Cairo Sounds on Thursday night (2)

IMG_5446Thursday nights in Cairo are filled with parties, dinners, weddings but if you have a couple of hours and an adventurous music lover, check out a variety of folk music brought to the el-Dammah Theatre by Zakaria Ibrahim, researcher and founder of El Mastaba Center. c2228c89-922e-4bbd-b9d5-4869d1c4e8c1

Abul Gheit DarawishDSC_0050

Zar and Sufi music and singing presented by the exceptional Abul Gheit Darawish (dervishes) band, provide an unusual evening – a spiritual experience, and with Tanura dance (Egyptian version of the whirling dervishes).

The Abul Gheit Darawish band which is led by Ahmed El Shankhawy, joined El Mastaba Center in 2011, and presents a mixture of Sufi and Zār music with unique rhythms. The name, Abul Gheit, refers to Sheikh Hassan Al Gheitani, whose tomb is located in a small island in El Qaliyubia Governorate. Sheikh Hassan attracted many devoted dervishes and followers in the early part of the 19th century.   IMG_5447

The repertoire of the Abul Gheit dervishes is comprised of Sufi songs, many of which praise the qualities of their holy Sheikh. Over time, their songs fused with the Egyptian and Sudanese Zār music which was practiced in the Arab El Mohamady area. Darawish Abul Gheit are still known for their Zikr nights (Zikr being the Sufi devotional practice, including songs and movements).

Admirers and followers who attend the Zikr nights believe in the ability of this music to inspire spiritual awakening and effect healing.DSC_0065

Al Kaff Al Aswani Band

The band joined El Mastaba center’ bands to revive an ancient Egyptian art: upper Egyptian palm clapping. Which goes back to the time of the pharaohs, and the engravings manifesting this art can be found in many temples and tombs. For instance, it can be seen in al Assasia tombs in the west bank of Luxor city.
As for the roots of the art explained by the head of the band Mahmoud Eledfawi, who started to perform since he was a little child and developed his skills along the way, he says: “this kind of art is not an walk in the park, as it depends on improvisation and creativity at the same time through a group of youth reciting a couplet to the lead singer (which is called a Column: a part of a quartet) and then the lead singer picks up from there, and commits himself to the same subject and assonance accompanied by the rhythm of the palms, sitting on one or more sofa and after a while they stand up facing the singer(s)”.
And the singer begins with a Sufi enchanting for the prophet’ sake, followed by a ballad describing his environment and the state of the lovers, and the palm clapping youth recite a couplet, and the tempo is decided by the speed of the clapping, and then they start to sway in a synchronized way led by the line alpha dancer.
The art of “Kaff” includes all of the social affairs.
The artist: Mahmoud Eledfawi descending form Aswani roots started to perform from Idfo district in Aswan and is on a journey to spread this kind of art to the world.

DSC_0199

Mahmoud Eledfawi

El Dammah Theatre, managed by El Mastaba Center for Folk Music and located at El Balakesa Street, Abdeen.  Ticket: 30 EGP Winters: Thursday at 8pm

For more information please visit our website : www.el-mastaba.org

 

 

 

Osogbo Revisited

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 3.35.04 PMIn a fortunate stroke of serendipity, Robin and Hugh Campbell, caretakers of the Osun Osogbo Sacred Groves and board member of The Susanne Wenger Adunni Orishia Trust, sent me a message inquiring if I was in Lagos. “Yes,” I answered and soon another message arrived asking if I would like to join them on a two-day trip to Osogbo (Osun State, south west Nigeria but north of Lagos). The drive was my first thought…the Lagos-Ibadan expressway is notorious for excruciating delays. After talking with a friend who drives the road frequently, I was assured that most of the road, indeed, lived up to the name: “expressway,” and baring any accidents, the traffic flows fairly smoothly. My friend believed the drive from Lagos to Osogbo would be within a normal 4 to 5-hour range. So with that assurance, I accepted their kind invitation.

