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From "Country of a Thousand Castles"

Remains of ancient settlements can be met in all the regions of Uzbekistan, but the Tashkent oasis particularly abounds in them. In ancient times the Tashkent oasis encompassed the historical principality of Chach, located on the right bank of the Syr Darya river in the Chirchik and Akhangaran rivers valley on the boundary of two worlds: the settled farming and nomadic cattle-breeding. The principality featured more than 50 urban settlements. The medieval authors wrote with fascination that neither Movarounnahr, nor Khorasan had such an abundance of well-planned towns and blooming gardens as Chach area, and many travelers called it "the country of a thousand castles".

Kanka, an ancient settlement One of the most interesting monuments of ancient town planning is located within 60 kilometres from Tashkent on the territory of present day Akkurgan region, where the Akhangaran river interflows with one of the largest Central Asian rivers - the Syr Darya river. This is Kanka – an ancient settlement. Historians identify these ruins as Kharashket - in the Middle Ages the second town after Tashkent in Chach area. It was located on one of the southern branches of the Great Silk Road, at a distance of one farsah that is about 6 kilometres, from the Syr Darya. Today Kanka site looks like a huge tract of hilly land. At its far edge, just above the slope, there towers 50-metre-high mud hill – the former citadel with remains of an ancient fortress. Beyond the slope there spreads out the dried bed of the river that long ago changed its course.

At first glance, the site layout shows resemblance to many other Central Asian ancient settlements: reaching the foot of the citadel there nestles the urban territory – shakhristan, surrounded by fortified outer city wall and suburbs- rabat lying beyond. But unlike many well-known sites, Kanka features three fortified walls with moats, thus having three shakhristans. Initially, the total area of Kanka, including the suburbs, was not less than 400 hectares. But already at the beginning of the last century the residential area, gardens and fields of nearby Korik village occupied the whole territory of rabat and virtually approached the fortified wall of so called Shakhristan III which in its layout approximated a perfect square with the length of its side exceeding 5 kilometres.

Through the surviving gate on the southern side of outer wall it is possible to enter the territory of this dead town. Meandering along the hollows formed by the hills, under which the outlines of streets and once densely built-up urban areas become apparent, the path reaches the second row of massive fortified wall with traces of huge watch towers. Forming a distinct rectangle the wall encloses the area of about 50 hectares. Inside this second shakhristan (Shakhristan II) there rises the third, even heavier line of giant fortified walls. Being surrounded by deep moat of 40 metres wide they seem impregnable. In its narrow passage, the central part of the wall features an entrance overlooked by a double row of towers. On the side of the inner town - the third shakhristan- there is a ramp spiraling down towards the moat. Most likely the ramp led to a lifting bridge.

Kanka The northern part of this most fortified part of the town accommodated a citadel occupying 6.5 hectares. At its highest point there was a castle with four towers. From this spot there opens up the panorama of the whole urban settlement with its sophisticated system of fortified walls, residential areas, streets and squares. The archeological excavations of the area adjacent to citadel north-western wall, which were conducted in the second half of the last century, revealed cultural layers about 20 meters deep. This pit can be observed to the present day. The walls were made of thick pakhsa (rammed earth) blocks alternating with adobe and baked brick settings; here and there one can see the traces of fire and earthquakes – the evidences of urban decay periods, as well as remedial fillings which mark the periods of the town's prosperity. The lowest cultural layer revealed a solid platform made of square bricks and projecting beyond the fortified wall, and numerous artifacts dating to the 4th-2nd centuries BCE. The research of these findings showed that the first constructions on Kanka site appeared not later than in the 3rd century BCE and the most intensive periods in the life of the settlement date back to the beginning of our era; later the urban life recovered in the 6th-8th centuries and after some lull, from the 10th century through late 12th century it was the biggest centre of crafts and trade.

Kanka siteThere are many legends and stories connected with this site. A popular belief says that in days of old there existed here a town-fortress Kandiz – the capital of legendary king Afrosiab from Turan. Other folk legends associate the name of Kanka site with ancient state of Kangha mentioned in Avesta hymns. In modern times some historians, guided by the fact that the Syr Darya riverbed is close to the site, made an assumption that the urban settlement Alexandria Eskhata (Alexandria the Farthest) described in the work of ancient Roman historian Arrian is located not in the vicinity of Khojent city in Tajikistan, but here, on Kanka site. According to Arrian the town was founded on the Jaxartes (modern Syr Darya) by Alexander the Great during his military campaign to Central Asia.

