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2020  N11-12(188-189)
On the eve of the 25th anniversary of Turkmenistan’s neutrality, the Ashgabat publishing house “Ylym” (Science) released a book dedicated to one of the most famous monuments of Ancient Merv – an early medieval clay castle known as the Greater Kyz-Kala. Written by experienced specialists in the history of architecture and restoration of historical buildings Mukhametdurdy Mamedov and Redzhepmurad Dzhepbarov, the book describes the constructive, planning and artistic solutions of this grandiose thousand-year-old building in the light of the large-scale archaeological and architectural research carried out in recent years.
The Greater Kyz-Kala is one of the brand objects of the State Historical and Cultural Reserve “Ancient Merv”, included in 1999 in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The images of the Greater Kyz-Kala have been reproduced in many books, articles, travel brochures and on the Internet. It is for the third century now that of all the monuments of Merv these puzzling ruins remain the most mysterious. They first attracted attention of the St. Petersburg University professor Valentin Zhukovsky, who visited this site at the end of the 19th century. Judging by the old photographs, their appearance was somewhat better at that time.
“The Kyz-Kala castle consists of two large but different-size extended buildings, standing side by side, reminding of the shape of an elongated quadrangle made of raw materials. The front walls from the top to the basement are corrugated in half columns,” he wrote. These corrugations on the facades of the Greater and Lesser Kyz-Kala, as well as many other similar buildings of the distant past in the oasis of Ancient Merv and Khorezm are of particular interest. Their strict rhythm gives the buildings monumentality and harmony. Some scholars consider them structurally important, supporting the stiffness of the building, while others consider them purely decorative. The authors of the new book carefully analyze all versions and substantiate their own vision relying on the available material.
In this regard, the famous Anikovskoe dish, found in 1909 in the Upper Kama region and now stored in the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, is perhaps the only most convincing document. There was later discovered its twin, the Nildin dish, in the same place in the Urals. Cast from silver and covered with gilding, both items belong to the products of handicraft workshops of Central Asia of the VIII – early IX centuries. A corrugated castle, very similar to the Greater Kyz-Kala, is featured in the center of the composition of two magnificent examples of ancient toreutics. This image provided a clue as to what the corrugated castles, built entirely of clay, looked like originally.
The new book presents virtual reconstructions of the Greater Kyz-Kala and its environs made in three-dimensional graphics by architect Merdan Mamedov based on careful measurements of the original and the stylistics of medieval buildings of this type. His vivid pictures allow readers to imagine traveling a whole millennium back in order to see the world in its original way in that era. The reconstruction reflects another important fact. The recent excavations identified traces of the outer fortress wall with corner towers, long hidden in the ground. The wall protected a plot of several hectares, in the center of which stood the castle. Such fortification clearly indicates to some kind of special status.
The name of the monument, translated from Turkmen as “Maiden Fortress”, raises no fewer questions. Many generations of people living in this area saw a long-abandoned building, knowing nothing about who, when and why erected it. And in the absence of facts, legends are born. The impressive external walls and traces of the internal planning clearly demonstrate that there once stood a country palace, a residence where rich and noble families lived, who were most likely the rulers of this land. Like in the neighboring Lesser Kyz-Kala, these structures were erected outside a huge medieval city, now known as Sultan-Kala, surrounded by a strong fortress wall that has survived to this day.
Kyz-Kala is a fairly common name. The Persian version of this name – Kala-i-dukhtar – refers to the ruins of ancient castles near Herat in Afghanistan and in the mountains between Firuzabad and Shiraz in Iran. There is Giz-galasy (Maiden Tower) in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Two Kizkalesi are located in Turkey, both on small islands: one fortress is located in Istanbul, in the middle of the Bosphorus, while the other stands on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, east of Antalya. There is Maiden Fortress – Kyz-Kermen – in the Crimea, not far from Bakhchisarai. They all have fairly similar plots in their legends. However, it is rather one legend in different interpretations, a typical wandering plot, moving from one country to another, changing only in details. It is based on two main themes: the autocratic love of the king for his beautiful daughter and her early death from a snakebite or suicide. According to experts, the origins of this legend go back to the distant pre-Islamic past. They are hardly connected with the architectural monuments to which they are linked by late folklore.
But fairy tales aside, there were no reliable facts at the disposal of scientists related to the Greater Kyz-Kala in Merv until 1997, when under the guidance of the authors of the above-mentioned book a group of specialists began closely studying and restoring this monument. A true and scrupulously documented history of this monument became clearer only now, following the work of large-scale excavations supported by a large grant allocated in 2011 by the US State Department under the Ambassadors Fund for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage Program. In the following seven years, the archaeological excavation and conservation of the monument continued at the Greater Kyz-Kala. First, they removed the eroded parts of the clay walls inside and around the building, making it possible to better study its structure. Then, deep excavations were carried out, providing information about the layout of the lower floor, hidden for many centuries by the rubble of the ceilings that collapsed long ago. British, French and Polish experts worked together with colleagues from the National Administration of Turkmenistan for the Protection, Study and Restoration of Historical and Cultural Monuments and the Ancient Merv Reserve.