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 3.31.32 PM

After a few days with an early start, we headed for Osogbo. This would be my third visit to the area. The first was in 1977. Then, I met Susanne Wenger. In Lagos, there had been word of a white woman making sculptures that represented Yoruba traditional religion in an “enchanted” garden. A friend, Pam Fields, and I decided to make explore these claims. In those days, driving to Osogbo was by way of a two-lane road. Armed robbery was non-existent. The worse fear was to have a problem with the car and no way to communicate with Lagos except from a hotel phone. Then, the trip could not be completed in one day. Our trip would take us through Abeokuta to stop at the indigo dye pits and juju market, spend the night Ibadan and attend the theatre at University of Ibadan (at the time, well-known for its drama department). Then to Osogbo, Ile-Efe and spend another night in Ibadan. Needless to say, in those days, there was much advanced preparation for a Nigerian road-trip.

P1010807

Once Pam and I found the Groves in Osogbo, we were pointed in a particular direction toward the forest where we came across Susanne Wenger. We chatted for a short while and she directed us to the Osun River to follow a path that included several of her sculptures. Making our way back to the road, we did not meet Wenger again. I remember that we were unimpressed and disappointed but thirty-seven years later on my next trip to Osogbo, that was not the case.

P1010712

 

In 2014, I set out following the Campbell’s car; we had mobile phones, bottled water, air-conditioned 4-wheel drive vehicles and a paved four-lane road with a possibility to arrive in Osogbo within four hours! I fully documented that trip on February 2014 See: Òşun Sacred Grove and Forest, February 2014 and  Osun Osogbo Grove , Obelisque Magazine, January, 2015.

So it was on an impulse that I commenced on the third visit to Osogbo, forty years after my first visit:

IMG_2161

mosque on way to Osogbo

Nike’s Guesthouse is a hub for visitors to Osogbo:

 

Asking for blessings….shrines of Osogbo

IMG_2133

Olukun at Kasali, work-carver’s compound

IMG_2131

Ogun Shrine, God of Iron

P1010604

P1010610

shrine for wood-carvers and blacksmiths

P1010634

P1010636

Susanne Wenger mentorship in the 1960’s encouraged local artist such as Rabiu Abesu and Kasali Akangbe-Ogun.

Wood carvings, art from ancestors, the prolific wood-carver Rabiu Abesu (b. 1940) expresses vividness of beauty and power through inner revelations that finds it way from thought to reality on wood.

 

 

IMG_2150

Mask and sculpture above by Rabiu. Kiki in silhouette

Kasali Akangbe-Ogun (b. 1945) comes from a line of professional wood-carver. Internationally known,  his  sculptures reflect the intrinsic culture and emphasize symbols and figures of Yoruba gods. Akangbe Ogun’s  uses omo wood (similar to mahogany). The wood is cured for seven years.Deborah Bell explains in Mask Makers and Their Crafts that Akangbe Ogun, “cuts the trunk vertically in half. He began his carving by paying homage to his ancestors and other divinities. The completed carving would eventually take an oil polish that darkens the color and makes it termite-proof.”

IMG_2125

some wood carvings at Kasali’s workshop

 

Kasali Akangbe-Ogun’s workshop:

 

 

Fields of art – the Groves. Susanne Wenger’s work survives due to a host of hands that over sixty years have committed one thing or another to protect and promote sculpture in honor of Yoruba traditional religion. Robin and Hugh Campbell have been warriors in keeping this UNESCO Heritage site viable. They do the heavy lifting of promotion, protection, rehabilitation, organization, and fundraising. See their recent fundraiser, Save Our Art, November 2016.

 

P1010668

20171207_124101

Toyin and I at entrance of the Groves

See Nigeria Magazine article by Susanne Wenger and meaning of her sculpture:

Susanne Wenger at 100  (1915-2009) Nigeria Magazine ,Gods and Myths in Susanne Wenger’s Art: The Example of Batik Cloth by Stanley P. Bohrer and Susanne Wenger Alarape Nigeria Magazine, 1976, Issue 120

(all rights reserved, copyright 2017 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

 

Roman Glass in Britain (and Bida)

Bangels poster v2Tatiana Ivleva (see Global Glass website)contacted me out of the blue! She came across my journey in Bida, Nigeria. I had traveled to Bida in 2015 specifically to see the glass and brass handmade crafts and techniques, read about:  Bida: Bangles and Beads. Somehow Tatiana came across my post and contacted me through my website, nomad4now.com. Tatiana explained that her research involved the ancient craft of glass bangles particularly seamless Romano-British bangles.  She was most interested in Nigeria’s glass making tradition as it was similar to the Roman techniques. Titiana inquired if she might use a part of my video in her research and in this exhibition. The following video was released for the exhibition: Fashion Frontiers Glass Bangles of Roman North. Tatiana explains the process:

