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2019 †N9-10(174-175)
There is an impressive ancient settlement not far from the airport of the city of Dashoguz. It is visible to air passengers sitting near the plane windows during takeoff or landing in daylight hours. It is perfectly seen from above early in the morning or at sunset when the dilapidated fortress walls covering the territory of the dead city cast long shadows. This is Izmykshir. This is how Turkmens altered to their liking the name of Zamakhshar in the 19th century. Zamakhshar is the old Khorezm name of the town whose past is still hidden under a thick cultural layer and pure sand blown by winds from the Karakum desert. Although the fertile land around Izmykshir is now plowed and sown, almost approaching its ancient walls, the breath of the neighboring desert can be felt here at any time of the year.
Despite the fact that this site is very close to Dashoguz (formerly Tashauz), which is the administrative and cultural center of the same-name province, tourist routes usually run past this impressive monument, leading to famous Kunya-Urgench that was called Gurganj before the Mongol invasion at the beginning of the 13th century. It was also the capital city of the Khorezmshahs empire. There is no direct asphalt road to Izmykshir, and only the most persistent visitors can reach this secluded corner. Such inaccessibility has its advantages, as a regular influx of visitors inevitably causes damage to the fragile ruins of clay cities that retained their current form only thanks to their remoteness from the modern civilization. The desert has guarded them for centuries, but the wind has done its job, undercutting the old walls and covering all that remains of buildings abandoned by people with a soft blanket of sand and dust.
What is there now in Izmykshir? The site of the ancient settlement has the shape of an irregular trapezoid by the contour line. The fortress walls are still high and very thick, but they are already swollen. Composed of layers of massive clay blocks and mud bricks, they stretch along the entire perimeter. Their total length slightly exceeds one kilometer. There are many semi-oval, round, strongly pushed forward from the walls and stand-alone towers. These towers are connected with the wall by straight arches. They once formed a unified defense system to withstand a siege, allowing the defenders to fire at the attackers not only frontward but also sideward.
In the south and north, there stood a pair of gates flanked by solid round towers. There is a kind of maze between them at both gates. They look like a cranked passage, making it difficult for the enemy to get into the fortress during an assault. A central street ran across the entire town from one gate to another. It was separated by several transverse alleys. Inside the fortress walls, there is no longer any noticeable structure. Only shapeless mounds and depressions between them indicate that they once were houses and streets. A flat square in the southwestern sector, densely overgrown with weeds, provides evidence of the fact that there once existed a noisy bazaar.
Little is known about the history of Zamakhshar. No striking historical events are associated with it. It was rarely mentioned in the medieval Arabic and Persian chronicles and caravan travel guides. The earliest mention of this place dates back to the tenth century, in which the famous geographer and traveler of that era, Shamsuddin al-Mukaddasi, put it in the list of cities of Khorezm. According to him, "Zamakhshar is a small city with a wall, a moat, a prison, the gates covered with iron and bridges that are lifted each night. A big road crosses the city. The chief mosque is beautiful, standing on the edge of the market." Almost two hundred years later, the Merv historian, Abu Saad al-Samani, left an even more laconic note: "Zamakhshar is one of the villages of Khorezm. It is large, like a town. I spent two nights there while traveling to Gurganj and back."
The last mention of Zamakhshar can be found in "Talhis al-Asar" by the Arab geographer from Shirvan, Abd al-Rashid al-Bakuvi. It was written at the beginning of the 15th century. In this work, he describes Zamakhshar as one of the villages of Khorezm from where the learned Imam, Mahmoud ibn Umar Abu-l-Qasim al-Zamahshari, nicknamed Jarallah (Patronized by Allah) and Fakhr Huvarism (Pride of Khorezm), comes from. "He was a connoisseur of Arabic and rhetoric and author of great works. No one wrote so eloquently in terms of content and meaning." The long-lost provincial town owes its fame only to this outstanding figure, because al-Zamakhshari's personality, his many works on Muslim theology, jurisprudence, grammar, lexicography, poetry and geography are still in the sphere of interest of modern scholars of the East and West. A number of publications in Russia and Turkmenistan are devoted to him. In 2007, scientists from 23 countries of the world gathered in Dashoguz for a special scientific conference dedicated to the legacy of Mahmoud al-Zamahshari.
