FROM NAMAZGA DEPE TO ABIVERD
Namazga Depe and Abiverd, the famous archeological monuments on the foothills of Kopetdag, stand less than two kilometers from each other on a plain near the modern Turkmen city of Kaahka. Nonetheless, they are separated not only by the railway that was laid there in 1886 but also by a very long historical period exceeding two thousand years. Indeed, by the time of full growth of a big medieval city known as Abiverd beginning the 7th century, nothing had left of the ancient settlement on its southern outskirts - neither a name nor a trace on the surface of a huge hill that is more than twenty meters high, occupying over fifty hectares. This hill can be still seen from afar, towering above the horizon against the backdrop of a mountain range.
If you ask any professional archeologist in Russia, Europe or America about Namazga, you will surely get a clear answer - this is the largest monument of the Eneolithic (Copper-Stone Age) in Southern Turkmenistan that became a symbol of stratigraphy for a large group of the early agricultural settlements of the first civilizations. Archaeological stratigraphy is the alternation of cultural layers in ancient monuments. It helps to identify the sequence of existence of long-perished cultures whose traces are accumulated in the soil in the form of layers of different thickness.
Composing the reference stratigraphic columns for each region of the world, scientists establish the relative dates of the findings of their excavations and determine the simultaneity of the groups of findings. In other words, the stratigraphic principle borrowed from geology allows archaeologists to not only establish the age but also understand the specifics of one or another infinitely distant age by its material remnants. This makes archeology a strictly scientific discipline, focused on solving problems of the universal history.
The famous Soviet archeologist, Professor Boris Kuftin from Tbilisi, and his Ashgabat colleague Alexander Ganyalin made a stratigraphic column for Southern Turkmenistan following the excavations they conducted in the autumn of 1952 on a hill that Turkmens have long called Namazga Depe. Scientists singled out six phases, or rather, six Namazga complexes. In science, they are usually denoted by Roman numerals - from the early Chalcolithic to the late Bronze Age, that is, a period of more than three thousand years! It is exactly this length of time in which countless generations of people continuously lived in the same place, because it turned out to be so convenient for living.
They used to build simple one-storey houses of clay bricks with flat wooden roofs and patios that were separated by narrow streets. When the walls became dilapidated, they were brought down, and exactly the same dwellings were built anew on top of those demolished. So, this is how a giant hill formed up over thirty centuries. Interestingly, the thickness of the cultural layer in this hill is about 10 meters deeper than the present surface of the plain around the settlement. The fact is that over the past millennia, it has grown up due to aeolian (brought by the wind) and alluvial (washed in by water) soil deposits.
Kuftin and Ganyalin conducted excavation work at Namazga 36 years after another outstanding man, irrigation engineer and soil scientist Dmitry Bukinich, who was so passionate about archeology, opened this monument to science. He immediately drew attention to the striking similarity of the findings from Namazga Depe with the materials from Anau that were already known at that time, where the American expedition of Raphael Pampelli worked in 1904. After Bukinich, these conclusions were confirmed by other researchers. In the autumn of 1928, Academician Alexander Semenov from Tashkent visited Namazga Depe. He was followed by pioneer archaeologists Alexander Marushchenko and Sergey Yershov from Ashgabat who worked there for a short time. Soon after the war, the South Turkmenistan Archeological Complex Expedition (STACE) led by Professor Mikhail Masson began permanent excavations there. He entrusted this complex and promising monument to the care of the future academician and the then young specialist, Boris Litvinsky.
It was exactly 70 years ago that his small team, which included the then students, Alexander Ganyalin and Kakadzhan Mohammedberdyev, who later also became prominent scientists, began to dig Namazga. The first season of excavation provided a whole series of evidence of its identity with the Anau culture. Buildings of the same type, identical ceramics, clay figurines, decorations, metal and stone products - all these findings provided evidence that Anau and Namazga existed simultaneously and were closely interconnected. And the distance between them - just one hundred kilometers - was replete with dozens of large and small settlements of the same distant epoch that today look like ordinary hills. They form a chain that runs almost parallel to the railway and motorway.
