CROSSROADS ON THE AMU DARYA
There is a huge artificial hill rising on the southern outskirts of Turkmenabat, the administrative center of Lebap province, in close proximity to new buildings and arable land. The two-thousand-year history of a city that arose at the most important crossing of the Amu Darya is tightly compressed in this hill. This is Amul, an archaeological site, which is now protected by the state and included in the list of historical monuments located on the Zeravshan-Karakum section of the Great Silk Road. This segment was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List as a transnational nomination prepared by specialists from several countries.
Not long ago, Amul had no status at all and was being destroyed barbarically. All whoever wished so took the soil from there for household needs, throwing away like garbage any antiquities they came across. It was only thanks to the efforts of the National Administration for Protection, Study and Restoration of Historical and Cultural Monuments that this thoughtless destruction of material evidence of the past life of Amul was stopped.
The history of Amul could have become another “blank spot” in the world history if it was not for the efforts of individual scientists. And among them, the founder of the Central Asian archaeological school, Mikhail Masson, was the most pronounced, who wrote a short unsurpassed essay about the past of this city. Not a single serious publication about Amul can now do without references to it. Although he was unable to find the origin of this toponym, he noted the existence of a city of the same name in the Iranian province of Mazandaran, south of the Caspian Sea, and discovered that in medieval literature in order to avoid confusion the name of the city near Amu Darya was written with explanatory epithets: “Coastal Amul”, “Amul of Jeyhun” or “Amul of the Desert”. The latter is due to the fact that the adjacent southeastern part of the Karakum Desert was once called “Amul Desert”. There are also other versions of writing this word in Arabic script and pronunciation, such as Ammuy, Amuye, or simply Amu.
After Amul was renamed to Chardzhui during the reign of the Timurids, the word Amu was still preserved in the name of the great Central Asian river that flowed nearby. According to one version, in ancient times the river bore the name of the water deity – Okhsho, then the Greeks began to call it Oxus, and the Khorezmians – Okuz. After the Islamization of the region, there appeared the Arabic name of Jeyhun. In Semitic languages, this word means “mad,” “unbridled,” “unstable” and very accurately characterizes the behavior of the river that often erodes its banks and changes its course. Nowadays, the Amu Darya, which literally translates as “Amul River,” is the only reminder of the former city.
Even today, 90 years after the first archaeological exploration of the Amul site, we know little about its distant past. Written sources say almost nothing about him. The first mentions of this toponym in Arab chronicles date back to the 7th century, but this does not mean that it did not exist before. Important findings were made when the South-Turkmenistan Archaeological Complex Expedition started research work at Amul in 1949. Excavations of the cultural layers of the Amul citadel that began that year by a team headed by Alexander Roslyakov and continued by Galina Pugachenkova’s team established the fact of existence of the city at the very beginning of the first millennium AD. At the same time, the ruins of a mausoleum from the 10th – early 11th centuries were discovered. Five years later, archaeologists carried out a preliminary study of the site as a whole and drew up its topographic plan. This work was carried out by a fourth-year student at the archaeological department of Tashkent University, Georgy Trapeznikov, under the leadership of the head of the expedition, Mikhail Masson. His observations, as well as other facts made it possible to schematically see how the city developed over almost two millennia.
Since then, scientists date the emergence of Amul to the 1st–4th centuries, when the area of the city was about 50 hectares, belonging to the Kushan kingdom as evidenced by the ceramics and copper Kushan coins found there. In that era, artificial giant mounds already existed that were erected in order to serve as huge platforms for small but impregnable citadels.
IX–X centuries are a new stage in the development of the city, associated with the revival of trade routes – overland from Merv to Bukhara and by river from Khorezm to Bactria. Scientists established that a thousand years ago Amul, being ruled by the Samanid state at that time, consisted of an internal fortress with a citadel and an external city. Within the walls of the latter there were three gates: northern, southern, eastern. There developed a craft and trade suburb called Rabad. The 11th–12th centuries can be considered the period of the highest prosperity of Amul. Its territory reached 175 hectares.
Although Amul was regarded as a territorially small district, according to the 10th century Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi, it was very advantageously located and enjoyed sufficient economic well-being. It was not so much because of the fertile lands of the coastal strip and developed cattle breeding in the adjacent sands, but because of its key position at the crossroads of the caravan road and river navigation. Before the invasion of Genghis Khan at the beginning of the 13th century, Amul was part of Khorezm. After the devastation by Mongols, the city sharply decreased in size and recovered only a hundred years later.
In the following years, archaeologists returned many times to Amul to learn more about its past. In the sixties, the Amudarya team of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan was established, first headed by Viktor Pilipko, then by Geldymurad Gutlyev, and in the eighties by Albert Burkhanov. All of them contributed by identifying significant archaeological materials characterizing the history and culture of Amul and its surrounding areas.