To see the entire process of the ancient and traditional craft of bead and bangle production in Bida view the next video, parts of which have been included in the exhibition video:

Glass making can be traced to the Ancient Egyptians about 3,500 years ago. The earliest archaeological finds of glass objects in Egypt date back to the reign of the Pharaoh Thutmosis III (1504-1459 BC). The most famous of these is the illustration in the Annals of Thutmose III at Kar- nak. (Paul T. Nicholson ,”Glass Vessels from the Reign of Thutmose III and a Hitherto Unknown Glass Chalice,” Journal of Glass, Vol 48, 2006.)  In the last century BC, glass blowing (see Egyptian glass blowers here) was invented in Syria or Mesopotamia which gave rise to a variety of glass objects during Roman times. Glassmaking , the process of making glass from sand and soda ash is said to originate in Egypt. However there are those that disagree and who have researched that the first true glass was made in coastal north Syria in the kingdom of Mitanni, Mesopotamia and brought to Egypt. (Paul T. Nicholson). 

The Bida glass makers in their oral history repeat that their ancestors came from Egypt via Chad, the Bornu Empire and migrating from Kano to finally settle with the Nupe area thus bringing with them the knowledge of glassmaking.

Camel caravans from Kano and Timbuktu carried goods —indigo, salt, ivory, gold to name a few—for thousands of years that interconnected the world by the great trade routes. These historic caravans, particularly in the Sahara, Eurasia, and the Arabian peninsula were as much about trading as about communication. One of techniques communicated along the way was glass making.

DSC_1434

bracelets made in Bida, Nigeria using ancient glass making technique

Roman Finds Group (provides a forum in Roman artifacts.) Read about the exhibition at: http://www.romanfindsgroup.org.uk/exhibitions

During my journey along the Silk Road, I searched for evidence of glass making. Other than a reference in literature that ‘Arabs’ carried glass in caravans, I did not see evidence of ancient glass. Pottery shards and ceramic bowls were seen in museums as well as at archeological sites.  Glass would be difficult to transport, however,  why did the technique not travel into Central Asia? Or if it did why are there no surviving remnants of glass, glass making, or glass blowers?

Also see: Une Histoire de bracelets  https://archeoglass.jimdo.com

Tribute to Neil Hewison: 31 years at AUC Press

How to describe a friend of nearly twenty years?  Actually, I first met Neil in a professional capacity when the former director of AUC Press, Marc Linz, accepted to publish Cairo The Family Guide, in 1998. During that project, I got to know Neil as a person who was unsparingly generous with his expertise. Over the years, we became friends and I discovered things such as his love for gingerbread and the Egyptian dessert, Om Ali. As years passed, I knew Neil as an avid nature and wildlife photographer, Fayoum farmer, intrepid birdwatcher, Arab literature translator, elephant enthusiast, fellow adventurer, meticulous editor, desert explorer and generous friend. My favorite book that Neil translated (which I have read four times and has all the qualities of a riveting opera) , is The Wedding Night by Yusef Abu Rayya.

Neil’s life spans from England to Egypt to New Zealand brings together many adventures, friends and colleagues. This post and short video is to add to those voices in saying thank you to Neil for his years at American University in Cairo Press.  A sincere and deep wish to Neil that retirement is all and more than his thirty-one years at The Press .

DSC01946

On an American Research Centre Egypt trip to Tanzania.

For more about Neil’s career read: Here’s to you Neil! (October 2017 e-Newsletter)

Read:  Celebrating Neil Hewison: An Excerpt from His Translation of ‘City of Love and Ashes’ by Marcia Lynx Qualey, freelance cultural journalist at Arabic Literature in English

Read:  5 Books: Neil Hewison’s Most Memorable Books from 31 Years at AUC by Marcia Lynx Qualey, freelance cultural journalist at Arabic Literature in EnglishPress

The photo credits and link to the events and photograph in the video are listed below. The e-newsletter and event photographs used in this video are credited to Ingrid Wassmann,

http://www.aucpress.com/t-newsarchiveitem.aspx?NewsID=238

http://www.aucpress.com/t-newsarchiveitem.aspx?NewsID=283

http://www.aucpress.com/t-enewsletter-MonaPrince-February2015.aspx?

