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xEurasia Odyssey

Paikent, an ancient Sogdian city

UZBEKISTAN | Tuesday, 20 August 2013 | Views [3544]

Ark and me

Ark and me


Paikent, a major commercial city of the Sogdian Empire

 We drove out to the archeological site of one of the most ancient and important trading centers in the region, Paikent.  This was a major trading center before Bukhara took over, and was still active until about the 13th C.  By the time the Mongols invaded in 1220, it had already completed its over fifteen hundred year lifespan.  The city was an impressive and important commercial center when Alexander arrived in the area, and he had a few skirmishes with the Sogdians.

We don’t know much about the origins of this group of people, but the general theory is that they are the synthesis from the late Bronze Age Sapelli and Aryan cultures. According to the small local guidebook:


            …Muhammad Narshahi writes that Paikend ismore ancient than Bukhara and tells the legend about the rule of one of Paikend tsars by the name of Abrui.  He was very cruel. All of people had to move to Tolass valley where they founded the town of Hamukat (Djamukat). In Bukhara language“Hamak” means pearl and “Kat” means town.  People in Bukhara also called nobles “Hamuk”.  Abrui began to threat Bukhara nobles as well.  Then“dehkans” the representatives of landlords addressed Turkic kagan for help. The son of Turk ruler Ser and Kishvar arrived at Paikend, took Abrui into prison and killed him by putting him into a lage sack filled by red bumble-bees. Sher and Kishvar began to rule this country.” (6)


(I am purposely leaving the translation the way it appears in the guide book to give you a sense of how English is spoken here, when it is spoken.  Russian would be a much more useful language to have as you can tell from the use of "tsar" for ruler.)

 The guidebook relates that the other Arabic sources mention a large lake in the area fed by the Zarafshan River. “Different creatures densely populated the lake and your couldn’t catch more birds and fish anywhere in Horasan {Khorasom].” (8) There are no remaining traces of the lake or river, although an irrigation canal does run by the side of the ark.

As this was a center for trade, the population was quite diverse and multiple religions co-existed, even after the Arab Invasion. This was a center for Zoroastrianism, and a large fire temple is said to be under or near the remnants of a 9th C minaret, for Nestorian Christianity, for Manichaeism, for Buddhism, as well as for other indigenous faiths. Zoroastrianism and Christianity, however, did appear to be the two  major religions in the area. There is some speculation that the rulers may have been Christian, or at least Christian supporters, as more crosses have been found here than at any other Central Asian site and the “Persian poet Firdouci in “Shahname” (The Book of the Shahs) said that Kay Hosrov built a Fire Temple in Paikent where the holy book “Avesta” was written in gold.”(8)

When we started to walk across the scrubby sands we couldn’t help but walk on pottery shards.  They are literally everywhere.  The chipped pieces still showed various design patterns, some still had glaze designs, and a few had traces of paint from frescoes.  The Zoroastrian fresco from the Bukhara museum was found here at Paikent. We also came across a number of sea shells in the Citadel, which must have come with the trade routes as this area is nowhere near the sea.

 From the distance we could see people working in a section about a half kilometer away and slowly made our way over to them. On the way, we came across two fairly large sections that had been partially excavated that we hadn’t noticed before.  From the canals for water drainage that were evident, the brick street and the general layout, I guessed this section was from about the 3-4th C CE. It turns out it was from the 4th.  (yes, I know it’s a small personal victory, but we get our kicks however we can.)

 As we walked, we were on top of the walls of the mud houses and it was inevitable that the dirt slipped under our feet in the heat of the day when everything simply crumbles.  I don’t think we did any damage, but it is probably a good thing that no one comes out here.  Our translator, Kamola, had never been here and Kahramon, who is doing double duty as our guide and driver, hadn’t been here in four years and then only once. It is a bit off the major routes, but the site is incredible.

