GREATNESS OF CLAY WALLS
In our digital age, when major facilities around the world are traditionally built of concrete and metal with high prevalence of plastic and low use of burnt bricks, it may seem ridiculous to think of using clay in construction, i.e. earthen architecture. At the same time, people have used clay as a building material for at least the last eleven centuries, and it still remains the most commonly used building material in the world. According to the UN, one third of mankind lives in clay houses. This makes over two billion people from 150 countries. Simple or monumental earthen architecture accounts not only for the monuments of the past but also for modern structures that meet the most diverse needs of people.
Turkmenistan is one of the countries with many adobe structures of different centuries. They represent a variety of methods of building such structures. The oldest and simplest method is to stack wet clay clods on top of each other and press them lightly with hands. Archaeologists discovered a settlement not far from Ashgabat, on the very edge of the Karakum desert, which is more than eight thousand years old. They unearthed about thirty one-roomed windowless houses with massive hearths and traces of wooden beams that supported the roofs. Their walls were made of hand-molded oval blocks that scientists called clay "rolls". The name of the settlement - Dzheitun - was first coined by academician Vadim Masson. Several more similar settlements of the Neolithic era were found in other places of the Kopetdag valley. They are now collectively called "Dzheytun Culture."
Another, more advanced method is to make adobe. This is regular clay mixed with sand and straw that can be replaced or supplemented by other fibrous plants. Clay in adobe, like cement in ordinary concrete, turns all the components into a monolith. Adobe buildings can be found in all continents. Who has not heard of Ukrainian jerry buildings and African huts or Mexican pueblos? Even the limestone-faced Great Wall of China consists by two-thirds of adobe.
The third even more commonly used ancient method is to lay puddle, or pakhsa. Pakhsa comes in layers made of the thick clay dough prepared the day before. Turkmens used to call such layers "gor", as a derivative of the term "gorgan", meaning a palace, a fortress, a wall and just a barrow. The height of a pakhsa layer in different buildings ranges from 30 centimeters to one meter. When dry, pakhsa always cracks vertically, so such cracks are normally filled with clay plaster.
Finally, there come raw bricks as the greatest achievement of adobe construction. They remain the most common building material in the hot climate zone since the 3rd millennium BC. They are quite simple to make. Clay dough mixed with chopped straw - "lai" in Turkmen - is stuffed into a rectangular wooden formwork right on the ground and dried in the sun. Raw bricks were made of various sizes, from massive blocks weighing over 10 kilograms to small and much lighter ones, intended for vaults and domes. Rectangular and square, thick and thin, they make it possible to erect buildings and structures of various sizes and shapes and decorate them with fancy masonry and embossed ornaments.
Clay is called "palchyk" in Turkmen. This word originates from the ancient Turkic word "bal". Unlike the modern Turkmen (fish in the old days was called "luv"), among the ancient Turks balyk did not mean fish at all, but a place with many houses made of clay. Khanbalyk is a clay city, a headquarters of a ruler, a capital city. The monochromatic gray-yellow color of such cities became a base color for all large and small historical settlements of Central Asia and adjacent countries.
The territory of ancient oases from the Caspian Sea to Amu Darya and further towards China is full of thousands of large and small "depe" - earthen hillocks and hills in the middle of a plain. Under a thin cover of sod, overgrown with grasses and cemented by the roots of perennial plants of the upper soil layer, they hide the remains of structures of the distant past made of adobe bricks and pakhsa. Only occasionally there can be found stones that served as foundations or paving of the floor. When buildings dilapidated, the next generations of the inhabitants of these dwellings would bring down the old walls and erect the new ones in almost the same way in the same place. If the living conditions did not change, then after a certain number of years the same thing happened again and again. So, these "depe" grew over the centuries and even millennia in the plains. Some of them, such as Ulug-Depe near the village of Dushak in Akhal province reached more than thirty meters in height during their long life! Not every tree in this region rises to this height, except for plane trees in mountain gorges.
An archaeological pit or a section of any "depe" will perfectly describe its entire history. Deposited in the ground in the form of cultural layers, they are called building horizons more generally. Archaeologists claim that the thickness of one building horizon of an ordinary architecture of adobe structures of the Middle East and Central Asia is usually 50-60 centimeters. We have approximately the same thickness when walls of a simple adobe house collapse. However, one should take into account the fact that the cultural layer represents a mass compressed over centuries, including not only the former walls but also a lot of accompanying materials, such as broken and sometimes whole ceramics, household utensils, bones of domestic animals and human burials, coal layers from ceilings burned down in fires. All this allows scientists to draw conclusions about the age of each specific "depe" and its affiliation with a particular culture.
