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2022  N1-2(202-203)
Epigraphy is an auxiliary historical discipline of applied nature that studies the content and forms of inscriptions on stone, ceramics, metal and other materials, classifying them in accordance with the historical and cultural context. Everything that we know with absolute certainty about the ancient world refers only to those times when writing was already invented, and this knowledge is based on the few fragments of some texts carved on rocks, stone monuments or finished laconic messages carved on burnt clay tablets or minted on coins that have survived to this day.
There are many monuments with various historical inscriptions in Turkmenistan. Famous archaeologist Victor Sarianidi had for many years been looking for written documents at the excavations of the settlements of the country of Margush, or Margiana, which existed in the Bronze Age about four thousand years ago. However, other than two seals with inscriptions coming from Mesopotamia and the banks of the Indus nothing was found, evidencing that it was a preliterate culture, like many civilizations of the oases on the edge of the Oikumene.
The earliest writings found in the territory of modern Turkmenistan date back to the Parthian period. In addition to numerous coins of the Arshakid dynasty, there were found black ink inscriptions in Aramaic script on fragments of ceramic vessels. Such shards were used for household accounts, receipts and short letters – all of them were translated from the Parthian language thanks to the many years of work of the St. Petersburg linguist, Vladimir Livshits.
Then, there followed an almost one thousand year gap. There remained no writings in this region from the four-hundred-year-old Sassanid era and even the early Islam period. It was only in the beginning the 9th century that there emerged Arabic monumental inscriptions that became widespread on the facades and interiors of mosques, mausoleums, caravanserais and other public buildings in many cities – large and small, from the Caspian Sea to the Amu Darya. Many other texts can be found on expensive tableware, coins of numerous Muslim dynasties, not to mention the main source of knowledge – handwritten books. The unprecedented flourishing of calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing, is associated with the Middle Ages.
There is perhaps no alphabet in the world like the Arabic one that has acquired such an aesthetic value and such rich artistic design. With the advent of the Islamic era, not only calligraphy but also ornamental art in general enjoyed an unprecedented growth. This was primarily due to the fact that the new religion imposed heavy restrictions on images of living beings, although, contrary to popular belief, it was not explicitly forbidden. There were instructions not to worship idols as an important formula in the ideological struggle against paganism, but Islamic orthodoxies began to interpret it too loosely.
The Arabic calligraphy originated from copying the Holy Koran. That is why the written word carried a sacred meaning, as Islam affirms the divine origin of writing. It was clearly a means of spreading the “word of God” for religion but the form of execution of religious texts was also highly valued. The purity of writing was considered a sign of the purity of the soul. Those who mastered the laws of inscription, the harmony of lines and forms were treated as recognized masters of copying handwritten books or authors of monumental compositions in decoration of mosques and other religious buildings. Master calligraphers were also credited with many moral virtues because of their craft.
Such people were in all corners of the Arab-Muslim world. Yakut al-Mustasimi, who lived in the 13th century, was considered the best calligrapher, having developed a system of calligraphy styles and a method for teaching its secrets. Calligraphy was generally considered an exact science. When writing words, the height of vertical letters and the length of the word on the line were calculated. The size of “alif” – the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, a straight vertical line – was the basis of the rule for making proportions. The Arabic dot, which is actually the main working element of the master, served as a unit of measure in calligraphy.
Fonts, or rather stylistic handwriting, with all their diversity, are reduced to several basic types that can be easily distinguished from each other, such as “kufi”, “suls”, “naskh”, “talik”, “mukhakkak” and others. They are often combined in one composition, be it a paper sheet, «kita», or an epigraphic frieze in architecture. In the 14th century, the Iranian artist Mir Ali Tabrizi combined “naskh” and “talik”, creating a new style of Persian calligraphy – “nastalik” – that became the most popular for making Arabic ligature. At the end of the 15th – beginning the 16th centuries, one of the most famous masters in Central Asia and Persia, Sultan-Ali Mashkhedi, created the Treatise on Calligraphy – an indispensable guide for everyone who wanted to understand the secrets of this art.
Calligraphy produced genuine masterpieces in combination with harmonious architectural forms. In Turkmenistan, a number of buildings of the 9th–15th centuries can be rightly attributed to such monuments. This is, first of all, Mashad-ata – the oldest of the mosques that survived in the country, located in medieval Dehistan (Balkan province). Nearby, there are two minarets in the middle of the large but completely ruined city of Misriana, one of which features epigraphic belts laid out of brick. And, of course, one cannot but mention the magnificent inscription made of carved bricks with bright blue glaze, partially preserved on the high portal of the Misrian mosque of Khorezmshah Mohammed II, whose arch was restored several years ago.
Monumental epigraphy is represented on the minaret of Kutlug Timur and the four main mausoleums of Kunya-Urgench: two pre-Mongol (Il-Arslan and Tekesh) and two Golden Horde (Najm ad-Din al-Kubra and Tyurabek-khanym) located in Dashoguz province in the north of the country. The range of outstanding buildings of the former capital of the state of Khorezmshahs is not limited to them, but they are the once that have survived to this day, although they have lost a significant part of their magnificent facing. However, the local museum keeps the remnants of the former luxury: colored glazed and plain terracotta tiles with fragments of inscriptions from some unknown buildings of Kunya-Urgench, which have long been wiped off the face of the earth.
