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2021  N5-6(194-195)
The land between Amu Darya and the eastern edge of the Ustyurt plateau that once belonged to Ancient Khorezm still keeps the impressive traces of the perished fortress cities and abandoned villages, caravanserais and dry canals. When this land became waterless, almost all of these settlements and facilities were abandoned, remaining on the outskirts of the current densely populated areas of Dashoguz province. The arid and empty desert has kept these ruins for centuries and even millennia, but it does not tell us anything about their true history, giving rise to bizarre myths.
Many historical and natural disasters led to the fact that the succeeding generations no longer knew anything about those who erected local cities and castles and when, what they were called and what kind of people inhabited them. Harsh living conditions deprived the semi-nomadic tribes of the chance to learn writing, but they carefully preserved the legends by word of mouth that were associated with their native places, and, of course, fairy tales.
There were probably no other people in the traditional society who were respected, valued and loved more than bakhshi – professional performers of heroic epic poems and love stories (destan) that were chanted to the accompaniment of the dutar. It is only thanks to bakhshi and the unbreakable connection of knowledge and skills passed from khalypa to shagirt (mentor – student) that the archaic Oguz-Turkic epics “Gorkut Ata”, “Gerogly” and folk novels of the late Middle Ages have survived to this day.
Destan “Shasenem and Garyp”, a story of love of disadvantaged orphan Garyp for princess Shasenem, was especially popular on the left-bank Khorezm. The plot of this destan goes back to the third legend of “Gorkut Ata”. The events in this destan develop at the turn of the XVI-XVII centuries, when the Persian state of the Safavids was headed by Shah Abbas I, nicknamed the Great. He ruled for 40 years and significantly expanded the boundaries of his empire and recaptured the city of Diyarbakir that was previously lost by the Persians to Ottoman Turkey. His fame reached Khorezm, so it is not surprising that he is presented in destan as the prototype of Shasenem’s father – Shaapbas, the ruler of Diyarbakir.
The dictatorial father opposed the love of his daughter and Garyp despite the fact that they were engaged before they were born according to the old custom. However, when the noble father of Garyp died, Shaapbas violated the agreement and the young man had to leave his homeland for long 7 years, living apart from his beloved. The cities where he wandered are mentioned in destan, including Shirvan, Shamakhi, Khalap. Shasenem was also subjected to exile. The ruler built a palace especially for her far from the city, where she found herself in a “golden cage” with her best friend Akdzhagelin. And so the father decided to marry off his daughter at his own discretion. Hearing about this wedding, Garyp went from Khalap to Diyarbakir and on the day of Shasenem’s wedding a happy ending occurred. Contrary to the plans of the ruler, the lovers got engaged by the will of the people.
The geography and the two main characters of this destan are surprisingly reflected in the names of the monuments of Dashoguz province of Turkmenistan. There are medieval settlements Shasenem and Akdzhagelin, Diyarbakir, Khalap, Shirvan-Kala, Shamakhi. The last four are associated with the well-known place names in the Ottoman Empire and Transcaucasia: Diyarbakir is still a large city in southeast Turkey, Halap is the Syrian city of Aleppo, Shamakhi is a city in Azerbaijan located on the Shirvan plain. Not knowing the location of these distant places, the Khorezm Turkmens carried the events of their beloved destan to their homeland, making it even closer and more understandable. One can see once impregnable walls of Diyarbakir that became swollen by now. Just 10 kilometers from this place, there are the ruins of the town where the Akdzhagelin’s family lived. The ruins of the palace where Shasenem languished with her friend are located 40 kilometers from there. Everything is material and visual.
These are the legends. Yet, historians are very good at debunking the myths. It has long been established that the Shasenem settlement is in fact the medieval city of Suburny, 90 kilometers southwest of Kunya-Urgench. It is now a polygonal hill, towering over the terrain, and the ridge of the walls surrounding the hill reaches 15 meters in height. Professor Sergei Tolstov, who organized excavations here in 1952, assumed that the settlement existed almost continuously from early antiquity (IV-III centuries BC) for about one and a half thousand years until the Mongol invasion. Outside the walls of the city, two hundred meters to the southwest, there is a vast park complex surrounded by a mud-brick wall with corner pavilions and a central building.
In 1220, Arab geographer and traveler Yakut Al-Hamawi visited Suburni. “I saw it prospering,” he noted in his work. However, a disaster struck a year later. Having broken the dam on the ancient Chermen-yab canal, the Mongols flooded the city, and, according to Persian historian Ata-Melik Juveini who lived in the 13th century, this deserted city stood in the water for several decades. In the XIV century, they tried to restore it but failed because of Timur’s invasion. The name of the city (Suburny means the Cape of Water or the Edge of Water) indicates that it stood on the very outskirts of the irrigated zone. Even nowadays, the Zaunguz Karakum begins right after it. As in most cases, the old name of this place was completely forgotten. It was only in the twentieth century that Sergei Tolstov proved that Shasenem is in fact Suburny mentioned by medieval authors.
