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2020 †N1-2(178-179)
Since ancient times, beginning from the first human settlements of the Neolithic era to the twentieth century, people in all of Central Asia and the Middle East used to build houses, fortresses and shrines almost exclusively from clay. Raw bricks of various shapes and sizes, as well as Pahsa - rammed clay, which would be put in layers to erect walls - this is what the buildings of ancient and medieval cities of this region of the world were made of. At the same time, given the availability of mountains and rocks that could be mined and processed, there were built monumental structures, many of which have been well-preserved.
The Kopetdag mountain range stretches along the southern border of Turkmenistan, and then it terminates with the Greater Balkan ridge and goes north in the form of high ridges of Ustyurt. Nevertheless, stones were of limited use here, although local rocks boast almost everything, from the strongest blue basalt to soft gray sandstone. The point is not only about the technological complexity of extraction and transportation of heavy rocks but also about people's preference for clay as a more accessible, convenient and practical material that, by the way, has an important quality in hot climates. Thick clay walls keep the summer heat away and keep a dwelling warm in the winter cold. Yet, stones can be still found not only in the structural nodes of ancient clay buildings.
No matter how trivial the phrase "stone chronicle" might seem, there is no better way to say it. By and large, clay constructions have long disappeared, and only stone structures successfully resist the time, which means they can tell much more about the past. Made of natural material, they do not immediately catch the eye in the mountains. Walls and towers were made of roughly finished limestone and cobblestones that blend with rocks by their color, forming a natural harmony of folk architecture with the surrounding landscape. The stone details of dead architecture are even more invisible, or rather completely hidden in the thickness of the cultural layer. It is not easy to find them, and not all archaeologists digging up the ruins of fortresses, palaces or sanctuaries can to do this.
In the now distant 1934, when the exploration of Old Nisa - the most famous and important monument of Parthian culture in the territory of Turkmenistan - just started, Ashgabat's archaeologist Alexander Marushchenko discovered the first stone base propping up a wooden column. More than thirty such bases were found later on, and their number is growing as a result of the ongoing archaeological excavations.
- Stone is a relatively rare material in Nisa structures, said Viktor Pilipko, the actual researcher of Nisa, doctor of historical sciences. The floors of some rooms were paved with flat stone slabs. The curb stones with a rounded top edge, not much different from modern ones, were used to frame paths, while the bases for columns were the most popular stone product. The Kopetdag green-gray sandstone was used for these purposes. The bases were hand-carved very carefully and accurately by experienced craftsmen. All of them belong to the family of toroidal bases, that is, their shape is a torus or toroid - a geometric figure formed by a circle rotating around its axis and placed on a stepped plinth - a square slab underneath the base. Such stone "cushions" protected wooden columns from contact with the earth floor and rotting.
Italian archaeologists discovered another rarer variety of stone products at Old Nisa. These are facing plates, yet painted, carved from the same sandstone. Massive one-meter long panels weighing about one hundred kilograms framed the baseboard of the portico in front of the temple that was completely excavated by Italians. In the square hall of this temple, there were four columns holding the roof and resting on toroidal bases.
However, fragments of marble sculptures with the images of ancient Greek mythology are naturally the most exquisite works of stone-cutting art discovered at Nisa. The most notable of them is an almost intact statue of a young woman, whose torso is carved from snow-white marble and the lower part, shrouded in fabric, is made from a special block of gray stone. This is the image of Aphrodite, or Venus of the Anadiomene - the goddess of love and beauty emerging from the sea. She was most likely brought to Nisa among the offerings to the local temples.
In pagan times, Mihr - the Parthian god of friendship, agreement, consent and sunlight, known as Mithra in ancient Rome, occupied an important place in the cult pantheon. The ancient Iranian myth of the birth of Mithra from stone and its disappearance into the rock probably gave birth to the cult of Ardvisura Anahita, the goddess of water, fertility and motherhood. There are many revered places in Turkmenistan associated with the surviving forms of these ancient beliefs. They were all Islamized eventually, but their pagan essence is visible to the naked eye.
