PIECES OF FORGOTTEN RELIGIONS
In the old days, when the Amu Darya River flew into the huge Sarykamysh Lake through the delta channels, the entire zone of the lower reaches of the river looked almost like endless oases. This territory bordered the Aral Sea in the north, the left bank of the Amu Darya River in the east, the cliffs of Ustyurt in the west and the Zaunguz Karakum in the south. It was called Khorezm, a region that was regarded by many orientalists as the country of Airyanem-Vaedzha (Aryan expanse) and the birthplace of prophet Zarathushtra and the center of the world according to the Avesta.
Nowadays, the local landscape looks harsh and seems completely lifeless. Sparse grassy vegetation grows in the spring to dry out in the summer sun. Only a few species of flora adapted to live on saline soil. The hard surface of numerous plateaus, flat ridges and rocky hills, called “gyr” in Turkmen language, borders sand dunes. It is difficult to imagine that such an area was once full of life, with green grain fields and fortress cities standing on these “gyrs”. The ruins of massive mud walls still rise here and there, visible from afar. But few tourists dare to get to them off-road.
There was no credible information about the lost civilization of ancient Khorezm until the middle of the twentieth century. The situation changed dramatically thanks to one person. In 1937, the thirty-year-old historian, archaeologist and ethnographer Sergei Tolstov founded the Khorezm expedition, which was destined to work for 60 years and make a revolution in the science of antiquity. Tolstov himself first visited this territory a decade earlier, as a student at the Moscow University. Astonished with what he saw, he fell in love with this region and promised himself to return to begin an in-depth systematic study of this area.
Young Tolstov intuitively understood that Khorezm was of exceptional importance in the system of contacts between the ancient population of Central Asia and the Eurasian North and often called this historical region “Central Asian Egypt”. He set a task to comprehensively study this territory and managed to so with the support of a strong team of specialists in various fields. Even after he was gone, they successfully continued his work. It consisted of archaeologists, ethnographers, architects, art critics, geomorphologists, geodesists, paleobotanists, zoologists, linguists. For the first time in archaeological practice, Tolstov used small aircraft for continuous reconnaissance of the area and aerial photography. Friends and colleagues jokingly called him a commander, as this strong-willed and brave man had so much courage, intelligence and determination.
In the very first years of work in Khorezm, archaeologists discovered the sites of primitive hunters and fishermen of the Neolithic era on the plain indented with the ancient channels of the Amu Darya River. These people lived about six thousand years ago, and there already existed nomadic pastoralism and primitive irrigated agriculture in the middle of the second millennium BC. A few more centuries passed, and the culture of the Sako-Massaget tribes developed in the Late Bronze Age in the steppes of the Aral Sea region. They formed a powerful military union of the population of the whole region known as Turan. These nomadic tribes are often identified with the Scythians, since their language, beliefs, art, weapons had much in common.
Before the excavations by Sergei Tolstov’s expedition, the history of Khorezm was known only from the scant and often fancy stories of ancient authors and such historical documents as the Avesta and the Behistun rock inscription of the Persian king Darius I (VI century BC). But the Khorezm expedition added real content to information from written sources. Dozens of cities and fortresses lost in the desert were discovered, hundreds of artifacts were found that became part of museum exhibitions.
Ancient Greek historian and geographer Hekteus of Miletus, who lived at the turn of the 6th-5th centuries BC, mentioned the city of Chorasmius in one of his works, but its location was unknown. In the modern toponymy of Khorezm, no ancient names have been preserved, and all the current ones are of recent origin. So, as established by archaeologists, Kuizeligyr, meaning “ceramic gyr” in Turkmen, is the most ancient and largest one. Not far from it, there are two more impressive settlements with the same name – Kalalygyr (fortress on gyr). Both were built on the high banks of Daudan – the ancient channel of the Amu Darya River.
Archaeologists called them Kalalygyr-1 and Kalalygyr-2 to distinguish two monuments that differ from each other by their layout and age. Yet, both objects have one common important feature of ancient Khorezm architecture. Their inhabitants lived in long vaulted rooms with corridor layout, hidden in the thickness of strong fortress walls. They were not cities in the conventional sense. They look like huge cattle pens surrounded by “living walls”, as Tolstov called them. Up to several thousand people could live there, and what is important, the description of such settlements can be found in the Avesta.
The most interesting finds were made at Kalalygyr-2, shedding light on the mythology and religion of ancient Khorezm. Sergei Tolstov discovered it in 1939 during his first exploration visit. Visual measurement of the settlement was made at that time. And soon an experienced archaeologist of the elder generation, Sergey Vyazigin, visited this place. He discovered ossuaries on both Kalalygyrs – ceramic boxes for storing skeletal remains of people according to the funeral rite of the Zoroastrians.
When viewed from above, it is clear that Kalalygyr-2 is an almost regular isosceles triangle. A rectangular entrance complex adjoins it on the northern side. The fortress walls have been preserved in this area up to a mark of 5 meters with a shooting corridor inside. In 1953, a staff member of the Khorezm expedition, Gleb Snesarev, carried out exploratory excavations inside the settlement. He cleared the rubble of collapsed walls, revealed their contours, dug up several rooms and found a lot of sherds – from fragments of sculpted ossuaries to black-glazed medieval vessels with twisted handles. He also came across a fragment of a terracotta flask with a relief drawing depicting a rider on a two-humped camel. Perhaps it is Zarathustra himself, whose name translates as “owner of old camels”?