In this stretch, the most famous of them, i.e. already explored archaeologically, include the gigantic massif of Kara Depe, as well as its modest contemporaries Dashly Depe, Yelen Depe and Yasy Depe. Dozens of others still keep their secrets. In the past, they all stood on the borderline between the desert and foothill slopes, from which numerous rivers flowed down, feeding the juniper forests and modest arable lands of the first farmers. Now, they are surrounded by the vast swathes of agricultural land cultivated by local tenants. However, the thick cultural layers of these hills keep the memory of the fallen civilizations.
The following cycle of excavations at Namazga and small neighboring settlements of the Eneolithic and Bronze Age eras was carried out by Leningrad's archeologist Anatoly Shchetenko in the seventies of the last century. All those research studies helped to establish periodization as a whole for the entire ancient agricultural culture of Southern Turkmenistan, covering the epochs between the fifth and first millennia BC. This periodization became universally recognized and part of the world archaeological literature.
Naturally, excavations of the ancient monuments from Anau to Namazga Depe resulted in not only producing the stratigraphic columns but also obtaining a huge number of findings that enriched the collections of several museums. First of all, the findings featured hand-made pottery decorated with simple geometric patterns dating to Namazga's early period. In the middle of the 4th millennium BC, there emerged a new ceramic style, as the monochrome painting was replaced by the polychrome ornamentation of mostly black and bright red color. At the end of the third millennium, there appeared complex, two-tier ceramic hearths, providing evidence of progress in the ancient technology, and tableware was made on a potter's wheel. All these innovations led to the qualitative growth in mass production, development of new forms of ceramics. Painted vessels gradually disappeared. They were replaced with plain products that differed from the previous ones by their subtlety and fanciful forms.
Finally, clay sculptures of idols and small terra-cotta statuettes of people and animals, ornaments made of copper, bronze and stone, silicon and bronze arrows and darts, a copper sword with a rare-form handle bent into a spiral, various stone tools occupy a special place among the findings from Namazga Depe.
In his numerous works, Academician Vadim Masson has repeatedly pointed out that Namazga Depe was no longer a settlement but an ancient-eastern city similar to the synchronous cities of Mesopotamia, and it is of great scientific and cultural value, providing clear evidence of the earliest stages of urbanization in Central Asia.
At the beginning of the II millennium BC, Namazga Depe decayed and the total habitable area of the monument decreased sharply for yet-unknown reasons. A theory on the occurrence of drought at that time that forced residents to leave their homes and move to other lands is the most plausible. Ancient Margiana is one of such lands. It was there at that time that tribes, whose culture largely continued the traditions that existed at Namazga Depe, moved to the old delta of Murgab river.
More than two thousand years passed before people started settling around the abandoned Namazga again. It apparently happened because climate became milder and water returned to the old beds. First, there emerged a settlement two kilometers north of Namazga, of which there remains only one small but high hill with steep slopes. These are very swollen ruins of a once well-fortified castle dating 5th-7th centuries of our era. These ruins have never been excavated.
Nearby, in front of this nameless fortress, there is a chain of massive and very swollen fortifications of medieval Abiverd, with their towers pushed forward. A deep moat around the city strengthened its fortification. It encircled an almost square fortress along its perimeter with an area of about five hectares. It was divided into four parts by two crossing streets, and traces of a very compact planning are still visible inside these quarters. Burnt bricks were widely used there, as the entire surface is now littered with its fragments.
According to Turkmen archaeologist Yegen Atagarryev, the development of the city was likely promoted by its geographical position at the crossroads of trade routes from Merv to Nisa and from Khorezm to Persia. Moreover, a nomadic steppe adjoined Abiverd, providing an important market for sale of handicrafts and purchase of livestock products. The history of this city is described in general terms in the Arabic and Persian medieval written sources dating to the end of the 7th century, when the administrative center of the entire region, called Javeran at that time, moved there.
