LIGHT FROM THE DEPTH OF THE CENTURIES
Almost half a century has passed since famous archaeologist Viktor Ivanovich Sarianidi (1929-2013) and his colleagues started an in-depth exploration of the oasis civilization of the Bronze Age that was once called Margiana, or the country of Margush. He established the Margiana Archaeological Expedition (MAE) in 2001, which to this day remains a joint project of the Miklukho-Maklay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the National Directorate for Protection, Study and Restoration of Historical and Cultural Monuments of the Ministry of Culture of Turkmenistan as part of the Program of the Russian-Turkmen Intergovernmental Commission.
Since 2014, the expedition has been led by Nadezhda Anatolyevna Dubova, Doctor of Historical Sciences, a long-time friend and ally of Viktor Ivanovich, who inherited his love for the Turkmen land and its people. Seven volumes of the MAE research works have already been published to date, not to mention individual books and articles by Sarianidi and his colleagues. They provide enough evidence of the fact that in the heart of Asia that was previously completely unknown there once existed a full-fledged country, not separate settlements, among the sands and desert plains.
Every great scientist comes a long way before making a discovery that changes common views in a particular field of science to which he devoted his life. In archaeology, such success is preceded by many years of fieldwork multiplied by all the important academic knowledge. Yet, one also needs intuition, a professional instinct to achieve success. That is why there is absolutely nothing for amateurs in archeology. The life path of Victor Sarianidi, whom many considered lucky, a sort of "gentleman of fortune", clearly demonstrates that he achieved success and high results only due to his hard work in the field, his erudition as an insightful specialist and undoubted natural gift, one can even say the talented explorer. It was believed before him that in the distant past people never lived in the waterless Karakum desert, and the existence of cities was out of the question. However, it turned out that people not only lived there but also built monumental structures of clay bricks, like everywhere else in the Ancient East.
Viktor Ivanovich repeatedly told reporters and his permanent employees a story of the discovery of Gonur, the metropolitan settlement of Margiana. Here is a record of one of our conversations when he recalled the circumstances of his discovery. "It was in the now distant 1972. Together with my colleague Kakamurad Kurbansakhatov, we walked along the desert landscape about 70 kilometers north of the city of Bayramali, when we saw a quite high hill covered with broken ceramics. Shepherds called this place Gonur-depe. At first, we did not find anything remarkable. We saw all the same useless homogenous pieces of broken crockery and nothing else. And here it happened. A dark, spongy fragment of ceramic slag had something imperceptible that still drew our attention. I returned, picked up one piece and only then realized that it was different from many other similar pieces. At first, I could not make out anything of the winding grooves that formed some intricate pattern and, only turning it over to the other side, I saw that this was not a joke of nature and not even my imagination but a drawing engraved on a steatite plate. Either a bull or a musk-ox surrounded by snakes and dragons was looking at me! My feelings at that moment could be understood only by those who experienced such breathtaking discoveries that any archaeologist probably lives for."
In the later period, over the years of excavation of Gonur and neighboring ancient settlements of the country of Margush, there were found hundreds of such amulets, stone and bronze seals of various configurations with many interesting plots. They were surprisingly reminiscent of those that Viktor Sarianidi had previously found in northern Afghanistan where he worked in the seventies of the last century. It became clear that this historical area, now called Ancient Bactria, was once an integral part of ancient Margiana. One people lived in both places. They spoke the same language, professed the same beliefs and, possibly, had some kind of common management system, although we still do not know anything about it. It remains only to assume that by analogy with the well-known kingdoms of Egypt and Mesopotamia, which existed in the same period of time, this mysterious country was headed by a priest king, that is, a leader with both administrative and religious power.
One group of finds, yet the most informative, was sufficient for Viktor Ivanovich to come up with the fundamental work "Myths of Ancient Bactria and Margiana by their Seals and Amulets." This unique catalogue has long been a bibliographic rarity. The second extended edition of the book by the Margiana expedition participant, Dr. Sylvia Winkelmann, is to be soon released in Germany.
Overall, over his long life, the scientist released over thirty books, both strictly scientific and popular science in Russian, English, Turkmen, Greek, German and other languages that were published in Moscow, Ashgabat, Athens and Berlin. In these books, he convincingly showed what the world of Central Asia was like in the Bronze Age. He also ardently defended his ideas regarding the origin and beliefs of the people that lived there, in which he saw the forerunner of Zoroastrianism - one of the oldest world religions.
Thanks to Sarianidi's works, it became clear that at least four thousand years ago the modern river of Murghab flowed much to the east of its current bed. This river originates in the foothills of Afghanistan. A part of the river and its terminal fantail delta that once generously irrigated fields in the territory of at least three thousand square kilometers lie within modern Turkmenistan. It is here that archaeologists discovered several hundred ancient settlements among the now lifeless takyrs and sand dunes, a waterless place with no trace of human activities on the surface. Viktor Ivanovich always gratefully recalled his associates, with whom he explored ancient Margiana. First of all, it is Imindzhan Masimov, a great archaeologist who discovered several oasis centers around Gonur. He prematurely passed away, yet he managed to make a distinctive contribution to Turkmenistan's archeology.
