THE GREAT SILK ROAD HERITAGE
TAK, YAZYR, SHEKHRISLAM...
The lost desert city of Shekhrislam, once a significant communication hub linking the agricultural oases in the south of Turkmenistan and cattle-breeding nomads in the north, occupies a special place among many cities of traders and artisans that existed along the main routes of the Silk Road. A place where life bloomed for six hundred years, at least from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries, is located just half an hour car ride from the modern city of Bakharden. It is hard to imagine that in those days this lifeless place was well planned, green and beautiful. Like in the past, there is a steppe with moving sand dunes, but the city has long withered and dried out like an old tree without water to feed it. Multilingual bazaars and numerous workshop furnaces, where people once burned bricks and household faience, melted metal and baked bread, have long been gone.
All that remained until recently was just amorphous hills dotted with ceramic fragments where buildings once stood, traces of former excavations almost covered with sand and the only mausoleum of the 19th century roughly built of old bricks in the place of an old cemetery.
The sound of caravan bells and a call to compulsory prayer (azan) set by the Prophet Mohammed have not been heard for a long time in the clean air over the swollen ruins overgrown with camel's-thorn (yandak) and saxaul. Yet, there once stood richly decorated mosques, as befits the places of worship in Islam. This is evidenced by many placers of fragments of their former decoration in the form of ceramic tiles covered with pure blue glaze that lie on the surface of the dead city. Some of them are curved, which means that they were once letters of the Arabic alphabet for epigraphic texts on the facades of monumental buildings.
All this has disappeared from the face of the earth, dispelled by the wind, absorbed by the sands, but something has remained. There are still many remnants under the thick layer of the soil or the cultural layer to be more precise. However, only experienced archaeologists can extract and, most importantly, understand information hidden in the ground. At the same time, experts can also draw certain conclusions before the start of excavations. They can identify the approximate age of the settlement, find out what it was called at a certain time and even identify the names of the rulers of the settlement. They only need to carefully examine the relief of the monument, collect samples of ceramics, which are always scattered on the surface, and, if they are lucky, pick up coins.
Numismatic materials are very informative. They provide scientists with the most accurate information on the history and chronology of a site where they manage to find a whole treasure or individual specimens of ancient money. That is why the finds discovered in unknown places by random people do not have any scientific value. Taken out of context, they will not tell anyone anything. In this sense, Shekhrislam was lucky. Located far from modern settlements, it did not suffer much damage from the black diggers, as it came to the scientists' attention just in time. The Russian military orientalist, Captain Fyodor Mikhailov, who was a district superintendent in the nearby Turkmen village of Durun, was the first researcher to visit these ruins in 1897. He made a plan of the settlement and carried out small excavations there. He quite carefully traced the ancient water pipeline that led to Shekhrislam from the piedmont water springs (kariz).
These tunnels, dug in the Middle Age, stretched from aquifers to water consumption places. They came to the surface, turning into canals that fed irrigated fields or went further along narrow underground canals made of bricks, delivering water to the city. According to the description made by Mikhailov, it was already by the end of the 19th century that his water pipeline, quite advanced for its time, stood completely destroyed. The pipeline's direction could be traced by broken bricks scattered along the entire route and the embankments along which it ran.
In 1929, Academician Vasily Barthold published an Essay on the History of the Turkmen People, in which, relying on his extensive knowledge of medieval written sources, he outlined the milestones of Shekhrislam's life. He found out that the early name of this city was Tak. The word is of Arabic origin. It was borrowed by the Persians, standing for an arch, a vault, a dome and just a roof. Giving such name to the entire settlement indicates that for a very long time there existed some very noticeable arched or domed structure. There are many such examples in the Turkmen toponymy. For example, the clay city of Alili Turkmen, which emerged in the XVIII century at the walls of the medieval city of Abiverd, of which there survived only the entrance portal-peshtak of the monumental mosque of the pre-Mongol era, was called Peshtak, meaning a front arch. It turns out that arches and domes survived in Shekhrislam, but we will talk about it later.
In the meantime, let us go back to Barthold. He established that somewhere at the turn of the XII-XIII centuries, the fortress of Tak was populated by Yazyr Turkmen - one of the Oguz tribes, ancestors of modern Garadashly Turkmen. "There were so many of them that they were regarded as special people," Barthold writes. In his 13th century book, historian Juveini refers to their city as Tak-Yazyr. Yet, already in the following century, judging by the works by Rashid-ad-Din, Hamdallah Kazvini and other authors, Tak disappears and only Yazyr remains. As contemporaries noted, it was a medium size city with many wheat fields in its vicinity. But Barthold was a purely armchair scholar. He had never been to this area and had a vague idea of its topography. So, he mistakenly associated Tak-Yazyr with Durun, known from the Timurid era.
Meanwhile, the current name Shekhrislam, which translates as "Islamic city", says a lot. Even after all the inhabitants had left Yazyr, Turkmens apparently still remembered that there prevailed the Muslim population, while the steppe nomads, who brought their cattle to Yazyr for sale or exchange for local goods, had not yet accepted a new religion. Morover, Bakharden shepherds saw many fragments of architectural decoration with Arabic inscriptions, found coins from the times of Seljuks, Khorezmshahs and other Muslim dynasties on these ruins.
