THE GREAT SILK ROAD HERITAGE
ARCHITECTS OF SERAKHS
There remained several structures with the so-called building inscriptions among famous monuments of medieval architecture preserved in Turkmenistan and neighboring countries. They are a kind of autographs by those who erected the buildings that have stood there for so many centuries. Such monumental epigraphy has preserved not only the names of the masters. One can often learn about the customers of structures and sometimes the dates of construction from the inscriptions made in elegant Arabic letters. Thanks to these discreet relief panels, made not in the best places, somewhere under the domed vault or closer to the top of the minaret, we know exactly who built the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar in Merv, the Rabat-i-Sharaf caravanserai in the desert between Serakhs and Nishapur, a minaret in Dzharkurgan near Termez. Three of these monuments have one common feature - they were all erected by the Serakhs architects in the twelfth century.
Apart from them, there is certainly a number of magnificent buildings in different places of Turkmenistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan that have not preserved inscriptions. However, by their architectural style and construction technique, one can speak with great confidence about influence of the Serakhs architects, if not about their authorship. First, these are the monuments of the 11th-12th centuries with patterned brickwork in the facade or interiors, located in the vicinity of Merv, such as Khudaynazar-Ovlya, Imam Bakr, memorial mosques of Mohammed Ibn Zeid and Talhatan-Baba. In Lebap province, there is the decoratively similar Dyakhatyn caravanserai standing along the caravan route between Amul and Khiva on the bank of Amu Darya, as well as the Astana-Baba mosque and the Alamberdar mausoleum near Kerki. Only three mausoleums of that time (discussed below) survived in Serakhs itself. They also have not preserved any autographs, but there are all signs of high skills and talent of builders. What kind of city was it, and why was it of such interest to artel masters in those days?
Old Serakhs lies on the right bank of Tejen river, whose channel serves as a natural border between Turkmenistan and Iran. Formed by the fusion of two other rivers, Gheriruda and Keshefruda, this river was called Arius in ancient times. Before the Mongol invasion, the river delta, which is almost deserted now, was a densely populated oasis whose fertile soil and abundance of water attracted people even in the Eneolithic era, i.e. in the fourth millennium BC. The active development of the Serakh oasis began in the early Iron Age, about three thousand years ago. At that time, it was the western outskirts of ancient Bactria, a country that stretched to the middle current of Amu Darya and was inseparably tied to Margiana of the Bronze Age or the country of Margush. Archaeological evidence of that period is still very scarce. Such evidence was found in 1953 by the pioneer of archeology of Turkmenistan, Alexander Marushchenko, who conducted exploratory excavations at the ancient settlement of Old Serakhs.
Serakhs turned into the center of the oasis in the epoch of the Achaemenid (VI-IV centuries BC). Even then, according to Gerodotot, there existed a developed irrigation system that was controlled by the rulers of this city.
The famous Behistun inscription by King Darius I presents the archaic name of this land - Harayva, which in the ancient Greek transcription sounds like Areia or Aria. There remained a hill of the former citadel of the Achaemenid period in Serakhs that scientists believe was called Artakoana at that time. This citadel stood on a high platform surrounded by a mud wall, as well as several excavated hills-depe in other places of the oasis. To all appearances, they were the ancestral home of farmers.
Other Greco-Roman writers also wrote about ancient Serakhs, such as Polybiy, Strabo, Pliny and Ptolemy, who called this area Syracena. Somewhere in the Serakhs area, Alexander of Macedon crossed Tejen-Ariy. According to Quintus Curtius Rufus, he conquered Artakoana quite easily. When the Greeks brought the siege towers to the walls of the city, the frightened defenders surrendered themselves to the conqueror. The king not only forgave them but also returned all the seized property. Over the next month, he conquered all the cities of the Serakh oasis and founded the city of Alexandria-Aria in the basin of Gherirud, in the place of modern Herat. However, in the period after Alexander of Macedon, Serakhs declined, as the Gerat oasis, a new center of Greco-Macedonian satrapy, began to develop rapidly up Tejen river, consuming most of the water. Later, following the establishment of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom in the 3rd century BC, Serakhs became a major fortress on its western borders that the Selevkid king Anthony III never managed to conquer.