In those days, a symbolic mausoleum was ceremonially inaugurated near the walls of Izmykshir, although he died and was buried in the capital city of Gurganj. This genius of the Asian Renaissance was born 945 years ago in the family of a Zamakhshar artisan and, by the will of his father, he had to study tailoring. Nevertheless, a young man asked to be taken "to the city", that is Gurganj, where he found a job thanks to his good handwriting. Although he traveled a lot around the world, all his subsequent life was connected with Gurganj. At the end of the XI century, it was one of the largest cities in the world with unique libraries that still remembered the legendary Mamun Academy, in which the great predecessors of al-Zamakhshari such as Biruni and Ibn Sina worked.
During the rule of the Khiva khanate that possessed Zamakhshar from the 16 to 19 centuries, it was already lifeless, following the destruction of an old irrigation system that led to the complete dewatering of this area.
Yet, this town was mentioned again by the American military journalist, Yanuari McGahan, who accompanied the expedition of the Russian Empire to conquer the Khiva khanate, known as the Khiva campaign of 1873. A little later, McGahan published his book in London and Moscow, providing a brief description of the Zamakhshar ruins.
However, the wind of time gradually obliterated all traces. Legends remain, and only archaeologists - tireless pathfinders - do their best to restore bit by bit the long-vanished world. Exactly 90 years have passed since Lev Sokolov, an employee of the Central Asian Committee for Protection of Monuments and Antiquities, coming from Samarkand, made the first professional examination of Izmykshir. Five years later, the first excavations and a general description of the site were made by two famous Soviet archaeologists - Mikhail Voevodsky from the Moscow State University and his young colleague Alexey Terenozhkin, who later played an outstanding role in the development of archaeological science of Central Asia. It was he who convinced the future academician, Sergei Tolstov, of the need to dispatch the Khorezm expedition, making a number of important discoveries of ancient monuments in the lower reaches of the Amu Darya.
Having traveled to most of the ancient settlements of the left-bank part of Ancient Khorezm, Voevodsky and Terenozhkin chose Izmykshir with its well-preserved fortifications for their research. In 1934, they conducted small excavations in the places of forges for burning of irrigation and regular ceramics. In the course of excavations, fragments of terracotta and alabaster figurines were also found. At first, they were not considered very important. However, as it turned out, those were the finds from ancient Zamakhshar, the remains of which lay under a layer of sand, but this was clarified later. At the same site, exploring badrab (a medieval trash well), the Moscow archaeologists extracted valuable scientific materials - charred seeds of millet, white durra, grapes, melons, watermelons, apricots and peaches. This made it possible to get an idea of the ancient agriculture of the surroundings of Zamakhshar.
It was then that three historical periods of the city were established. The first one lasted from pre-Arab times until the 9-11 centuries. The second coincided with the heyday of the Khorezmshahs state (second half of the 12th century). And the third period is associated with the revival of the entire oasis after the Golden Horde Mongol invasion (late 13th - first half of the 14th century). Even later, judging by what al-Bakuvi wrote about it, Zamakhshar still lived at the very beginning of the 15th century. It also turned out that while feeding on the waters of the ancient Chermen-yab canal north of it, Zamakhshar was a large trade and craft center of a large and densely populated rural district under Khorezmshahs. The fragments of burnt bricks, ceramics, stone and glass items that lay everywhere on the surface of the fortification provided evidence of this fact even without excavation. A huge number of iron, ceramic, glass and other slags, production defects, unfinished products and casting molds, as well as pieces of raw metal testified to the crafts that once flourished here, such as blacksmithing, copper work, pottery, glass...
Finished products testified to the high level of development of craft technology. One simply has to look at the luxurious dishes with colored overglaze painting, bowls with ornaments, images of birds and much more. The largest collection of those finds is now displayed at the Dashoguz Museum of History and Local Lore.
Beginning 1939, Izmykshir was overseen by the Khorezm archaeological and ethnographic expedition of the Miklukho-Maklai Institute of Ethnography under the leadership of Sergey Tolstov. However, unlike many other monuments of Ancient Khorezm, stationary excavations have never been conducted here. They limited themselves to collecting materials lying on the surface. Archaeologists of the mid-20th century left this "Klondike" to future researchers. Sooner or later, specialists will come here equipped with knowledge and advanced technology to restore the lost pages of the history of the Great Silk Road.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005