Many researches, however, believe that on Kanka site, under the thousand-year old strata, there is hidden the town-fortress known in Greek chronicles as Antiochia in Scythia (Antiochia Zayaksartskaya). As is known, following the death of Alexander the Great, his empire split into several parts. Out of Alexander's eastern conquests Seleucus – Alexander's companion-in-arms and one of his generals – established Seleucid Empire. Seleucus strengthened his position among the nobility of conquered lands by marrying Apama, the daughter of Sogdian king Spitamenes. Their son Antiochus I Soter was the co-ruler of his father's empire already in his young days and in 280 BCE he became the ruler of an enormous realm - the Greco-Bactrian kingdom which included Sogd, Bactria and territories in the Syr Darya river basin. The beginning of the 2nd century BCE was characterized by unrestrained movement of nomadic tribes from northern steppe regions southward, and destruction of Hellenistic fortresses. Antiochia Zayaksartskaya could not escape the common lot, though the town was not lost completely. On the contrary, it extended its boundaries twenty-fold. The fortress was rebuilt anew and reinforced and it became the core of the large urban settlement. Archeologists have all the grounds to identify Kanka settlement with town Yuni – the first capital of Kanguy State founded in the downstream part of the Syr Darya river and mentioned in the Chinese chronicles of the 2nd century BCE.

Townspeople as well as most of Chach population were fire worshippers and were the followers of Avesta. The evidence of this is terracotta statuettes of Zoroastrian goddess Anahit and mortuary clay urns – ossuaries discovered on the territory of the first and second shakhristans.

Local people were famed for their diligence; their lands were reputed for the fertile valleys. Historical chronicles recorded the following: "Chach people are good farmers. Their land bears wheat, barley, millet; there are many good horses here, too". Kanka was on the crossroads of caravan trails which connected Chach with China and Sogd, as well as steppe regions. No wonder this land of plenty was a tempting target for waves of invaders, and already several centuries later Kanguy tribes were forced out by semi-nomadic tribes of Hephtalites. At the end of the 5th century the town-fortress, in spite of the strong resistance of its defenders, fell to Turkic invaders and soon became a part of Turkic khanate. This powerful alliance of Turkic tribes subdued vast territories of Central Asia, and even China paid tribute to the khanate.

The excavation works in Kanka The excavation works in the central part of the fortress of Kanka settlement revealed square-shaped royal premises and some halls presumably serving as court sanctuary to worship fire in the 6th- 7th centuries. One of the halls was about 5 metres high and all along the walls there were sufa platforms. In the centre of the hall, on a dais, there stood an alter made in the form of a horse shoe. For years the priests tended to unquenchable fire: the alter contains considerable onsets of burnt surface and ashes, whereas in the corner of the sanctuary, between the sufas, there were revealed recessions with the bones of sacrificial animals and birds.

Inside and beyond the citadel archeologists found various articles made of ceramic, iron and bronze, parts of warrior's outfit, jewelry of pre-Arab period. Of great interest is a bronze belt buckle with relief image of a horseback warrior. Another valuable finding is a terracotta plate with relief image of a horse-rider armed with spear. These plastic miniatures allow envisaging the appearance of Turkic warriors of the 6th-7th century. They wore a beard and moustaches, their heads were protected by a spiked helmet crowned with plume. The warrior's attire was a robe and chain mail, whereas legs were protected by leather boots. The scientists were also impressed by a clay statuette of a wild boar in aggressive posture. Archeologists believe this to be the image of Veretragna, one of the divinities of Zoroastrian pantheon, the companion and protector of God Mithra and the deity of Victory and Glory.

At the beginning of the 8th century the Arabs conquered most of Central Asia. Population of Chach put up such a fierce resistance that the Arabs introduced a saying: "While crossing Chach raise the flaps of your robe high, because this is the country of devils, who put the governors to flight". Under the Arabs life in Kanka practically came to a standstill. The fire temple fell into neglect; the adobe walls of the citadel became dilapidated. The Arab governors from Caliphate, as well as local nobility, preferred to build castles beyond the second urban wall. Today the mud ruins of these castles, which are clearly noticeable in the third shakhristan, are pending further research.

Kanka settlement experienced its heyday under the dynasty of Karakhanids, who developed their state on a vast expanse from Khorezm to the Tien Shan mountains in late 10th century. It was in this period that Arabic traveler and geographer Al-Istarkhi mentioned Kharashket as a city on a brisk caravan trail from Chach to Sogd and other countries of the Middle and Near East. The citadel castle underwent certain reconstruction: the premises for the new ruler of Kharashket were rebuilt or redecorated. Archeologists discovered that 40-metre-high eastern ramp reached the main entrance leading to the inner courtyard paved with baked bricks. At the entrance there was special hall for ablution. Here archeologists found clay sufas, a hearth-fire with traces of ashes and charcoal, and two ceramic caldrons for cold and hot water. At the far end of the courtyard, opposite the entrance, there are remains of a covered terrace – aivan, the façade of which was finished off with baked bricks, whereas the plastered walls contain the fragments of a frieze decorated with ornamental fretwork. A double staircase led to the top of the citadel - a light structure resembling balakhana (balcony) and offering a spectacular view over the whole city and the Akhangaran river valley.