http://www.aucpress.com/t-eNewsletter-NeilHewison-October2017.aspx?

http://www.aucpress.com/t-eNewsletter-MargoVeillonGallery.aspx?template=template_enewsletter

http://www.aucpress.com/t-eNewsletter-BookFestivalZaghloul-June2012.aspx?template=template_enewsletter

http://www.aucpress.com/t-eNewsletter-GrandHotelsEvent-March2012.aspx?template=template_enewsletter

http://www.aucpress.com/t-eNewsletter-MuseumStorePhotoGallery-January2011.aspx?template=template_enewsletter

http://www.aucpress.com/t-eNewsletter-BookFairAuthorsGallery.aspx?template=template_enewsletter

http://www.aucpress.com/t-enewsletter-djd-may2012.aspx

The Final Stretch – Karakalpakstan

 

DSC_0771

“Karavan” – 1926 by Alexander Volkov (1888-1957) , style: Uzbekistan avant-guard. At Savitskiy Karakalpakstan Art Museum

Karakalpakstan is in the western region of Uzbekistan

Sep 29 Darvaza • drive to Kunya Urgench • Nukus, Uzbekistan
Sep 30 Nukus
Oct 1-2 drive to Urgench • Khiva• Tashkent
Oct 3 Depart Tashkent for Cairo

IMG_0864

Map from Central Asia, Lonely Planet p. 140

Crossing the border from Turkmenistan was the easiest of the bureaucratic borders yet. The autonomous region of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan was created partially from the ancient lands of Khorezm and ceded to Russia Empire in 1873 by Khanate of Khiva. Karakalpakstan people are ethnically diverse Turkic speaking group who, though originally nomadic hunters and fishers, in the recent past did migrate seasonally with their cattle. All that came to an end with the Soviet imposed widespread cotton farming fed based on irrigation from rivers mainly the Amu Darya which fed into the Aral Sea, which eventually turned into an environmental disaster for the region.

DSC_0820

“Cotton Picking” 1935 by A.A. Shpadi, Contemporary Kalakalpastan at Sarvitskiy Kalakalpastan Art Museum,

At the end of September, the cotton fields during harvest.

The ancient region of Khorezm or Khorasmia, as it was known to the ancient Greeks, covers the region of Karakalpakstan and the border region of Turkmenistan. Khorezm was a kingdom of the Achaemenids in the fifth and fourth century BCE. Zoroastrianism religion, originated in the region of present-day Iran, spread through Central Asia. Situated on the banks of the Amu Darya river in Karakalpakstan is the Chilpik, an ancient Zoroastrian Tower of Silence thought to be the earliest example of the traditional funerary ritual, constructed somewhere between the first century BCE and 1st century CE.

DSC_0831

Ancient Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, Chilpak

The only reason to visit Nukus was to visit the Savitsky Karakalpakstan Art Museum. Actually,  this journey had two must see destinations: the crossing over Torugart Pass from China to Kyrgyzstan to see Tash Rabat caravanserai and the Savitskiy Collection. The first one was not accomplished due to the Chinese closing the border so I was determined that I would not miss arriving in Nukus. It is not an easy place to visit and coming from Turkmenistan, I began to worry that something would happen to detain me. But my worrying was unfounded and I had the entire day reserved only for the museum visit.

Opened in 1966, the museum houses a collection of over 82,000 items, ranging from antiquities from Khorezm to Karakalpak folk art, Uzbek realism and avant-guard collection and, uniquely, the second largest number of Russian avant-guard paintings in the world, the largest being in St. Petersburg. All of these artworks are by Soviet dissidents, literally saved by the fearless imagination and tireless energy of one man, Igor Savitskiy.

FullSizeRender

Igor Savitskiy (1915-1984) buried in the Russian Cemetery in Nukus. Bronze statue presented by local Karakalpastan artist, D. S. Razebaev. Epitaph reads: Everything fades only a star does not perish.

