About Uzbekistan

Nurata and its sacred fishes
12 July 2018

Nurata is a small town (pop. 30,000) about fifty kilometers from the industrial Navoi shown in the previous part. There is a holy spring of Chashma, which, according to legend, was formed 40 thousand years old by fallen meteorite and now inhabited by sacred fish-marinka, and above it - clay ruins of the fortress, the founder of which is not Tamerlane or even Genghis Khan, but Alexander the Great himself. And all this is in the middle of the untouched by melioration Hungry Steppe, where the Kazakh meets with a Tajik.

From Navoi to Nurata (accent on the last syllable, like Alma-Ata or Cholpon-Ata) will take more than an hour to drive - after all you need to overcome the Nurata Mountains, the narrow and long spur of Hissar, starting at the Tamerlane Gate at Djizak, in essence we return from the Bukhara oikumene of Greater Iran to the Turkic Great Steppe.

On the way you will come across Kara-Karga pass, which means the Black Crow

After crossing the pass there is a very beautiful descent - a monotonous empty space, a lonely village in the middle of it and a straight road for the next ten kilometers. The landscape is much more reminiscent of Kazakhstan, and it's no coincidence: these lands used to be Kazakh nomadic places, now replaced by Kazakh auls, whilst Uzbek and Tajik villages stand in the foothills. This is the classic Hungry steppe, which unlike the surroundings of Gulistan, was not cultivated: in fact in spring time it looks not very hungry. In the end it is the steppe, not the desert, it has fertile soils nourished by melted snow in the spring. That is, there is everything, except for constant water, and with melioration the Hungry steppe could easily be turned into an oasis.

There is a mountain reigning over the steppe - I thought it was Khayatbashi (2170m), the highest point of Nuratau, but checking with the map it is rather Bakhku (1993m), still looking very impressive above the flat steppe.

And what is seen from the pass is not Nurata, but the village of Debaland, from where the road turns left to Gazgan, where one of the best marble in the world is mined, which was used in decoration of the best buildings all over the Soviet Union including the Moscow metro. There the Hungry Steppe merges with Kyzyl Kum, where there are uranium wells and gold veins, industrial mines of large companies and illegal miners from the auls, sometimes dying in makeshift mines, here you can also meet Arab sheikhs hunting with falcons, supposedly for this reason they donated money for the reconstruction of the airport of Bukhara. We drove through Debaland quickly without stopping, although noticed clay ruins of something ancient in the center:

Nurata meets with a new large newly built mosque with a beautiful facing of the domes:

But in the rest its appearance is extremely trivial - one-story dusty streets. I do not distinguish between Uzbek and Tajik languages, but I've heard more than once that in present Nurata people speak mostly Tajik. I once wrote that the Tajiks (that is, Sunni Persians) in Central Asia are roughly the same as the Germans and Swedes in the Baltic, the indigenous people of the old cities and the largest settlements, and the Nurata Mountains here are stretching straight from Gissar and the Tajiks settled on their foot ... but all the same the Tajik town in the Kazakh landscape is amazing. It seems that this is the northern outpost of the Tajik (that is, Persian) language in Central Asia: in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbeks themselves occupy the same niche.

The symbol of Nurata is even more famous than its shrines and antiquities - the Nurata suzane. I wrote more than once, including in the context of Bukhara, about these embroidered panels decorating walls and furniture in Central Asian houses: once they were weaved by every girl and they were an obligatory part of the dowry, but nowadays this craft has been shrunk to several centers and dynasties of masters: Bukhara, Nurata, Shakhrisabz, Urgut near Samarkand and probably somewhere else ... Frankly speaking, I still confuse Nurata suzane with Bukhara one, but you can not confuse them with anything else: on white (less often on black) background, with a simple and clear floral ornament and embroidery along its edges. I do not know the meaning of all the symbols, but cornflower is a young man, a poppy is a girl, red pepper is an averter from evil spells, and even unfinished patches are a symbol of the fact that the life and work of the masteress continues. In Nurata I did not have time to get acquainted with suzane, these two were bought in Urgut:

The cost of the Nurata suzane was much more expensive than the Urgut or Shahrisabz ones, these two were for 10 dollars each (the second one I got free of charge as gratitude from a French tourist who really wanted to buy a real big suzane, but without me and with no knowledge of the Russian language, he never could have a chance to get to masters). According to the Urgut masters, the Nurata suzane differ not only in the pattern, but also in a much more complex technique of embroidery, and the fact that they are embroidered somehow denser and more embossed is really noticeable to the fingers and eyes:

Here is the rare thing: the black Nurata suzane, I have not seen such suzanes with my own eyes:

Meanwhile, after making a circle around the village, we drove into the main square of Nurata standing almost on the same line with the mosque at the entrance (but two kilometers from it in a straight line). On the north side there is some new building with aivan, can be registry office:

And on the southern side is our goal: the sacred spring of Chashma at the foot of the Nur fortress.

