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2020 †N5-6(182-183)
Any architectural monument, no matter how well we know it, is always full of mysteries. One may wonder as to what can there be mysterious about masterpieces of medieval building culture that have been replicated in photographs on book pages and the mass media, and whose images are so familiar to us almost since childhood? Yet, the successive generations of researchers are returning again and again to the structures of the distant past both in Asia and Europe that have been studied far and wide, and about which none of the scientists would dare to say that they know everything about them. Such is the nature of the constantly evolving science. The more discoveries we make, the more new questions we get. In this sense, archeology and history of architecture are not much different from the exact sciences, although they are classified as humanitarian. Their evidence base relies primarily on data and facts, on material evidence, rather than on abstract reasoning. This knowledge has the objectivity of a mathematical formula.
There are hundreds of architectural monuments of the last millennium in the territory of modern Turkmenistan. Each of them has its own legend, zest and mystery. However, there is one among them that for several decades has been the focus of heightened interest of specialists. There is an ongoing scientific debate as a result of this attention. It is about the mausoleum of the Khorezmshah Tekesh in Kunya-Urgench. You will find images or at least a short reference about this famous building in any travel guide for Turkmenistan, a website or a book about monuments of this country. It is even featured on the national currency banknote worth 10 manat issued in 1993. And those who at least once visited the archaeological park that is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List were able to see this huge mausoleum with their own eyes.
Like his older brother, the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar in Merv, the Kunya-Urgench giant once towered over the entire adjacent area. It was so in the past, when it was surrounded by a noisy medieval city. It is even more so now, when there remained only barely noticeable hills of the old city quarters and a network of main streets distinguishable at sunrise or sunset from a bird's eye view. At first glance, the layout of the Tekesh mausoleum is quite simple. There is a square prism in the bottom with a high corrugated drum resting on it, which is divided into 24 niches with three-bladed arches. It has a cone-shaped tent on top. The thickness of brick walls of the prism is almost 4 meters! Such a margin of safety naturally ensured the extraordinary durability for the monument.
We will return to the time of its construction, but for now we only note that the premises of the mausoleum with an area of 132 square meters are covered by a dome, not a simple one, but with a double shell. The hemisphere-shaped inner dome, forming the ceiling of the hall, has a conical tent erected above it, reaching thirty meters in height from the floor. The space between these two shells can be accessed only from the roof of the mausoleum through a window located at the bottom of the tent, although it was intended only for ventilation. Air circulates in the hall through the holes in the shell of the inner dome, which is cut through by inserts of pottery pipes, presenting a picture in the form of a twelve-pointed star when viewed from below.
On the outside, the tent is faced with blue glazed bricks, and there is an ornamental belt in the form of rhombs mixed with regular polished bricks in the lower part of the cone. The glaze has not lost its luster over many centuries, yet the facing has partially crumbled and there are now many jagged places and breaks.
And, of course, the main facade decorated with a high portal with a luxurious stalactite crown of the entrance is perhaps the most spectacular part of the monument. The traditional lancet arch does not turn inward but is slightly outlined by the relief against the background of the scenery that fills the arched niche. This is a classic muqarnases - a technique that was popular in the Islamic architecture to decorate hemispheres with a complex geometric design in the form of three-dimensional ceramic figures hanging over one another, resembling cut honeycombs or calcareous sinter in caves. That is why they are more commonly known as stalactites. One cannot help but admire the precise mathematical calculation and the truly delicate work of masters who created this magical three-dimensional ornament using only the simplest instruments - a pair of compasses and a ruler.
The historical and architectural sciences have one very important concept on attribution of a monument, that is, identification of the time of its erection, purpose, ownership by a particular customer and, if lucky, identification of authorship. So, speaking of the Tekesh mausoleum, there is still no clear answer to any of these questions. To begin with, not so long ago, in the first half of the twentieth century, this monument was called very differently, and there was no mentioning of any Tekesh at that time. Sharap-baba - this is how it was called by the old-timers of Kunya-Urgench. In the scientific publications of the 1930s, it was mentioned as Sheikh Sheref.
What kind of character was he? Very little is known about him, but his life, according to indirect information, falls on the second half of the XIII - beginning the XIV centuries. For a while, this Sufi mystic lived in Urgench and, according to the legend, translated important religious texts from Arabic into Turkmen, having received a reward of 40 camels for his work. Another legend says that Sharap-baba bought a tomb from Princess Tyurabek-khanym for himself, having paid a myriad of gold coins for it.
When the mausoleum was built, the Sheikh praised the builders, but said it would be too much honor for such a humble servant of God like himself to find eternal peace in such a beautiful building. Therefore, when the Sheikh died, he was buried nearby under the open sky, according to his own will. The origins of the legend are clear. There is no sarcophagus inside the mausoleum, but there are several of them around it. One of them, excavated by archaeologists, partially preserved the magnificent glazed cladding, which was badly damaged by saline land. Judging by the surviving fragment of the Arabian epitaph, a woman was buried there, who had something to do with Sheikh Sheref.