The palace premises were distinctly divided into ceremonial halls, living quarters and utility rooms. It should be noted that living quarters were heated with the help of caliducts connecting the rooms with special furnace chamber. In one of the pits on the territory of the citadel there were found numerous fragments of so called spherocones. Archeologists believe that these vessels contained mercury. However, another utilization of spherocones is also known: they were filled with combustibles, then fire was set to them and finally they were dropped from the top of the wall on the heads of the enemies. On the slopes of the citadel hill there were found the ruins of numerous utility structures to serve the residents of the castle, and not far away there spread the craftsman city quarter.

Kanka In the 10th -12th centuries Kharashket grew rapidly: there appeared new residential and craftsmen quarters, the city minted its own coins, and the third fortified wall was constructed. At the southern gate, where started arterial street leading to the citadel, archeologists excavated a monumental building of one of the Central Asian most ancient caravanserai. High wall of about 100 meters long with a tower at the gate encircled the spacious yard build up with hujjras (living spaces) along the perimeter. Each hujjra had an arched entrance. The portals of some hujjras still have burnt figured bricks characteristic for the 10th-11th century decoration, though main structures are made of the bricks widely spread in Chach in the 7th-8th centuries. These findings suggest that the caravanserai was functioning within several centuries. Cultural layers in the courtyard also contain signs of long-term keeping of pack animals. Next to the courtyard there were found spacious premises for storing goods. Evidence to the fact that Kharashket was a big trade centre at that period of time are the coins unearthed on the site, including Turkic coins of Chach, Karakhanid copper coins of the 11th century, as well as 23 dirkhems minted in 1030 by Muhhamad, son of Kadirkhan - the ruler of Tunket, which was located on the Akhangaran river bank not far from modern Almalyk.

Adjoining the caravanserai on the north there was an ample market square, and in the south-east, just behind the walls of caravanserai, there developed a big craftsmen quarter. Varied products by Kharashket masters were in great demand among the neighbouring nations, whereas local ceramic items were renowned far beyond Chach.

On the territory of Kharashket shakhristan there were unearthed several potteries of the 11th-12th century. Some of them specialized in making simple, unglazed plates and jugs, as well as oil lamps - chiroks for common people; others manufactured spectacular thin-walled platters – lagans, deep bowls, cups, various dishes decorated with light glaze and intricate patterns in brown, black, green and terracotta paints.

One of the houses accommodated glassblower's workshop. The survived articles testify to the unbelievably wide range of the master's produce: a fanciful decanters, jugs, bowls and plates, cups and vials for incense, ink-pots and flasks. It is obvious that the master was familiar with all types of glass processing, because in the workshop there were found samples of glass beads, pendants and bracelets, cast relief plaquettes with floral motives or images of animals and serpentine lines.

Another house in craftsmen quarter contained a blacksmith forge and a primitive smelter. In the workshop there survived some hardware manufactured by the local blacksmith: knives, skimmer – kampyr, sickles, choppers, axes, locks and keys, nails and chain links. Such findings as daggers with a hilt made from horn, arrowheads, parts of chain mail, harness and horse shoes, are the testimony to the effect that the blacksmith was engaged in fulfilling military orders alongside with manufacturing of household utensils.

The excavation works at Kharashket also revealed the remains of a jewelry workshop. Under the ruins of another structure there was discovered a well preserved part of a weaver's loom – a shuttle with two holes and bronze heddle for fixing threads. Such a design of the shuttle made for weaving patterned fabrics.

Irrespective of the size and number of rooms, houses in the craftsmen quarter had distinct division into living rooms and utility premises. Each house featured a small yard, a pool with drainage system – tashnau finished with baked bricks. The floor was also faced with fretted brickwork. Living premises with reception room – mekhmonkhana were separated from utility structures, which included a kitchen with a hearth and storage rooms with sections for keeping different products. The workshop, as a rule, was located aside from them.

Amazing findings on Kanka site were discovered not only on the territory of inner town – shakhristan, but also in its suburbs – rabat. Thus, in the nearest village Korik a bulldozer jaw brought to light a fragment of a big round stone slab. From under the slab there showed up a number of huge (hundreds of litres) clay pots –khums, ceramic flat flasks and numerous small and big jugs with long spouts. Scientists concluded that in the ancient times there was here a wine-making workshop and the round slab was a part of winepress- tarapan.

So far there have been found no remains of a mosque, which evidently had to function in such a big town as Kharashket. However, in one of the pits next to the premises intended for ablution there were found the remains of a round-shaped structure 2.6 metres in diameter. This was probably a minaret.

Why in the late 12th century Kharashket was abandoned by its residents is still a mystery. The reason was possibly the change of course of the Akhangaran river once serving the city's natural northern boundary and filling the moats by the fortified walls as well as irrigating the nearby gardens and fields. Some historians suggest that desolation of the city results from the civil strife between Southern and Northern clans of the Karakhanids dynasty. The further excavation works on Kanka site can provide the clues that will help us to unravel the mystery.