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2024  N3-4(229-230)
In recent months, the Turkmen city of Anau and its archaeological culture have been of extraordinary interest to many people in the world because this satellite city of Ashgabad and the administrative center of Akhal province was named the cultural capital of the Turkic world of 2024. This decision was made at the 39th meeting of the Permanent Council of Ministers of Culture of the Member States of the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY).
This title is conferred every year on cities, whose histories are inextricably linked with ancient and medieval Turkic-speaking states. The political goal of the new tradition is understandable. This is to promote unity in the Turkic world based on the common heritage, building a sense of unity, solidarity and brotherhood between the Turkic peoples. And in this sense, Anau gives a lot of food for thought.
“Deep is the well of the past”, the German classic Thomas Mann said. The beginning of the history of one or another people can only be established by the conditional starting point, because it is impossible to measure the depth of this well. But scientists are still trying to do this, based on the set of historical knowledge that they have. There emerged a separate science – linguistic paleontology, or “method of words and things”, with the help of which the spiritual and material culture of ancient people is reconstructed. If archeology studies the preliterate history of the peoples, linguistic paleontology helps to find out what language family they belonged to.
The beginning of the history of the Turks is traditionally dated back to the VI century AD, when a huge state of the Turkic Kaganate was established, stretching from China to Crimea. In the meantime, the first mention of the ethnonym “Turks” in Chinese chronicles dates back to the Chinese chronicles. This does not mean at all that there were no Turks before. Some historians date the ancient Turkic history to the time of the Huns – descendants of the Turkic-speaking Huns who lived before our era, yet these are also only ethnonyms. Proto-Turks, their kins and tribes emerged in deep antiquity. We don’t know how they were called then, and this is not important. Anthropologists know that the history of each nation is closely connected with the history of others who live side by side with them. The ethnogenesis of Turkmen, Uzbeks, Karakalpaks, Kazakhs, Tajiks has many common elements. These peoples shared many things in their development.
Doctor of Historical Sciences Nadezhda Dubova from the Russian Academy of Sciences, who identified the ancient Neolithic layer in the modern anthropological type of Turkmens following many years of research and analysis of a huge database, believes that the constant interaction of agricultural, cattle and nomadic groups was one of the most important factors of the whole history of this region. This synthesis played the greatest role in the formation of the Turkic-speaking peoples. The outstanding Russian linguist, specialist in Turkic philology Nikolai Baskakov wrote that the Turkic language developed in ancient times. Scientists believe that the main fund of Turkic words and their foundations appeared and developed during the Paleolithic time and came to us from those distant times. This is proved by the preserved words and terms common to all Turkic languages. The period of Eneolithic (V–III millennia BC) and the Bronze Age (III–II millennium BC) provides a lot of materials on the history of Proto-Turks. This was the period when the stone tools were replaced by copper and bronze, followed by the development of nomadic cattle breeding and horticulture and continuation of domestication of animals, especially horses and cattle.
Describing the tribes of the Scythians of Asia, Roman historian Pliny senior, who lived in the 1st century BC., listed dozens of names, but could not say anything about their languages. And in modern science, a long-standing discussion continues about who they were – Iranian-speaking Indo-Europeans or Turks. However, the point is not even in languages. According to famous orientalist Lev Gumilyov, the ancient Turks developed their culture that they believed could oppose the culture of China, Iran, Byzantium and India. “The remnants of their material culture – felt, leather, wood and fur – cannot long remain in good condition compared to stone,” he adds. That is why we know so little about them. Only ceramics are not afraid of time, and the shards of painted dishes discovered by archaeologists can still tell us something about the spiritual world and the art of people who did not know the writing of the Eneolithic era.
It was these shards that helped to open the Anau culture. This happened in 1886, when the head of the Trans-Caspian region and a great lover of antiquities, General Alexander Komarov, noted two hills near the Turkmen village of Anau, which seemed to him similar to Scythian mounds in the European part of Russia. Without hesitation, he cut the northern hill of Anau, splitting it in half in the middle, and discovered primitive dishes and other traces of some ancient settlement. He informed the imperial archaeological commission in St. Petersburg of his finds. An extract from his report was published not only in Russia, but also in Germany. 15 years later, it was read by the American geologist, Professor Rafael Pampelli. Interested in Komarov’s finds, he set out to excavate the Aanu hill, and he was able to send an archaeological expedition to Turkmenistan in 1904.
When the materials of the Pampelli mission were published in Washington in 1908, the Anau hills gained worldwide fame, becoming the main source for the study of the early farming cultures of the Copper Age, which is associated with the emergence of civilization. Meanwhile, they were just small ordinary villages that could not be compared with large and rich in archaeological terms neighboring monuments, such as Namazga-Depe, Kara-Depe, Altyn-Depe, also located in the pre-Kopetdag valley. Anau owes its fame to the fact that this was the first of the open monuments of this area. Throughout the twentieth century, it repeatedly became the object of new research by Soviet and American archaeologists.
There is a large medieval settlement one kilometer east of the Eneolithic hills of Anau. It is a citadel with an area of over seven hectares circled by swollen walls with towers and a wide moat. There was a provincial town that occupied an area of about 250 hectares on the plain outside the fortress. The archaeological work at the fortress hill revealed the lowest layer, related to the early Parthian time. There was also discovered ceramics of the pre-Arabian period, a significant layer of the 9th–10th centuries, when the settlement expanded beyond the fortress. During the Mongol invasion, the citadel was destroyed, but life there resumed, as evidenced by numerous finds dating back to the XIII–XIV centuries. At the same time, it is hard to find out now what this town was called.