In the II century BC, the Serakhs oasis became part of the Parthian state. Historical sources point to the conquest of three regions by the Parthians: Margiana, Areia and Traxiana. In this regard, Turkmen historian Ovezgeldy Orazov, who studied this region for many years, suggested that mysterious Traxiana was in fact the Serakhs oasis. Thirty of one hundred and thirty settlements in its territory date back to the Parthian period. One of them, Mele Heiran, was completely excavated by the Polish archaeologists from the University of Warsaw, who have been working there for the last 20 years. Other than many fine art samples of that time, they have discovered the ruins of a fire temple whose walls were decorated with a relief ornament made in the technique of deep carving on ganch (gypsum with admixture of clay). This perfected technique was used several centuries later by the architects of Serakhs for the finishing of their buildings.
Under the Sasanids (III-VII centuries), the importance of Serakhs increased. It turned into a major administrative center of Khorasan, covering since then the whole region from Nishapur to Balkh. By the time of the Arab conquest in the fifties of the VII century, the city was very populous, surrounded by the powerful mud walls with towers and a moat. The townspeople fiercely resisted the invaders. That is why it was completely destroyed after the assault and capture of the city by the Arabs. The revival of the Serakhs oasis began only two hundred years later under the Tahirids, when dependence of the whole Khorasan on the Arab caliphs weakened markedly. Water returned to the valley, rural households emerged and the city walls were rebuilt around the old citadel in Serakhs. It genuinely prospered in the 9th century, when Khorasan became part of the Samanid state. This was evidenced by the Arabian geographer Al-Istakhri who wrote ... "Serakhs is about half the size of Merv, well built up and has fertile soil".
In 1038, at the walls of Serakhs, the Seljuks inflicted a severe defeat on their Ghaznavid rivals. Becoming an important part of the Seljuk Empire, Serakhs entered the highest stage of its development. This was facilitated by its convenient location at the crossing over Tejen river on the ancient caravan route between Nishapur and Merv. In the XI century, the city's territory grew to 120 hectares. The ruins of the Serakhs citadel still rise 24 meters above the terrain, and it was a residence of a local ruler one thousand years ago. The city was fortified with a new wall made of burnt bricks. Along with the economic growth, culture also reached the high level of development. The book depository at the Abu Raja mosque attracted scholars from the remotest places of the Muslim world.
It was at this time that an artel of Serakhs architects came into being. They travelled to neighboring cities of Khorasan and neighboring regions. The most famous were Ali Ibn Mohammed Al-Serakhsi, who built a minaret in Dzharkurgan, and his younger contemporary Muhammad Ibn Atsyz Al-Serakhsi, who worked in Merv. They and their unknown fellow architects were not only skilled decorators with a subtle taste and impressive sense of proportion. They also had strictly scientific knowledge of proportions based on the principles of geometric harmonization. They also proved to be outstanding engineers-designers who were the first in the world to use double-layer domes to cover large halls. Such domes can be seen on the mausoleums of Sheikh Abul-Fazl, which the Turkmens call Serakhs-Baba (1024), Sheikh Abu Sayyd Abul Khair or Meana-Baba (second half of the 11th century) and, above all, on the tomb of Sultan Sanjar, built no later than in 1152. The design of the reversed arches and the double-layer of the dome of this splendid structure was born a century and a half ahead of the idea of architect Ali Shah of Tabriz, who built the mausoleum of Ilkhan Oljeytu in the city of Soltanie in the northwest of Iran and three hundred years ahead of Philip Brunelleschi, creator of the dome of the famous Florentine cathedral.
The mausoleum of Abul-Fazl is one of the best creations of Serakhs masters. Given its small size (the length of each side is slightly more than 15 meters), the building seems to be very monumental. We got used to the image of this monument with a huge dome shaped like a lapidary monolith, without any interconnections and details, which has no analogues anywhere in the Islamic architecture. Although it now stands with a dilapidated portal that outlines the entrance, it was originally a centric construction typical for the Seljuk time by its structure and decor. Such defining features include decorating the facade walls with pairs of bricks and barely visible arched niches on each wall and a spherical dome over a cubic volume and a bypass gallery along the entire perimeter of the walls that can be reached through two spiral staircases to the left and right of the entrance.
