Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sogdian Rocks and Alexander’s Fort in Nurata (Central Asia 12b)

[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.]

It is great news when I hear that I’ll be visiting an Alexander fort! No, not any of the Sogdian Rocks that went down into history, but one I never heard about. Local legend or true history, I don’t know what to think of it or what to expect. These past days I have seen many a fort and I had all these visions of Alexander’s army marching through the desert and the rough terrain followed by the inevitable baggage train – all moving in Alexander’s care. A gigantic task. You have to see this land to realize what it meant.

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?

Uzbek sources relate that Alexander instructed one of his generals, a certain Farhangi-Sarhang (“Sarhang” meaning as much as “Officer” I learn later on), to build a fort that even he could not take. What a challenge! Alexander left for other conquests and when he returned and saw the fort, he shouted orders to open the gates for him. His faithful general refused bluntly. Alexander I’m sure was far from happy with this response, how dared his general refuse! He had no other choice but to charge the attack, yet to no avail. That certainly must have stirred his blood. I immediately picture a frantic Alexander, pacing back and forth – maybe even having one of his Macedonian fits that some authors attribute to him. To put it mildly however, he certainly must have been quite frustrated and pretty angry for not being able to take this very fort. He gave up. At this point, the general gave orders to open the gates and walked out towards Alexander with a broad smile on his face no doubt, claiming that he had successfully executed his king’s orders. End of story. I have found no trace of this event in any book but my local guide assures me that it is very present in Uzbek’s literature. I find the foundation of Nur and the construction of the fortress south of the town on Wikipedia but no trace of this general unfortunately, but then his name may be Persian and the question is what would the Greek translation sound like. It seems that east and west still have difficulty talking to each other … Many stories from the east have not made it to the Greek homeland hence into our western literature. One example are the recent discoveries made by Edward Rtveladze, member of the Academy of Science in Uzbekistan, who carried out meticulous excavation expeditions to find the traces of Alexander during his campaigning in Bactria and Sogdiana (see above). His conclusions are written down in Russian, I’m still trying to get a hold of them in English!

Today as in Alexander’s time, the location of this fortress at the southern end of Nurata is a very strategic one, i.e. at the very edge where agricultural land turns into wild steppe. In fact, it was an ideal place for the king to gather his army in formation before attacking neighboring tribes, while in later years it was an ideal refuge for rebels and outcasts. This fortress surrounded by large walls and supporting towers must have looked like a small town with an inner core, the Shahristan, measuring 500x500 meters. The Uzbeks say it is one of the most important monuments of Uzbekistan – how far does patriotism reach, I wonder?

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

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