At the turn of the XI-XII centuries, during the rule of the Great Seljuks, a large cathedral mosque was built in the western part of the city. Just 100 years ago, only the right pylon of the entrance portal reminded of it, which is called Peshtak (front arch) in Persian. It towered about 14 meters and, according to academician Semenov, "even in its disfigured and diminished form, this surviving Peshtak tower is clearly visible from 7 to 8 kilometers." It is clear that the mosque was even higher and towered above all city buildings, as it should be in any Islamic city. The magnificent architectural dcor that adorned this building can now be identified by the only photograph of the pylon preserved in the archives of the St. Petersburg Institute for the History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences. This pylon was disassembled by someone in the middle of the last century for the secondary use of high-quality bricks.
In the Seljuk period, the old part of Abiverd was surrounded from three sides by the so-called outer city, which was also fortified with a lighter wall. This wall was also surrounded along its contour by a moat, inferior in terms of the parameters to the moat around the Abiverd Kremlin. Judging by the late planning that most likely repeated the original street network, this new territory had a regular layout with a clear division into small neighborhoods. And in the southern suburbs, near the walls of great Namazga, there stood a suburban mosque for festive events, where almost all citizens used to gather in a vast territory only twice a year on the occasion of the main Muslim holidays - Id Al-Adha (Kurban Bairam) and Id Al-Fitr (Oraza Bairam). Such mosque could be found in every major city. It was called "idgah" (place of celebration) or "musallah" in Arabic, meaning "place of prayer". However, the local synonym for this term, Namazga, was more often used in Iran and Central Asia.
Since the pre-Mongol Abiverd is entirely covered by the cultural layer of the XV-XVIII centuries, the traces of the earlier times are almost impossible to find without excavations. The first excavations started only in 2017 by a team of archeologists under the leadership of the Candidate of Historical Sciences, Akmurad Babayev, from the National Directorate for Protection, Study and Restoration of Historical and Cultural Monuments of Turkmenistan. Together with colleagues from the two historical and cultural reserves - Abiverd and Old Serakhs - he unearthed a round room of the northern corner tower of the fortress wall and one of the houses inside the fortress that helped to deepen our understanding of the nature of medieval architecture. Excavating another site, Babayev dug out an absolutely surprising semi-underground structure among the crumbling late clay constructions. It is a small rectangular room with carefully plastered thick walls of very high-quality brick, similar to a pool into which a narrow flight of stairs descends. It is undoubtedly much older than those dilapidated structures that can be seen on the surface of the earth. Further excavations will show what it was.
No later than the XVIII century, Turkmens from Alili tribe began settling in Abiverd that stood completely deserted by that time. The clay ruins of their residential houses and outbuildings remained in relatively good conditions. They stretch for a whole kilometer from south to north and make up a housing estate of high density with very compact farmsteads throughout the area of the outer city and places beyond it. Traces of large and small gardens, short watchtowers and clay fences are still visible in the surrounding relief. Yet, the name Abiverd was completely forgotten by that time, and new inhabitants started calling their settlement Peshtak. It is clear that this toponym takes roots in the only dominant feature of the entire district - the then portal of the cathedral mosque standing inside the Kremlin. The last inhabitants of this Turkmen town left it in 1876, having moved to Kaakhka.
The inhabitants of Peshtak had their own shrine - a small mausoleum made of adobe bricks with a high dome, known as Sandykly Ovliya. Now, it is fully lined with modern burnt bricks. Under its canopy, there is a gravestone of the XV century, which can be called with good reason a highly artistic example of stone-cutting art. It represents a solid block of dark gray stone, carefully hewn into an almost two-meter parallelepiped. Its sides were polished, acquiring a black-green hue and completely filled with deep carving, revealing the lighter natural color of the stone. The elegant floral design and calligraphic inscriptions in Farsi were carved with a firm hand of a craftsman.
All this is located on a short stretch of the motorway that cars pass by at high speed in a matter of minutes, although this place probably deserves stopping by and looking around.