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Samarkand: Afrosiab or Darkness of the centuries
17 January 2018
Samarkand: Afrosiab or Darkness of the centuries

The ancient settlement Afrosiab is an irregular rhombus just under 2 kilometers across and about 6 kilometers along the perimeter lies near the city centre of Samarkand. By its scale this is the strangest part of Samarkand, because no one lives here for 800 years. But it was exactly here where the center of the pre-Mongolian Samarkand was located, it was here where Avicenna, Omar Khayyam and merchants from all over the world walked through these now fading streets. Today, it is a hilly grass mound located near the Bibi Khanaum Mosque.

The first thing that strikes about Afrosiab - of course, is the size. The area of Afrasiyab covers about 220 hectares, and the thickness of the archaeological strata reaches 8–12 metres. The habitation of the territories of Afrasiyab began in the 7th-6th century BC, as the centre of the Sogdian culture.

Afrosiab is not the name of the ancient city, but the name of the mythical King Afrasiab, the ruler of Turan, the main villain of the Persian epic "Shahname". Actually, the term Qal’a-ye Afrasiab (Castle of Afrasiab) appeared in written sources only towards the end of the 17th century.

Iran and Turan are like Gondor and Mordor, the blessed country of good farmers and the terrible steppe of ferocious nomads, all the more, both then spoke in the languages ​​of the Iranian group, and the Persians were opposed by those who are now called Scythians, Sacas, Massagetae. And apparently the same nomads were the descendants of the ancient Sogdians, who came about 3000 years ago to the Zerafshan valley, in the interfluve of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, and settled there. However, Samarkand theoretically can be even older - it is one of those cities that do not have the exact date and circumstances of the foundation, it was just laid somewhere in the impenetrable Darkness of the centuries.

Reliably the existence of Samarkand, aka Marakanda or Samuscant, can be traced from the 6th century BC, when Turan was conquered by the Persian "king of kings" Cyrus the Great, but even then it was a large city. The Persians managed to seize the oases, but the struggle between Iran and Turan continued, and soon Cyrus himself died in battle, fighting the Massagetae along the Syr Darya in December 530. The second conqueror of Marakanda was Alexander the Great, but paradoxically he also became a liberator: the empire built by the brave Greek turned out to be short-lived, and in the 3rd century BC Sogdiana gained independence. And as often happens, for several centuries under alien rule Sogdians have learned its culture, having become one of the highest civilizations of the Ancient East. The main advantage of Sogd before Khorezm and Bactria that flourished much earlier was that most of the trade routes of the Great Silk Road were passing through its territory, Sogdiana was almost the only land that could not be avoided by merchant caravans, and Marakanda became in fact the capital of the Great Silk Road . Sogdiana was never an empire, rather an amorphous confederation of hostile principalities and city-states, but its role in the then world is evidenced by the fact that the writing of the Sogdian language was modeled on the Aramaic and became a prototype for the Uighur, Mongolian and Manchurian – all this territory from the Sahara to the Gobi had people who knew the Sogdian language. At its peak, the population of Samarkand is estimated at between 100,000 and 500,000 people, a city of the dimensions of Baghdad, Sian or Constantinople.

The third conquerors of Sogdiana were the Arabs led by Kuteiba ibn Muslim, by fire and sword planting Islam and putting an end to that good-natured colorful Antiquity that lasted in Turan until the 8th century. There is a legend that they killed all men here, and women were married by force to Persians, but the fact is that since then the Sogdian language began to fade under the Arabs, and was completely superseded by the 11th century. By the time the Persian (territorially rather Tajik) Samanid dynasty had isolated its empire from the Caliphate, the former Sogdiana was already an integral part of Greater Iran, which gave it the best of science (Avicenna) and especially poetry - the destinies of Rudaki, Ferdowsi and Omar Khayyam are connected with Samarkand. But in 1220 Genghis Khan came here, and the scale of the catastrophe that was brought to Central Asia by the Mongol invasion can be compared with a local nuclear war. The ruined city became a mass grave, where, according to legend, the blood soaked the earth to that extent, that for many years the grass did not grow there.

