The magazine is registered by the Federal Service for Supervision of Compliance with Legislation Governing Mass Communications and Protection of Cultural Heritage, certificate of registration ÏÈ ¹ ÔÑ77-21265 of 08.06.2005  
2022  N3-4(204-205)
Those who saw Kopetdag not from afar, like a silhouette in a gray haze, but walked along its narrow paths and climbed its peaks, will never forget the harsh and majestic beauty of these mountains. In 1899, an outstanding military orientalist, traveler, ethnographer and publicist, a captain of a separate border guard corps, Dmitry Logofet, rode on horseback through the entire Kopetdag and left a colorful description of what he saw.
“From the height of the mountain range to the very edge of the horizon, all the same monotonous mountains loomed on all sides, and they seemed endless. Mountain ranges appeared deep blue in the distance, rising higher and higher one after another. Meanwhile, places covered with fairly tall grass began to come across, at first occasionally and then more and more often. Going down, we moved through a picturesque gorge. Stone gray massifs of mountains rose on both sides, with a fast fancifully twisting stream running among them. In some places, clear and cold water of small springs oozed from the crevices of the rocks,” he wrote.
Nowadays, it remains as it was then. Nature has remained in its pristine purity because human intervention has been minimal. Only small settlements grew up and gardens and arable lands appeared on alpine meadows in some places in the 20th century. The fact is that Kopetdag consists of three parallel ridges in its central part. The northern ridge, rising up to one thousand meters above the sea level, falls steeply to the foothill plains of Akhal and Balkan provinces.
The middle ridge is twice as high, and the southern and highest one, standing already outside Turkmenistan, smoothly descends into the Upper Atrek valley and the Mashkhed steppe. Longitudinal valleys and transverse canyons stretch between these ridges. Rivers cut across mountains, forming narrow and deep gorges overgrown with dense forest.
The Turkmen-Khorasan mountains, also called Kopetdag by geographers, stretch for hundreds of kilometers from east to west. They serve as a natural border between two worlds - Iran and Turan – since ancient times. Given all conventionality of such a division, it reflected for many centuries the real picture of confrontation between the world of agricultural civilizations of the Middle East and the nomadic empires of Eurasia that differed by languages, religions and government systems. Their eternal hostility is most clearly reflected in folklore. Fairy tale heroes Rustam and Afrasiab are the classic antipodes of the Persian epic, personifying the struggle of opposites and essential difference between the peoples of the south and north. It seems that nature itself decided to isolate them from each other by high mountains. And where the mountains end and the Misrian plain stretches – from the western ridges of Kopetdag to the Caspian Sea - about two thousand years ago, in the Parthian era, people erected a huge wall stretching for about 170 kilometers. This is the so-called Alexander Wall or Gyzyl-Alan in Turkmen.
Centuries passed. Some empires collapsed, others emerged, state borders changed, but the enmity of tribes, the confrontation of neighboring peoples did not go anywhere.
In different historical epochs, the Iranian shahs resettled militant Kurds from the Persian-Ottoman border to the province of Khorasan as a human shield, a neutral layer along the ever-disturbing border. They took possession of fertile lands along the southern slopes and in the valleys of Kopetdag, giving birth to an enclave of Kurdish khanates. In the XVIII-XIX centuries, dozens of fortresses and hundreds of border guard towers were built in these mountains, some of which are located in the territory of modern Turkmenistan. Some of them are depicted in drawings, engravings of European travelers. They are published in rare books or stored in the archives of Russia and Europe.
A zone of bygone battles and robber raids that trade caravans tried to bypass has become perhaps one of the safest places on earth in the 21st century. It is now a zone of favorite routes of mountain tourism lovers. Even single travelers run the risk of meeting only with a snake and, if they are lucky, they can take a picture of a leopard. This protected area is home to several species of rare animals and even rarer endemic plants, but it is also attractive to those who take interest in history.
The ruins of former impregnable fortresses are hardly seen in the Kopetdag landscape because they are built of stones of the same rocks of the surrounding mountains. Roughly worked and carefully fitted to each other, stone blocks form a masonry of walls and towers, overgrown with moss, eaten away by winds, partially collapsed, but still edging the steep cliffs of small plateaus. These human shelters, like eagle nests, are crowned by hard-to-reach rocks. Most of them are nameless, but some have retained their former names or received them from the current inhabitants of mountain villages. The most famous and most often visited by tourists are located above the village of Nohur.
Known since the 15th century, this village grew up around one of these fortresses. A natural cliff was used for its construction, and the fortress walls seem to grow out of it, forming a monolithic unity of the structure with the natural environment. Such harmony is characteristic of all the stone fortresses of Kopetdag without exception. Their architecture so organically fits the landscape that one can only admire the taste and skill of the unknown masters who erected these walls.
A citadel in the center of Nohur was the only place where the villagers felt safe. According to ethnographer Galina Vasilyeva, who did her thesis on the Nohur Turkmens in Moscow in the middle of the last century, women and children used to take shelter in this fortress when the enemy attacked. Turkmens from other tribes, hiding from blood feuds or for some reason expelled from their villages, would also run to find shelter there. Over time, when there was no need for such a fortress, it was transformed, and now it has become part of the residential infrastructure.
Nohur, like many villages in the mountains, is located in a wide basin that protects houses from winds. Watchtowers or signal towers were erected on the slopes or the crests of hills along such villages. The fortress in Turkmen is Gala, the tower is Ding. These are miniature and round in plan constructions that were normally about two meters in diameter with the same height. They were placed at a certain distance but visible by each other, so that it was possible to signal danger or show a landmark for travelers. Some of these dings are solid, built of stone bricks, such as, for example, Tushimergen on a mountain peak near Nohur, while other dings are hollow, with a room inside, resembling a semicircular bastion.
