THE GREAT SILK ROAD HERITAGE
ON THE THRESHOLD OF NEW DISCOVERIES AT DANDANAKAN
There is a medieval city along Ashgabat - Mary road, halfway between the regional center and the Khauskhan reservoir, which can be hardly seen from cars moving at high speed, although the city's southern side almost touches the modern highway. Only two hundred meters separate the roadway from this archaeological monument. However, the tall thickets of tamarisk make it invisible from the road. Even if one stops and ascends a flat elevation, which is nothing more than faded ruins of the former city, slightly covered by the Karakum sand, the remnants of this city can be scarcely found in this landscape. Only countless scatterings of broken utensils and fragments of old bricks in the gaps of soil and pits - the traces of past excavations - clearly indicate that life blossomed there once.
More than one thousand years have passed since a trade-craft town with the resonant name of Dandanakan emerged on the caravan route between Serakhs and Merv. The first records of this town can be found in "History of the Prophets and Kings" by al-Tabari (IX century), referring to the events dated back to 734 in relation to the beginning of the uprising of local tribes under the leadership of al-Haris ibn Sureijah against the Arab sultans from the Umayyad dynasty. Thirteen years later, another famous rebel Abu Muslim stayed in Dandanakan with his seventy guard detachments. If Dandanakan was capable of accommodating such an impressive army, it means it was not that small by the middle of the VIII century.
Beginning the IX century, almost all Arab geographers provided identical descriptions of the caravan path from Serakhs to Merv, so there is no need to refer to any of them. They portrayed Dandanakan as a small fortified city with good baths, two mosques - one of them was Friday-prayer Juma mosque with a minaret and the other one was for everyday prayers. It is also known that the prominent people of Khorasan originated from this town. Among them was preacher Mansur as-Sulami, whose name is possibly associated with a mosque dated to the middle of the 12th century.
Dandanakan, located on the border between the agricultural Merv oasis and the cattle breeding areas of the Karakum desert, played an important role in the early stage of the formation of the Seljuk Empire. The first mentioning of Turkmens, who used pastures near Dandanakan, appeared during the lifetime of Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi, the ruler of the state that included the entire region of Merv. On 23 May 1040, his son and successor Sultan Masud suffered a crushing defeat from the Turkmen cavalry in the battle near the walls of Dandanakan, which predetermined the fall of the Ghaznavid state and the beginning of the brilliant era of rule of the Turkmen dynasty of the Great Seljuk.
One extremely valuable record of that time has survived, namely the memoirs by historian Abul-Fazl Mohammed Beyhaki of the Gaznevid court. He was in the Sultan's retinue all the time, including the campaign against the Turkmen Seljuk, who by 1040 seized the vast territory of North Khorasan and based themselves in the Dandanakan area. The credibility of Beyhaki's notes is beyond doubt, as he was not just a witness but a participant in the Dandanakan battle. This is a quite reliable historical document.
As Beyhaki writes, Masud arrived in Serakhs on May 15, long before the coming of summer heat. The city lay in ruins. There was no water, no crops. A similar scene appeared before the Gaznevid army further down the way to Merv. On May 17, Masud led his troops out of Serakhs, and, on the third day, he had to change the route, leaving the main road towards the east, to the Murgab river bank. "It was strange to see no water on this road either," Beyhaki noted. "When we reached big rivers (or channels), they also turned out to be dry. And on the third day of the march, it came down to digging wells to get water." The explanation of such a life-threatening situation on the previously convenient Serakhs - Merv road came from Beyhaki himself. The Turkmens who retreated into the remote places of the desert intentionally destroyed the existing irrigation network. This tactic proved quite successful. Exhausted and thirsty enemies with their cavalry and battle elephants could not resist the powerful onslaught of Seljuks. As a result, history made another steep turn.
One hundred years after the battle, Dandanakan was mentioned in one of the chronicles in connection with the events of 1158, when the nomads attacked the city and slaughtered part of the population. The most recent coins found there date back exactly to this period. Following the ravage, the city existed until 1217, when famous Arabian geographer Yakut al-Hamavi visited this place and left his impressions to descendants. "It stands in ruin and nothing remains of it, except for the rabat and the minaret ... I saw it, and there was nothing but a standing wall and traces of beautiful buildings, indicating that it was a city. It is covered with sand that destroyed it and evicted its inhabitants." Mongols were the last to hit the city four years later. They destroyed and burned what had remained of it.
As centuries passed, looters and diggers of bricks devastated Dandanakan, like many other dead cities. Over many years, all sorts of treasure hunters and lovers of antiquity dug up the surface of Shahristan in search of treasure, while residents of the nearest villages took high-strength bricks from Dandanakan for their construction works, causing an irreversible damage to the remnants of medieval architecture. Obviously, it was high quality bricks that influenced the renaming of the hill, which emerged on the site of the former city, into Dashrabat (Stone Rabat).