English officer James Abbot, who visited the Khiva Khanate in 1839, was the first European who not only saw this monument but also described it in his memoirs. Then, for nearly a century, the mausoleum was only briefly mentioned by British and Russian travelers and orientalists. Only in the summer of 1928, during the work of the first scientific expedition from Leningrad, the monument was measured and photographed. A report on this work was then published in the book "Ruins of Urgench" by Professor Andrei Yakubovsky. It was at that time that the architect-painter, Professor Nikolai Baklanov, who was part of his expedition, suggested that the mausoleum hardly had anything to do with Sheikh Sheref. According to him, it was rather a tombstone of the Khorezmshah Tekesh, who ruled Khorezm a century earlier.
This opinion also conforms to the reports by two Persian authors of the 13th century - Dzhuzdzhani and Dzhuveini saying that after the Mongol pillage there remained only two buildings in Urgench - a certain palace called Keshk-i-Akhchak and the tomb of Sultan Tekesh. Their Arab contemporary Ibn al-Sai adds that Tekesh built a madrasah in Gurganj (called Kunya Urgench under the Khorezmshahs) and founded a library in it, competing with the Seljuk sultans. When he died in 1200, he was buried in the mausoleum that he erected for himself at this madrasah.
Ten years after Yakubovsky's expedition, the monument was inspected by Moscow's architect-restorer Nikolai Bachinsky, who supported Baklanov's hypothesis. Since then, the name of Tekesh gradually supplanted the name of Sharap-baba in the name of the mausoleum, and now few people remember it.
Experts are almost unanimous in their opinion that the architecture of this mausoleum, its design and stylistic features are consistent with the building traditions of the pre-Mongol period.
Ala ad-Din Abul-Muzaffar Tekesh ibn Il Arslan was perhaps the most successful ruler of the Khorezmshah-Anushteginid dynasty, despite the fact that he started his journey to the throne with the murder of his mother and protracted contest of power with his brother. He was known not only as a harsh warrior, who managed to conquer neighboring countries and build a real empire, stretching from the Aral Sea to the Persian Gulf. He was well educated and even participated in disputes, arranging meetings of fakikhs (lawyers) at the court and in his madrasah.
It is hard to believe that 800 years ago the population of Gurganj - the glorious capital of the Khorezmshahs empire - amounted to about half a million, similar to Merv and Esfahan. At that time, around the world, only Baghdad and Hangzhou (Linan) - the capital of the Chinese Song empire - were larger than these three cities.
Everything changed after the Mongol conquest. Genghis Khan gathered a huge army at the massive walls of Gurganj to conquer the city. The siege lasted several months and in April 1221 the city fell. Fifteen years after the catastrophe, a wandering monk from Italy, Giovanni del Plano Carpini, saw the city ruins. He wrote that the Mongols managed to break the defenses only after they "dug up the river that flowed through the city and drowned it with all its property and people."
It took several decades for Urgench to revive, yet on a much smaller scale, as the administrative center of the farthest province of the Golden Horde. And what about the Tekesh mausoleum? If it survived the flood and was not destroyed by the Mongols, then they certainly did not spare the madrassas with the library. Traces of the walls adjacent to the cubic tomb were visible on all its facades until the restoration work of the eighties of the last century. And, as the researchers believe, the stalactite niche above the main entrance was turned into the courtyard of the madrasah. In addition, sections of an unknown structure with the long foundation of a massive wall as well as bases of round brick columns have been excavated a few meters from the existing building. Therefore, it really was part of a large architectural ensemble.
Archaeologist Hemra Yusupov, who led the excavations of those years, confirmed the presence of flood traces in the cultural layer and made many interesting finds. One of them is a jug, covered with blue glaze, stuffed with silver coins of the Golden Horde coinage. It was lying near the entrance to the mausoleum and, according to the archaeologist, served for collection of donations from pilgrims. Yusupov believed that earlier there stood a certain temple complex that arose on the site of pre-Islamic sanctuaries.
A very tiny modern mausoleum, erected near the tomb of Tekesh and bearing the popular name of Garra Alov-pir, which is literally translated as "Patron of the old fire", is perhaps the most important argument in favor of this version. Until recently, there was a simple grave hill, but it has long been considered one of the main shrines of Kunya-Urgench. This name already has a clear indication that in the pre-Islamic times it was a Zoroastrian temple - a temple of fire. And such prayer places were rarely abandoned. More often they were simply Islamized, it was hardly by accident that Sultan Tekesh chose this place for his madrassah and the future mausoleum.