In the summer of 1930, an expedition of the archeological section of the Institute of Turkmen Culture headed by Ashgabat's archaeologist Alexander Marushchenko visited Shekhrislam. Excavations were not carried out then, but an external survey helped to clarify the topography of the area and, judging by the ceramics found there, conclude that there existed a strongly fortified city from the 9th to the 15th centuries. On this basis, Marushchenko identified Shekhrislam with Tak-Yazyr, known only from the written sources, and made significant amendments to Barthold's ideas. 16 years later, the fifth detachment of the South-Turkmenistan Complex Archeological Expedition (STACE) arrived here for exploration. It included experienced ethnographer Valentina Moshkova, young archaeologist Boris Litvinsky and collector student Vadim Masson. The father of the latter, the STACE head Mikhail Masson, asked Litvinsky to figure it out as to who was right about localization of the Tak-Yazar fortress - Barthold or Marushchenko. The fifth detachment worked at Shekhrislam for just a week in November 1947, having completed the reconnaissance that started a year earlier. There was no means and time for excavation, but the materials collected at that time were enough to confirm Marushchenko's correctness and present in general terms the history of this city. According to Doctor of Historical Sciences Victor Pilipko, these studies still have their scientific value, and the visual plan of Shekhrislam made by Litvinsky is still used by scientists.
The next and longest cycle of exploration of this monument was carried out by archaeologist Yegen Atagarryev. He spent six field seasons there in 1960-1966 at the head of a small team, having managed to open up several sections of residential quarters, a number of pottery workshops and clear the city walls. Having made a deep stratigraphic hole in the citadel, he saw that the thickness of the cultural layer reached more than ten meters. The mass of ceramics, metal products, glass, stone and clay, a whole collection of coins of various stamp and conclusions made on these materials allowed Atagarryev to successfully defend his Ph.D. thesis at the beginning of his journey into science. He proved that in the past this city was one of the major centers of Northern Khorasan and played an important role in the life of nomadic pastoral tribes of the Karakum desert and settled population of the foothills of Kopetdag. However, in his time there was no opportunity to organize large-scale fieldwork involving many specialists and diggers, so he accomplished less than he wanted.
Innovation is the spirit of science, as it gives birth to ideas. It is a never-ending search for answers to the most difficult questions, so the pursuit of new discoveries is the main motivation of scientists, including archaeologists. They regularly report on their achievements at scientific conferences, publish books and articles in special journals, and their most striking finds are certainly covered by the mass media. Yet, without targeted public funding or sponsorship by big businesses, the archaeological science cannot exist. This has been the case since the beginning of archeology in the 19th century, when there were made first sensational discoveries in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and other countries with ancient history thanks to some great philanthropists and scientific centers they created, and this is still the case today.
In 2017, the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan undertook to support domestic archaeologists. With its active support, specialists of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan were able to begin new excavations at Shekhrislam, more than half a century after Atagarryev. The expedition was headed by his student, Candidate of Historical Sciences Allaguly Berdiyev, who is now an experienced archaeologist. According to him, representatives of private business continue the good tradition of patronage of the arts, which takes us back into the past. As is known, Oriental merchants and entrepreneurs, often acting as philanthropists, contributed to development of culture and education of people. They regarded it as a high honor to be able to invest in construction of libraries, educational institutions, import of books that were valued along with the most expensive goods. Thanks to their efforts, bazaars transformed into the centers of commerce and public life of cities.
"It is a pleasure to know that even today our business people support scientific research, Allaguly said. This work is especially important in the light of this year's motto - "Turkmenistan is the Heart of the Great Silk Road." We have an ongoing state program for 2018-2021 on archeological excavations of monuments located in the territory of Turkmenistan along the Great Silk Road. It was prepared by the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan and the National Administration for Protection, Study and Restoration of Historical and Cultural Monuments. According to this document, Shekhrislam is one of the primary objects of detailed study."
Berdiyev's team produced impressive results in just the first two field seasons. Work was carried out in two places simultaneously: in the citadel in the eastern part of the settlement and in its northwestern corner, where a massive rectangular hill was hidden by a well-preserved caravanserai with round towers, matching those of the citadel. There was excavated a complex hydraulic system next to the caravanserai, consisting of a circular domed sardoba, which is an underground water reservoir, eight meters in diameter and over ten meters high, and also a rectangular tank covered with a lancet vault, which is connected with the water reservoir through ceramic pipes. The flight of stairs remained in good condition, so one can descend into both rooms. Archaeologists found many rare and valuable artifacts along with other regular household items. Among them are copper, silver and gold coins, a bronze lamp with fine ornamental engraving and other works of artistic metal, samples of Chinese porcelain, bracelets and necklaces inlaid with precious and semiprecious stones, as well as boilers made of soft stone.
The Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan ensured all conditions for the expedition, providing archaeologists with shelter, three meals a day, transportation services and a sufficient number of workers from Bakharden district. This, in turn, was, albeit a short-term, but still a solution to the issue of employment of rural youth. No less significant factor was the educational effect of engaging unqualified local residents and, above all, young people in the work of the archaeological expedition. Learning in person the history of their native land, they begin to understand better the invaluable cultural heritage of the Turkmen people and the importance of caring, preserving and studying this national treasure.