Another Archeological Excursion

The Karakhans were a Turkic, nomadic group that were displaced from the Mongolia/China border area into what is now Kyrgyzstan around the 8th century AD (right when Navekat was in it’s prime).  They settled down into permanent settlements and officially became the regional power when they sacked the treasury of the existing power, the Samanids, next door in Uzbekistan in 999 AD.  The Karakhanids had four capitals, the most important of which were Uzgend (still a populated place down by Osh City in the South) and Balasagun.

Conveniently for me and my limited budget, the site where Balasagun once stood, now referred to as Burana, is less than 20 miles from Kengesh.  Taking advantage of that fact, Marguerite, Angie, Maija, and I checked it out this weekend.

We caught a mashrutka for a half-hour ride to the city of Tokmok and negotiated a taxi get us out to the site, to wait for us while we tourist-ed it up for a couple of hours, and to take us back.  The whole excursion cost 700 soms ($12.00) split four ways.

Frederick S. Starr’s “Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane” was one of my pre-move-to-Kyrgyzstan-history-research-books and talks a little bit about Balasagun and the site:

Balasagun had a densely built-up urban core (shahristan) with high walls that encompassed a rectangular area of fifty acres and were fully sixty-five feet thick at the base[…] A mile and a half farther out was a second wall that protected the commercial area or rabat, with probably a third wall beyond that.

Much, including the main mosque, remains to be discovered and excavated at Balasagun, although, being a flat site that has long been plowed, much has also been destroyed.  What is known for certain is that at the heart of the urban core or shahristan stood two mausoleums as at Uzgend, in all probability also memorials to Karakhanid rulers.  At Balasagun they were round structures, however, with domes or tent roofs.  Immediately adjoining them still stands a cylindrical tower or minaret, known today as Burana Tower.

Nowhere in Central Asia does one more vividly sense that one is on a major east-west thoroughfare than in this broad valley flanked by snow-capped mountains to the north and south.  As one arrives from the west, the topography seems to pull one eastward toward China, as the Chu Valley narrows and eventually turns into a gorge.  Reaching Balasagun from the east, however, medieval travelers would have felt that all Central Asia lay before them.

It was a pretty interesting place and well worth the five or so bucks it set me back to visit.

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The Burana Tower is the only recognizable structure left from the time of Balasagun and no one really knows why the Karakhanids built it, but Mr. Starr’s theory is basically “’cause they could.” 

 “Because the steppe-dwelling nomads lived in a horizontal world, they had always been fascinated by height.  They built tumuli over their dead that were as tall as possible, far taller in their original form than in their eroded state today.  How could such people not be inspired by the prospect of building brick towers that reach to the skies?”

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 It’s not every day you get to stand on top of a 1000 year old structure – with Maija and Margaurite.

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Some (I assume) old mill stones in the foreground, the remains of the mausoleums (I think) in the middle ground, and the Burana Tower (I’m definitely sure) in the back.

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 These balbals – Turkic grave memorial piers – had been collected all over Kyrgyzstan and placed on display. 

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About Cole Bedford