The Russian painter, archeologist and collector, Igor Savitskiy (1915-1984), was a student from 1941-1946 at the Surikov Institute, Moscow. During  WWII the Institute was evacuated to Samarkand, thus starting Savitskiy’s discovery of Central Asia. He first visited Karakalpakstan in 1950-1957 to participate in the Archeological & Ethnographic Expedition headed by the world renown scientist Professor Sergei Pavlovian Tolstov that uncovered the ancient civilisation in Khorezm. Savitskiy explored Karakalpakstan collecting the history and folk arts of this unknown population living in the desert. During this period he literally walked across vast areas of northern Karakalpakstan and started a collection of dying folk arts, jewellery, embroidery, woven textiles, stamped leather and carved wood and clothing as well as coins and carpets eventually number at least 7000 pieces. He trained Karakalpak artists and convinced the authorities that Karakalpakstan needed an art museum and he was appointed director in 1966. He gave up painting claiming that one should not combine the two and dedicated himself to expansion of the museum. In the meantime, Savitskiy managed to fall foul of Stalin’s rules about what was and was not acceptable art. Somehow he avoided exile or imprisonment; he achieved it by self-banishment to a far edge of Soviet empire, Karakalpakstan. Savitskiy could not stand by and watch Russian art of the early 20th century perish, he began to conceive of the idea to rescue tens of thousands of works by forgotten or forbidden artists banned as formalist to the safety of Nukus. through friends and contacts in the art world, he made dangerous visits to view works which had been painted in the 1920-30s and then, when they dropped out of political favour, had been hidden from public view. With no money of his own he depended on persuading the artists to have them sent to a safe house in faraway, unknown Nukus. He amassed an incredible 90,000 paintings by artists.

See Website: Savitskiy Collection, Karakalpakstan Museum.

Watch the Movie, can buy it on ITUNES or find it on You-Tube: The Desert of Forbidden Art https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pGX7kKrutpY

Read: New York Times: Desert of Forbidden art.

A few examples of art from the Savitskiy Collection:

DSC_0792

“An Uzbek man”-1926 by V.V. Rojdestvenskiy (1884-1963) Russian avant-guard

 

DSC_0741

“Provincial Actors in Bukhara” -1932 by Mikhail Kurzin, Uzbekistan avant-guard.

DSC_0729

” Laying water Pipes in Bukhara” by N.G. Karaxan (1900-1970)

Leaving Nukus we drive next along a rail line connecting Tashkent to Nukus; on the opposite side of the road are ruins of an ancient castle perched atop a dramatic mesa like mountain. The remains of this ancient fortress, the walls were standing when Alexander the Great and his armies passed by en route to India the drive to Ugrench crosses the Amu Darya River (Oxus River in biblical times ) The river is at the centre of the scandal over excessive water use for cotton irrigation that has virtually dried up the Aral Sea.

Arriving Khiva was not as picturesque as Savitskiy had painted it in

DSC_0711

“Outskirts of Khiva” by Igor Savitskiy (1915-1984)

Sherizod, the driver, pulled the car up to the hotel that was across the road from the Khiva  fortress walls,  dusted in a rosy light. IMG_4809Khiva has an inner and outer city. Those living in the inner walls are not so many these days but if a person from the inner city of Khiva dies outside the walls, they cannot be buried inside the fortress. Thus, people from the inner city were buried on the walls of the fortress, as close as possible to their homes. Another advantage for the people in the fortress was the perception that invading armies did not advance through graveyards as it was a sign of misfortune.

Khiva, the first site in Uzbekistan to be included in theWorld Heritage List is said to be founded by Noah’s son, Sham, who discovered a water well but archaeologist put the origins of the well  in the 6th century CE. In Khiva’s heyday , which did not come until the 16th century, it was the capital of Khanate of Khiva that feuded with Bukhara and Kokhand. For three centuries , Khiva was the most lucrative slave market of Central Asia. Today, it is more like walking through a movie set or a Middle Ages theme park with restaurants, camel photos and touristic trinkets sold along the main thoroughfare.

