CLASSICAL SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH
A man that lived so long ago that no man alive remembers him turns into a legend like it or not: nobody knows if this man lived or did not live at all. The living memory normally dies with grandchildren or great-grandchildren, and people remember only what a man meant during his lifetime, what reputation a man enjoyed among his contemporaries and how interesting a man remains to descendants. Professor of St. Petersburg University Valentin Zhukovsky (1858–1918) occupies a special place in the brilliant galaxy of Russian orientalists, whom we owe our knowledge of the distant and recent past of Turkmenistan and neighboring countries. We cannot say that he is forgotten. Any modern researcher can envy the number of references made to his works over two hundred years.
In 1894, his two-hundred-page monograph “Ruins of Old Merv” was published in Russia. It was the first serious attempt to understand the history of architecture in Turkmenistan. It is not surprising that from the very beginning of study of the Turkmen material by the European science, Merv, being the Central Asian largest multi-layered settlement that existed for at least two and a half millennia, was the focus of close attention. It was surprising that a scientist, who for the first time adopted an academic approach to the study of Merv, was neither an archaeologist nor even an architectural historian. Zhukovsky was a philologist and linguist, and his major works were on the dialects of the Persian language. However, his excellent education, erudition, broad views and undoubted talent allowed him to brilliantly solve the problem.
“Merv was more fortunate than many other places of historical and archaeological interest,” the first reviewer of Zhukovsky’s book, Ashgabat military orientalist Alexander Tumansky noted in the same 1894. “He completed the research and did it the way we rarely see in Russia. Our historical literature has been enriched with such a monograph that for a long time will remain the basis for further research of these outskirts.” These words turned out to be prophetic. A quarter of a century later, Academician Vasily Bartold wrote that “no city in Central Asia has had such a thorough and good historical research as Merv, described by Zhukovsky.” A few decades later, Academician Mikhail Masson confirmed the same, saying “he has written an unsurpassed solid monograph that has no equal in any language on any of the cities of the Middle East.” And Tashkent archaeologist Zamira Usmanova added, “what Zhukovsky did in general will remain a starting reference book on the history of Merv for more than one generation of archaeologists for a long time to come.” And today, 128 years later, such assessments are still valid.
Valentin Alekseevich Zhukovsky was born in Voronezh. His parents were rich enough to give higher education to their two sons – Valentin and his brother Ivan, who graduated from the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg. The sisters, Maria and Alexandra, were married to colleagues and friends of Valentine – the aforementioned Bartold and academician Nikolai Marr. His son Sergey Zhukovsky also became an orientalist art critic. His another colleague of almost the same age, academician Sergey Oldenburg, reflecting on what guided Valentin Zhukovsky in choosing his profession and why he decided to devote his life to the study of the East, believed that Valentin knew already in his student youth that there, in Asia, one must look for the roots of many things that contributed to the progress of modern civilization, and the young orientalist was tempted to find these sources.
In 1880, Zhukovsky graduated with honors from the Faculty of Oriental Languages of St. Petersburg University and was offered a job at the Department of Persian Literature where he spent the entire fruitful period of his life. At the age of 31, he was awarded the title of professor. For a long time, he was the dean of the faculty, and he repeatedly replaced the rector. His wife Varvara Ivanovna, who was fluent in colloquial Farsi, invariably accompanied him during several long business trips to Iran. She was a reliable assistant in his work.
Zhukovsky twice visited the Transcaspian region, in 1890 and 1896. The first visit was an assignment by the Archaeological Commission “to get acquainted with the traces of Persian culture” in the Turkmen land. He was instructed to make whenever possible “plans and photographs of all those monuments of antiquity that will attract attention either architecturally or by ornaments and inscriptions.” At that time, it was generally accepted that the medieval solid monuments and the ruins of the once developed cities of Southern Turkmenistan belonged to the Persian culture. The first travelers and colonists could not imagine that such impressive majestic structures were built by the ancestors of the same people, who in the 19th century did not have the skills of high building art at all. Zhukovsky contributed to the debunking of this myth in many ways.
He did not conduct large-scale excavations, limiting himself to three pits at the earliest settlement of Merv, known as Erk-kala. Following his assignment, he focused mostly on visual surveys of the ruins and surroundings closest to them along both banks of the Murgab river.
After spending the whole summer in Merv, Zhukovsky went to Serakhs in August, visiting on his way the medieval town of Tus, not far from Mashhad, where the grave of the great poet of the 10th– early 11th centuries, Ferdowsi, is located. He managed to view and make photograph of all visible historical objects, many of which are now lost, collect folk legends associated with monuments, copy a considerable number of texts in Arabic graphics from the walls of buildings and tombstones and make a map of the Merv monuments based on topographic surveys. Having collected such an impressive set of primary sources and actual data, he subsequently analyzed them in the context of all the then available written evidence of ancient geographers, medieval Arab-Persian authors, as well as notes of Russian and English researchers of the 19th century. This work resulted in publishing the book “Ruins of Old Merv.” In fact, he managed to complete the work of a complex expedition alone in a fairly short period of time.