But it would be understatement to say that ancient Samarkand was limited to Afrosiab. In fact, Afrosiab is just the ruins of Shahristan (fortified village) and citadel, but it was surrounded by a system of countless outskirts and farmland that covered the outer wall of Dewari -Kiyamat (the Judgment Day wall), that according to various estimates, had a length from 43 to 66 kilometers - this is the size of ancient Rome. Basically, the city stretched from here to the south-west, and just looking at the map, you can see that it is in this direction along the invisible axis, the ancient main street, located Bibi Khanum, Registan, Gur Emir, Khoja-Ahrar, and along the same axis shifted the city centre after Genghis Khan's devastation. Samarkand of the 13th century is the same as Dresden, Stalingrad, Coventry or Hiroshima in the recent past. But we must understand that all subsequent centuries, all these rulers, like the formidable Tamerlane and the wise Ulugbek, account for less than a third of the history of Samarkand, and most of it is hidden in this clay.

On the photo below and the last three photos above - the meeting place of two urban epochs, the area between the Afrosiab hill and the Siab bazaar:

That's roughly how Afrosiab was arranged. The four lines of fortifications are not the result of the gradual growth of the city, they existed a very long time and were repeatedly updated, already when they were in the depth of the fortification, and until now the scientists have not figured out their origin. It could not be the likeness of the Tashkent daha - Samarkand always had a strong central authority, sitting in the formidable Citadel. 

The only building in the depths of Afrasiab was built in 1970 - this is its museum. The museum is for archeology fans, as there are in fact only a few rooms, of which only one is really impressive – the one with frescoes. But still, if you are in Afrasiab, it's worth going there.

A strange bird in the foyer and drawings on the walls of the museum territory are mythical creatures whose names and essence are forgotten, but the same images are repeatedly found in the local archeological finds. Similar creations from clay can be seen in souvenir shops of Registan. The Arabs, conquering Central Asia, destroyed the pre-Islamic culture in a planned and total way, in neighboring Khorezm, for example, they burned all books and documents in the Khorezm language, and therefore there is little information left about the local Antiquity. But according to the written sources of the travelers of those days, wooden statues of fantastic birds and beasts adorned Samarkand streets in 9-10 centuries despite of all the canons of Islam.

Behind the museum fence there is only empty space. On the right is clearly visible the guttered tower:

The whole room of the museum is dedicated to the walls of Afrosiab - a replica of the masonry, genuine ancient bricks, and a stove, where they were made. However, mostly Afrosiab was built from adobe, and such cities, being destroyed and abandoned, just gradually return to the original state of their material.

People were afraid to settle in the ruined city, then the fear gone, but there was a memory left from generation to generation, besides Afrosiab was now just a waterless desert in the middle of the city. To this day, the most frequent guest here is a shepherd:

And in the trampled grass, among the abundant manure, now and then come across ancient shards:

In the museums of Samarkand (not the one in "Afrosiab", but mostly in the one not far from Registan) there are a lot of "Afrosiab ceramics" of pre-Mongolian times. And although the local pottery school was formed under the Arabs, who after the devastation brought here a lot of new technologies and ideas, yet you can still sense the spirit of the old Sogdiana. Ancient restraint in it is combined with some pretty naive hand-drawn lines:

And this is clearly something pre-Arab, and what expressive faces! The Sogdians drank wine, preferred trade to the war, and in all their scenes one feels an amazing love for life. There are in these images something reminding of Soviet cartoons:            

Bone carving:

Terracotta patterns of buildings, most likely mausoleums or mosques - similar patterns can still be seen on some surviving pre-Mongolian buildings:

And ahead there is a stronghold seen, formidable even in its present form

The edges of Afrosiab look like this, and although they look more like cliffs of a river valley, it's all a creation of human hands. Actually, the river below is an ancient Siab canal, feeding the moat of Shakhristan, and above it there are 20-meter walls with a cultural layer filling them like a cup.

In the distance - clearly an old bridge across the canal. Not much information known about this bridge that tourists usually cross and therefore do not know what it looks like. Theoretically, it may be the 16th century, when the Bukharian emir Abdullah II updated the infrastructure of his state with the Chinese scale.

Views in the other direction, there are towers and bastions, and falling down from such a wall is obviously very risky:

But all this stronghold had an Achilles heel - a lead aqueduct from the surrounding mountains, breaking which, the Mongols put a city of 100,000 people before the choice of what to die from - their sword or thirst. The constructions of the aqueduct were destroyed, the lead pipes melted in the fires, and it was not possible to rebuild it all on the ashes, and the survivors began to settle lower, where it is possible to take water from the canals.

Excavations of buildings at the foot of the Citadel, judging by the number of rooms - rather the palaces of the local nobility than the mosques:

And these hillocks with eyes remind something Zoroastrian:

Sometimes here they dig out altar-fires, that is house temples of Zoroastrianism, where sunlight and fire were considered the embodiment of God's grace of Hvar, for which the Arabs called Zoroastrians fire-worshipers. In fact, it was no longer paganism, but a fully developed dualistic religion with an eternal confrontation of the truth and goodness of Ahura Mazda and the lies and evil of Angra Mainyu.