This is exemplified by the popular shrine of Parau-Bibi, a thousand-year-old monument located among the rocks, from where a mountain spring once flowed out. The same applies to the numerous "umbilical" stones that are many in neighboring Iran and the Caucasus. Turkmens call them "bogaz-dashi" (a stone of pregnancy) or "namaz-dashi" (a prayer stone). Women suffering from infertility believe in their magical power. However, healing magic is the most important function of almost all holy places. A few centuries ago, another similar shrine called Gyzbibidzhan was added to a huge boulder in a green gorge near the old fortress in the same mountains.
Experts in the field of architectural ecology have long understood that the modest traditional architecture of such sacred monuments with their restrained decor and often primitive forms in combination with the natural environment turns into an efficient remedy. Scientists analyze various levels of environmental impact on humans - from mythopoetic knowledge and visual images to geomagnetic rays, underground water flows, as well as biochemical processes associated with ritual food - and come to the conclusion that all these factors together create an exceptionally positive background. That is why Parau-Bibi or Gyzbibidzhan are so much popular. Having successfully survived the hard times of anti-religious campaigns, they are now being reborn almost literally from the dust.
Very small stones, which are picked up and laid at the thresholds of mausoleums of elders revered among the people and heavenly pir-patrons, are also said to have healing properties. Ammonites and other fossils are brought there from everywhere. At the same time, stones that are well polished by water, sometimes with an almost perfect ball shape, as well as stones with other rare shapes, colors and patterns usually attract special attention. Such stones are associated with various symbols as remnants of fetishism - the primitive cult of inanimate objects.
About two thousand years ago, a military fortress was erected on the northernmost border of the Parthian Empire, on a high cliff near the river of Uzboy to control navigation along this waterway that once connected Amu Darya river with the Caspian Sea. Composed of roughly finished stone slabs, it is still visible from afar. At the suggestion of archaeologist Sergey Tolstov, this fortress was called Igdy-Kala. This is the oldest of the stone forts located in Turkmenistan. All sorts of things happened to these gray stones that are covered with moss and mold and soot stains of the bygone conflagrations!
The Parthian kingdom fell at the beginning of the III century and the long era of the Sassanids began, as evidenced by magnificent rock carvings with figures of gods and kings in Iran. Yet, there is nothing like it in Turan, which lies north of Kopetdag. But on the other hand, there are sculptures standing alone in the steppe - balbals, or stone women, as they have long been called in Russia. They can be found in the vast expanses roamed by ancient Turkic nomad from Eastern Europe to southern Siberia and Mongolia.
Two such statues found in Balkan province of Turkmenistan depict Oghuz warriors and date back to the VI-X centuries. In one statue, only the head has survived, which is now exhibited in the museum of local history of the city of Turkmenbashi. The second statue is exhibited in the State Museum of Turkmenistan in Ashgabat. Three years ago, it traveled across the ocean along with other exhibits of the international exhibition of Seljuk art at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Far in the mountains, near the border with Iran, at the ancient necropolis of Gyzyl-Imam near the village of Yarty-Kala, there is a bunch of stone columns, the number of which has decreased by now. Some of them are up to five to six meters high, carved from a piece of rock and thoroughly polished, with a domed or faceted heads and belts and engraved images of human palms and a tribal anchor-shaped symbol - Tamga. According to popular beliefs, such steles served as a kind of anchor to bind a soul of the deceased to a certain place. According to some scholars, these unique monuments are associated with the idea of a tethering sacrificial pillar that was practiced by many peoples of Eurasia - from the Yakuts to the Hungarians - under the influence of much more ancient ideas about the "world tree". There are legends and ceremonies related to veneration of the mythical tree - the support of the sky and the core of the universe, which was depicted as a pillar with a miniature roof. Of course, all this mythology has long been forgotten, but its ideas dominated for quite long among individual semi-nomadic tribes as a blind tradition.
