What is an architectural monument, and which buildings are considered as such, and which are not? It has been only relatively recently that people started asking such relevant questions. Two hundred years ago, the ancient ruins were not something inviolable at all either in Europe or Asia. They were not noticed at best or unceremoniously demolished at worst, if such ruins interfered with new construction, or were rebuilt to somebody’s taste.
However, much began to change along with the development of the European culture. In the middle of the 19th century, French art historian and archaeologist Adolf Napoleon Didron formulated the principle of attitude towards the architectural monuments of the past. It is expressed clearly and concisely, saying “It is better to repair than to restore, it is better to restore than to rebuild, it is better to rebuild than to embellish; in no case should anything be added and, most importantly, nothing should be removed.” Didron’s younger contemporary, English art theorist William Morris, developed a philosophy of conservation of antiquities with minimal interference with the ruins. He introduced the concept of “honest repair”, according to which old and restored sections of walls and other architectural details should be clearly distinguishable.
Several decades passed before these principles were reflected in such important international documents as the 1964 Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites, which establishes professional standards in this area. It was followed by the UNESCO Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage that entered into force in 1975. Turkmenistan ratified this convention at the very beginning of independence, and the country has done a lot since that time to ensure that all activities related to the monuments of the past comply with the international standards.
It only seems that clay walls are short-lived. In Turkmenistan, as well as throughout Central Asia, one can still see many clay castles and city fortifications whose age is over one thousand years. All these numerous buildings made of mud bricks have naturally long lost their original gloss, but they still withstand the elements in defiance of time. They cannot compete with the eternal stone structures, but they do successfully compete with burnt brick buildings. This is explained quite simply. The ceramic building materials, and sometimes the stone ones, were often reused in the past. Professionally built monuments of the earlier periods of history were often completely dismantled for the sake of new buildings.
Clay walls have undoubted advantages that are fully used by residents of all hot countries. Clay walls of proper thickness are very stable and, most importantly, have low thermal conductivity. They keep warmth in winter and coolness in summer. Ceilings – both flat wooden roofs coated with clay on top and mud-brick domes – are the most vulnerable part. The vaults always collapse first. That is why there are almost no surviving clay monuments with intact ceilings. And a roofless house begins to collapse much faster until it reaches a certain balance, when only the frames of strong walls remain.
And then, there is another threat to what is left, coming from below. This is a relatively new problem associated with a growing level of groundwater, and, accordingly, an increase in soil salinity that leads to the formation of salt on ancient walls and penetration of moisture into the brickwork. As a result, the lower parts of the walls lose their strength, weather, the entire blocks of bricks fall off and, in the end, what was still holding on top falls.
Such rapid aging of the monuments of antiquity and the Middle Ages has been happening since they found themselves in the zone of modern development of old oases. The dry, waterless desert kept these remains of abandoned cities in a stable state for centuries, but the onset of intensive irrigation caused their rapid dilapidation. This applies equally to buildings made of clay and burnt bricks, since moisture and salt are their common enemy.
It turns out that people themselves have caused a situation that is critical for the preservation of the heritage of their ancestors. And it is people who must address this situation. When the scale of the disaster became apparent, experts sounded the alarm and acted at the organizational level. For a long time, there operated the State Inspectorate for Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments and Fine Arts under the Ministry of Culture of Turkmenistan. However, its activities had long been inconsistent with the scale of the existing problems. The situation began to change only after independence of Turkmenistan.
It is noteworthy that one of the first laws adopted by the newly independent Turkmen state was the law “On protection of historical and cultural monuments of Turkmenistan” (February 19, 1992), followed by the establishment of the National Directorate for Protection, Study and Restoration of Historical and Cultural Monuments. Twenty years later, Turkmenistan adopted another law “On protection of objects of national historical and cultural heritage” as well as the “Procedure for organizing protected zones of historical, archaeological, urban, architectural and monumental artistic monuments, natural landscape objects” approved by the head of state, establishing the rules for the establishment and regime maintenance of specially protected territories.
Establishment of a well-organized system of state historical and cultural reserves in all five regions of Turkmenistan is perhaps the most important result of the past thirty years of independence. In former times, numerous archaeological and architectural monuments scattered in the cities and villages, in the desert and mountains were not totally ownerless. However, the fact is that they often did not even have registration, at least formally. The situation changed only thanks to creation of reserves with their own staff of inspectors, archaeologists and restorers, who manage to fulfill their duties to this day with very modest government funding.