A clay sculpture is perhaps the best manifestation of the art of Central Asian masters. So far, archaeologists have found very few ancient samples of clay plastic art in Turkmenistan. They are real masterpieces made by unknown sculptors. In the clay temples of Old Nisa, there stood big statues of gods and heroes of the Parthian pantheon made in the traditions of Greek and Roman sculpture. If marble figurines of Nisa were clearly imported from the far West, then these massive clay statues that preserved traces of coloring are not transportable at all. They were made locally, according to the tastes of the Parthian kings. A huge painted statue of Buddha lying in nirvana was discovered in Ancient Merv. Like the fragments of clay sculpture from Nisa, it is now stored at the State Museum of Turkmenistan.
However, how can one explain the fact that not only ordinary buildings and fortress walls of Parthia but also sanctuaries and the Seljuk palaces erected in Merv one thousand years after the Parthians consist of adobe? Is it because, speaking the modern language, they were environmentally friendly structures that in no way could be harmful to human health? They do not need extra heating in winter, and they can keep coolness in the summer heat. In addition, clay walls are soundproof and fireproof.
In those days, the interiors of these palaces and temples and rich houses of wealthy townspeople were often decorated with picturesque wall paintings and carved wood, artistic carving on ganch (gypsum mixed with clay) and draperies made of expensive fabrics. Almost nothing of that beauty remained. At the same time, hearths and furnaces are best preserved in all ancient buildings. This is because they were made of raw bricks that got annealed to the state of ceramics after long burning in the fire.
Yet, the size of such structures, proportionate to the size of man, was their major quality. Raw buildings simply did not fit the idea of gigantism that was typical of the Sassanids, given the abundance of stone in Iran, or mass production of burnt bricks in the Timur state. The scarcity and high cost of these materials also necessitated the use of adobe.
Undoubtedly, there is some kind of intrinsic connection between clay walls and man. It is not even about the fact that these walls were erected by someone's hands and served as a dwelling, a temple or a mausoleum. It is rather about what is persistently repeated in many myths and religions of the world, i.e. the notion that man was created from clay, from the ashes and returns to the same ashes. It is no coincidence that the Latin words humus (earth, soil) and humanum (human) are cognate. Adam, the biblical first man, is also associated with the earth in the Indo-European and Semitic mythology. In ancient times, this word meant red earth. God, having created man from red clay, breathed a soul into him. Even though this is a myth, a legend, there is some truth in any legend!
The fact is that our ancestors were very well aware of the properties of natural materials and skillfully used them. We have long forgotten about natural construction, when each family built its own house using the materials that were available in their area of residence: from clay, wood or stone. Turkmens preferred to live in felt yurts that were very convenient for their mobile lifestyle and completely safe during earthquakes. Raw buildings were used mainly for household and social needs. The most massive and highest clay walls were built as fortresses for protection from the constant military threat. Even an ordinary Turkmen farmstead (khovly) was a small fortress with corner turrets and gates, inside of which there were only sheds for cattle and provisions, while landlords themselves lived in yurts.
There are many such family fortresses, which are still called "kala", that can be seen near modern Turkmen villages, on the outskirts of the Karakum desert and in the Kopetdag mountains. Most of their names have been forgotten, yet some still live in the people's memory. Sometimes it is not even "kala" but its remainder - "divar", meaning just a thick adobe wall, a high fence (duval).
Such monuments are very difficult to save from the effects of time. How can the lives of clay monuments be prolonged? Many countries with such monuments are looking for answers to such a difficult question.
Turkmen specialists have also been dealing with this problem for a long time. For the past twenty years, they have worked together with colleagues from CRAterre, the International Center for Earthen Architecture located in France, being the research laboratory of the National School of Architecture in Grenoble. They jointly conducted a series of conservation work in Old Nisa, Merv and Kunya-Urgench. Considerable experience has been accumulated in addressing challenges related to protection of environment and local farms activities. Inspectors of the state historical and cultural reserves regularly monitor the most important objects of earthen architecture at their sites. This work is coordinated by the National Administration of Turkmenistan for the Protection, Study and Restoration of Historical and Cultural Monuments.
There are various ideas and suggestions as to how to preserve the archaeological sites and surviving clay walls on the surface of the earth. In Turkey, they practice building solid metal canopies, using modern structures and technologies. In Kazakhstan, experimental pavilions have been set up, in which the object of protection is placed inside stained glass windows. In Iran and Afghanistan, they build brickwork, thus reconstructing the lost parts of the monuments. In Turkmenistan, the groundwater level is lowered with the help of drainage wells, and the ruins are conserved by strengthening their foundations and hiding the ancient masonry in cases of new adobe bricks made from the same clay and according to old patterns.
These and other methods have one common goal, which is to save and preserve one of few things from the past generations that remain on the earth. Every nation needs such a heritage to see its roots and feel its native land underfoot.