UNDER COVER OF HEAVEN
One thousand eight hundred years have passed since the fall of the Parthian state, when the entire territory from the Caspian Sea to the Amu Darya was part of the Sassanid state. This Persian dynasty managed to hold out on the political stage for more than four centuries and expand the boundaries of its possessions to Egypt in the west and the foothills of the Pamirs in the east during the many years of wars with its neighbors – Byzantium and the Turkic Khaganate – in the first quarter of the 7th century.
The Sassanid era left numerous traces in the culture of the peoples who inhabited this vast empire of the Ancient East. Such traces also remained in Turkmenistan. Long before the advent of Islam, three world religions coexisted in the cities of Khorasan, the northern region subordinate to the Sassanids. This is, first of all, Zoroastrianism - their state religion, as well as Buddhism and Christianity.
No one knows when and where Prophet Zarathushtra lived, but many scientists believe that Margiana or neighboring Bactria in the territory of modern Afghanistan were his homeland. Neither the Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, nor later texts mention him in connection with any historical figure, as, for example, Jesus Christ is mentioned in connection with Pontius Pilate and Herod the Great, whose historicity is beyond doubt. The Avesta portrays Zarathushtra as a poet and priest to whom God Ahuramazda gave revelation. It happened on the day of the spring equinox, during the New Year holiday of Novruz. God revealed to him the causes of human calamities and the principles that people should follow when participating in the eternal struggle between good and evil.
In this teaching, water and fire are symbols of ritual purity, and the purification ceremonies associated with them are considered the basis of Zoroastrian rituals. This religion also affirms the existence of the soul and resurrection of the body during the Great Renewal that will come one day. Death is considered the work of the evil spirit Angra Mainyu, while the earth and all that is beautiful are considered the pure work of God. Zoroastrians believe that demon Nasu took possession of the body after death, thus defiling it. This is why any contact between dead flesh and such sacred substances as earth, water and fire is considered sacrilegious.
That is why the Zoroastrians used to leave the bodies of their dead in the open air until the birds ate the flesh and the sunlight and rain cleansed the bones. Only then they were put into special vessels – ossuaries, which were ceramic urns for storing bones. The ossuaries themselves were placed in crypts (nauses), and many such structures were excavated by archaeologists.
One of the most expressive ossuaries can be seen in the State Museum of Turkmenistan. On its side door, there is a depiction of a bird of prey holding some object in its beak. The meaning of this image is unknown to us, as well as much of what is connected with the religion of fire worshipers, as the Zoroastrians are sometimes called. A painted vase from Merv is another rare exhibit of this museum that sheds light on their customs. The entire surface of such an unusual vessel, which dates back to the 5th-7th centuries, is covered with colored painting with four scenes. They represent a sequential story of four plots: feast, hunt, mourning and burial of the ruler of Merv. There is no doubt that originally it was also an ossuary.
Fire temples were the main objects of the Zoroastrian cult. Not a single such sanctuary has yet been found in Merv, which in the era of the Sassanids was one of the megacities of the Ancient East and only slightly inferior to the Chaldean Babylon in terms of area and population. But in the Zoroastrian books, Merv (Mouru) is noted as one of the sixteen lands created by Ahuramazda. The anonymous romantic poem “Vis and Ramin”, which may date back to the Parthian period, mentions a fire temple located near one of the gates of Merv. Obviously, only poor archaeological knowledge of this gigantic settlement is the reason why traces of Zoroastrian temples have not yet been found there. Only two monuments in the territory of modern Turkmenistan are confidently identified by scientists with such temples. These are Ak-Depe near the Artyk railway station, which was excavated by archaeologists Annageldy Gubaev and Sergey Loginov, and Mele-Khairan in the Serakhs region, discovered by the Polish expedition led by Professor Barbara Kaim.
The latter provided the most impressive material. An ordinary-looking mound concealed the remains of a building dating back to the 5th-7th centuries, which was erected on a low brick platform consisting of ten rooms. The main entrance to the temple led to a small courtyard with a deep well. It proves that water was of great importance in Zoroastrian rituals. A large hall stood next to it, covered with a high vault. Along its walls, there were podiums lined with stucco relief ornament. It has been safely preserved and transported to the Museum of Fine Arts of Turkmenistan. The main temple room with a round altar in the middle, on which a ritual fire burned, was decorated with the same type of sculptural reliefs.
Numerous objects of artistic bone carving stand out among the numerous finds from the Mele-Khairan temple that are now displayed at the Ashgabat museum. Particularly impressive are the details of rhytons in the form of sculptural images of the head of a wolf, other animals, as well as people in the characteristic costumes of that era, bone hairpins for clothes or magnificent hairstyles, fortune-telling sticks and other attributes of everyday life.
Archaeologists made the main discoveries related to Buddhism again in Merv, in the territory of its ancient settlement Gyaur-Kala. Even today, it rises above the entire district, and the once impregnable walls of its round citadel Erk-Kala, although heavily swollen, are visible for many kilometers. It remains debatable how and when Buddhism reached Margiana, but its existence in the cultural landscape of the cosmopolitan Merv oasis in the historical past is indisputable.
