RECREATING LOST MONUMENTS
In the spring of 1830, a twenty-two-year-old officer of the British East India Company, Lieutenant Arthur Conolly, was returning from vacation via Moscow, the Caucasus and Iran to his duty station in India. Having rounded the Caspian Sea from the south, he was going to visit the Khiva Khanate by joining a caravan heading to the Karakum Desert. He failed to reach his destination, as the road was too dangerous. However, on his way, he discovered a previously unknown ancient city that no European had seen before him. This was the medieval Dehistan, which is also called Mashad-Misrian, whose ruins are difficult to access even today. Not every tourist would dare to go to the completely waterless desert between the Caspian Sea and the western ridges of Kopetdag.
Arthur Conolly was also the first to describe Mashad-Misrian and write down the Turkmen legends associated with this city. Ten years later, they were included in his book “Journey to the North of India: Overland from England Through Russia, Persia and Afghanistan” published after his tragic death in Bukhara. It was at that time that the secretary of the Russian Embassy in Tehran, Clementy Bode, also saw the ruins of the city and briefly described them in his report. After him, Dehistan remained virtually closed to Europeans for a long time. It was only in 1863 that the Hungarian orientalist and British secret agent Arminius Vambery visited this place, yet incognito, under the guise of a Muslim pilgrim. His impressions, which were also published, added little to the testimony of Conolly and Bode.
We now try to grasp the meaning of the travel diaries and notes of rare travelers of the 19th century in order lean more of the lost monuments of Dehistan, find out some additional features of the appearance of those ancient buildings that now look much worse than they did 100-150 years ago. And in this respect, the drawings, photographs, reports and articles by Russian officers that visited Mashad-Misrian beginning 1875 are the most informative. The first record comes from the Krasnovodsk detachment under the command of the head of the Trans-Caspian military department, General Nikolai Lomakin. His aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Shchetikhin sketched the Dehistan ruins and published the drawings together with the essay in the most popular Russian weekly magazine of that time - “World Illustration”.
And the first photographs of Mashad-Misrian were made in 1887 by the head of the Trans-Caspian region, General Alexander Komarov, who was famous in the scientific circles for his works on archeology, ethnography and natural history of Turkmenistan. The next photo session was made in 1902 by Lieutenant Colonel Boris Kastalsky, who later became a general and one of the outstanding researchers of the history and archeology of Central Asia.
Studying carefully these unique documents and comparing the monuments captured in the photographs with what we see today, we see that the losses incurred are striking. For example, if in Komarov’s photographs the arch of the mosque’s portal is still intact, then in Kastalsky’s photographs it no longer exists, and only two high pylons remain beside the minaret. It means that the arch collapsed over the 15 years in between the visits of the two generals. After some time, the upper rows with the ornamental masonry of the minaret that formed part of the complex of this mosque also disappeared. They now remain only in the photograph taken already in the thirties of the last century by another outstanding person, the Ashgabat painter, photographer, inventor Alexander Vladychuk.
Why do we need it? This is important to enable modern and future restorers to recreate the former appearance of the monuments of the past with maximum reliability, if not in reality, then at least virtually, in the form of graphic reconstructions, using the latest visual modeling tools, as in the now popular 3D format. On the other hand, all material traces of bygone eras without exception are of undoubted importance for recreation of many local histories that form our objective understanding of the distant past. True facts versus false interpretations – this is what science stands for. And the fact that we know much more about such a small historical area like Dehistan than did people that lived in the century before the last is the merit of tireless and inquisitive pioneer researchers of several generations.
According to mining engineer Afanasy Konshin, who made the first visual plan of Dehistan at the end of the 19th century, this city is remarkable for the fact that “it was founded in a completely waterless and desert area that was fed with fresh water from Sumbar River, the left tributary of Atrek, through an over 50-mile long canal of considerable size, aqueducts and other solid irrigation facilities.” Gradually, already in the twentieth century, thanks to the efforts of prominent scientists, academicians such as Vasily Bartold, Alexander Semenov, Mikhail Masson, we learned more of the history of this region.
Before the Mongol invasion at the beginning of the 13th century, Dehistan was often mentioned in the Arab and Persian caravan guides and the chronicles of the events of those times. But now, looking at the even plain of the Misrian plateau (this is the name of this part of the Southeastern Caspian Sea region), which is almost devoid of vegetation, it is difficult to imagine that once it was a blooming, fertile oasis. If one looks from above in the light of the rays of the rising sun, the traces of ancient irrigation will be clearly visible on the terrain: channels, squares of flooded fields. According to geomorphologists and paleobotanists, there were grown a variety of types of grain crops, from wheat to rice. Researchers have already gathered enough evidence to prove that the land of Dehistan was used for about three thousand years. It was not a continuous process. There were periods that the fields were abandoned, and after centuries they were reclaimed again.
Back in the middle of the last century, young archaeologist Vadim Masson identified three historical epochs in the existence of the Dehistan oasis. The earliest one belongs to the Bronze Age (II millennium BC), which continued until the end of antiquity, that is, the fall of the Parthian state, when this territory was called Hyrcania. This entire two-thousand-year period is now referred to as the archaic Dehistan. The second era is associated with the Sassanid state and covers the III–VII centuries of the new era. This was the time when various cattle-breeding tribes, including the ancient Turks, lived in this area. The remains of their settlements in the form of huge swollen mounds can be found even now in the vastness of the Misrian plateau. And finally, the third era – from the 8th to the 14th century – left the most impressive traces. The many ruins of medieval Dehistan tell us that this was an urbanized area until the water sources that fed it dried up.