There were also built two-tiered dings for dual use. In many villages of Akhal region, they stood in almost every estate and served as warehouses for fodder in the lower room, while the upper one served as a shelter for people running from an enemy attack. Such dings were most often built from mud bricks, or pakhsa (densely rammed clay), which was laid in layers when building very thick walls. After drying, they turned into a monolith. They were noted for their extra durability. These towers reliably protected people from firearms. Thanks to their cone-shaped design, they stood firm during earthquakes. That is why even today one can still see a lot of such clay dings in the foothills of Kopetdag.
There is the village of Karaul 10 kilometers above Nohur. It also keeps the remains of a fortress, and if one turns to the west, one can see a winding road along a hilly valley leading to the gorge of Ayy-depe (Bear Gorge). At its bottom, there are rocks overgrown with Turkmen juniper, hanging overhead with cyclopean layers of limestone. However, a careful look will make out a neat masonry of torn stones and cobblestones on the edge of one of the cliffs. This is the Tekegyrlan fortress. It had a broken contour of a relatively flat terrace on top of a rock, retaining barely noticeable traces of some internal buildings and a well that had long been filled with rubble by winds.
Further to the west, not far from the modern village of Sayvan, there stands the largest fort in these mountains called Garry-Gala, literally the Old Fortress. Such a name can be found in almost every Turkmen region, and toponyms with the same meaning but in different languages can be found in a number of countries. This is not surprising. When the true names of places and some ancient buildings are completely erased from the collective memory, then equally faceless names appear. In Garry-Gala near Sayvan, a hilly area of about six hectares is surrounded by a stone wall erected along the contour of the relief with several corner and intermediate semicircular bastions. The northern part of the wall has been long destroyed, and the southern one still quite impressively rises above the district. Nothing is known about the time of construction or about those who owned this Old Fortress. Next to it, the medieval mausoleum of Gyzbibidzhan is buried in the shade of centuries-old plane trees and mulberry trees. This is a local shrine that is frequently visited by pilgrims.
A similar fortress is located in another part of Kopetdag, to the south of the village of Yaraji. Now it is called Bakhche-Gala (Garden Fortress), although it is hard to imagine that there could be a garden in such a rocky area at such a height. It rather looks like an “eagle nest” that offers a breathtaking view of endless mountains.
Another type of Turkmen fortification is located in the same area. This is a clay family estate, conventionally called Yaraji-Gala - rectangular in plan with round corner towers and narrow loopholes. The arrows were placed in such towers on a special platform arranged about one and a half meters below the crest of the wall so that, in addition to loopholes, it was possible to shoot over the parapet. Inside, along the walls, there were utility sheds. And in the center, there were yurts where the owners of facilities lived. In the 19th century, there were a lot of such small gala or khovly, as they were also called. Only a few of them have survived by now. They were the main type of dwelling of the Akhal Turkmens not only in the mountains but also in the foothill villages and even towns of those days, such as Murche, Durun, Ashgabat, Anau and others.
So, why all the fortresses, not to mention signal towers, were placed on hills and even on mountain cliffs? One reason is obvious. The military-defensive purpose of these structures dictates its own rules. And another reason is that only such places are protected from mountain mudflows that due to the steep slope of valleys and ravines carry a huge mass of stones and dirt to the lowlands. These are not simply spring floods, but real water floods – stormy, swift, albeit short-lived. It takes just a few hours for the power of water to move multi-ton stones, uproots centuries-old trees, washing away literally everything in its path. Such is mudflow - a natural disaster that regularly occurs in this area, well known to all residents of the mountainous regions of Central Asia, Iran, and the Caucasus. In Kopetdag, mudflows of different force occur regularly, especially in spring and autumn. So, people have long taken into account this natural factor, arranging their villages on slopes higher from the level of streams and cemeteries and fortresses on hills and cliffs.
The review of Kopetdag fortresses will be incomplete without mentioning the most beautiful of them. We are talking about the so-called Yazyr-Gala, located in the intermountain Gara-yayla, 7 kilometers south of the modern village of Bendesen. The fortress, or rather its ruins, is located in the Pakyrshikh tract, on the edge of a large medieval necropolis at the foot of Munnyush Mountain. Almost square in plan, Yazyr-Gala had eight round towers, of which only four remained relatively intact. Two of the four walls have been partially preserved, but these ruins still impress with their brutal expressiveness. The very rough laying of flat flagstone in clay mortar also features round stone nodules that are found in abundance in the local mountains.
One can only speculate about the age and belonging of Yazyr-Gala. It is important to take into account the fact that the main construction activity in the northwestern part of Kopetdag and the foothill plain is associated with the medieval Oguz tribe of Yazyr that occupied this part of Khorasan even before the Seljuks in the 11th century. After the Mongol invasion, the main city of the Yazyr Turkmens was Tak-Yazir, or Shekhrislam, located in the desert 20 kilometers north of the modern Turkmen city of Bakharden. According to the local legends, in the 13th-14th centuries, there lived Yazyr Khan, Yazyr tribal leader, who is revered to this day, whose mausoleum is located at the Pakyrshikh cemetery. Therefore, the fortress in question may be a legacy of that distant era.
Long gone are the days when people urgently needed such fortresses. And when there is no practical need, or, in other words, when the function dies, then the facility becomes useless. That is why the entire fortification of Kopetdag turned out to be abandoned by people, completely forgotten, so that even the former names of certain “eagle nests” have been lost forever. However, every time we go to the mountains and see these silent ruins, the harsh architecture of the former strongholds, we think about how difficult and dangerous life was in this paradise, looking like the gardens of Eden.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005