Thanks to this project, scientists succeeded in clarifying the age of the Greater Kyz-Kala. Of great help were Arab coins found there – gold, silver and copper, especially the Abbasid dirhams of the 9th–10th centuries with inscriptions in angular hand “kufi”. Money is the most reliable and lasting witness to history. They provide evidence for numismatists as to what year, under what authority they were minted. And now, we can conclude that the Greater Kyz-Kala was erected no earlier than the end of the 8th – beginning the 9th century, when Merv, being a part of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate, was considered one of the most enlightened cities in the Islamic world.
At that time, Abdullah al-Mamun, son of famous caliph Harun ar-Rashid, was the governor of Khorasan. In 813, al-Mamun, who became famous as an astronomer, became caliph but continued living in Merv for a long time after that. Under him, the city actually played the role of the capital of the Caliphate. All decrees and appointments throughout the Arab Empire came from Merv until the new Caliph moved to Baghdad.
The size of the Greater Kyz-Kala, its architectural design and reliable protection make one think that this was not a simple estate of a wealthy local aristocrat, but an official residence of the Caliph himself or sultans who ruled after him. It became obvious that the castle was in use for a long time, over the course of several generations. It was repaired and rebuilt more than once. Archaeologists made many interesting discoveries there. Along with pottery, there were discovered a number of bronze items – signet rings, jewelry, small sculptures. Shards of expensive glazed dishes undoubtedly present a museum value.
A better part of a glazed bowl painted with black and honey-yellow paints on a white engobe stands out among the fragments of earthenware. The technique of execution and the traditional motive of decoration along the mouth of the bowl in the form of a floral ornament allowed art critics to confidently date this product to the second half of the 9th or 10th century. However, the image in the round medallion at the bottom of the bowl is extremely rare in pottery not only in Merv but the whole Central Asia. It depicts a woman on horseback. She holds a high-raised round shield in one hand and, most likely, a sword in the other.
Another glazed bowl from Merv is the item that is most similar to the above mentioned bowl. It was discovered in the fifties of the last century during the excavations by Professor Mikhail Masson. This bowl also has a similar but much more schematic image, and it was worse preserved. This motive was apparently well known to the inhabitants of Merv at that time. What could it mean?
More than a thousand years ago, Tomiris, the queen of the Massagets was perhaps the most widespread mythological image of a woman warrior in this region. In the writings of ancient Greek authors, a group of tribes of the Transcaspian and Aral Sea region was given this collective name.
Herodotus wrote that the Massagets were nomads and they fought on foot and horseback, and their horses wore armor on their chests, and all their utensils and weapons were made of copper and gold. In his fight with them, the founder of the Achaemenid state, king Cyrus, was defeated by queen Tomiris. On the bowl from Kyz-Kala, a wide yellow stripe on the horse’s chest can represent such gold or copper armor. It was no accident that a sword is also colored in yellow. Fully corresponding to Herodotus’s description, the chest of the horsewoman and the shield in her hand colored in gold suggest that it was Tomiris depicted on the bowl.
The question is, how did the character of the pre-Islamic history of the ancient world end up on expensive dishes during the era of the rule of the Arab Caliphate? Contrary to the popular belief that, according to the principles of Islam, it was strictly forbidden to portray living beings, the reality was not so unambiguous. Over the centuries, the attitude of Muslim theologians to the visual arts varied from neutral to sharply negative, but at the same time there always were certain categories of images that were considered permissible. As the famous Islamic theologian and jurist Abu Hamid al-Ghazali wrote in the 11th century, “as for decorated pillows and carpets with drawings, they are not bad, just like drawings on plates, dishes and vessels.”
A bronze cosmetic spatula almost 8 centimeters long is another rare find. It was made in the form of a relief image of the same Anahita, the goddess of water and fertility. The facial features are poorly preserved, but it is clear that a certain symbolic object, bent and pressed to the chest, is depicted in her left hand. It is most likely a spike or a branch of a plant. Such image of the goddess in terms of splendor of her dress and ornamentation is similar to the iconography of the Zoroastrian Anahita. It was most likely a magic talisman of women – a ring above the head means that this item was worn like a pendant or breast ornament and, at the same time, served as a household item. Such things were made for noble and wealthy people whose regular utensils were decorated by skilled craftsmen.
The Greater Kyz-Kala has not been fully explored yet, and there are many questions that can be answered during further excavations, both inside the castle and in the area of the historical landscape around it. Its gray walls are silent witnesses of a turbulent millennium. They saw the troops of the Great Seljuks, who set out from here to conquer the world. They survived the Mongol invasion, when almost all of Merv was destroyed. And later, they saw the decline and prosperity of kingdoms, movement of trade caravans along the Silk Road. These walls began to deteriorate rapidly in the twentieth century, when the margin of their strength began to dry out, because nothing lasts forever. Yet, people are quite capable of extending the life of the monument and it has been done at the Greater Kyz-Kala.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005