Gonur-depe is the Bronze Age largest settlement discovered in the northern part of the Murghab delta. It was a special temple city from the end of the third millennium to the middle of the second millennium BC, where residents of all surrounding villages came to pray and perform rituals important to their lives. The settlement stands almost completely excavated by now. It is located nearly a three-hour drive from the modern city of Mary. Gonur covers an area of about 55 hectares and consists of different sectors: the main complex in the northern part, a smaller complex in the southern part and a large necropolis to the west of the main complex.
A fortified citadel surrounded by yet another vast fortified territory, whose walls had square towers, stood in the center of the northern complex. Sarianidi often referred to it as the Kremlin. This whole ensemble was erected in the center of a vast oval-shaped area with an external enclosing. There were several ponds as well as masses of interconnected small buildings inside this area. Numerous underground crypts with very valuable funeral offerings were discovered to the east of the large southern reservoir.
Gold, silver and bronze ware, terracotta plastic and bone carving, whole sets of fine ceramic dishes of various shapes, items made of alabaster, chlorite and other types of stone recreate the image of the community that was engaged in production and commercial trade with other large urban communities of the Middle East, as well as with Harappa - the Indus Valley civilization.
The mosaic compositions found in these burials that adorned the interiors of the mausoleums of the local nobility are particularly valuable. They include several plot and ornamental panels on both the walls and chests with funeral offerings. All mosaics are mixed media, in which elements of color painting are complemented with stone inserts. Images were made using several organic dyes, such as coal (black), ultramarine obtained from lapis lazuli (bright blue), cinnabar or ocher (bright red). The most important details - heads of people and animals, torso and limbs, feathers and paws of birds, repeating elements of ornaments - were made of stone.
The reconstruction and conservation of the mosaic compositions is carried out to this day by specialists of the State Research Institute for Restoration of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, Natalya Kovaleva and Galina Veresotskaya with the active support of their colleagues from the museums and universities of Turkmenistan. All the works of art of ancient Margiana enriched the collections of three Turkmen museums, and several items found during the Soviet period of excavation were donated to the State Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow. A great number of similar items originating from predatory excavations in Afghanistan found their way to many private collections in Europe, America and Asia, including such large collections of antiquities as the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Japanese Miho Museum.
In the West, this largely unique culture of the Bronze Age is called the Oxus civilization, according to the ancient Greek name of the Amu Darya River that passed through Bactria but still far from Margiana. Therefore, Victor Sarianidi gave it a much more precise name - the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC). It is now increasingly called a culture, not complex, while preserving the same abbreviation. In aggregate, all the products of the ancient masters that became famous, as well as the facilities excavated in Margiana make it possible to reconstruct not only the mythological picture of the world of the Bronze Age people but also their social organization, crafts, the degree of development of architecture and engineering skills.
Sarianidi was especially concerned with safety of the monuments excavated by him. The remains of clay walls, having lost a centuries-old cover of earth and sand, begin to dilapidate rapidly under rain and winds, so their permanent conservation is one of the most important tasks of the State Historical and Cultural Reserve "Ancient Merv".
It is needless to say that this work is very important for the preservation of the cultural heritage and recreation of the true history of the Turkmen land! It is no accident that the work by Viktor Ivanovich was fully appreciated in this country. He is the laureate of the Magtymguly International Prize and holder of many high state awards. In 2012, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov presented him with a mantle and diploma of the honorary academician of the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan. It is fair to say that he has become a truly national hero of Turkmenistan. Everyone, from schoolchildren to elders, would recognize his impressive look. His books can be found in all bookstores of Ashgabat, other cities of the country and, of course, in all libraries. However, the most important thing is that his expedition lives on, broadens the field of research, and Gonur-depe has turned into a popular pilgrimage site for foreign tourists and those our countrymen who are not indifferent to history.
It remains to be said that in the year of the 90th birth anniversary of Viktor Ivanovich Sarianidi the State Museum of Oriental Art hosted Russia's first ever exhibition titled "The Magnificent Margiana" that presented exhibits from the scientist's archive, anthropological reconstructions of the bones of the Bronze Age people, photographs of archaeological excavations in Turkmenistan and Afghanistan and the work of restorers on mosaics from Gonur-depe. The exhibition was preceded by a round table meeting, in which friends, colleagues, fellow countrymen - representatives of the Greek community of Moscow shared their memories of the scientist, his life, discoveries, their scientific significance and naturally discussed the future because the land of ancient Margiana is still full of mysteries.