Maybe Khiva needs a respite from its bloody history…in the 1700s Tsarist Russia sent 4000 troups to Khiva where they were massacred and for the revenge in 1873, Russia sent 13000 troops to descend on Khiva and massacred the city. In 1740 the ancient fortress of Khiva was destroyed by the Persians. In 1920 the Bolsheviks absorbed Khiva as they did with all the Khanates into the Soviet Union.
In an environment of such of harsh history it is perhaps surprising that Khiva should produce a world renowned scientist, Al Khorezmi who developed the theory of algorithms and algebra in his seminal work Al Jebr.DSC_0848

One thing is for sure, Khiva can boast about the sweetest melons:

Captain Frederick Burnaby, in his 1876 book A Ride to Khiva, made similar observations:Melon traders would shovel up snow and ice during winter and store it in deep underground cellars. Then in summer the most succulent melons were packed with ice and placed in large lead containers. These were then heaved onto camels to journey across the deserts to the banqueting tables of the Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of Peking and the Mogul rulers of Northern India.
Burnaby had the good fortune of tasting an aged Khorezm melon in the middle of a Khiva winter. “Anyone accustomed to this fruit in Europe,” he wrote, “would scarcely recognize its relationship with the delicate and highly perfumed melons of Khiva.” He added that “throughout the winter, melons are preserved according to an old method where they are put into straw or net bags and then hung from the ceiling of a special warehouse called a kaunkhana [qovunxona, or melon house].”- Excerpt from “In Search of Ibn Battuta’s Melon”, AramcoWorld, Nove/Dec 2015

DSC_0818

“Old man with a Melon” -1935 by G. Jeglou (1935-2010)Contemporary Karakalpakstan

An impressive view of the town is from the open air pavilion at the top of the Khulna Ark. The Ark, like the one in Bukhara, was a fortress within a fortress; the Khan of Khiva’s palace., his harem, a mosque, reception, and guest rooms, throne room, mint, horse and camel stables, barracks for guards and a jail. The whole complex is now a museum where particularly on the verandah of the Summer Mosque , the mosaic ceramic tiling, carved wooden columns and painted ceilings are some of the most beautiful in Central Asia.

See Then and Now photographs of Khiva at “The Journey to Khiva”.

DSC_0720

“Domes of Khiva” , Igor Savitskiy

DSC_0902

Same view of “Domes of Khiva”

On the last night of this great journey, I was invited for dinner to the home of a family from Khiva. Dinner was served in a traditional setting, sitting around a low table on the floor. My hosts  were retired historians, I was honoured to learn about their work in education, their traditional life of customs and their growing concern for the youth. My last meal in Central Asia…plov and samosa…delicious!

FullSizeRender

DSC_0799

“Still Life, Pilaff (plov)” by M. I Kurzin (1888-1957) Uzbekistan avant-guard

On October 3rd, I boarded Turkish Airline and headed to Cairo…arriving at Ithaka:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

-C.P. Cavafy

(all rights reserved, copyright 2017 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

4000 years in 7 days-Turkmenistan

 

IMG_0759

Darvaza Gas Crater, Karakum Desert

Sep 23 Bukhara • drive to Mary, Turkmenistan
Sep 24-26, Mary and surrounding area
Sep 27-28, Ashgabat
Sep 28 drive to Darvaza
Sep 29 • drive to Kunya Urgench • Nukus, Uzbekistan

DSC_0271

Map from National Geographic, “Caspian Sea”, 1999. Black line is the route through Turkmenistan and the green circle is the are of ancient Merv and the Gonur-Depe.

An early morning departure from Bukhara and on the road to the Turkmenistan border, the most important stop before the border was to find a toilet, for there was no way of knowing if facilities would be available at the crossing. Abdu, my guide, directed Sherizod, our driver, to stop as what looked like a restaurant/hotel. As soon as the car stopped, we heard loud music coming from the building. Since the time was 9am, I assumed a wedding party was just coming to a close…but I was wrong, it was a breakfast party to celebrate the 60th birthday of a well-known local man. In true Uzbek hospitality, the group of men standing outside insisted we join the celebrations. We were ushered to a table filled with delicacies of plov and samosa, meats, salads and fruits; music played to welcome us and we soon met the honoree. After many pictures and congratulations were had, we set off with handfuls of sweets for the border crossing. After several hours of typical border red tape, I was in Turkmenistan!

After crossing the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, I was met by my guide, Elias, a native of Merv. Elias’s first comment was to reassure me that he and his ancestors were quite harmless and sincerely friendly. He insisted that he should not be judged by the local proverb: “If on the road you meet a viper and a Mervi, kill the Mervi first, and the viper afterwards.”