The future Soviet Academician Alexander Semenov, who accompanied Pampelli, believed that the Anau toponym is the Turkmen variation of the Persian Ab-I-Nau, literally translated as “new water”, because in the middle of the 15th century the Timurid ruler of Khorasan, Abul-Kasym Babur Bahadur Khan, restored the long-abandoned irrigation network and the old oasis came to life and got the name of Ab-I-Nau. However, other researchers noted that such a name appeared only after the crisis that hit the country in the middle of the 18th century, when the town was rebuilt again. In this case, what was it called before?
The key to this riddle is found in a mosque built on the edge of the citadel in 1456. This date is indicated in two Arabic inscriptions that are preserved on the walls of the building. It is rather rare that a monument of medieval architecture has information of the year of its construction, as well as the names of people directly related to it. This is the already mentioned Sultan Abul-Kasym Babur, who ruled from Herat, his vizier or governor in the district of Nisa, Muhammad Khudaydat, and the father of the latter, the Sufi Sheikh Jamal ad-Din. It was in his memory that a wealthy son erected such a luxurious memorial mosque. This is evidenced by the inscription on its facade. In the folk tradition, the name of the sheikh is called in the Turkmen way – Jemaleddin, adding the honorable title – Sayyid, that is, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and the righteous caliph Ali.
The most important thing is about one written source of the 15th century that tells us of the unrest that happened in Khorasan after the death of Abul-Kasim Babur in 1457. The chronicler notes: “Each of the fortresses that was in that country was in the possession of some leader.” Among them was Emir Muhammad Khudaydad, who, as they said, had the Suluk fortress. This is the answer. Where else could he bury his father and build a mosque? It should be noted that Suluk is mentioned more than once in the Arabic and Persian sources of the XIII–XV centuries, talking about cities and villages in the field of Nisa. Yet, the scientists could not establish where it was exactly.
Coming back to the mosque, it was designed as a large religious complex and combined a prayer hall covered by a dome, a khanaka – the abode of the Sufi, rooms for pilgrims and, probably, a madrassah – spiritual educational institution. The main hall was opened north with a wide arch. Outside, it looked like a portal lined with carefully polished bricks with inserts of multi-colored tiles. And right above the arch, there was a mosaic image of two symmetrical dragons facing each other in a heraldic pose. Their snake bodies with four clawed paws are distinguished by powerful expression. They seemed to be frozen in motion, and this effect was achieved by a skilled stylized pattern of their heads with bulging eyes, clouds of beard and mane, the whole dynamics of their wriggling figures. This is all evidence of the great skill and subtle taste of an unknown author, as well as the executors of his plan.
But why are there dragons on a Muslim mosque? This question confused many who visited it. It is not surprising that legends emerged to explain the uncommonness of the facade. And here we should turn to the mythology of the Turkic peoples, among whom the image of the evil demon-azhdarkha has been popular since ancient pagan times. It goes back to Azhi-Dahak, a character in the Zoroastrian Avesta, who seized power over Iran. In other words, it personified Turan, hostile to the Iranian world, but was not at all the embodiment of evil for the Turanians themselves – the ancient Turks. That is why the image of a dragon in Turkmen folklore is not so odious.
In numerous legends and myths of the Kazakhs, Turkmens, and Uzbeks, azhdarkha live in mountain gorges, in caves or underground, where they guard countless treasures. So, in the Anau legend, people saved the wife of one dragon, and the grateful couple presented them with jewelry. With the funds received in this way, the mosque was allegedly built, and the images of the donors were immortalized on its facade. A similar legend is associated with the founding of the city of Kunya-Urgench. The only difference is that a pair of dragons gave people treasures under slightly different circumstances.
The main researcher of the Anau mosque, historian of architecture Galina Pugachenkova believed, not without reason, that azhdarkha was a totem of the Turkmen tribe that inhabited this region of Khorasan in the 15th century and to which Sheikh Jamal ad-Din may have belonged. In the eyes of the population, the image of dragons on the mosque behind his grave magically protected the holy place from encroachment. But there is another version. Among all Turkic-speaking peoples, especially in the myths of Azerbaijanis, Tatars and Bashkirs, azhdarkha is associated with water and rain clouds. And if we talk about the real reason for the appearance of such an image on the mosque in Anau, then it apparently should be viewed as a symbol of fertility. In the Turkic bestiary, dragons are presented as patrons of agriculture, with the gift of causing winds and rains. Historian of architecture Muhammad Mamedov emphasized this, noting that azhdarkha are found mainly in the fine arts of Central Asia and the Middle East of the post-Mongol period. Such, for example, is the dragon in the book miniature of 14th century, where he soars among the clouds that are depicted in the same writhing dynamics of snakes. The image of the heavenly rain dragon most likely entered Islamic art from Southeast Asia, where its cult is still preserved.
At the end of the 19th century, the complex in Anau was already heavily damaged due to ground subsidence, earthquakes and frequent military operations. It completely collapsed as a result of the Ashgabat earthquake on October 6, 1948. The panel with dragons, which broke into small fragments when falling from a height of several meters, turned out to be covered with a three-meter layer of fallen walls. Fifty-three years later, Turkmen specialists managed to clear the area in front of the main facade of the mosque, partially fortify the remains of its walls and, most importantly, remove all the surviving fragments of the mosaic with dragons. Alas, very little remained of it, but all the fragments were glued together, and now they can be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ashgabat. And the ruins of the mosque – more precisely, the grave of Seyid Jemaleddin – have long become a revered local shrine. Year after year and century after century, every day pilgrims visit this place to pray and make wishes, trusting in the help of the saint.
The image of the long-gone Anau mosque continues to excite the imagination of scientists and, of course, artists. Not only Turkmen painters, but even such famous master as Martiros Saryan made his sketches from it. It was depicted on carpets and tapestries. Poems, countless articles and entire books were written about it. This means that it is now strongly rooted in the cultural canon of Turkmenistan.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005