Excavation of a presumed Christian monastery
In 1916 a small bronze censer was found in Urgut dating from the 8 th /9 th century. It features scenes from the New Testament and is now kept at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. (Nr. CA 12 758).5 Towards the end of the 19 th century, two Nestorian tombstones featuring an engraved cross were found at or near Urgut, they are now at the Museum of Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan.6 Also from Urgut is a wearable cross made out of local coal shale. Additional finds from this part of Sogdiana dating from the 7 th to the 9 th century indicate a Christian community of that time. Among them there are coins dating from the 6 th to 8 th century found in Tashkent, Samarkand and Penjikent which feature on the reverse side a Maltese cross.
These latter finds are important, since only rulers or city governments would strike coins. An ostracon, a fragment of a vessel featuring several lines of the Psalms taken from the Peshitta Bible and written in the Syriac Estranghela script as well as a bronze cross also stem from Penjikent. In Samarkand, another cross and a small flask featuring a saint and two crosses were found. 7
A source from literature adds information: The Muslim geographer and historian Abu-'l-Qasim Muhammad ibn Hawqal from the 10 th century describes in his geographical treaty The Representation of the Earth a Christian monastery which he visited around the year 970 as follows: “Al-Sawadar is a mountain to the south of Samarkand. On al-Sawadar there is a monastery of the Christians where they gather and have their cells. I found many Iraqi Christians there who migrated to the place because of its suitability, solitary location and healthy climate. Many Christians retreat to it, it towers over Sogdiana. It's called Wazkard“. 8
The Russian archaeologist Alexei Savchenko believes that “Wzkrd”, which is named “Wrkwd” in another manuscript, is nothing else than Urgut. His excavations from 1997 till 1999 brought an architectural complex with several rooms to light which may belong to a monastery. The radiocarbon dating of construction material suggests the 9 th century as the time of founding.9 Unfortunately, some road construction destroyed in 1995 the western and eastern edges of the complex. After 1999, financial constraints brought this promising project to a temporary standstill.
In cooperation with:
3 Just based on these inscriptions it cannot yet be decided if they were written by members of the Church of the East or of the Syrian-Orthodox Church. The same comment applies to the ruins of the presumed monastery. However, based on the much larger spread of the Nestorian than the Jacobite Church in Sogdiana, the hypothesis of an Eastern Syriac monastery is more likely.
4 Tardieu Michel: Un site chrétien dans la Sogdiane des Sâmânides. In: Le Monde de la Bible,
5 Savchenko Alexei: Urgut Revisited. In: ARAM, Journal of the Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies, vol. 8: 1&2. Oxford-Harvard 1996. p. 334f. The Monastery of Urgut investigated by The East Sogdian Archaeological Expedition. ESAREX, 1999. p. 1. www.apple.kiev.ua/esarex
6 Klein Wassilios: Das nestorianische Christentum an den Handelswegen durch Kyrgyzstan bis zum 14. Jh. p. 226f.
7 Paykova Aza Vladimirovna: The Syrian Ostracon from Panjikant. In: Le Muséon, Éditions Peeters, Leuven 92/1-2, 1979. p. 159-169. Savchenko Alexei: Urgut Revisited. In: ARAM, p. 339.
8 Ibn Hawqal: La Configuration de la Terre. Ca. 988. Introduction et traduction par J.H. Kramerd, G. Wiet. Maisonneuve & Larose, 2 vols. Paris 2001. p. 477f.
9 Savchenko Alexei: The Monastery of Urgut investigated. p. 5.
10Albaum, L.I.: Xristianskij xram v starom Termeze. In: Iz istorii drevnix kultovsrednej Azii. Xristianstvo. Glavnaja Redakciha Enciklopedii, Taskent 1994. p. 34-41.
Excavations 2004: Brief Report
Several periods of occupation were identified, the earliest associated with the initial foundation of the complex, the later suggesting a re-occupation when the original structures suffered damage and were abandoned or destroyed. This ‘squatter' phase was represented by a small temporary hearth found embedded into the paved floor. The building materials used on the site are fired brick of several shapes ( 30 x 15 x 5 cm, 23 x 23 x 5 cm, 30 x 30 x 5 cm and 27 x 8 x 5 cm ), ceramic tiles 30 x 20 x 2,5 cm, used for flooring, and mud brick. Among rubble which appeared to have fallen from a wall, fragments of decorative plaster and remains of emerald-green, carmine, ochre, white and cobalt stucco were found.