Eight such archaeological parks were created in places with the highest concentration of historical monuments, yet they all cover identified objects within the rather extensive administrative boundaries of the entire region, except for Akhal province that has four nature reserves – Nisa, Abiverd, Serakhs and Geokdepe Fortress. In total, there are currently 1,442 objects registered in the country, and this number is growing, as the inspectors of the reserves keep identifying previously unregistered monuments. Approximately 80 percent of them are considered archaeological, that is, hidden in the ground or excavated at the level of planned structures of some unknown ancient buildings. Only the remaining 20 percent have retained their architectural appearance to some extent. Basically, they are all built of mud bricks and pakhsa – broken clay, which is laid in layers during the construction of walls.
The head of the National Department for Protection, Study and Restoration of Historical and Cultural Monuments, Doctor of Architecture Muhammed Mamedov has for all these years been in charge of large-scale work on preparation of the nomination dossiers for inclusion of archaeological and architectural monuments of Turkmenistan in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The inclusion of the most outstanding buildings of Ancient Merv (1999), Kunya-Urgench (2005) and the Parthian fortresses of Nisa (2007) in the prestigious register of international importance is a tangible result of this work. Materials have been prepared for the transnational nomination “Zerafshan – Karakum Corridor of the Great Silk Road” that includes medieval caravanserais in the desert between Amul and Merv.
The monuments of Dehistan are next in the list. They are not yet on the UNESCO World Heritage List, but it is only a matter of time. In terms of their architectural properties, historical uniqueness and state of preservation, they meet the main criteria for such objects. The most important thing that they have is perhaps the authenticity of each building, the very correct intervention of the restorers who do not destroy the spirit of authenticity and do not turn medieval structures into far-fetched decorations imitating antiquity.
It should be also noted that since 2001 Turkmenistan has successfully implemented projects funded on a competitive basis by the US Ambassadors Fund for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. Thanks to these grants, it was possible in over 20 years to literally return from oblivion the remains of glazed mosaic with images of two dragons that once adorned the facade of the 15th-century mosque in Anau; place in the museum the surviving fragments of wall paintings of the Parthian period from Old Nisa; strengthen the structures of the mausoleum of Abu Said Abul Khair (Meana Baba, XI century); restore the lining of the tent over the mausoleum of Khorezmshah Tekesh (late 12th – early 13th century) and reconstruct the cenotaphs in the mausoleum of Najm ad-Din al-Kubra (XIV century) in Kunya-Urgench; prolong the life of the unique mihrab of the Mashad-ata mosque (late 9th – early 10th century) and the monumental portal of the mosque of Khorezmshah Mohammed II (beginning of the 13th century) in Dehistan; carry out a whole range of research and restoration work at Big Kyz-Kala (IX–X centuries) in Merv; begin a large project for the restoration of the Dayahatyn caravanserai (XII century) on the banks of the Amu Darya.
The restorers always face the same question – to what level of integrity can a dilapidated monument be reconstructed? Where are the limits of what is acceptable? At first glance, the answer is clear. It was formulated in the above-mentioned Venice Charter. And the answer is this: restoration ends where fantasy begins. Unfortunately, this principle is not always followed in practice. Many argue like this: why do we need ruins, if it is possible to restore the entire building? And it often happens that somewhere in the countryside, the inhabitants themselves, using the method of folk construction, demolish the ancient original and put in its place a modern structure, designed to replace the destroyed monument of architecture. This usually happens with the so-called holy places – the mausoleums of especially revered clergy of the past, whose real or symbolic graves are objects of pilgrimage for believers. Such cases are rare, yet it also happens in the professional practice that other restoration solutions are perceived critically not only by other specialists but also by the general public.
Such controversy is partly resolved by the Nara Document of Authenticity adopted by ICOMOS at the initiative of the Japanese government in 1994. It offers a broader understanding of the concept of “authenticity” in the restoration of monuments, taking into account cultural diversity and local heritage. UNESCO experts recognized that the very concept and application of this term varies in different national cultures. Therefore, when evaluating the authenticity of specific monuments, one must take into account their underlying cultural context.
In recent years, a number of important documents have been adopted in Turkmenistan to strengthen the material base of the reserves, including the State Program for 2022–2028 on careful attitude, preservation and study of objects of the national historical and cultural heritage, as well as their inclusion in tourist routes. This is evidence of the fact that Turkmenistan not only recognizes the absolute value of the monuments of the past but also takes specific measures to save the imperishable heritage of the nation.