The fact that the existing monument was built as a memorial, a tomb, is evidenced first of all by the crowning tent. In the traditional Islamic architecture, such cone or pyramid-shaped tents were erected exclusively over mausoleums. They could be topped by much more common domes of a regular spherical shape, but pyramids or cones were never erected over mosques, palaces, caravanserais and other buildings. This rule was strictly observed throughout the Islamic world.
Epigraphy is another important feature of the mausoleum. The Tekesh drum partially preserved a belt with a monumental Arabic inscription encircling the entire cylinder. This relief inscription consisted of three hundred and sixty ceramic tiles arranged in two rows, entirely covered with blue glaze. Only fifty-eight remained on the site, four more tiles are kept at the Hermitage and one at the Samarkand Historical Museum. Even this surviving fragment of the text that can still be read makes it clear that the building was intended for the burial of the Sultan.
Below the epigraphic belt, there is another detail worthy of attention, which was noted by architectural historian Sergei Khmelnitsky. In the niches of the drum, fragments of painted glazed tiles and expensive colored dishes were inserted into wide seams along the contour of the arches. According to him, "the contrast effect of ocher brick surfaces and precious colored inclusions is used purposefully and tastefully." Many years ago, visiting Dr. Khmelnitsky in Berlin, I saw a small collection of majolica fragments in his house, by then already published in Italy, in the works of his German colleague Professor Burchard Brentjes of the Eastern Institute of the University of Naples. I could not help but ask him of the origins of those tiles, and here is what he said:
- In 1960, as a postgraduate at the Moscow Institute of Art History, I was sent to Central Asia. The list of places that I wanted to visit included Kunya-Urgench. Needless to say, this field of ruins impressed me very much! For two days I wandered around the ancient settlement and photographed everything that I could and accidentally met one unusual person. He was a Turkmen, about forty year old, ascetic in appearance, with a beard, wearing a robe and a telpek. Under the robe he wore a tunic with several medal ribbons. A man was a paratrooper during the war. Now, he spiritually served the pilgrims who visited the Kunya-Urgench shrines - mostly women and children - that is, taking them to these holy places and reading prayers there. He lived on this, and life did not seem to be easy for him. This strange mullah with war experience showed me a handful of colored majolica debris, offering to buy them very inexpensively. When asked where the fragments came from, he led me to the Tekesh mausoleum, taking with him a long stick with a nail at the end. We climbed onto the roof of the building. He raised a stick and very deftly pulled out with a nail a small colored insert - one of those that still remain in the frames of niche-stalactites. Other fragments also came from there. Of course, I immediately bought all his stock.
Majolica inserts were undoubtedly of secondary use, they were parts of tiles from buildings destroyed by that time, as well as shards of expensive dishes, Sergey Khmelnitsky continued. Before inserting them into the seams of decorative brickwork, they were given a rough rectangular shape, that is, cut off from all sides.
Khmelnitsky's collection was seen by Nina Grazhdankina, the renowned specialist in ancient building materials of Central Asia. She became very interested and took a few pieces for analysis to determine the place of their manufacture. She later wrote that she suspected they might come from workshops of the Iranian cities of Rey or Kashan, but she found evidence that they were undoubtedly of local origin. It was precisely these small pieces that unexpectedly called into question the entire old dating of the monument itself and, therefore, its belonging to the era of the Khorezmshah Tekesh and to himself as the "owner" of the mausoleum.
The fact is that the painted ceramics of the Kashan type, used to decorate arched ribbons on the drum, became widespread only in the second half of the 13th century and at the beginning of the 14th century. Impressive samples of such tableware can be found in the State Museum of Turkmenistan. There are also earlier samples of earthenware with luster painting, i.e. bright pearl film put on their surface. At the same time, they are very rare, and only a thorough analysis of images and ornaments on the shards used in the facing of Tekesh will finally help solve the question of the true age of this monument.
Finally, there is another secret that this grandiose mausoleum has kept for centuries. Five years ago, while cleaning up centuries-old sediments of moving sand and bird excrements in the attic space between the inner dome and the outer tent, employees of the Kunya-Urgench State Historical and Cultural Reserve discovered a half-decayed package with two medieval religious manuscript books. One of them featured the last page of the old Koran enclosed in the book, which can be dated around the beginning of the XIV century. The other page enclosed in the book contained brief comments on some hadiths - about death, grave and so on. There was one more page stuck in between the books that turned out to be completely unique. This is a miniature in a gilded frame depicting twelve signs of the Zodiac - a work by an unknown book workshop of the same period as a page from the Koran. This treasure is now stored at the Institute of Language, Literature and National Manuscripts named after Magtymguly of the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan. Alas, no one will get to know as to whom, when and why hid this package in such an unusual place.
It is not for sure that the Tekesh mausoleum will stop surprising us. On the contrary, it is most likely that this is just the beginning, and when this monument becomes an object of thorough scientific research, envisaging not only continuation of excavations of the adjacent territory but also probing the thickness of its walls and the foundation, we will learn many more facts about it and about time when it was built.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005