One long-awaited result was the discovery of conclusive evidence of the Christian presence at the site. This evidence came in the form of a [wearable?] metal cross found in same context with a well-preserved oil lantern dating to XIII AD. This discovery supports our initial set of assumptions as regards the Christian presence in Urgut, which is now appearing in the archaeological record after remaining hidden for so long, complementing and expanding on the information provided by the historical texts.
The material found, also numismatic ones, are in the process of being analyzed. In the meantime, a guard has been appointed to ensure that the site remains undisturbed by outsiders.
Excavations in Urgut: August–October 2005
This year the research team continued excavations of the site of Sulayman-tepa, believed to have been the seat of the Christian monastery of Warkūda (present-day Urgut) in IX–XIII AD.1 The site with precise geographical coordinates: 39º22'46'' N, 67º14'28'' E, elevation 1134 m is situated at the southernmost edge of the habitable territory of the town of Urgut, Samarkand province, Republic of Uzbekistan.
The goal set for this season was to extend the excavations in the three available directions (north, east
and south) in order to uncover the perimeter walls and to excavate the previously pin-pointed room behind
the main northern wall.
1The background to the excavations is described in my papers: “Urgut Revisited”, ARAM Periodical (The Journal of the Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies, Oxford–Harvard) № 8 (1996); “По следам арабских географов” (In the Footsteps of Arabic Geographers), Археологические исследования в Украине (Archaeological Researches in Ukraine) № 7 (2003–2004), Kiev 2005; “По поводу христианского селения Ургут” (On the Christian Settlement of Urgut), Записки Восточного отделения Российского географического общества (Transactions of the Oriental Department of the Russian Archaeological Society) № 2 (XXVII), St. Petersburg 2006.
The tree shown here was 1050 years old at the time of the dating (1990s), as attested by the plate in the top left corner of the photo. Before 1920 there was a Muslim grammar school (maktab) inside the trunk.
After the loess sediments were removed, we were pleased to observe that the main eastern wall survived the destruction of 1996, being intact. This fact allows to analyse the space syntax of the complex in its entirety, greatly increasing the value of the results and the plausibility of the reconstruction. The main eastern wall was made of mud brick, a narrow stripe of outside premises paved with fired brick situated behind it. At least two building horizons are present. Some boulder stones that still remain in the vertical plane of the hill at various heights, as well as memories of the old inhabitants2 suggest that initially this slope had been converted into a sequence of terraces gradually lowering towards the east.
2 Of the informants I should pick out as the most knowledgeable and co-operative Warr. Off. Ret. Khursan-
Murad Ghaffarov, the present Guardian of Sulayman-tepa, and Timurlang Khalikov, 80-year-old healer, storyteller and keeper of the local lore.
The northern aisle starts with the main entrance in the western wall excavated in 1999 and continues eastwards, elevating by three steps before reaching the culmination point. The fine investigation revealed there a cross-shaped room recognisable as chancel, with the altar adjoining the eastern wall and constructed of fired brick. The seat of the priest who, in the tradition the Church of the East, was serving the liturgy facing the altar, is marked by ceramic tiles inserted into the flooring edgewise. The floor of this room is made of ceramic tiles plastered with a fine gypsum which is still intact over most of the church interior. Small fragments of stucco were found on the walls, adding colour carmine to the range already established: white, emerald-green, ochre and ultramarine. These traces of colouring are so slight that it is impossible to determine whether they are the remains of a single overall colouring or some more complex decoration.
In the east the wall ends with a curving suggesting an apse; however, its clear delineation or just any fine investigation of this corner was complicated by the ubiquitous roots of the plane-tree which have greatly deformed all surrounding substance. The floor of the aisle is paved with fine quality ceramic tiles with traces of plaster finish in several places. In the east the floor elevates to form several footsteps leading outside the main eastern wall. At least one footstep was made using the common dandona technique, when the bricks are laid edgewise in order to increase wear resistance. It is on these footsteps that the iron cross was found during the last year’s field campaign.
This space with an earthen floor, external to the main building, is linked to the northern aisle by two doorways in the main northern wall and one more narrow passage connecting it to the chancel. In the eastern end there is another rectangular stand made of fired brick. The room was not excavated at full length due to the lack of time; this is the direction in which the excavations will continue in the next season.