Six large panels with strict geometric compositions, each of them containing the words “Allah”, “Muhammad” and the names of four righteous caliphs, date back to the era of the Great Seljuks (XI–XII centuries). They are made of relief masonry on the main facade of the Dayakhatyn caravanserai in Lebap province. And in Merv, which became the capital of a huge Muslim empire under the last Seljuk Sultan, Sanjar, each religious building featured appropriate texts, including the mausoleum of Sanjar himself and those first Arabs who brought Islam to this part of the world and the symbolic tombs of the relatives of the Prophet Muhammad.
Parts of the pylons have been preserved on the main facade of the Timurid mosque, destroyed by the earthquake of 1948, in Anau near Ashgabat. The words “Allah is one”, “Glory to Allah”, “Allah”, “Muhammad”, as well as the repeated name of prophet Ali are inscribed on them in rectangles, squares and rhombuses in the mosaic technique.
Archaeological excavations contribute to the discovery of more and more new examples of monumental epigraphy of the Middle Ages. They were originally long ribbons that encircled the minarets or decorated rectangular frames above the entrances in deep niches-aivans and on high portals, on domed tholobates and, of course, interiors. Inscriptions were very often arranged in the form of a monogram, the words and letters of which intricately intertwined and fit in the medallion reserved for them.
What do all these words and phrases tell us about? As a rule, their meaning is purely religious. These are the most popular quotations from the Koran and hadiths – legends about the words and actions of the prophet, as well as “kalmia” – a declaration of faith, “dua” – the initial words of a prayer, mystical verses of famous Sufi poets and much less often the names of specific persons – reigning patrons, immediate customers and master builders of these monuments, as well as the dates of construction.
Unlike the inscriptions made in a rounded and intertwining handwriting called “suls” that are not difficult to read for those who know Arabic and Farsi, the angular and highly geometrized Kufic script needs to be deciphered like a rebus and requires some effort. This is why new interpretations or refinements of translations of Kufic inscriptions appear from time to time.
The main contribution to the epigraphy of Turkmenistan was made by Professor Valentin Zhukovsky, Academicians Vasily Bartold, Alexander Semenov, Mikhail Masson, Professor Vera Krachkovskaya, Turkmen Arabist Nazar Khalimov and now living Professor Bakhtiyar Babajanov. They revealed the evolution and typology of calligraphy in Central Asia based on research of a huge number of monuments. Now we know that in the 9th century writing still retained many archaic features, and it was only by the 10th century that its decorative effect became stronger. In the 11th century, the most complex patterns of weaving appeared in laconic inscriptions. In the 12th century, formerly monochrome ornamental panels began to increasingly include elements with blue and light blue glaze. In the 14th century, there was used almost the entire range of colors of glazed tiles that formed multifaceted word-patterned compositions. The 15th century was the final one in the history of the monumental epigraphy of Turkmenistan. In the following centuries, political destabilization, economic decline, constant wars led to the rapid degradation of the monumental architecture and calligraphy which are inextricable linked.
And yet, even in the hardest years, no one tried to encroach on the former beauty. Majestic buildings, silent witnesses of the past, have lost only a certain part of their inscriptions that mentioned the names of the overthrown sovereigns. This is understandable. New rulers were in a hurry to erase memory of their predecessors and even attribute their merits to themselves, as exemplified by the story of the famous minaret of Kunya-Urgench. The minaret can be attributed to the 11th–12th centuries based on the stylistic features. There is a message from a medieval author that it was built during the time of Sultan Mahmud Gaznevi that conquered Khorezm in 1017. However, the inscription on it presents the name of Kutlug-Timur, the governor of the Golden Horde, who lived at the beginning of the 14th century. This contradiction was clarified by archaeologist Vitaly Zotov, who analyzed the ornamentation of all the belts of the minaret decor and identified the technique of execution of the lower inscription that differs from the nature of the inscriptions of the upper belts. He convincingly proved that it appeared much later, during the reign of Kutlug-Timur.
Numerous inscriptions on the architectural monuments of Turkmenistan, regardless of their content, played not only a decorative role but also served as evidence of belonging to the Islamic world. There were not so many literate people able to read these inscriptions in the distant past, and in the 20th century, when the Arabic script was replaced by Latin, Cyrillic and Latin again, they became available only to a very narrow circle of specialists. However, for ordinary people who consider themselves Muslims, any word in the Arabic script is a priori sacred, regardless of the form of execution: on paper, on the domes and walls of mosques and mausoleums, on carpets and bedspreads, jugs and dishes, on seals and amulets. And it’s not just religious awe.
Talented masters created graphic masterpieces that give aesthetic pleasure to anyone who contemplates them, even those who are not privy to the secret meanings of the inscriptions. And scientists still have to do a lot of painstaking work to publish a full list of the discovered monuments of writing that have become an integral part of the rich architectural heritage of Turkmenistan.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005