Zhukovsky formulated the purpose and content of his work as follows: “Before undertaking large or small scale excavations in the region and delving into the bowels of the earth, one should take care of what has survived on the surface, save and preserve for science the ruins of cities and monuments by making drawings, photographs, paper prints with inscriptions on stones, plans and provide simple but conscientious descriptions and explanations. Other than this, one may start doing a complete historical and geographical research of the Transcaspian antiquity, which is important not only for archeology but also for the modern revival of the region that seems to have a brilliant future.”
Valentin Zhukovsky’s work was fully appreciated by his contemporaries. According to numismatist and archaeologist Baron Vladimir Tizenhausen, Zhukovsky presented “an excellent example of systematic and strictly scientific research of the materials collected on this topic.” Based on Tizenhausen’s reference, Zhukovsky was awarded the gold medal of the Russian Archaeological Society in 1896. Later, he was elected a corresponding member of the Imperial Archaeological Commission, and three years later he became a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
During his second trip to Turkmenistan, he visited the ruins of Nisa near Ashgabat, viewed a mosque in Anau, visited the ruins of the medieval Abiverd near the modern city of Kaahka and stopped in the village of Meana, collecting mainly folklore material. This resulted in two books published in St. Petersburg in 1899 – “The Life and Speeches of the Elder Abu Sa’id of Meikhenei” and “The Secrets of Unity with God in the Feats of the Elder Abu Sa’id. Commentary on the quatrains of Abu Sa’id.” This Sufi sheikh, who lived in the 11th century, left an indelible memory of himself that lived for almost one thousand years. Now, he is known as Meana Baba among the Turkmens. His mausoleum near the village of Meana is a magnificent architectural monument of two eras at once – Seljuk and Timurid. It is an object of constant pilgrimage for believers and foreign tourists. There stood a mosque opposite this mausoleum, which Zhukovsky found still relatively intact. It collapsed in the twenties of the last century, so the pictures he took are truly priceless.
In one of the letters addressed to his teacher and friend Academician Viktor Rosen, Zhukovsky wrote that he was hatching the idea of doing the summary work on the Transcaspian region, but he did not have time to do it. In the last years of his life, Zhukovsky published almost nothing and did not make presentations. He seemed to retire into himself and became disillusioned with academic science. After retiring, he got seriously interested in Islamic mysticism, digging into the secrets of medieval Sufi treatises. Those who knew him claim in their memoirs that he considered himself a rather narrow specialist who never made global generalizations, hasty conclusions or strained comparisons in his scientific works, as he was guided by natural conscientiousness and sober self-esteem. In fact, we will not find any pretentiousness on the pages of the book about old Merv, we will not find in it anything that would go beyond the facts, beyond the limits of specific knowledge.
The book is divided into two equal parts. The first is a historical sketch of Merv. It is replete with excerpts from the works by Persian authors, first translated into Russian by Zhukovsky, as well as translations he collected from other oriental languages and fragments of notes from European travelers. All Russian-speaking authors who wrote about Merv in the 20th century quoted his book.
The second part of the book is devoted to the preserved monuments of this city and its environs. First of all, it draws attention to the scrupulous description of the historical landscape in the area of the modern city of Bayramali. It is clear that this topography has noticeably changed, and thus Zhukovsky’s illustration has turned into a truly priceless document. Unfortunately, his predictions came true. The heavily damaged structures soon completely disappeared from the face of the earth. They were not subjected to precise measurements and detailed study.
First of all, these are the ruins of buildings of the 15th century at the settlement of Abdullakhan-kala – a complex erected with the assistance of Alisher Navoi, consisting of the Shakhrukh mosque, the Khusrawiye madrasah and the hauz reservoir, as well as palace buildings, city gates and towers of the Timurid era, some mud-brick buildings – both of the earlier and later times, dating back to the 19th century. One can now make a reliable picture of all these objects only from Zhukovsky’s photographs. At that time, no one was able to complete what he could not do in Merv, Serakhs, Abiverd and Meana because of scarcity of the funds allotted to him.
It was only half a century later that architect Galina Pugachenkova, archaeologist Oleg Obelchenko and other researchers from the South Turkmen Archaeological Complex Expedition (STACE) made a thorough scientific description of the ancient Merv ruins. Yet, there did not remain even the foundations of other structures by that time.
Iranologist and Turkologist Yevgeny Bertels, who became the successor of Zhukovsky’s work in the field of Islamic studies, noted that his works “opened up completely different horizons for researchers.” These words fully apply to the monograph “Ruins of Old Merv” which is now rightfully considered a classic of science. Moreover, a few years ago, the well-known Turkmen poet, translator and historian Kakabay Kurbanmuradov translated Zhukovsky’s book into the Turkmen language. A Russian scientist could hardly imagine such a thing and would hardly believe it if some mystic-prophet predicted such a future for him. Nevertheless, it happened and it means that Zhukovsky’s work was not in vain.