As there is a good reference collection of stratified ceramics for the area, there are no difficulties for the interpretation of our finds. The study of the pottery and glasswork from the excavated site suggests an early Samanide date for the founding and an early Mongol date for the end of the main occupational period (followed by the another with a squatter re-occupation after damage to the original structures).
In this season a vague semantic link has been tentatively established between the monastery and the inscriptions on the rock above it. While doing theodolite survey, we observed that the walls of the building, despite being very neatly erected, deviate from the magnetic axis by 15º. This is explained by the simple fact that, in the absence of a compass, the builders’ only reference points were those of sunrise and sunset. The rocks of the two mountain ranges – Qutirbuloq to the east and Gulbogh to the west – prevent the viewer from seeing the sun at horizon level (which would have more or less coincided with the geographical East of West). This fact means that the reference point shifts a number of degrees, as it takes the sun some time to move from the horizon to the point where it becomes visible above the hills.
Excavations in Urgut: June – July 2006
Timurlan Khalikov holding a 10 th century jar discovered at Urgut.
He helped identifying the location of the monastery.
A new field campaign at Sulayman-tepa in Urgut was conducted during May and June, 2006. This year, the excavations were concerned with the area to the north and south of the church building unearthed in the previous seasons. The aim was to complete the excavations of the northern nave, to uncover the outside edge of the main walls, and to improve the general plan. The northern nave was excavated down to the level of the beaten clay floor. The entrance from the western side appeared to had been filled with rubble, which probably indicates a squatter occupational period of the complex. Summarising the result, it can be safely argued that beyond the southern nave there lies an open yard with no architectural structures whatsoever; beyond the northern nave a habitational context was discovered consisting of a number of ovens ( tandoors ) and a cesspit ( badrab ), leaving us with the interpretation of this sector as a kitchen.
The earliest firm evidence for the monastery was so far provided by the date in an inscription on the rock of Qizil-qiya, “August of the year 1206 [of Alexander]” = August 895 2. However, it would be natural to expect that the monastery was founded before the Arab conquests (around AD 712 for the district of Samarkand), since the Islamic restrictions on new church building are well-known.3
Still there were some exceptions from the general rule, e.g. legal church construction in Muslim Spain 4 or the foundation of the Monophysite Church of Mary Magdalene at Jerusalem, endowed by a notable of Alexandria in 820 5.
The main problem presented by the ground plan is that of the prototypes. The cross-shaped chancel
terminating the nave finds its parallels in the following known examples:
6) see the detailed discussion in: A. Naymark, Sogdiana, Its Christians and Byzantium: A Study of Artistic and Cultural Connections in Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages , unpublished PhD thesis, Univ. of Indiana 2001.
In the light of the above-listed parallels I would cautiously highlight the fact that Mt Allahyarhan , “the mount of the zealots”, at the foothills of which the monastery was situated, shares its semantic core with Tur ‘Abdin , “the mount of the servants [of God]”.
In this season, a number of previously unknown Syriac inscriptions were found, sought after since our first surveys of Urgut in 1995.
An account was published in a regional youth newspaper,.9 to become the starting point of our longlasting investigations which yielded their result only now.
Inside the caves was noticed the presence of Shilajit (Mumiyo), blackish-brown exudation used in popular medicine,10 and plants of the genus Eremurus.11 Both substances have healing properties, which suggests a link with strong medicinal traditions at Syrian monasteries which often comprised a hospital.
9) The text is available in my translation from Uzbek in: Alexei Savchenko, ‘Urgut Revisited', ARAM Periodical
Beyond UrgutA survey of the site of Quq-tepa in Gus, west of Urgut, was conducted. In the light of the archaeological evidence the preliminary identification of this settlement is that of a hamlet or a secluded par-ish.12
12) v. Alexei Savchenko, ‘Urgut', Encyclopaedia Iranica (www.iranica.com), forthcoming.
In the light of this fact the nature of the northern aisle became more clear. On one hand, it has all the features of other two naves: same proportions and the altar-like structure in the eastern end. On the other hand, it lacks the rest of the architectural details – the steps and the narrowing (skakona) separating the chancel from the naos, the paved floor, or the decorations. Moreover, it is contiguous to a kitchen situated where the main nave has narthex – immediately before the entrance to the hall from outside.
