A MOVEABLE FEAST
Any province can always boast small cozy towns where time passes not so fast and where life is not as chaotic as in noisy metropolitan areas. There is no alienation between neighbors, because almost everyone knows each other, and the distances are so small that it takes half an hour to walk from one end of the village to the other. Houses are almost invisible because they are buried in the dense crowns of trees, and they are just one or two-storey. It is probably good to spend childhood in such towns. A maturing person feels cramped in them and he rushes to where he believes a real life thrives, and many leave their small homeland forever. But there comes nostalgia with time, and the city of childhood is remembered as a joyful holiday. A holiday that is always with you.
The Turkmen city of Bayramali has the word “holiday” in its very name, although this is just a part of the name of the ruler, who, in fact, founded a settlement on the southern outskirts of Old Merv. It happened at the end of the 18th century. Where does this “holiday” toponym come from? The Turkmens have several dozen two-component personal names, both male and female, containing the word “bayram”. In onomastics, it means not an abstract holiday but a specific Turkmen name for the tenth month of the Muslim calendar, corresponding to the Arabic “Shawwal”. In the first days of this month, one of the main Islamic holidays, Oraza Bayram, is celebrated, which is associated with the end of a days-long fast. And children born in this month were traditionally called Bayramali, Bayramberdy, Bayramgeldy, Bayrambibi, Bayramgul and so on. As for Bairamali, it literally means “supreme, mighty holiday.”
Who is Bayramali Khan, whose name is immortalized in the name of the city? According to data collected by academician Vasily Bartold, his father originated from the Kadjar clan that ruled in Merv since the time of Shah Abbas I, that is, from the beginning of the 17th century, and his mother was from the Oguz-Turkmen tribe Salyr. Bayramali Khan ruled Merv in 1782–1789 and enjoyed the reputation of exceptionally brave warrior among the Turkmens. In the war with the Emir of Bukhara, he was ambushed and fell in battle. His head was taken to Bukhara and exhibited there in the place of execution. His throne in Merv was inherited by the second son Mukhammedkerim, and the eldest son Mukhammedhussein devoted himself to science and gained the fame of “Plato of his time” (Aflatun-i vakt).
Life in an oasis in the middle of a waterless desert always depends on water. In order to irrigate the delta of the shallow Murgab River, back in the Bronze Age, that is, more than four thousand years ago, people began to dig canals, thus creating an extensive irrigation system. However, water became scarcer, the river receded, and those early settlements were abandoned. The oasis country of Margiana moved tens of kilometers to the south and began to flourish again in another era, after the campaigns of Alexander the Great. The most famous dam on the Murgab River with historical evidence is called Sultanbend. Evidently, it was erected under the Sassanids in the first centuries of our era. Through this dam that blocked the flow of the Murghab River, the eastern part of the Merv oasis was irrigated, and its main city, Merv, was fed. At the beginning of the XIII century, the Mongols demolished it, cutting off the water supply to the defeated capital of the once great Seljuk Empire. The desert took possession of this fertile area for long two hundred years. It was only in 1409 that the dam on the Murghab River was restored on the orders of Emir Shahrukh, the youngest son of Tamerlane. Yet, they managed to bring water only to the southern border, ruined Sultan-kala – the pre-Mongolian part of Merv. A new city was founded in this place in the 15th century and got surrounded by fortress walls over time.
This area of Merv is now known as Abdulla-khan-kala. Its powerful walls with round towers are well preserved and cover the square area of the former city. Yet, literally no stone was left of its internal buildings – everything was dismantled for the construction of residential buildings already at the beginning of the 20th century. Only old photographs have preserved for us the images of the disappeared buildings of the Timurid period. Among them stand out the mausoleum of Askhabs – companions of the Prophet Muhammad, a massive park pavilion, Yakhdans – huge domes of public refrigerators, eastern and western city gates reinforced with powerful towers, the ruins of a two-storey palace of rulers, the monumental mosque of Emir Shahrukh, as well as the Khusraviyya madrasah standing next to it, which was built, as historians suggest, by his vizier and the great Turkic poet Alisher Navoi.