After a long pause, the Institute of History and Archeology of the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan and the Kerkinsky Historical and Cultural Reserve took up the baton in 2018. The new expedition was led by Nurgozel Byashimova, an experienced specialist, student of academician Galina Pugachenkova. The most interesting finds of recent years have been transferred to the Historical and Local History Museum of Lebap province. Among them, in addition to various types of pottery, are samples of small sculpture, an elegant seal-amulet with the image of a deer, an inhabitant of the tugai forests in the floodplain of the Amu Darya. Teachers and students of the history department of the Turkmen State Pedagogical Institute named after Seyitnazar Seydi participate in these excavations. For them, this is not only educational practice, but also an opportunity to touch the history of their region and understand the specifics of the work of archaeologists.
“For an unknown reason, the ancient name of the city was supplanted for several centuries by the name of Chardzhui (literally “four channels”, perhaps according to the number of main channels) and forced out from general use that could be found in historical literature since the end of the 15th century,” Mikhail Masson wrote.
Beginning the 16th century, Chardzhui was under the rule of Bukhara for more than four centuries, whose rulers appointed their governor, the Chardzhui bek. A palace was built for him on top of the ancient citadel, known as the bek’s fortress. The city was surrounded by the double row of high walls with towers and loopholes. The entire central part of it was occupied by a long, roofed bazaar with a mass of narrow, dark rows of streets formed by shops, handicraft workshops, barbers, taverns and teahouses. Around the bazaar, closely clung to each other, there stood blind adobe houses without a single window. The width of the streets was such that two carts could hardly pass each other, and it was impossible for two pedestrians to pass each other in the alleys.
This city was long out of focus of research by Europeans, and most of work in this regard was done by the Russians. At the end of 1672, it was visited by brothers Boris and Semyon Pazukhin, envoys of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich to the Bukhara Khan, Abdulaziz. Their report mentioned “Charzhov” as a border city of the Bukhara Khanate. Thanks to their information, the city was first correctly marked on the left bank of the river under the name “Charzhev” on the map of Semyon Remezov, which was compiled by orders of Peter the Great in 1696–1700. This city was also marked on the updated St. Petersburg maps of the 18th century. Specifically, it was named “Charchau” on the map of General Fyodor Bauer that was presented to Catherine the Great.
During the first few decades of the 19th century, Chardzhui and its environs were the scene of many clashes between Bukhara, Khiva and even Merv regular troops, and, to an even greater extent, raids by individual tribes from Khorezm. British officer Alexander Burns, who visited this place in 1832, wrote that Chardzhui was protected by “a beautiful fortification standing on a hill dominating the city.” He estimated the number of residents at approximately 4–5 thousand people, and while at the local bazaar, he noted the poor assortment of goods of exclusively local production.
Nikolai Karazin was the first painter to visit Chardzhui in the fall of 1879. In the popular St. Petersburg magazine “World Illustration”, he published not only his drawing of a panorama of the city with a view of the fortress, but also a colorful travel essay about this visit. Eight years later, another Russian painter Lev Dmitriev-Kavkazsky arrived in Chardzhui by rail, which by that time stretched from the Caspian Sea. He left a much more detailed description of the city and more drawings, published in his book “Across Central Asia”. And a little earlier, in 1883, Swiss traveler Henri Moser got there and took the first photographs of Chardzhui. His fellow countryman Evert van Muyden made magnificent engravings using these photographs that illustrated Moser’s travel notes, published in Paris two years later. Now these priceless historical documents allow us to see something that has long been gone, something that has irrevocably perished – the buildings, the clothes of the inhabitants, their vehicles, which have not changed for centuries, if not millennia, especially the light sailing and rowing boats that furrowed the waters of the Amu Darya.
By the time of the wide spread of photography, displacing drawing and painting as the only ways to display reality, the world was rapidly changing. Distant provincial Chardzhui increasingly appeared on photographs. In 1890, one of the pioneers of photography, French photographer Paul Nadar, arrived in the city, capturing vivid scenes of city life and, of course, views of Old Chardzhui. This is how former Amul was called by that time in contrast to New Chardzhui, a Russian town with a regular layout and solid brick houses, many of which still stand, that arose nearby, to the north of the fortress and the surrounding dense buildings with narrow crooked streets.
A transit point at the crossing of the Amu Darya was guaranteed accelerated development. The Trans-Caspian Railway connected it in the global transport system. For the first thirteen years, trains traveled over a temporary wooden bridge over two kilometers long, and in 1901 the construction of the permanent Amudarya railway bridge was completed, which still exists today, and at that time it was the third longest in the world. That is another story.