The former name of the city had been completely forgotten by that time, and it was only in the middle of the 20th century that two Ashgabat archaeologists, Alexander Marushchenko and Sergey Yershov, calculated almost simultaneously that Dashrabat was the medieval town of Dandanakan. They simply compared the distances between the caravan sites on the ancient tract from Serakhs to Merv specified in the works by the Arab geographers of the 9th-12th centuries with the distances between the extremely rare archaeological sites on this stretch of the Silk Road. All facts concurred with absolute accuracy. In the fifties, this route was thoroughly explored by their colleague archaeologist Kurban Adykov. However, it was by chance that the first archaeological excavations at Dandanakan happened even earlier.
This is what happened. In December 1941, two boxes with fragments of magnificent architectural ornaments from carved ganch, pottery, bronze, copper, stone and glass items were brought to the Ashgabat Institute of History, Language and Literature of the Turkmen branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences from one military unit located near the city of Mary. Four photographs of some ruined building were attached to the cover letter. The letter said that all this was found in one of the burial mounds during excavations.
Three outstanding persons were immediately dispatched to examine the location of findings. They were the orientalist-Iranist, Professor of the Moscow University Boris Zakhoder; Assistant Professor of the Department of Archeology of the Moscow State University Georgy Fedorov - both were at that time in Ashgabat in the evacuation - as well as the above-mentioned Sergey Yershov. Architect Mikhail Kamyshnikov from Ashgabat joined them later. The youngest of them - Fedorov - who later became a renowned archeologist, doctor of historical sciences - became world-famous as an outstanding writer whose works were published in large quantities in the 1960s and 1970s in Moscow and abroad. One of his novellas with the self-explanatory name of "Daytime Surface" - which is the name for modern terrain in scientific jargon - describes in detail the discovery and excavation of Dandanakan in the deep home front of the Great Patriotic War. Although Georgy Fedorov changed the names of his main characters, they are easily recognizable.
They worked in January and February 1942. Having reached the place where they were taken by the military, archaeologists ascended to the plateau of the Dashrabat hill and saw a pit, in which, according to Fedorov, "one could see part of the column lying on the ground, entirely covered with carvings, at a depth of two meters from under a layer of sand and burnt bricks. Deep carved images of rosettes, polygons, ovals and circles, inscribed in each other, delighted the eye with their bold drawing precision."
Several decades had passed before a fragment of this column, which belonged to the Mihrab of a Friday-prayer mosque that stood there, was brought to distant New York for display at the Seljuk art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. At present, this and other fragments of Dandanakan's Mihrab are displayed at the State Museum of Turkmenistan, where the materials from the excavations of 1942 were delivered after many journeys. The scientists managed to do a lot in just a few weeks of that cold winter. The commander of the unit who discovered this monument provided archaeologists with minimal living conditions, and, most importantly, a platoon of sappers for excavations.
Thanks to that old expedition and publications by Zakhoder, Yershov and Fedorov that did not take long to appear, Dandanakan turned from the legend to the archaeological reality. It turned out that each side of its Shahristan, square-shaped by design, is 235 meter long. The fortress walls and the corner towers faded so much that they were not visible at all. It also turned out that Dandanakan, like many Muslim cities of that time, had a complex water supply system and even the rudiments of sewerage, as evidenced by a ceramic pipeline for disposal of sewage connected to cesspools. In addition to brick manufacturing, Dandanakan's craftsmen used to produce a variety of ceramic utensils, as well as glass and metal products - weapons, medical instruments, ornaments.
As Zakhoder noted, "it is very likely that part of the city that was surrounded by a fortress wall, what was called Shahristan, was primarily a religious-administrative center, and all businesses concentrated in rabat - handicrafts quarters surrounding the fortified Shahristan." According to Beyhaki's description (XI century), the rabats of the North Khorasan cities were distinguished by the unusual density of dwellings. They were built of raw brick or even of pakhsa - layers of clay mixed with straw. This technique of mass construction throughout the region, including Iran and Afghanistan, has successfully survived into the 21st century.
There is a small hill one hundred meters to the east of Shahristan, hiding the ruins of a big caravanserai. Traces of one more, a smaller one, are barely seen nearby, and the same mosque found by soldiers stood in the western quarter of Shahristan. It is clear that it attracted special attention of the expedition, but there was not enough time to dig it out completely, as the battalion, having completed its service in the home front, went to the battlefields.
Archaeologists returned to Dandanakan only 75 years later. Turkmenistan's National Directorate for Protection, Study and Restoration of Historical and Cultural Monuments organized a new expedition. In the spring of 2017, the first season of excavations alone resulted in finding a whole collection of interesting items, the best of which were presented to the Mary Regional Museum of Local History and the Museum of Fine Arts of Turkmenistan. The excavation was started by the specialists of the State Historical and Cultural Reserve "Ancient Merv", and they will be soon joined by their American counterparts from the Metropolitan Museum. It means the major discoveries will follow.