ON THE WAY FROM AMUL TO BALKH
The ruins of several fortress cities that flourished in the era of the Great Silk Road lie along an old caravan road that in the distant past stretched from Amul to Balkh along the left bank of Amu Darya that is now supplanted by the Turkmenabat-Kerki railway and highway running parallel to each other. Some of those fortress cities have disappeared forever after being washed away by the mighty river that often changes its course. It was not without a reason that the Arabs called this river Jayhun - "crazy, mad" - for its cool and capricious temper. Those that survived have long lost their historical names. However, almost all of them carry modern Turkmen names. The largest of them, such as Chishlen-Kala, Kutnam-Kala, Khodjaidat-Kala, Khodjagunduz-Kala and Esenmengli-Kala have turned into massive hills, thus enabling archaeologists to make many discoveries in the future.
At the same time, there is one famous Turkmen village surrounded by several interesting monuments of different epochs, where archaeologists and restoration architects have already done a lot of work to learn the history of the city that once existed there and preserve its relics for posterity. This is Astana-Baba, a modern village located just two kilometers from the river and five kilometers northwest of the modern regional center of Kerki. It was an important place at the crossing over Amu Darya in the distant past.
At the beginning of the last century, it was a large village populated by Ersary Turkmen, who were engaged in farming, sericulture, manufacturing boats for fishermen. Among local people there were skillful potters, stonecutters, woodcarvers, gunsmiths, blacksmiths and other artisans, whose workshops and shops stood compactly around a lively bazaar, a mosques and a shrine that we will talk about below.
Boris Litvinov, a prominent representative of the Russian military oriental studies, was the first European to visit Astana-Baba for scientific reasons in the autumn of 1899. He made a detailed description of the monuments of this village and legends associated with it. Many years later, academician Mikhail Masson made sketches of the yet to be written history of Kerkinsk district. Based on the coin findings, pottery remnants and rare written sources, he concluded that this territory was inhabited both in the Parthian and Kushan-Sassanid periods, i.e. about two thousand years ago. He identified Kerki with the medieval city of Zemme, the first mentioning of which dates back to the VII century in relation to the Arab invasion of Central Asia. The town of Maymarg, the likeliest predecessor of Astana-Baba, stood next to Zemmo.
The ruins of its ancient citadel, called Omar-Kala by Turkmens, tower above a ploughed field near the modern village. It was explored by archaeologist Viktor Pilipko half a century ago. Based on the collected ceramics, including a whole terracotta statuette of a goddess with cult attributes, he dated the mound back to the Kushan and Kushan-Sassanid periods. It is likely that already under the Arabs it turned into an abandoned old fortress, and a new site appeared somewhere nearby.
In his book on Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, diplomat and court historian Abu Nasr al-Utbi, who lived at the turn of the X-XI centuries, mentions Maymarg as a place near Zemma where the last representative of the Samanid dynasty, Ismail al-Muntasir, was buried after being killed in 1005 when he attempted to save his power. The Samanid state collapsed following the invasion of the Karakhanid Turks, but the lands on the left bank of Amu Darya became part of the sultanate of Mahmud Ghazni. To some extent, he was an ally of al-Muntasir in their fight against a common enemy, the Karakhanids, so he could have commanded to perpetuate memory of the great commander by building a mausoleum in Maymarg. In any case, a well-preserved monument located two hundred meters from the Omar-Kala hill, now bearing the name of a certain Alamberdar, testifies to the high level of architectural craftsmanship that was achieved in this region under Ghaznavids in XI-XII centuries.
The Alamberdar Mausoleum is the largest of the early Muslim memorials in the territory of modern Turkmenistan. It has the features that made up the specific characteristics of the monumental architecture of that era, such as the great size and ornamental brickwork with figured carved bricks, the division of facades into rectangles with arched niches and the entrance portal outlined on one of the four facades. It is barely seen here, since it played a small role in the overall composition. Like in the first Muslim tombs, a massive square construction with a dome is predominant. Yet, three hundred years later, a peshtak portal would become the main means of expression in the architecture of Central Asia, Iran, and then the entire Islamic world. Thus, a modest monument, which is now called the Alamberdar Mausoleum, presents the beginning of the still ongoing evolution of portal structures.
The monument stood for one thousand years sharp. Time had naturally caused some damages to the building. It needed major repair work that was carried out in the past, not in the best way, when the dome was rebuilt not very skillfully. Therefore, by the end of the twentieth century, the restorers had to build it anew and completely reconstruct the building. By the way, no graves were found during excavations in and around the mausoleum, which only confirms its purely symbolic nature. It was a typical cenotaph - a memorial building not over a grave with the remains of a deceased but over a possible place of his death.
So, who was Alamberdar, who supplanted the once glorious name of Muntasir? According to the local legend, this name refers to the standard-bearer (the literal meaning of the word "alamberdar"), who was also called Alamadar-Tugchi, a commander under Caliph Ali, a cousin and a son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.
This is a very common case in Central Asia, when an anonymous mausoleum is given a name associated with the history of Islam. At the same time, the Alamberdar Mausoleum did not become a place of pilgrimage, as it usually happens with real or imaginary tombs of saints. It means that despite its extraordinary appearance people associated this monument not with a spiritual but a secular person, because it was very rare that a mausoleum of a ruler or a commander acquired the status of a cult.
There are many sacred places in Turkmenistan where pilgrims continuously perform Ziyarat - a ritual of worshiping one or another shrine. The architectural complex Astana-Baba, located two kilometers from the Alamberdar Mausoleum in another part of the same village, is among such places of worship. The cult of Astana-Baba emerged not without a reason several centuries ago. The name itself refers to the pre-Islamic, heathen origin. It stuck to the village and the architectural ensemble in its suburbs that appeared there in the XIX century. Like most historical monuments, its history has long become a legend.