Being sufficiently reassured that I was in safe hands,  I turned my thoughts to Turkmenistan, a flat, dry country dominated by the Karakum Desert with ancient civilisations buried beneath the moving sands. IMG_4594

Turkmenistan consists of five major Turkmen tribes and is also a country to delight any anthropologist or archaeologist.

DSC_0252

Five tribes:are Teke (Tekke), Yomut (Yomud), Ersari (Ärsary), Chowdur (Choudur) and Saryk (Saryq), on Turkmenistan flag

In Turkmenistan, I would visit civilisations spanning from 2300 BCE at Gonur-depe to the 11th to the 16th century CE monuments of Kunya-Urgench. Turkmenistan went the same route as Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan first colonized by Russian tsarist in 1881 and Sovietised from 1917, with Stalin drawing the countries borders in 1934. Watch this 1972 movie, “The Daughter in Law”, about life in Turkmenistan after WWII.  The photographs that follow are things that are still present in village everyday life:  felt rug, yurt,the vessel for tea, saksaul branches (Haloxylon, See http://webdoc.sub.gwdg.de/ebook/dissts/Koeln/Annaklycheva2002.pdf, page 68), reed mats, dowry chest.(run cursor over pictures for information.) The abundance of saksaul branches demonstrates the wealth of a family.

 

 

The first town after the border crossing is Turkmenabat, the area in which caravans crisscrossed from the Karakum desert and agricultural land of Uzbekistan. The river Amu-Darya (River Oxus), provided a natural resource to sustain travellers making their way to and from the Caspian Sea (see map). The Silk Road was in its decline when Genghis Khan’s army invaded the area in 1221 and levelled the city, Turkmenabat, which was known, then, as Amul.  Then from the north, more invasions from Timur and his armies. During this time, the Song Dynasty (960-1279CE) was vying with the Arabs trading by sea routes diverting goods from overland trading, another reason that destabilised the caravan routes. But still today, there are remnants of the many caravanserai that rise above cotton fields along the road to Mary (Mari) and the ancient city of Merv; the direction, south, that we are headed.

Remains of caravanserai in the area of Merv:

P1020647

Merv was a crossroads of the world religions. Christians (see photo of Nestorian church below), lived side by side with Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Manicheans.

Merv stood on the crossroads of the main routes of the Great Silk Road. Routes through Merv went in a number of directions: north to Khorezm (through the Karakum Desert or to Bukhara); east to Termez (near Afghanistan); southwest to present day Iran; and west to Nisa (ancient Parthian city near Ashgabat). The Merv channel from the north imports of such products as wax, honey, and furs came. From the southern route connected land and sea routes enabling the intensification of trade with Arabia.

 

During the Russian tsar era, a fortress was built around 1881 and  Turkmenabat became known as Charjou. For me, Turkmenabat is a rest stop to recover at a restaurant straight from the 1970 world of disco equipped with dance floor and 360degree revolving mirror. After some Lagman soup, another two-hours drive and we enter Mary (Mari), a former settlement for the Tekke Turkmen tribe that surrendered to the Russian tsar in 1884.

The significance of Mary is the proximity to the earliest history in the Merv Oasis: the 4000 year old complex of the Gonur-depe, medieval Merv, and the intersection of four caravan roads in the Silk Road. Gonur-depe was the capital of one of the great but little known ancient civilisations. The earliest history of the Merv Oasis in former delta of the River Murghab can be traced to the Bronze Age culture, 2300-1700 BCE. Over 4000 years of its history the cities at this site have borne different names in different periods – Mouru, Margush, Mariana, Merv, Mary – and these made an impact on the development of Central Asia.

Uncovered by Soviet archaeologists in the mid-20th century, the fortress town of Gonur-Depe was once a thriving center of a Zoroastrian civilization populated by thousands. The Bronze Age site dating back to around 2000 BC was surrounded by strong fortress walls, and made up of adobe homes and buildings, the remnants of which are still subsiding in this rural corner of Turkmenistan located about 45 miles north of Merv.