According to the legend, which one can find in any guidebook, 40 thousand years ago a meteorite struck here, whose fiery tail supposedly gave the name of this place: "Nur" means "Light" or "Ray". The metorite made the crater where the water spring (translated "chashma" from Tajik) appeared. The water there has a constant temperature of 19.5 degrees and contains 15 microelements, including silver and bromine. The small river flows into the outer world and among other things, feeds the bathhouse on the other shore:

And the people are actively collecting water, which I tasted on the way back - the water has some "silver" taste indeed:

There are many people in Chashma, almost all exclusively are Uzbeks themselves and all of them collect some water to bring home:

There is fish swimming in the water. This is marinka, or Karabalik in Turkish("black fish"), that is very common in the rivers of Central Asia - they say they are very tasty, but at the same time it is a local puffer fish - their caviar, gills and black peritoneum film are deadly poisonous. Marinka often lives in holy springs and catching them from there is the strictest taboo, possibly originated after first settlers were poisoned by eating it. I saw marinkas in other places, including sacred ones, but in Nur-Chashma they are especially numerous and not scared of people at all:

The Chashma complex itself consists of two mosques built at the end of the 16th century - the one in the dastance is Namazgokh mosque with 25 domes, closer one is Juma mosque with a 16-meter dome, and to the right some obviously recently built aivan. They exist at this place since the 9th century, when the Arab missionary Muhammad Nur-ata ("Father Light") preached here, bloodlessly converting locals of this steppe into Islam.

It is not entirely clear why it is called Namazgokh - usually this word refers to mosques without outside walls (except for the altar) for open air worship, but the word itself simply means "intended for prayers," so there is no contradiction.

The look of both mosques, however, is somehow very new, and the same Jami mosque in recent photographs had a much more elegant flattened dome, so, apparently, there is not much left from the time of Abdullahan. Behind the mosque on the right is Muhammad Nurata's mausoleum, and on the left in the columns a canopy over the graves of his relatives can be seen:

Between them is the heart of Nurata, the spring of Chashma, which represents a rectangular basin that teems with marinka:

In the background is a museum where I did not go. The flow of the spring is about 430 liters per second, and in addition to the stream, the karyzs diverge from here - underground water channels, built in ancient times from the nearest mountains to the cities in the middle of the desert, sometimes for tens of kilometers: giant kyaryz systems exist in Chinese Central Asia, whilst in proper Central Asia Kazakh Sauran was famous for ancient kyaryzs. But only in Nurata kyaryz network has survived to this day as a functioning object, used by residents of ordinary houses for their intended purpose.

Sacred fish of Nurata are always well fed and satisfied in crystal clear water. They say that sometimes the water glows brightly in the mornings, and probably there are physical reasons for that, but each time this glow (which usually lasts several days in the spring) causes such influx of pilgrims that the authorities have to close the pass.

As I understand it, the pool is not yet the starting point of the spring, the water comes there from a 6-meter well Besh-Pyanj, supposedly knocked out by a meteorite blow. In theory, its walls should be all in the branches of the harmala, but as you can see there is only a bare stone there:

The bases of the old columns, standing like a chess game, remind us that pseudo-restorers worked here. Nurata is clearly one of those places that "fell victim to their popularity":

Although the embankment with a bridge a la antiquity was done beautifully. But now we go upstairs, to the ramparts of the Nur fortress:

There is an old but comfortable staircase leading there:

To be honest, I do not really believe that the Nur fortress was indeed founded by Alexander the Great, I doubt that he could have reached so deep into the steppe in his wars with the Scythians - besides he had called the present Khujand as Alexandria the Furthest hundreds of kilometers away from here. But even if some of his advanced detachments reached here, they could hardly have built something more than a sentinel post or a small border fortification. Here, on the contrary, is a full-value citadel, from which only the remains of the watchtower on top and several powerful fortifications on the slope remained.

Perhaps, this is just a 16th century fortified residence of the Bukharian bek in the troubled Kazakh land. I think that by spending from a few hours to several days in libraries (where I even did not have a reader's ticket!) would give me an answer to this question, but please do not consider me such a local specialist - I am a traveler, these are travel notes, not research and not an encyclopedia, so here I can only offer legends and rumors.

But when I write about dozens of pre-Mongol buildings for all of Central Asia, of which almost half are located from Bukhara to Navoi, I mean only brick buildings. Counting such clay settlements, sometimes retaining the outlines of walls and towers, the Central Asian pre-Mongolia heritage is several times larger.

Bushes on the slope are tied with ribbons, the ground is laid out with stones:

Climbing along the shaft that protected the path from the fortress to the watch tower - its length is 129 meters:

The guard tower is also quite large (26 x 26 meters), but the site itself looks isolated:

Even the remnants of raw bricks can be seen in the walls of the tower ... There is no way it could last 2300 years since the time of Iskander.

From here you can clearly see the lower part of the fortress, covering half of Chashma, and behind it a single-story flat city:

To the left is the steppe, on the right is Nuratau:

Above the slope there is an open ground and some rusty mechanisms:

The slope literally covered with names:

And the cemetery in the steppe with the same mosque at the entrance. According to local legends, several witnesses and even relatives of the Prophet rest in Nurata, one of the mosques is called nor less than the mosque of Hasan and Hussein (it may well be that this one) ... but most likely such confusion arises from another Mohammed - Saint Nur-Ata, who rests by Chashma.

At the top is windy, cool and isolated, but it's time to go back:

And time to go to Navoi, where I have to take a train to Khorezm in the evening, there will be many more such clay fortresses. This is how the familiar straight road to the Kara-Karga pass looks from below:

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