Thanks to the many years of work of the South Turkmenistan Archaeological Complex Expedition (STACE) headed by academician Mikhail Masson, three Buddhist buildings were discovered there – a stupa dating back to the 6th-7th centuries was found behind the eastern wall of Gyaur-Kala. A little further, in the suburbs, there was found a 12th-century stupa and, finally, a massive stupa with a sangharama (Buddhist monastery) in the southeast corner of Gyaur-Kala. It was there that the head of a huge clay statue of Buddha was found, along with several miniature stone figurines with images of a gilded Buddha and other Indian scenes. These small plastic items come from Gandhara, a region of ancient India where stone-cutting art flourished. In Gyaur-Kala, the figurines were hidden in a reliquary near the stupa along with Sanskrit manuscripts and other valuables.
Researchers believe that construction of Buddhist monuments in Merv may be related to the deep crisis of the Sassanid Empire between the second half of the 5th century and the first half of the 6th century. This crisis was caused by the Hephthalites, a warlike Central Asian people who posed a serious threat to the Sassanids. The influence of the Hephthalites, whose state occupied the lands of modern Afghanistan and northwestern India, contributed to the penetration of Buddhism into the Merv oasis. This, of course, does not exclude the possibility that Buddhists were indeed present in Merv before the occupation by the Hephthalites. It is obvious, however, that they were too few and too weak to build a Buddhist center in the Zoroastrian city. A terracotta figurine of a bodhisattva, that is, a person on the way to becoming a Buddha, found by Polish archaeologists in the Serahs oasis, suggests that followers of this religion were also present there.
Ancient Merv also played an important role in the history of Eastern Christianity. Given the role of Merv on trade routes, merchants traveling from the Mediterranean to China may have been the first followers of Christ to arrive in Merv. Although the early history of Christianity in the Parthian kingdom is little known, it is quite clear that its spread was not met with the opposition like in the Roman Empire. Frequent persecution of Christians, thousands of martyrs for their faith – there was nothing like it in Parthia, unlike Rome. By the time Parthia perished and the power passed to the Sassanid dynasty, there already were more than thirty episcopal sees. The most reliable and well-documented information about early Christianity in the territory of modern Turkmenistan is associated exactly with the Sasanian era.
Al-Biruni, a famous encyclopedic scholar who lived at the turn of the 10th-11th centuries, wrote about a Christian missionary named Barshabba, who arrived in Merv “about two hundred years after Christ.” Such an early date is unreliable, and the vague term “about two hundred years” may indicate that he did not have access to accurate evidence. The legend of Barshabba, however, survived in the Arab chronicles of the 14th century. They tell that Barshabba, who later became the first bishop of Merv, was one of those who arrived in Persia from Syria at the behest of the Sasanian king Shapur I, who ruled in the 3rd century. He remained at court and managed to win the favor of the king. But when it turned out that Barshabba had converted Shapur’s sister and wife to Christianity, the king turned furious, and the priest was expelled from the capital to distant Merv, where he eventually succeeded in his mission.
The Sasanian king, Yazdegerd I, who ruled at the beginning of the 5th century, was himself interested in involving Christians in the imperial politics. Instead of the Zoroastrian fire altar, the reverse side of his copper coins, minted in Merv, depicts a cross framed by flying ribbons. The last dramatic act of cooperation between the Christian community of Merv and the monarchy was the local bishop’s participation in the burial of the last king of this dynasty, Yazdegerd III, who died in the vicinity of the city, where he was hiding from the persecution of the advancing Arabs.
The discovery of the ruins of a church near the settlement of Duechakyn, 15 kilometers north of the modern city of Bayramali, was perhaps the most significant and proven fact of the Christian presence in Merv. The locals have long called these ruins Kharaba-Keshk, which literally means “Ruins of the Palace”. There are no legends about this building. There was no question that it could be connected with Christianity until STACE detachment arrived in this place in the autumn of 1951, headed by Galina Pugachenkova, later an academician and a major specialist in the history of architecture and art of Central Asia.
She carefully examined these ruins and came to the conclusion that there stood a single-nave basilica typical of the first centuries of Christianity, which was spread in that era and later in the Middle East and Transcaucasia. The nave is the inner space of the temple, rectangular in plan, dissected by arcades or columns. Three-nave churches became popular in Medieval Europe, while single-nave churches in Asia. This building was used for several centuries, and people left it only after the clay vaults of the central hall collapsed and the whole building gradually turned into a high hill. The doubts of skeptics that the seemingly shapeless ruins were indeed a Nestorian Christian temple were finally dispelled by the discovery of a pectoral bronze cross. It is now preserved in the Mary Museum of Local History, along with other finds from Kharaba-Keshk.
According to the St. Petersburg orientalist Alexander Nikitin, who devoted many years to studying the Sassanid era, the role of Merv as a cultural and commercial center apparently allowed Merv to acquire some kind of special status that made it possible for non-believers to live in this city more freely, and they were not subjected to persecution that they sometimes experienced in the western regions of the state.
The religious tolerance of the Sassanids was an important condition for maintaining diplomatic and trade relations with their neighbors. In the 7th century, they resisted the invasion of the Arabs for a total of more than two decades, but they lost and Merv submitted to the Arabs without a fight in 652. The triumph of Islam was a direct consequence of the Arab invasion, and this is the essential difference between the Muslim faith and Buddhism and Christianity that were also “imported” religions and penetrated into Central Asia peacefully and gradually, never claiming to be the state religion.