We mentioned Zoroastrianism in more detail in the context of Khorezm, which was its main stronghold in Central Asia. There was the Tower of Silence - the dead flesh was considered unclean in Zoroastrianism, and not to defile fire or earth with it, the dead were given to the vultures and jackals on special towers, and the bones were put into such ossuary boxes. Pay attention to the crosses (although these are more likely the Faravahar symbols - "bewinged suns"), immediately making us remember that a considerable role in the ancient Turan was played by Nestorianism - the ancient branch of Christianity best settled in the East:

Climbing up the citadel:

In the very distance, Kuhak, or Chupan-Ata, which is a solitary hill in the bend of Zerafshan. According to legend, it was thrown by Allah upon the infidels that besieged the city. From there entered the fifth conquerors of Samarkand, completely changing the face of Turkestan - the Russians with the Polish German Konstantin Kaufman at the head.

From the citadel is better to understand the scale of the ancient settlement. In the background, against the backdrop of the Zerafshan mountain range is the center of Timurids Samarkand with its blue domes: the lonely mausoleum of Bibi-Khanum, two giant aivans and three domes of the Bibi-khanim mosque, and in the distance the minarets of the Registan and the dome of the Till-Kari madrassa, which served as a cathedral mosque. The short epoch of the Timurids was not the heyday of Samarkand, but its swan song, and after the new Sheibanid dynasty moved its courtyard to Bukhara in 1533, Samarkand was never again the capital.

In the east (strictly to the left from the photo above), you can see some new mosque that is not characteristic of Central Asia architecture

The Hill of the Citadel itself is almost empty from the inside - archaeologists have dug a whole foundation pit on the scale of modern days construction:

The cultural layer. Here each notch is a century:

And these centuries look upon us from the clay walls:

And for the sake of what, first of all, it is worth going to the local museum is a hall of frescos found in Afrasiab excavations. In fact, this is the opportunity to visualize the beautiful and sunny ancient world, which was erased not even by the Mongols but by the Arabs. Sogdiana left much more similar evidence about herself than the Muslim empires, for one very simple reason: there was no Muslim taboo on the depiction of the people:

That’s why we can still see with our own eyes portraits of famous Sogdians and their strange clothes:

The first definition that comes to mind when you see Sogdian art is "Indo-European": all this causes associations with Greece, India and China at the same time, but it does not look like anything from them.

A visual image of the region at the crossroads of all roads. In a row, two ambassadors from Chaganian (Surkhandarya), China, Chach (Tashkent) and - with feathers on their heads - Koreans from the country of Goguryeo.

What's happening here is so incomprehensible that we'll put it simply - it's just beautiful

Hunting is the fun of the nobility, and we won’t know what a simple Sogdian peasant or a resident of the mahallas looked like, or even a merchant, from these frescoes. But the historical storms changed the face of the nobility rather than the peasant, dehkan or fellah, who looked like was required by the conditions of their labor and hardly changed much from the time these frescoes were drawn until Prokudin-Gorsky photographed them.

And here the procession with the royal retinue is depicted, and the most mysterious in it are white birds, looking like ostriches. There is an opinion that these indeed were ostriches, presented to the Sogdian court as an overseas curiosity - after all, the Arabs had colonies in Africa.

These frescoes adorned the Hall of Ambassadors (that is, the ceremonial reception hall) of the Ichshid Palace - the title of the monarch, a modified version of the word "shah", and the Egyptian Ihshidid dynasty founded by the Turans at the other end of the Caliphate also got its name from that word. The palaces of that time were not luxurious, they consisted mainly of clay walls and wooden structures, and their main decoration was the frescoes. Specifically, these were made in the 7th century, delighting the eyes of King Vakhruman. Half a century remained until the Arab invasion, and Sogdiana relied its hopes for protection on by China. As a result, after the fall of Khorezm and Sogd, the Arabs met with the Chinese on the Talas River and defeated them, and soon China itself was burnt in a civil war that took up to 30 million lives, and this was perhaps the final decline of the Ancient World (which, of course, began with a fall Rome), the global change of generations - the Middle Ages came to Earth all over the world.

Buildings on the other side of the citadel.

What was it? Palaces, temples? Who knows... On the map at this place is the Cathedral Mosque. But looking into the pits and trenches leading to the horizons of clearly pre-Islamic eras, you see bricks on their bottom. This is a direct look into impenetrable Darkness of the centuries.

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