In those years, the expedition focused on other important monuments of Khorezm, and archaeologists returned to Kalalygyr-2 only in 1981 at the initiative of Tolstov’s student, Doctor of Historical Sciences Bella Weinberg. Looking at the drawings of Snesarev’s excavations, she found a round building, surprisingly similar to another monument that she unearthed nearby. In ancient architecture, such a similarity is very rare, and Weinberg decided to excavate the whole round house on Kalalygyr. And it was worth it! Over ten years (works there were carried out with forced intervals until 1991), much became clear both regarding the age of the settlement and its purpose.
Bella Weinberg and her permanent deputy at the expedition, archaeologist Semyon Kolyakov, concluded that Kalalygyr-2 was built no later than the middle – second half of the 4th century BC and was a major religious center of the area. A round temple with a diameter of 24 meters, adjoined by an oval tower, was apparently its core. Arrow-shaped loopholes are still visible in the walls of the temple. For some unknown reason, the fortress was completely destroyed, followed by a large fire, approximately at the beginning of the II century BC. Traces of the catastrophe are noticeable not only on the walls, but also on all objects discovered by archaeologists under a layer of coal and ash.
These items significantly enlarged the scientists’ understanding of the material and spiritual culture of ancient Khorezm. They make it possible to say with confidence that Kalalygyr-2 served as a kind of sacred place associated with the cult of fertility in combination with the worship of fire. According to scientists, Mithra, one of the characters of the Zoroastrian pantheon, whose cult penetrated the Roman Empire, was the main god of the pagan Khorezmians, just as in the Iranian world. And its image can be found in Khorezm.
A vessel with a relief interpreted as a calendar myth was almost completely preserved. The composition presented on the flask is divided into three parts. In its center, according to experts, the Khorezmians’ vision of the universe is conveyed, reflecting the main cosmological myth of the Indo-Europeans. On the right side of the middle part, there is a figure of a running young man shooting from a bow. It is believed that this is the image of Mithra. It is accompanied by vortex rosettes, associated with the three sacred fires of the Iranians. Behind the figure of Mithra, there is a plant with long winding branches, which is identified with the sacred Haoma.
The young god kills a deer with an arrow, which, apparently, personifies the deity of a dying and resurrecting nature. Stems with ears of corn grow from the drops of blood flowing from the deer’s wound, and, in front of the deer, there is a tree with a broken branch – a symbol of the frailty of life. The whole composition is interpreted as a scene of a deer sacrifice performed by Mithra immediately after his birth on the day of the winter solstice. It is this regularly repeated rite that leads to the renewal of the world, ensuring stability of people’s lives.
On Kalalygyr-2, they found another flask with the image of a deer standing against the background of a tree with spreading branches. Could it be an image of the world tree? Another character of Khorezm mythology related to the general Iranian cosmological myths is shown on one ceramic lid. In the center of its round surface, one can see the figure of some fantastic creature with the head of a man, the legs of a bull, the torso of a feline predator and spread wings. Researchers believe that this is Gopatshah, the bull-king of Iranian mythology that lived in the country of Airyanem-Vaeja and served the gods on the seashore. A hemispherical object on his head, a wicker basket for carrying bricks that was used in the construction practice of Mesopotamia, is an important detail of this image. It is this attribute that makes it possible to interpret this figure as the first builder, the first man in Zoroastrian mythology, the sixth creation of the supreme god Ahuramazda, perfected after the separation of earth and sky. It can be assumed that the relief on the lid illustrates how the ancient inhabitants of Khorezm understood the initial acts of creation of the world.
Another group of artistic ceramics is of particular interest. These are rhytons – special vessels with a drain hole at the bottom. The most widely used rhytons imitate the shape of a horn. Both imported ceramic rhytons and vessels made in Khorezm, imitating Iranian metal samples of the 6th–4th centuries BC, were found at Kalalygyr. The first category includes a rhyton with a bell in the upper part and a side handle – a shape that is completely uncharacteristic of vessels of this type. The handle ends with the head of a mythological character – a bearded man with bull’s horns sharply curved back. “The image cannot be interpreted unambiguously,” Tigran Mkrtychev believes. On the one hand, given the cultural context, we can assume that this is Gopatshah. On the other hand, the image has parallels with the image of the Greek god Achelous, who turned into a bull in a duel with Hercules. Achelous was the god of river flows, and the legend of the cornucopia is associated with him. Considering the semantics of the image, the image of Achelous on the rhyton is quite appropriate.”
The image of the Greek god on an Iranian vessel should not be surprising, especially taking into account the archaeometry of the Khorezm item – no later than the beginning of the 3rd century BC. It was during this period that works of art made in the traditions of Eastern Hellenism spread in Parthia and Khorezm. Several fragments of imported rhytons were also found at Kalalygyr-2, including the lower part of a gray-clay vessel in the form of a realistically made head of a horse. The outside of the product is covered with carefully polished dense black engobe. The harness with pendants at the crosshairs of the belts, as well as the trimmed horse mane are carefully worked out with cut lines filled with red paste. It is believed that libations from zoomorphic rhytons served as a substitute for real sacrifices, especially given the symbolic identity of blood and wine.
More than thirty years have passed since the archaeologists left this monument. Not all of its secrets have been discovered, and it has not been excavated in full. However, even the little that has been opened for science thanks to their selfless work in the desert makes it possible to guess how our distant ancestors lived and believed.