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The hidden treasures of Turkmenistan (part II)

As we explored in The hidden treasures of Turkmenistan (part I), the Central Asian country has a rich heritage largely unknown to the great public. In this second part we will explore four more sites, from an ancient town to a dragon-themed mosque, from a military camp to a legendary mausoleum.

The ruins of Abiverd

Located halfway between two of Turkmenistan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Parthian fortress of Nisa and the oasis of Merv, we can find the remains of a town that played an important role in medieval times: Abiverd.

The town’s origin can be traced back to Parthian times, but it was under their successors, the Sassanians, that it started to flourish. Abiverd was part of the protective chain of frontier posts that protected the Sassanians from incursions coming from Central Asia. At the same time, its location, between Nisa and Merv and between Khorasan and Khwarezm, ensured it a key role in the regional trade routes.

Abiverd changed hands multiple times throughout history (Afrighids, Samanids, Ghaznavids, etc) but owes its period of splendour to the Seljuks. It was around during this time that the town produced a number of reputable scholars, from Al-Zarir, blind poet of the Samanid era, to the historian and poet Abu’l-Muzaffar Abivardi (d. 1113).

The town’s fortunes started to dwindle following its destruction by youngest of Chengiz Khan’s sons, Tolui. While it recovered somewhat after the Mongol invasion, its fate was sealed when razed by Nadir Shah in the 18th century.

Today one can still admire the ruins of what once was a prosperous town, from its foundations to the eroded walls and porticos that remain. Pieces of century-old pottery and tiles can be found scattered throughout the site. A reminder that Abiverd still has many secrets awaiting to be unearthed.

Panoramic view of Abiverd

Dragons in a mosque

Built a few decades after Samarkand’s famed Ulugh Beg Madrasa, the Sheikh Jamal ad-Din Mosque in Annau reflects the dramatic and turbulent history of the region. It was erected in 1455-56 at the tomb of a local sheikh, after whom it is named, by his son Mohammed. This Mohammed was probably the visir of the Timurid ruler of Khorasan, Abul-Qasim Babur (r. 1449-56) who was a nephew of Ulugh Beg and great-grandson of Timur (Tamerlane).

The ensemble consisted of a mosque, a tombstone and two further buildings. The mosque, built of baked bricks, was two floors tall and was crowned by a dome. Two minarets flanked its sides. However, its most striking feature was not the structure itself the image decorating its portal: a mosaic of an image of two azhdaha dragons, mythical creatures belonging to Iranian mythology . However, little is left of this building.

Shekih Jamal ad-Din mosque in 1902
Shekih Jamal ad-Din mosque nowadays

In 1948 an earthquake shook Ashgabat, killing tens of thousands of people, and destroying the mosque. This had already fell into disrepair centuries before the natural disaster, but it totally collapsed following the earthquake.     

The remains of the Sheikh Jamal ad-Din Mosque lie less than 20 kilometres to the southeast of the Turkmen capital. No attempt was made following the earthquake to rebuild the mosque, such was the extent to the damage. And that is probably for the better. The famous dragon mosaics can be seen in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ashgabat following their restoration in the early 2000s thanks to the US Fund for Cultural Preservation.

A conqueror’s camp

Nader Shah, the man who dealt the final blow to Abiverd, also contributed to the region. This part of the world, bordering Turkmenistan and Iran, was notable for the incursions of Turkmens and Nader Shah, himself of Turkmen stock, decided to build a fortress to guard against such events. The result was an impressive structure that has survived in a good shape until our days.

Surrounded by walls 3 metres tall and bordered by 12 guard towers on each of its four sides, Nadir Shah’s fortress is eminently recognisable. At the very centre lies the remains of the ruler’s palace, while on its northern side stands a 10-metre mound that offers great views of the complex and the surrounding countryside. Inside, the foundations and walls of the military buildings that housed the soldiers are still clearly visible.

The fortress, built in the 1740s, is only two kilometres to the north of Khivabad, a town established by Nader Shah to house slaves he freed after conquering Khiva (modern Uzbekistan).

[For more information on Nader Shah’s campaigns in Central Asia see Nader Shah’s conquest of Central Asia: the fall of Bukhara and Khiva]

A mausoleum with a legend

No list of such sites would be completed without a mausoleum. In this case it is the mausoleum of Astana Baba, that shares the name with the village where it is located, by the shores of the Amu Darya river.

Built with mud bricks, the structure is actually a complex. The oldest parts are two domed rooms, one of them a mosque and the other a mausoleum with a single tomb. It is thought they date back to the 11th or 12th centuries. The other two rooms, also domed, were built later and each host two tombs, including the remains of two holy men, Zed-Ali and Zuveid-Ali. But who was buried in the first tomb?

According to a legend, it was the ruler of Balkh who ordered the construction of the mausoleum for his daughter, who had tragically died shortly after marrying a local prince. Three times it was built, and three times it collapsed. Then the father met, or dreamt with, depending on the version, an old man who suggested him to use clay and water he had brought from Mecca to make the bricks. It was with those bricks that the mausoleum was erected, and it did not collapse a fourth time, as far as we know. As the story goes, the grieving father was then also buried in the complex.

Astana Baba also hosts a separate mausoleum named after Alamberdar, the standard-bearer of the Caliph Ali. However, it is thought to have been built in the 11th century and it may host the remains of Ismail Muntasir, the last claimant to the Samanid throne (d. 1005).

Turkmenistan has a rich heritage that is, for the most part, yet to be discovered. The sites covered in these two parts are but a selection. The Bronze Age settlement of Gonur Depe, the fortress of Amul, caravanserais that dot the Turkmen section of the Silk Roads and multiple unnamed forts are some of the other treasures Turkmenistan has to offer.

2 comments on “The hidden treasures of Turkmenistan (part II)

  1. Laura Kennedy

    Great piece! Could you show the sites your mention ie Abiverd, the fortress of Nader Shah and Astana Baba in a modern map? The mosque at Annau I know well (and thanks for mentioning the role that the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation played in the restoration of the extraordinary dragon mosaic.)

    • Thank you very much for your feedback. We have now incorporated a map at the end of the article with the locations of the sites mentioned. You might be interested to know we have also added a similar map for the Part I article

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