[11b - In early 327 BC Alexander attacks the Sogdian Rocks of Ariamazes (= Sogdian) and Chorienes (= Sisimithres). Arrian and Curtius disagree on the location and the chronology.]
Yet here I am told that Nurata, the ancient city of Nur, was built in 327 BC by nobody less than Alexander the Great and it is here that I’ll be visiting one of his forts built on top of the nearby hill. That must be something! We drive through the outskirts of Nurata when at the end of the lane I suddenly see the hill topped with remains of earthen walls, with at its feet a well-kept Muslim sanctuary including a Djuma Mosque (Friday Mosque) and hamam (khamom). The round mosque from the 10th century with a cupola of 16 meters in diameter is said to be the largest in Central Asia, and is built on top of a spring. As it turns out, the entire story evolves around this spring…
According to the Muslims, the spring emerged when Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Mohamed, hit the soil with his staff. The water is said to possess healing powers and since ages pilgrims flock in from far and wide to cleanse themselves with the holy water – hence the adjacent hamam. Striking fact however is that throughout summer and winter these waters remain at a constant temperature of 19.1 degrees Centigrade. The fish (only Allah knows where they came from) that thrive in these crystal clear spring waters are holy as well, meaning that no one is allowed to catch them – just like in SanliUrfa (Turkey).
Nurata itself owes its life to the so-called kareez, i.e. a combination of surface and underground canals that basically slush water from a spring, lake or ground water to a city or surrounding fields. Thanks to these underground galleries, it was possible to collect melting snow or rain from the nearby mountains in order to turn these arid lands into flourishing oasis (also read …). This extensive introduction finally brings me to Alexander as the story goes that he was the one who gave instructions to detour the waters from below the mountains behind Nurata through underground corridors and canals in order to irrigate the fields. This antique system seems to be several kilometres long. In fact, it is a combination of horizontal passages and vertical shafts as clearly explained in this drawing made by the Heritage Institute. Even today, the system is still effectively used by the local population thanks to thorough recent cleaning and restoration. Amazing to hear that such an intricate irrigation work is still in working order many thousands of years later as it seems to go back to times from before the Achaemenid’s empire. Alexander most probably helped to maintain the system.
An intriguing detail is the small Muslim tomb erected at a discrete distance behind the mosque to honor a saint; it is surrounded by seven slim columns in typical Uzbek teardrop style but as a whole is carries a clear Greek influence – or is it my imagination?
In any case, here I’m standing at the foot of Alexander’s fort – with high expectations and my heartbeat racing at 200 miles/hour! This fortress however looks more like a huge clump of earth eroded by rain and wind, baked by the sun. What am I looking for?
I finally start my precarious climb over a smooth surface of thick pounded clay, hard as stone after centuries of weathering. There is hardly any path and this trail is extremely steep and slippery because of the dust with no handrail for security and no tree or brush to stop your fall if you lose grip. I walk over what looks like an ancient wall with a gaping void to my left and an ellipse shaped depth to my right. About halfway small cluster of grass have found a foothold and the courageous pilgrims like me have attached a wish ribbon to the meagre blades, an old habit to ask favours from the gods. Shall I tie my wish also and ask for Alexander’s protection on my climb?
I stop to catch my breath and look over my shoulder, scared to move too much and loose my balance on this narrow edge. Best to ignore my fear. Instead I’m rewarded by a magnificent view over the city of Nurata beneath me, a truly green oasis in this inhospitable land. At last, I reach the top, or rather the basis of the huge earthen clump crowned with a defacing antenna on top (could they not have found another outcrop to plant this mast, I wonder irritated?). In the lower part of this clump I clearly see rows of sturdy adobe bricks, meaning that at the top of the construction the outer core has kind of “melted” these bricks but they still are there underneath – after all these centuries…? From my high outlook post I admire the mountain range which provided and still provides the precious spring water, the desert steppe at its feet and on my left the big blot with the houses of Nurata. It is a lonely windy place though, certainly not the kind of reward any garrison soldier would seek and certainly not any of Alexander’s veterans whom he relocated on so many occasions. History really comes alive up here!
Time to start my descent and I decide to risk my life stepping carefully down the hollow part – not exactly the safest choice, but then Alexander faced greater dangers and I gain courage. I land safely at the foot of what seems to be central building. What a shame they didn’t put up some directions or a map of what this fortress could have looked like – they are asking a lot of my otherwise so fertile imagination. I walk to the back of the fortress where a thick wall once served the defences, now flanked by a modern wall and a row of poplars surrounded by garbage plastic bottles and other rubbish. Here too I can see the sundried bricks at the bottom of the walls and I wonder if they indeed date back to Alexander’s days or if they are from a later date … The sun breaks through and it all looks so much more appealing. What an adventure!
Click here to read Episode 13 of Central Asia
Click here to read Episode 13 of Central Asia