In addition, researchers of Turkmen antiquities drew attention to the so-called Firths - vertical stone sculptures shaped like the Russian letter "" that can be seen in many ancient cemeteries from the villages of Western Akhal to the Caspian Sea coast, especially in the valleys of the rivers of Sumbar, Chandyr and Etrek, as well as in the desert adjacent to the Kara-Bogaz-Gol bay. The Moscow State University professor Sergei Polyakov, who studied these monuments in 1960, unequivocally dated them to the XVIII century, but their unusual shape still remains a mystery to scientists. What does it mean? Are they horns of a sacred ram, a human image or monumental bases for sacrificial altar lamps that were widespread on the Turkic necropolises in the form of stone tables or bowls carved in gravestones? This is one of many questions that historians and ethnographers cannot answer yet.
Massive heel stones are among the artifacts whose function is clear. They can be found in places where the gates of fortresses once stood, including Anau, New Nisa, Abiverd, Serakhs, Merv and other historical cities of Turkmenistan. These are roughly-cut flattened boulders with a cavity hollowed out in the center, into which a wooden axis of one wing of the gate was inserted. Since city gates were traditionally double-wing, there were always two heel stones. The fortress walls slid down on all sides, and they were taken apart brick by brick. The posts and panels of the gate disappeared even earlier, while the heavy stones remained, reminding us of the old fortification.
In the mountain village of Nokhur, there is still an old citadel that is surrounded on all sides by modern houses. The strong stone walls of this structure make it look impressive. Here, many other buildings, now partially abandoned, are distinguished by the skillful use of natural stone. Above Nokhur lies a plateau cut by deep gorges that in some places features similar fortresses of the so-called late Middle Ages, and nobody can identify their age. In such inaccessible mountain shelters, people felt much more protected from robber raids than lowland dwellers, so entire families moved to such places away from the vicissitudes of fate. A rocky cape rising above the valley is often crowned by a watchtower. Such constructions are also very much everywhere in Kopetdag. They stretch for dozens of kilometers along the cliffs and hills, as they were intended to signal any danger and ensure control over the territory. Now, they serve more as landmarks.
Not far from the village of Bendesen, there is the hole of Pakyr-Shikh which is hidden in the mountains even farther than Nohur. This is an extraordinary beautiful place in a wide river valley between two ridges. There, on the outskirts of a large necropolis with three very modest stone mausoleums, one can find Yazir-Kala, a stone fortress with high and largely intact towers. It was once erected by Turkmens of the Garadashly tribe, whose descendants live today in Bendesen. The name of the tribe is translated as "black stone". It may point to their habitat among the black stones, or may come from some very old totem. The fortress is well preserved largely due to the caring attitude of the local population. They believe it inherited part of the sanctity of the semi-legendary Garadashly ancestors of Yazir-Khan and Pakyr-Shikh buried next to it.
Those who visited the foothills and river valleys of Western Kopetdag probably saw water mills called Degirmen on the outskirts of old villages. They consist of skillfully hollowed stone rings, set on top of each other. Water from a nearby spring ran through the aqueduct to each Degirmen and powered a spinning wheel mounted below. In the past, these were purely utilitarian hydraulic structures, and now, when they are no longer needed, they stand lonely on the side of roads and mountain slopes. Yet, without such small fragments of the past life one would never be able to feel the unique charm of this land. How can we not recall the lines by Homer, repeatedly recited by poets from different eras, about the smoke of our motherland which is "sweet and dear."
It has long been known that perception of the native land emerges in the public conscience not only through the economic and political development of their territory, but also through its sacralization. The number of shrines is directly proportional to the love of motherland. Nostalgia is a bitter feeling of those who, by the will of fortune, are separated from their homeland and cannot forget it. And there, in the deserted lands, everything is in flux. Modernity often roughly intrudes into the patriarchal world, the familiar landscape becomes different and the shrines familiar from the childhood change beyond recognition. But in the mountains, in secluded holes and picturesque valleys, there remain pristine places that the Englishmen call "places of the soul." The more of them, the more people become attached to their native stones and the more interesting and attractive the country becomes for life and travel.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005