According to this legend, a certain Khazret Nur-ogly (Ubeida by another version), the ruler of Charvelayat, the medieval region of Khorasan consisting of four districts, had a beautiful daughter named Zubeida. She was married to a governor of Kerki, and she died soon after the wedding. The grieving father brought the best masters from Merv and Samarkand to build a wonderful mausoleum for her. However, the building collapsed immediately after the completion of construction, and it did so three times afterwards. Ubeida fell into despair, and one night he saw an old man, Astana Baba, in a dream. He said that a mausoleum would stand only under one condition, i.e. clay and water for construction works must be brought from Mecca. The ruler sent a caravan to the holy city. Clay from Mecca was mixed with local clay used for production of bricks, and water was poured into the well that was used by builders. They successfully completed their work, and after a while, Ubeida himself was buried next to his daughter.
This legend partially explains the reason for worshipping this monument - clay from Mecca itself was used for its construction! At the same time, it would obviously not be enough for performance of Ziyarat and Sadaka (sacrificial offering), if this place was not related to mysterious Astana-Baba, since the legend aimed to somehow Islamize an image that was popular in these areas, which also had a certain connection with the locality.
Following the archaeological excavations that were conducted there with intervals of 20 years starting from 1983, there had been discovered not only the foundation of the mosque that was dismantled in the early Soviet period. When clearing the area around the existing architectural complex, there had been found the remains of walls of a number of ancient structures that lay underground. These discoveries proved that there once stood a much more developed structure associated with the center of the pre-Islamic cult that existed in this place during the reign of Zoroastrianism.
The word "Astana" in Farsi stands for "mausoleum", "tomb of a saint", as well as "doorstep", "entrance" in the sense that there is the other world after it. Astana-Baba can be translated as Grandfather, Ancestor, Patron of a tomb, that is, it is not a proper name but, in fact, an anonymous substitution of such name. It would usually happen when mentioning in vain a proper name of a highly respected person, usually associated with Sufism, was prohibited by religion. By the way, there is another mausoleum with a similar name in Central Asia dating to the beginning of the XI century. This is Ak Astana-Baba on the bank of Surkhandarya near the Uzbek-Tajik border.
Now it is time to see the Turkmen mausoleum from inside. In essence, this is not one but several structures that at different times stood close to each other. So, it is hard even to imagine the original appearance of the building. Passing a narrow open corridor, which is now fenced with a modern balustrade in the European fashion, a visitor enters a small platform in front of the monumental arched entrance. This is a portal of presumably XII century, strongly modified after the reconstruction of the entire complex in 1918-1920, when this area was still part of the Bukhara emirate. Then follows a covered arched gallery, leading to a close four-pillar hall with nine small domes dating to the XVI-XVII centuries.
The next room is actually the mosque. This is a spacious hall covered with a dome, with rich brick ornamentation and remains of carved terracotta typical of the best works of architecture of the XI-XII centuries. Archaeologists confirmed that this hall is the oldest part of the Astana-Baba complex built under the Ghaznavids.
One can get into the same size room with two tombstones through a small doorway from the prayer hall. It is believed that Zubeida from the above-mentioned legend and her father Ubeida rest there. According to another legend, there were buried brothers Zeid Ali and Zuveyd Ali. It is possible that originally there was the grave of that mysterious Sufi sheikh for whom this memorial was built. In this case, the mosque in front of the gurkhana-tomb is nothing but ziyarathana - a place for memorial prayers. Rays of light penetrating into the gurkhana from the side windows and a lamp in the center of the dome make it possible to see all the details of the interior.
This cannot be said about a scantily lit hall located on the other side of the wall. According to the legends, there rest the wives of the above-mentioned brothers. That is why that hall is called Gyzlar-Bibi (gyzlar means girls and bibi is a respectful way to address the wives of clergy). This is the latest accretion to the complex dating back to the XIX century. A completely dark corridor leads to it from the intermediate hall called "divanhana". They say it was used for healing insane people who were brought to the holy place and kept in chains. However, in the past, Turkmens used the word "divana" not only in relation to violent madmen but also poor, weak-minded people and those who were simply obsessed with ideas. So, it could well be a "khanaka" - a room for traveling dervishes from various Sufi orders.
Thus, this is a general outline of the Astana-Baba ensemble - the most popular shrine of the entire Middle Amu Darya. In 2010, experts from the Kerki State Historical and Cultural Reserve completed a cycle of restoration work there. They restored the arched corridor, rebuilt nine domes of the four-pillar hall that collapsed a long time ago, removed dilapidated sections of masonry in the main structures, renovated the brick facing of the domes and landscaped the area adjacent to the complex.
A story about the monuments of Astana-Baba village will not be complete, if we fail mentioning another remarkable architectural facility located at an equal distance between the Alamberdar Mausoleum and the complex described above. This is the Akmuhammed-Ishan madrasa, which used to be called Kirk-Kummet (forty domes). It represents a typical pattern of folk architecture of the XVII-XIX centuries. There is a rectangular courtyard surrounded by domed hujras - living rooms of students. The chief of them was darskhana - a domed classroom and a mosque at the same time.
Like all other Turkmen buildings of that period, this madrasa was built entirely of mud bricks plastered with clay mortar. The Silk Road no longer existed by that time, the economy was in decline, professional artels of architects disappeared long ago. However, despite such steep decline in quality of construction equipment and primitiveness of arched-dome structures, the Akmuhammed-Ishan madrasa still looks like an integral building thanks to the uniformity of material and plasticity of forms, yet it had been partially reconstructed.
Here, in a stretch of only two kilometers of land along the bank of Amu Darya, one can see the compressed history of the last two millennia of which we know far less than this land can tell.