Frequent internecine wars and external aggression shook this city over the following centuries. It was alternately captured and robbed by Uzbek khans and Persian shahs, but it continued to live, develop, and at some stage it became cramped in the square space of Abdulla-khan-kala. Then its territory was significantly expanded by erecting a clay defensive wall around a rectangular area adjacent to the city from the western side. This additional district of the city became known as Bayramali-khan-kala. Its wall was not as powerful as the Timurid one, and therefore it was poorly preserved. There remained only the northwestern corner with swollen towers, and the southern part was absorbed by the modern buildings of the city of Bayramali. However, fragments of an 18th-century wall can still be seen among the city courtyards and streets.
The modern stage of the history of this city dates back to 1884, when the Turkmen tribes inhabiting the Murgab valley expressed their consent, in the person of their leaders, to join the Russian Empire. In less than three years, the route of the Trans-Caspian railway was brought there, and the Bayramali station appeared. The station building exists to this day. It was built just three hundred meters from the southwestern corner of Bayramali-khan-kala. The first buildings of the European type immediately appeared near the station building, including houses for employees, warehouses, sheds, stables and so on. At the same time, they started planting trees. In few years, there grew up an industrial town buried in greenery with working settlements, dwellings of officials and tenants.
The commercial and industrial circles of Russia quickly appreciated the advantages of the natural conditions and labor resources of the Murgab valley for development of a cotton-growing economy. The ancient oasis attracted personal attention of Emperor Alexander III, and in 1887 he signed a decree on the establishment of the “Murgab Tsar’s Estate”. This area was more than one hundred hectares in the eastern part of the Murgab delta. It was bought from the Turkmens for 150 thousand chervonets – gold coins of Russian minting, a considerable amount for those times. In 1888, a master plan was prepared for construction of buildings of the estate and the central park, as well as projects for the main buildings, which were developed in St. Petersburg by the famous architect, academician Viktor Schreter. The construction of all these facilities was carried out in 1889–1893, and the finishing work in the palace and service buildings was completed only in 1903. At the same time, several factories were built in the estate, such as an oil mill, a cotton ginnery, soap and briquette factories.
And construction of hydraulic structures began in the Murgab valley. The first attempt to restore the old Sultanbent dam failed, as the new one, designed by engineer Ivan Kozell-Poklevsky, quickly eroded due to careless earthworks. Another project by engineer Yuri Andreev was reviewed and approved in 1892, but it was not implemented due to the objections of the head of the Transcaspian region, General Alexey Kuropatkin. He feared that the construction of a dam to use the waters of the Murghab for irrigation of lands of the royal estate could cause indignation of the local population that lacked water for irrigation. After that, Andreev was instructed to draw up a project for three reservoirs: one channel and two coastal (off-channel) on the right bank of the Murgab River and in the Hindu Kush basin.
In 1899, the construction of the first Hindu Kush dam was completed. A Tsar canal was built for 26.5 kilometers from the reservoir to the royal estate. More than 8.5 thousand hectares of estate land as well as fields owned by local Turkmens were irrigated from it. The work on the revival of the Merv oasis cost the royal family about one and a half million gold rubles. The new estate was one of the few appanage principalities in the former empire that belonged to the Romanovs on the basis of property rights that were leased.
As for the town of Bayramali, it grew rapidly. Many Muslim families from China appeared among its motley population, but Orthodox Christians prevailed, and they, of course, lacked their own temple. At first, an ordinary one-storey house was adapted for the church, and only in 1902 the dean of the churches of Transcaspia, Archpriest Mikhail Kolobov, filed a petition for the creation of a church in Bayramali in honor of St. Alexis, Metropolitan of Moscow. And since the Murghab estate was not simple, but monarchic, an all-Russian architectural competition was announced ten years later. The jury led by the famous Russian architect Academician, Alexei Shchusev, selected the project by Artyom Dzhorrogov, a student at the St. Petersburg Institute of Civil Engineers. He executed his project in the then popular neo-Russian style – the national version of Art Nouveau.