In Gonor-Depe the remains of a variety of Zoroastrian sites were discovered, including a palace, a Zoroastrian fire temple, and a necropolis. Zoroastrianism is the religion founded by Zoroaster, who lived in Persia sometime between 1000 and 600 BCE.  Fire is seen by Zoroastrians as pure and sacred, and is the central element in their temples.DSC_0185

DSC_0192

Elias, myguide, at Gonur -Depe

DSC_0176

Chariot wheels and bronze pot and camel skeleton

The Murghab river oasis was occupied at least as far back as the beginning of the first millennium BCE although the earliest structures at Merv date to the early Achaemenid period (sixth to fight century BCE). Merv known as Margiana or Margushe in Alexander the Great’s time by the end of the second century BCE Margiana fell under Parthian control. It was considered religiously liberal with populations of Nestorian Christians,

DSC_0155

Nestorian Christian church, Nestorianism is the Christian doctrine identified with Nestorius (386–451), patriarch of Constantinople.

Buddhists and Zoroastrian. Merv reached its peck of trade between 11th and 12th century when the Seljuk Turks made it their capital.

People I met at the ancient monuments of Merv on pilgrimage from different parts of Turkmenistan. (Move cursor over picture for information about the various monuments.)

 

Zuleyha is from the Beluch tribe that moved to southern Turkmenistan from their ancestral  community in Iran about four generations ago. The Baluch in this region have retained many aspects of their material and social culture. I asked Zuleyha about the embroidery on her robe and she said that it was store bought. She said that the women use to embroider their robes but no one has the time or interest to do so now.

LTID7682

Some monuments at ancient Merv site:

 

Ashgabat, the ‘city of love’ and monumental marble buildings and capital of Turkmenistan is not far from the Iranian border.  One of the visa requirements was to purchase a ticket to the Asian Games being held during my journey there, so off I went to the ballroom dancing competition and to my surprise (or maybe not so surprising), Lebanon was the only Middle Eastern country competing!

P1020902

 

20170926_121734Before leaving Ashgabat, a visit to Nisa,  the first seat of central government of the Parthians.(reigned c. 250 BC–211 BC):

 

 

 

And a visit to a centre for horse breeding of the Akhalteke race horse, Turkmenistan’s prize breed, that has application to the UNESCO for inclusion of the breed in the World Heritage list:

 

 

 

Ring of fire in the Karakum desert: human error creates mesmerizing nights in the desert…

DSC_0496From Ashgabat to Konya-Urgrench to cross the border back into Uzbekistan takes us through the Davaza Gas Craters.  Elias describes the road as the worst road in the world. Definitely, the drive was difficult not only because of the pot holes but the camels walking down the middle and across the road. We are headed to a camp grounds provided by the government. The yurt or tent accommodations are on a first come/first serve. The jeep turned off-road and on a sandy piste to the crater, which takes experienced driver as the way is not marked. Roman, our driver, is superior at his skill and luckily,  a first-class mechanic and barbecue expert! First stop, however, is the village of Yerbint, which gives a glimpse of rural life in the desert.

Elias asks around to find if felt rugs are for sale though not for tourist consumption, he finds a lady willing to sell her rugs. The patterns in the felt rugs (see Kyrgyzstan to watch how felt is made) are handed down from generation to generation. When bargaining is finished, one young boy reminded his mother that he had helped her roll the rug and slyly asked if there would be any profit for him. Little did I know that Elias’s insistence on this purchase would save be from a bitter cold night in the desert, not only an authentic piece of work but also I pulled the rug over me against the raw desert night air.

FullSizeRender

Felt rug , pattern handed down for generations, centre is the Zoroastrian ring of fire surround the four seasons, the rams on either side signify wealth and the borders are the moving sand.

The Darvaz gas craters are a human mistake during the Soviet era gas exploration  but nonetheless, it draws tourists from Ashgabat. Roman explains that most tourists make the 3 hour drive to watch night fall at the crater only to return the same night through the ‘worst road in the world!’ This crater had been set alight in 1971 since the collapse of an underground cavern of natural gas. Engineers set it alight to prevent the spread of methane gas but it has never stopped burning. The diameter of the crater is 69 metres, and its depth is 30 metres.

 

 

 

In the morning we break camp early to cover another rough road to the Uzbekistan border with enough time to explore the monuments at Konye-Urgench, which was once  the centre of the Islamic world. P1030064P1030061

Meet Elias Djumyev, my guide (on left) in Turkmenistan and Roman, expert driver.IMG_0786 (1)

 

(all rights reserved, copyright 2017 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)