July 11, 2015
A long, long time ago there flourished an ancient civilization called Mesopotamia. It is so called because it lay between two rivers – meso (middle) and potamia (waters). Further east from them are two other rivers that also nurtured an ancient kingdom. A kingdom so powerful that it controlled virtually all trade along the Silk Road and its language was the ligua franca of those times. It was called Sogdiana.
But Sogdiana existed long before the Silk Road came into being. As I sit in my balcony, I can see the wide stretch of Syr Darya as it curves northwest through the stark rocky mountains that form the backdrop for Khojand. The water is a shade of blue-green, not quite turquoise, not quite aquamarine. It shines in the sun, almost luminescent and here and there are white caps on the water.
Just near where it curves north is what looks like a misshapen lump of bare dried mud. In its day though it formed an impressive wall stretching six kilometers with seven gates. It was a citadel, one of the northernmost of the citadels built by Alexander the Great in 327 BC. Today some of the walls have been rebuilt jarring with the old wall. Surrounding it is a park with fountains and walkways and in summer evenings, it is the haunt of families. Children run around and play among the fountains. Old men sit on park benches and chat. Loudspeakers play music in the evenings and there are plenty of people as late as eleven at night.
It was at the hands of the Sogdians that Alexander faced the most resistance. Legend has it that in the nearby Zarafshan mountains, there was the stronghold of a local chieftain. Built high in the mountains above sheer cliffs, it was virtually inaccessible and thought to be impregnable. With the advance of Alexander’s army, the chief took refuge here and when Alexander sent a message urging surrender, the reply was their stronghold could be breached only “when your men can fly like birds.” Alexander then asked for volunteers to scale the cliffs. Some died in the attempt but some succeeded in scaling the cliffs. Another message was sent to the chief stating “I have found my birds.” The story goes that the chief was so dispirited that he not only surrended his kingdom, but also gave his daughter in marriage to Alexander. This was none other than Roxana or Rokhshana, reputed to be an unparalled beauty.
Tomorrow I go to Istaravshan. There are some ruins there as well. The name Istaravshan makes me wonder – “Istara” is Persian for Star and “Ravshan” means light or bright. So is the town of Starlight? Or Bright Star perhaps? Others more knowledgeable than I would know.
July 12, 2015
At the edge the old town of Istaravshan is a hill overlooking the spread of the new town. Along the top of this hill are earthen walls, mostly misshapen now but clearly discernable as the surrounding wall of a citadel from many eons ago. Also built by Alexander the Great. Today it is being rebuilt as well, the main entryway already complete. An weathered statue of Devashtich stands guard viewing the town spread out below from atop his horse.
But there is more to this area. I read that not far from here, near the border town of Shakhristan, there is another ruin called Bunjikath. I had not been able to find out much about it, nor how to go there. No matter, I thought, I would ask in the bazaar, usually the heartbeat of small towns where information flows like the goods on sale.
Taxi drivers have an unerring eye for spotting tourists and here was no exception. When the usual gaggle of taxi drivers approached, I asked them about Bunjikath. Nobody knew and another driver, a resident of Shakhristan was called on the phone. He arrived in due course and although he wasn’t totally sure, he said he could ask around in town. So off we went, the harsh brown-yellow-beige of the hills giving way to well-tended fields nearer the road. Lush fields of rice and wheat were interspersed with tall nodding heads of sunflowers and corn stalks. Men and young boys rode donkeys along the sides of the road, sometimes two on one donkey.
At Shakhristan, Shukhrat the driver asked around and soon we were in discussion with a trio of village elders. One of them nodded sagely, telling us of some ruins that he recalled. He directed us to a hillock at the edge of town, beyond the dry river bed. Sure enough from a distance there seemed some sort of uneven walls there. The undercarriage of the car scraped and I cringed but Shukhrat seemed unperturbed and drove on. With only goats, sheep and cattle for company now, it seems long forgotten but when we clambered up the hill, I could see depressions and outlines of what used to be walls. Some even had niches, possibly for fences or doors. With the bleating of goats floating in the wind, I gazed at the grassed-over remains in excitement. But is this Bunjikath? If so, where is the famed mural of a wolf suckling twins? Why is it going back into oblivion? How do I find out?
July 14, 2015
Sogdiana has a past that began a long time before the advent of Alexander. Its story begins with the dawn of civilization some 5500 years ago. On the left bank of the Zarafshan river there flourished a proto-urban center called Sarazm dating from the Stone ages. I had arrived in Penjikent eager to see these excavation sites that lay some 15 kms west of modern day Penjikent. I made my way there on a marshrutka.
Under protective shelters lay five sites and I wandered from site to site gazing in awe at the remains of well-planned houses, buildings, the town. The plans of the buildings as well as the finds these have yielded, boast a level of sophistication associated with highly advanced civilizations. There are private as well as public buildings. There are fire altars indicating that the inhabitants of ancient Sarazm worshipped fire like their Persian contemporaries. Among the treasure trove excavated from this site are stone and bronze tools, grains of barley and jewelry of semi-precious stones such as lapiz lazuli found in the burial casket of a woman supposed to be a noble. Findings indicate specialized manufacture of weaving, basketry making and metallurgy. Incredible to think of the age in which these artifacts were made! In the museum housing many of the artifacts, I gazed in awe.
By great good luck I met here, an archeologist while he sat making sketches and cataloging some finds. When were these excavated, I asked. Just yesterday, he said. Shards of pottery, some fragments of bones and assorted pieces of metalware graced the table in front of him. I asked him about Bunjikath. Farhad was kind enough to look at the photos I had taken. Yes, this is Bunjikath he said. The site had already been excavated and with no current work on it is slowly getting overgrown, he said. Nature having her way, he smiled.
Farhad also told me of the comparisions of these and other artifacts from contemporary sites in Iran, Harappa in modern day Pakistan and northern Afghanistan. They show that there must have been trade and relations between this kingdom and those of far-flung areas of the known world as it was then.
Sitting on a mound I looked at the ruins and imagined life then. Beyond the site, right at the edge of the enclosed space are fields of the villagers. Now as all those years ago agriculture thrives here, irrigated by the waters of the Zerafshan river.
July 16, 2015
I have just arrived in Dushanbe. There are many other sites of ancient Sarazm and later day Sogdiana that lie scattered in southern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. I intend to try and see some more of them but have no idea if I will manage it this time around or not. Word is that the Afghan border due south of here, at Sher Khan Bandar is closed. From some travelers coming up from Khorog, I heard that the Afghan bazaar between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, a usual stop for travelers, has not been functioning for the last three weeks. But there is no reliable news on the status of the border at Khorog. I will simply have to go and see.