As historian of architecture Anna Pribytkova noted, buildings were not covered with plaster or lining in Central Asia in the XI century. Bricks were laid so skillfully that buildings acquired artistic architectural forms. A salient portal with carvings on ganch and decorative Arabic inscriptions against a background of vegetal ornamentation was the only part of the building that was markedly different from its original architecture. The inscription says that this portal was attached to the mausoleum in 1418, when Serakhs was part of the domain of Timurid ruler Shahrukh, a well-known patron of religious buildings. At present, the upper part of the portal is absent. It collapsed quite a long time ago. Only the arch vault above the entrance was preserved during the restoration of the monument in the eighties of the last century.
Abul Fazl was a contemporary and fellow countryman of another famous Sheik Lukman Ibn Muhammad Pirand, also known as Ulug Baba and Lokman-i Serakhsi. His huge mausoleum, in many respects similar to the tomb of Abul Fazl, stands nine kilometers away on the other side of Tejen river in the territory of Iran. Five kilometers to the south of the mausoleum of Abul-Fazl there are ruins called Yarty-Gumbez, meaning "half of the dome" if translated literally from the Turkmen. There is no gravestone at all, but the monument is called a mausoleum. Researchers suggested that it could be the tomb of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Hada, buried in Andukan, one of the villages of the Serakhs oasis. Historian As-Samani wrote about him in the 12th century. Others believed that there was the tomb of a certain Shems ul-Eyimme al-Serakhsi. However, all those versions were nothing more than late interpretations of the building that was erected as a memorial mosque in 1098. This is evidenced by the epigraphic inscription on its facade, which is now lost. The most interesting architectural detail of what has been preserved at Yarty-Gumbez is trumpet arches or arched sails, i.e. the devices to support the overhangs of the dome, round-shaped in the view plan, located above the corners of a square room. The arched sails at Yarty-Gumbez have a rare three-lobed shape, similar to those found in the mausoleum of Meana-Baba and in the caravanserai Rabat-i Sharaf. Their decoration is very exquisite, as various types of decorative brickwork were imitated in carving on ganch.
Rabat-i-Sharaf is a real masterpiece of the Serakhs architects. It was built around 1115, ninety kilometers west of Serakhs. It was designed as a typical caravanserai, consisting of a large square courtyard with a swimming pool in the center surrounded by an arcade on massive pillars around the perimeter and four deep vaulted aivans (three-walled rooms) along the axes. A gallery passes through a variety of rooms on all sides. Other than uniform living cells, there is a small mosque, several service rooms and warehouses with a stable. By the order of Sultan Sanjar, the caravanserai was enlarged by adding another rectangular courtyard with a group of different halls on three sides. The monumental portal in many respects repeated the architecture of the former entrance, which now appears inside the new courtyard. In spite of the fact that Rabat-i Sharaf was completed in two stages, all its architecture follows the same style with the characteristic handwriting by the Serakhs masters.
Finally, there is another attributive facility built by them, such as a corrugated minaret in the village of Dzharkurgan in the south of modern Uzbekistan. According to the inscription made of bricks in a vertical rectangle on one of the semicircular bundles of the trunk, the Serakhs masters built this tower in 1110 by the order of the same Sanjar, when he had not yet ruled the entire Seljuk Empire but the province of Khorasan. The height of the minaret is now 21 meters. However, this is at least half of its original size. One can imagine by proportions the size of the minaret before its collapse.
When the state of the Great Seljuk fell in the second half of the 12th century and Khorasan plunged into anarchy, the Serakhs masters continued their work in other, more prosperous cities of Central Asia and Iran. There are explicit signs of their involvement in the constructive knots and decorations of a number of monuments in the state of the Khorezmshahs in the north and west of Khorasan and the state of the Gurids in the south. Only in the XIII century, already under the Mongols, their tracks disappeared. Other tastes brought to life a new style that absorbed the richest heritage of the old masters.