The fate of this church was sad. As soon as it was built, there broke out a revolution, followed by the civil war and the victory of the Bolsheviks, who began the fight against religion. The Bayramali church was not demolished like many other church buildings throughout Russia. After dismantling the dome with a cross and the high spire above the belfry, it was used for other purposes for several decades. It was only after the declaration of independence of Turkmenistan that this building was taken under protection as an architectural monument and returned to believers.
But still, the administration building of the Murgab estate, often called the palace, remains the pearl of Bayramali. According to academician Galina Pugachenkova, the greatest researcher of the monuments of Central Asia, when Russian architects working in the Turkestan region deviated from government design standards, they created the works of architecture that were excellent in all respects, including the palace in Bayramali. According to her, “built of brick and light sandstone, it gives an example of a southern villa with high light halls, with light arcades based on columns facing the thickets of the park.”
The highest quality and natural, as they would say now, environmentally friendly materials were really used in construction of this surprisingly harmonious and unique building, including natural stone for foundations, burnt brick for walls and Siberian wood for joinery, parquet and ceramic mosaic for floor lining, galvanized sheet metal for roofing. In many ways, this ensured the durability of the building. Its facade features a central portal with two decorative turrets on the sides and a wide archway. The very expressive plasticity of the outer walls, lined with intricate ornamentation in the tradition of the European brick style, is enhanced by deep and well-shaded arched galleries.
Art historians have repeatedly noted the fact that the excellent quality of brickwork, well-founded proportions, fine drawing of brick details – all this brings the ensemble of buildings of the estate closer to the best works of architecture of medieval Merv, which are located only eight kilometers away. Obviously, Viktor Schreter knew these monuments and managed to creatively rethink the traditions of local architecture. That is why his experience in Bayramali can serve as a school for architects who today continue to learn the basics of professionalism.
After the establishment of Soviet power, the Murghab estate was nationalized, and the palace with a park was declared a climatic resort in 1929. Finally, it housed the now well-known Bayramali nephritic sanatorium in 1933. A few years ago, this health resort, one of the oldest in the country, was reborn after the Ministry of Health and Medical Industry of Turkmenistan signed a contract with the Turkish company EFOR that won an international tender for reconstruction of the existing buildings of the sanatorium and construction of two new dormitory buildings. At one of the government meetings, the head of state, while reviewing the presented project, paid special attention to the importance of preserving the historical appearance of the administrative building of the sanatorium as a monument of architecture of the 19th century and one of the protected sites of the State Historical and Cultural Reserve “Ancient Merv”.
It would be a big mistake for visitors not to see another attraction in Bayramali. This is the Hindu Kush hydroelectric power station that was built on the Murgab River in 1908. It all started with the fact that military electrical engineer Colonel Mikhail Yermolaev thought about using the force of falling water on the Hindu Kush dam. He proposed to convert the mechanical energy of water into electrical energy to transfer it from the Hindu Kush to Bayramali, where it could be used for all industrial, economic and domestic needs instead of internal combustion engines and steam plants available there. Soon, the St. Petersburg construction company “Tami and Deichman” carried out the construction of the Hindu Kush hydroelectric power station. It is operational even today despite its advanced age. At the same time, this is nothing more than a museum of the electric power industry, where one can see operating turbines, generators, transformers and centenary-old electric motors.
Looking today at the pictures taken in Bayramali at the beginning of the last century by the pioneer of color photography Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, one understands how carefully this city preserves its history. This is a city of remembrance, where much has been preserved in its authenticity and where one would definitely want to return.