A caravan route from Khorezm to Persia ran through Dehistan along the current riverbed of Uzboy, which was the channel of Amu Darya in the distant past, flowing into the Caspian. The medieval Arab historian, al-Maqdisi, mentioned twenty-four Dehistan villages, while archaeologists identified about forty villages, some of which were not inferior in size to medieval cities.
The highly developed fortification, artistic merits, construction technique and number of impressive monuments of Dehistan put this provincial region on a par with such metropolitan centers of urban life as Merv, Gurgandzh, Samarkand, Herat and Bukhara. Moreover, in contrast to the cities of Khorasan with their predominantly adobe structures, burnt bricks were widely used in Dehistan about a thousand years ago, not only in public buildings but also in dwelling houses of townspeople and fortress walls.
However, let’s go back to the preserved ruins of the former city. Its central part, surrounded by a double fortress wall with semicircular towers and a moat, occupies about two hundred hectares. This is the so-called Shahristan, which was adjoined on four sides by a vast rabad - a suburban area consisting of craft quarters, where one can still see many remains of pottery workshops, as well as the bases of several mosques and caravanserais. In the southern rabad, there were garden-park structures and a market square. In the western rabad, there remained traces of densely built residential facilities. The most densely populated were the eastern and southern rabads with irrigation canals and a main canal that provided the city with water. There was also a large madrasah in Dehistan, dating back to the pre-Mongol period. Also remarkable are many faience products with ornamental and subject painting, as well as bronze cauldrons, lamps and other metal products with artistic processing, a number of glass products, not to mention a variety of table ceramics that were found in this place.
All this came out to light over the past half century alone. Beginning 1970, systematic excavations started in Dehistan headed by archaeologist Yegen Atagarryev. He worked in the field for many years, making one discovery after another. 18 years later, using this richest material, he successfully defended his doctoral thesis at the Moscow State University. It was at that time that the first conservation work was carried out to preserve items that survived on the surface, which were discovered following excavations. First of all, the conservation was carried out at the ruins of a mosque and two minarets next to it.
In 1875, when Lieutenant Shchetikhin saw the portal of the mosque, still connected by an arch, he mistook it for the gate of the palace because he failed to read an Arabic inscription on the facade. Meanwhile, this is a rare case in Central Asia that we know exactly who, when and why erected this building thanks to a miraculously survived fragment of epigraphy. The future academician Alexander Semyonov read it and translated it into Russian at the beginning of the 20th century. The inscription, skillfully laid out of carved bricks and covered with blue glaze, says that the mosque was built during the reign of Khorezmshah Muhammad II. In 1200-1220, he ruled a huge Turkmen empire with the capital in Gurgandzh (Kunya-Urgench), which also included the territory of Dehistan.
The neighboring minaret was less fortunate. The wide belt of its facing was completely chipped in the middle part long ago. We don’t know if it crumbled due to a poor-quality solution, or if it was deliberately jagged. It is possible that there was also a monumental inscription like on another minaret standing a little further. Yet, the text might have seemed inappropriate to some of the successive rulers, and therefore was destroyed. This happened all the time. This defect was smoothed out by the restorers to stop delamination of the upper and lower rows of the facing. The restorers are always faced with the dilemma as to what extent they should continue the restoration. What can and cannot be reconstructed when dealing with monuments of the past?
The general answer to this question has long been known and clearly formulated in the Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites. This is an international document of 1964 that establishes professional standards in the field of protection and restoration of tangible heritage. And the answer is as follows: “The restoration must stop at the point where conjecture begins; and in this case moreover any extra work, which is indispensable for aesthetic or technical reasons, must be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp.”
Guided by this very principle, experts of the National Department for the Protection, Study and Restoration of Historical and Cultural Monuments of Turkmenistan initiated a project five years ago to restore the arch of the portal of the Dehistan mosque. Having received financial support from the US Ambassadors Fund for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, Turkmen experts completed their work last year, extending the life of the site. “Delaying the restoration work was dangerous,” the project’s scientific director, Doctor of Architecture Mukhametdurdy Mamedov said. “Both pylons continued to collapse steadily from above under the influence of atmospheric precipitation and weathering of the mortar between the bricks, and the unique facing was crumbling. There was only one way out - to connect both pylons, as we see in the old photographs and as it was originally and, at the same time, to emphasize the difference between new and original parts of the building, so that the restoration would not falsify the historical and artistic documentary of the monument. I hope we succeeded.”
The task was successfully completed by the author of the project, architect-restorer Meretgeldy Charyev and an experienced team of craftsmen from Kunya-Urgench headed by Isak Asgarov. They also restored dozens of monuments in Dashoguz province, and now they have proved their high professionalism at a complex object such as the Misrian Cathedral Mosque. The remains of the walls adjoining the portal have been partially rebuilt and preserved. “Now, everyone who comes here will get a relatively complete picture of this mosque,” Director of the State Historical and Cultural Reserve “Ancient Dehistan” Aymamed Rakhimov said. “We restored its layout, typical for mosques of the pre-Mongol era, a large courtyard surrounded by a canopy around the perimeter, leaning on slender rows of round brick columns. In the center of the southern side, a luxuriously decorated arched portal-peshtak faced the courtyard, and behind it stood a domed hall with a mihrab.”
The project naturally had a very specific goal and it will take a lot of manpower and funds to continue excavations and the subsequent conservation of the ruins of this complex. It is also necessary to solve many more tasks that this and other monuments of Dehistan pose to researchers.