local Zoroastrian fire  temples and killing Zoroastrian priests. Zoroastrian burials continued until about the ninth century, however, indicating that the Arabs had not been able to immediately stamp out Zoroastrianism.  The first Muslim burials date to around the ninth century. From then on the necropolis grew exponentially. I have not seen any figures on how many tombs are in the necropolis, but there are certainly thousands and perhaps tens of thousands. Many people with the means to do so built mausoleums the size of houses.

Among the notables is the tomb of Shamun Nabi. According to legend the tomb of this well-known local holy man, like the Tomb of Khizr in Samarkand, continues to get longer each year. It is already over 50 feet long and supposedly still growing!
The seven-domed mausoleum of Shamun Nabi (click on photos for enlargements)
The ever-growing tomb of Shamun Nabi
Not far from the tomb of Shamun Nabi is the Mazlum Sulu Khan Mausoleum. This is especially interesting since it dates back to the time of the last Khwarezmshahs, either Tekesh (r. 1172–1200) or his son Mohammed (r. 1200–1220), at the end of the twelfth century or the beginning of the thirteenth. Thus it was quite new when the Mongols arrived in the area in the winter of 1220–1221. It is usually kept locked, but an old caretaker appeared out of nowhere and offered to open it up for my inspection. He did not speak English but we were able to communicate in Russian.  

The mausoleum is fairly unusual in that it is underground. It was a blistering 85º F outside but walking down the steps into the main room of the mausoleum was like entering an air-conditioned hotel room. The caretaker said it stays cool throughout even the hottest days of summer. The cupola over the underground room may have been destroyed during the Mongol invasion but it was later rebuilt and the mausoleum eventually became an important pilgrimage site. Still later it became a hangout for shamans. According to a legend retold by Khwarezm Qala Cognoscente David Richardson, the mausoleum is named after the daughter of an important local official, apparently back when the mausoleum was built: 
Mazlum Sulu Khan was supposedly the beautiful daughter of the governor of Mizdahkan. Despite being desired by all of the local eligible bachelors, Mazlum Sulu Khan was in love with a poor builder. Frustrated by the lack of a suitable groom, the governor foolishly announced that he would give his daughter’s hand to the young man who could build a minaret as tall as the sky in the space of one night. Naturally the poor builder succeeded in constructing the minaret, but when he came to the palace for the hand of his bride the following morning, the governor refused. The dejected young man jumped from the top of the minaret only to be followed by the beautiful and distraught Mazlum Sulu Khan. The heartbroken governor ordered that the minaret be destroyed. The young lovers were buried together and a mausoleum was constructed above their grave using the bricks from the ruins of the minaret.   
This, however, is supposedly only a legend, and it remains unclear for whom the mausoleum was actually built. But if it is just a legend then who is buried in the small tombs on which someone has placed artificial flowers? I tried to get more information from the caretaker, but bizarrely enough as soon as he found out I was an American he launched into a long monologue about the ex-boxer Mike Tyson. Unfortunately, my Russian was not up to grasping his point. This is the fifth or sixth time I have heard about Mike Tyson in Uzbekistan. Next to Obama he appears to be the best known American in the country. The only other person who comes close is Beyoncé. 
Entrance to the underground chamber
Underground chamber with a tomb decorated with flowers
Underground chamber with a tomb decorated with flowers
View of the dome over the underground chamber
Another tomb with flowers. Who is actually buried here is unknown.
Madrassa destroyed by Amir Timur when he swept through Khwarezm in1388. The bricks stacked in what looks like tiny ovoos adds a peculiarly Mongolian touch to the scene. 
City of the Dead:These are all tombs
City of the Dead
City of the Dead
City of the Dead
City of the Dead
Just a mile or so from the necropolis are the ruins of Gyaur Qala, not to be confused with the Gyaur Qala farther upstream on the Amu Darya. It was destroyed by Chingis Khan’s sons Ögedei and Chagatai in the winter of 1220-1221 either before or after they sacked the Khwarezm capital of Urgench, fifteen miles or so to the southwest. I would of course love to visit Urgench (now Konye Urgench) but it is on the other side of the border in Turkmenistan and I do not have a visa for Turkmenistan. 
Ruins of Gyaur Qala

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Iran | Esfahan | Abbasi Hotel

Wandered down to Esfahan, south of Tehran. I was especially looking forward to visiting Esfahan since I had booked a room at the legendary Abassi Hotel, which if not the city’s best hotel is certainly the most historic and picturesque.
Location of Esfahan (click on photos for enlargements).
The Abbasi Hotel was originally a caravanserai built during the time the the Safavid Sultan Husayn (1668—1726). It was restored and remodeled in the 1950s into an upscale hotel. Film buffs may recognize the hotel as the set for the 1974 movie Ten Little Indians starring Oliver Reed and German bombshell Elke Sommer. I had read some on-line reviews that groused about the small size of some of the rooms at the hotel. This was certainly not the case with my first floor room, which opened directly onto the courtyard. A troop of dancers, had one been available, could have bivouacked in the room with space left over for a camel or two. 
This etching was made in 1840. 
The basic layout of the building itself has changed very little since 1840. The two-story arched alcove near the right edge of the etching now hosts a charming little snack shop. The dome and minaret of the mosque seen looming over the top of the building are unchanged. Oh how I would have loved to have been in that courtyard when it still hosted camels! Note that the camels shown are Two-Humped Bactrians, the most noble of the world’s four-legged creatures, and not one-humped dromedaries. I would have had second thoughts about staying at the caravanserai if they had allowed in dromedaries, unless, of course, dromedaries were restricted to their own watering troughs.
Lobby of hotel. I took this photo at five o’clock in the morning. During the day and evening the lobby was a madhouse of milling tourists from England, Germany, Italy, Spain, China, and elsewhere. As far as I could tell I was the only American. 
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
I spent my late afternoons in the courtyard enjoying glasses of refreshing hibiscus tisane with rock sugar. Clinically proven to lower your blood pressure!
Hotel lobby coffee shop where I got my morning caffeine fix. In the afternoons it was jammed with Chinese tour groups.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Mongolia | Gobi Desert

(click on photos for enlargements)