 When we made it across the dirt, hardback mud and sand dunes to the workers, we found they were the day laborers shoveling away sand from the walls of the ark, the citadel, the oldest part of the city.  We learned that a Russian archeologist was on site in another section so we made our way over to that area, which was probably another half kilometer in a different direction.  When we got there we found a young woman with a rather large Aussie hat squatting down directing a couple of men with shovels.  She didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Russian, so we had to converse via Kamola’s translation.  This is her first year at the site, her research is sponsored by the Hermitage Foundation, and they had just recently found what they think is a 9th -10th C bathhouse. When I explained what I was looking for, namely pre-Islamic goddesses, she said that we were in the wrong region and needed to go back to the citadel.  Then she went over to the neck of a jar that was almost still fully covered with dirt and brushed off a bit of the grey stuff so that a five-pointed star became visible. Before we left she turned to show us tomorrow’s project, namely unearthing a two jars, one that has collapsed onto the other that are stuck in a wall.  I think this young scholar has found her life’s work as it will take that long for even a section of this site to be investigated.

 We hiked back over pieces of pottery, scrub and sand trying to watch out for any slithering creatures coming out of the holes in the ground, and up the still rather steep walls of the ark. As with many of these excavations, when one doesn’t have the artifacts that have been uncovered in their proper place, it is difficult to imagine what actually transpired in the various rooms and on the passageways, and whether the circular structures were all wells or something else.  But the sheer size of the place is impressive.  As I was going around, I finally saw the big round section that the archeologist called the minaret. It is supposed to be built on a Zoroastrian temple and given the other structures around it that would seem to make sense.  The ark is the highest point in the area and was the center of the town.  Surrounding the ark was the Shakana, the section for craftsmen and the wealthy, surrounding them were the farmers and laborers. All of them were surrounded by the outer walls, which are said to have covered 250 hectares.  It was a huge site. The walls were 5m. thick and 20 m. high from the outside, but the floor of the city was lower than the outside making it impossible for them to be scaled. When the city was conquered it was because someone dug a tunnel underneath rather than climbed them.  When the Arabs came they destroyed all the Zoroastrian and “pagan” artifacts that they considered idolatrous. In there place they built a mosque, a minaret, and at least three royal palaces all within the ark. 

 The death knell for the city was when the Amu Darya river changed course away from the region.  Without water, desertification took over. Now, after 1500 years of glory, there is nothing but dirt, sand, and broken pottery. Greek, Chinese, Persian poets and writers all spoke about the beautiful and wonderful city of Paikent that rivaled Bukhara as a trading center. The winds of time have hidden these images from our view.

But that is why we have museums…. In the museum by the village, I was finally able to find a couple of votive figures, a tiny head of a Buddha, and a great ceramic mousetrap complete with movable door.  In the picture gallery, I also included a few of the bowls and pieces of pottery with wonderful designs that are indicative of the various periods. The director of the museum personally gave us the tour of the four rooms that are nicely laid out.  He spoke with great affection for just about every piece in the exhibit and was clearly very proud of his unique site.  His demeanor reminded me of the wonderfully animated caretaker at Villa San Marco in Stabia.

 Both of them are living their passion and it shows with the care they take with their sites as well as with their explanations of them. 

Paikent in its current condition has not yet yielded its secrets to us.  They remain hidden, but Anahita, the ancient goddess of this region, is below that 4th C level, I know she is….

Addendum:  Back in Bukhara I went in search of a book in English on the archeological sites in Uzbekistan.  They had a small paperback at the museum in Paikent, but I’d run out of money, it cost Uzbek Som 20,000 (which is about U.S. $18.50) and I didn’t have that much with me, so couldn’t get it.  I figured I could find it or something similar in Bukhara, but unfortunately didn’t. I was only able to get the one book they sell on the monuments of the major cities, which is useful to correct any mistakes I make from the notes I take at the sites, but doesn’t help with the archeological and petroglyph sites.  While I was in the bookstore, which was in the back of a woodcarving shop for tourists, (apparently books are in less demand than trinkets), I explained to the owner, who spoke a little English what I was looking for. He said all those books were in Russian and proceeded to give me a nice hardcover book on Russian archeological finds.  There are a few excellent pictures in there and the owner let me take photos of them. Then he gave me another book, that he had opened to the appropriate pages so that I could take photos of those as well. The figures weren’t found in Uzbekistan, but at least two, maybe three, were found somewhere in Turkmenistan. I can’t read the Russian text, but Kamora will translate where they were found for me.  He also had a copy of Turkmenbashi’s “Ruhnama” in English, which I found fairly amazing as it isn’t being printed any longer. 




 The guidebook was "Ancient Paikent: The Residence of Bukhara Rulers" Tashkent 2002 (There is no other publication information in the booklet.)





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