A Travellerspoint blog

June 2012

Citadels of Khorezm, Central Asia : Land of the Aryans

Where the seeds of Hinduism and Zoroastrinism were sown: Islam and Buddhism propagated.........by Ramdas Iyer

I was dropped off at the Uzbekistan border check post about 100 km from Bukhara, by my driver and wonderful guide Salim. The no man’s land created during the split of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan after the Soviet disintegration,was almost 2 km long. Having to lug ones gear this far was bad enough but the prospect of being assaulted and robbed was not too far either in this lawless land.This entire length was occupied by Iranian trucks carrying goods from Iran into land locked Central Asia through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan towards Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan and into Xinjiang province of China. The two youthful soldiers on the Turkmenistan border, one of the most unpredictable ”stans” upon seeing me started talking about Indian movies and making crude remarks about Aishwarya Rai, India’s legendary movie star. They were however nice and informed me after repeated calls to the Command post that I cannot enter the country for 2 days, since the President was touring the border areas. The fate of the Iranian drivers also rested in Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s hands or rather his restless feet.

With great disappointment I had to turn back to Uzbekistan where I had learnt to deal with the Uzbek soldiers who had strip searched me just a week ago at the Termez-Tajik border. Fortunately I had a multiple entry Visa. Using one of the Iranian driver’s satellite phones I was fortunate to reach Salim in Bukhara who agreed to pick me up . Resting in the only roadside restaurant at the border I was surprised that the owner absolutely refused to accept payment for my tea and soup. That was only because he had pumped gas for a living in Elizabeth, NJ a few years ago now an obscure border post seemed to be his calling.
DSC_0373.jpgView from the high citadel

View from the high citadel

Through Turkmenistan I was going to reach Khiva, the legendary Silk Road City( read the Great game by Peter Hopkirk) near where Turkmenistan, Iran and Uzbekistan come together. Salim would not risk taking his car through the Kyzl Kum Desert( the 11th largest Desert in the world at 288000 sq.km) instead put me in a taxi to travel the 400 km to Urgench& Khiva. It seemed that I had finally lost touch with my handlers and my guardians were awaiting me at the Turkmenistan border to take me to Khiva. While disappointed about not seeing the great Aryan city of Merv in Turkmenistan, I whipped my lonely planet only to realize that I would be passing through the legendary Khorezm area. The most ancient archaeological monuments of Khorezm belong to Neolith epoch ( 6th Century BC). The Greek scientist Gerodot named these earths the country of thousand fortresses. During archeological excavations it was revealed that in 10th century BC there were irrigation canals in length not less than 300 km. Archeologists are still struggling with a riddle of the ancient cities which were found in waterless desert, naming Khoresm “the second Egypt”. There is evidence to consider Khoresm to be the native land of Zoroastrism. In the sacred book of Zoroastrians’ "Avesta" Khoresm was named “Aryanama..Land of the Aryans” Geographically the western areas of modern Uzbekistan, and also northern Turkmenistan and Aral Sea banks were parts of ancient Khorezm. The first written sources (519 BC) mention Khoresm as the state grasped by Persian governor Dariy I.

Khorezm is the birthplace of Zoroaster ( founder of Zoroastrianism), where the Avesta (the collection of sacred books of ancient Iranian religion, which dominated in near and Middle East prior to Arabian conquest of 8th Century AD )and the Rig Veda the holy text of the Vedic Indians were written( in Sanskrit), home of Al-Jibr founder of Algebra, where Al Beruni, the most original polymath the Islamic world had ever known was born and at times worked with Ibn Sina, the most famous Hellenistic-Islamic philosopher in Urgench.

My taxi driver was familiar with the many citadels in the area and we drove around for a few hours seeing and photographing a multitude of mud citadels, some built in the 3rd century BC. The history of this area rings of Aryan migration from the Steppes from 2500-1500 BC, beginnings of Zoroastrianism and dominance of Persia until 300 BC, of Hellenistic armies sweeping through the area in 325 BC, multiple invasion by Arabs in the 8th Century and the subsequent fleeing of Zoroastrians to Penjakent in Tajikistan, Mongol invasions and lastly the spread of the Soviets into this region during Stalin’s regime.
Split between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, this area was untouched and was saved by Russian archeologists who did yeoman’s work restoring some of the great citadels like Ayaz Kala and Toprak kala. The Ayaz kala is a huge citadel with towering mud-brick rise dramatically from the surrounding plains. They were built on the edge of the Kizilkum Desert at different points between the fourth century B.C. and the seventh century A.D. as a means of protection from nomad raids. Within the forts are the remains of palaces and traces of the local agricultural population have been found in the surrounding areas. Abandoned for 1,300 years, the fortresses were rediscovered in the 1940s by the Russian archaeologist S.P. Tolstov.
The Ayaz kala is credited with being occupied by the Kushan kings of India. History being so complicated in this region, one needs to note that Kushans were a people hailing from Central Asia and settling in the Greaco- Bactrian area of Balkh, Afganistan.The Kushan Empire was originally formed during the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD. The Kushans expanded rapidly across the northern part of the Indian Subcontinent at least as far as Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares) where inscriptions have been found dated to the first few years of era of the most famous Kushan ruler, Kanishka which apparently began about 127 AD with Mathura, India as his capital..
They had diplomatic contacts with the Roman Empire, Sassanid Persia and Han China. While much philosophy, art, and science was created within its borders, the only textual record we have of the empire's history today comes from inscriptions and accounts in other languages, particularly Chinese. The Empire declined from the 3rd century and fell to the Sassanid (Persian)and Gupta Empires. In fact I had a hair rising experience seeing the western most Buddhist Stupa erected by Kanishka II near Termez around the 2nd century AD. The Kushans spoke in Pali and Sanskrit and practiced Buddhism and sometimes Zoroastrinism.

With all this history swirling in my mind, I climbed the tall citadel(300 meters) with only the howling winds of the desert. I must confess that I was genuinely scared. The cold desert, extreme loneliness, a paranormal fear of the unknown together with my belongings in a taxi nearly a kilometer away was not a very comfortable feeling. I imagined the forebears of our Vedic culture passing through this area as nomads and delivering incantations in Sanskrit and Farsi to ward of the Djinns: verisimilar to the fear that was pervading me. The thought of the great king Kanishka, responsible for spreading Buddhism to Central Asia and China standing at this great citadel peering into the splintered Persian empire as a multitude of warring Greaco-Bactrian Satrapies, was an ephiphany. I walked through the ramparts, the battlements and the remains of palaces. Nowhere in my travels had I seen such an imposing and remote citadel reaching back into time.( my recent visit to the Acropolis was a contemporary site of Ayaz Kala, another 6th century BC citadel is another such place).
After covering a few of the hundreds of fortresses, many in disrepair, I drove to Urgench crossing the mighty Oxus River on a pontoon bridge. Alexander crossed the Oxus 600 km upstream at Termez in the Uzbek, Afghanistan border, also the route taken by USSR to invade Afghanistan that I had recently visited. Urgench was a dusty and dirty bazaar town and just the thought of the great Al-Jibr , Al Beruni and Ibn Sina living here was simply incomprehensible.
For a history buff there is no place like central Asia where great cultures, powerful empires and great religions were born.

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:14 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged fortress persia hindu khoresm zoroastrinism uzbek avesta rig-veda Comments (0)

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