Other monuments of Khorezm are also covered with legends. One can easily see that some of their modern names have a common root – Deva, such as Devkesen, Devdan, Dev-Kala, etc. Deva is a character in the pre-Islamic demonological pantheon of Iranian and Turkic-speaking peoples. “The origins of the concept of Deva go back to the Indo-European community, ethnographer Sergei Demidov said. We find their traces in almost all European nations: from the Latin “deus” (god) to the Russian “divo” (miracle), “divniy” (wondrous), “udivitelniy” (amazing). In the ancient Indian mythology, Devas are deities, while among the Iranians, following the destruction of the sanctuary of Devas by King Xerxes and implantation of Zoroastrianism in the 5th century BC, they transformed into the category of demon giants. In this capacity, Devas were preserved in myths and tales of other neighboring peoples, including Turkmens.”
Created by their own imagination, people had very specific attitude to these supernatural creatures. They were portrayed as powerful and terrible, capable of harming or even killing a person or, much less often, delivering him wealth and power. But in some fairy tales, Devas are portrayed so stupid that they can easily be deceived not only by man but also by harmless animals and birds such as a goat, a donkey or a rooster. Sometimes Devas obey people, submissively fulfilling their various desires. Sometimes the main character of a fairy tale unceremoniously loads Devas with all kinds of good, like sacks of wheat.
But why did Devas in Khorezm mingled with the local place names? The explanation is simple. The objects that were given such names boggled the mind with their strange location (for example, on the edge of a high cliff), dimensions or massive masonry of stone blocks. It seemed incredible for people who used to build only felt yurts and clay walls that a person could erect such impressive structures. Only Deva was capable of doing it.
One simply needs to look at the settlement of Devkesen, translated from Turkmen as “cut through by Deva.” This is perhaps the most picturesque monument in northern Turkmenistan, located 60 kilometers west of Kunya-Urgench. It rises above the thirty-meter cliff of Ustyurt, crowned with the splendid contours of a mighty clay citadel with corrugated walls. This is the heritage of the ancient and early medieval city. In 1558, it was visited by Anthony Jenkinson, English diplomat and merchant who represented the British crown at the court of Ivan the Terrible. Having received a certificate of protection from the Russian Tsar, he set off on a dangerous journey to Central Asia, and the first Turkmen city that his caravan entered was Vazir.
This is how the city was called before it became Devkesen. According to Jenkinson’s description, it is located on a high hill ruled by the king named Khan. “His palace is made of low, long and not very strong buildings. The city dwellers are poor and hardly engaged in any trade. The southern part of the city is located on the low but very fertile land, where many beautiful fruits grow.” Then, the Englishman describes melons, watermelons, grapes and sesame seeds that especially struck him. He arrived there in early October, during the harvest season, and fully appreciated the gifts of nature in this region.
Vazir was known almost 100 years before Jenkinson’s arrival. In 1460, the Timurid ruler Sultan Hussein subjected this city to a siege that lasted 41 days. As the 15th century Persian author Mirkhond writes in his chronicle, 25 battles took place at its walls, after which the city surrendered to the mercy of the victor. There is no other information about Vazir in written sources, and its entire much earlier history can be leaned only with the help of archeology.
Ancient and well-preserved fortifications were used here as the basis for a new defensive system, which was created in the XVI-XVII centuries. In plan view, it is a huge rectangle of stone walls with numerous towers and a complex gateway structure. A ditch is carved around the fortress on the slope of a rocky plateau. As in Jenkinson’s description, at the foot of the “upper city” there is the second rectangle of the “lower city” closely adjacent to the rock.
In the late Middle Ages, a cult-memorial ensemble emerged in Devkesen, of which only three nameless mausoleums and a mosque remained. They were built on one line, parallel to the fortress wall. Their walls and columns were made of stone, while domes and arches were made of burnt bricks.
The once majestic Dev-Kala caravanserai is now represented only by five or six layers of cyclopean masonry of carefully polished blocks of local limestone, which can still be seen on the surface. It is not surprising that this lonely round castle of the era of the Khorezmshahs-Anushteginids, erected far in the sands on the Silk Road route, is called the “Deva’s Fortress”. Well, who else, if not Deva, could hew and lay such heavy stones?
The map of this region also features Devdan, a large canal dug in ancient times, stretching from Amu Darya to the west. Would people be able to dig a deep channel running for tens of kilometers? This seemed impossible to the inhabitants of the Khiva Khanate. So, only a mythical Deva giant could do such work. The ending “dan” in this name comes from ancient T"urkic and means “vessel”, “place of collection”, “storage”. Therefore, Devdan can be interpreted as “Deva’s Lair”.
There is no need to mention the caves, of which there are many among the steep slopes of Ustyurt. These underground dwellings, carved in layers of marl, created for God knows when and often in two tiers, provided a fertile ground for fairy tales! They are located in the Sarykamysh delta of Amu Darya on the heights of Betendag and Tarimgaya, yet it is extremely difficult to get into them, and this again stirs up people’s curiosity and imagination.
This is indeed a truly virgin land for new historical research, which may help to slightly open the dense layer of secrets and mysteries of this land over time.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005