Upon consideration we decided to identify it as a refectory which was considered to be a sacred place in some Eastern monasteries, and even in some cases was constructed as a full church with altar, where some services were specifically performed. All food served in the refectory should be blessed, and for that purpose, holy water was kept in the large pot found in one corner.
At this point the works were relocated to the southern sector where we continued to investigate the space beyond the main southern wall and to the west from it.
In the S-W sector, at floor level was found rectangular brickwork, at first glance resembling a funeral decoration. Upon removing, the surface structure gave way to a sealing made of large pieces of shale which once were solid slabs. Further down, at depth. 1,5 m were found remains of a large ceramic vessel dug into the ground. The bottom and the inside walls of the jar were covered with whitewash, with clear traces of claret-coloured depositions on it.
Given the peculiar colour, it is most likely that the depositions were produced by must or wine. Putting Calcium hydroxide into wine is a centuries-old technique used to prevent the product from going sour by neutralising extra acid. The purpose to which the vessel had been put is thus clear: it is a wine jar, and the context in question is a wine cellar.1
Christian wine-making is attested at three other sites in Central Asia:
– winery in the monastery of Aq-Beshim (Suyab) in Qirghizstan;2
– jar with a Sogdian inscription containing a Syriacism (malpna – teacher or doctor) found at the site of Krasnaya Rechka in Qirghizstan;3
– bottom of a tub laid with bricks with carved crosses, found at a winepress in Aq-Tobe (Southern Kazakhstan).4
It should be said at this point that impressions of a stamp on several pottery items from Urgut are identical to those found in Aq-Beshim, Novopokrovka (Qirghizstan), and Krasna-ya Rechka (this last accompanied by the name of “craftsman Pastun”).5
On the top of the roof of the cellar was found a sealed pottery assemblage consisting of unbroken items and items that can be put together from fragments. Such assemblages usually belong to the time of destruction of an archaeological complex and testify to a sud-den and abrupt death of a monument.6
1 Close semantic link between Christianity and wine-making is illustrated by the following passage by the Arab lexicographer al-Firuzabadi (AD XIV): “Mushammas is a name for wine. It is derived from shamms, the name given to the deacon of a Christian church and it means: a wine grown and nursed by a shamms” . – v. D. S. Rice, ‘Deacon or Drink: Some Paintings from Samarra Re-Examined’, Arabica 5 (1958), p. 22.
2 G. L. Semënov, Raskopki 1996-1998 gg., ‘Suyab. Ak-Beshim’, SPb. 2002, pp. 44-114. V. also: G. L. Semënov, ‘Mona-styrskoye vino Semirechya’, B. B. Piotrovsky Memorial Readings at the Hermitage, SPb. 1999, pp. 70-74.
3 A. N. Bernshtam, ‘Uygurskaya epigrafika Semirechya’, Epigrafika Vostoka 1 (1 947), pp. 34-37.
4 K. M. Baypakov, Srednevekovaya gorodskaya kul’tura Yuzhnogo Kazakhstsna i Semirechya, Alma-Ata 1986, p. 184.
5 V. A. Livshits, ‘Sogdiytsy v Semirechye: lingvisticheskiye I epigraficheskiye svidetel’stva’, Pis’menniye pamiat-niki I problemy istorii kul’tury narodov Vostoka. XV yearly conference at Leningrad Dept., The Institute for Oriental Stu-dies, December 1979, part I (2), Moscow 1981, p. 80.
6 V., e. g. V. I. Raspopova, Zhilishcha Pendzhikenta, Leningrad 1990, p. 17.
Since there is a good collection of stratified ceramics from the area, the complex found can be safely dated to the early XIII century, thus providing the terimus post quem for the mona-stery which probably corresponds to the Mongol taking of Samarkand in 1220.
A number of fine cleanings was undertaken in order to establish and mark on the ground plan the main western wall destroyed by a seasonal mountain torrent between 1999 and 2004, yet before we were able to study the corresponding sector.
Apart from the excavations of the main site, we continued to map other local spots where Christian presence was attested in some way or another. The following sites were surveyed:
– Durmon-tepa in ca. 20 km to the west of Samarkand, where a mediaeval Christian burial was found in 1986, containing a cross of sheet gold. The cross had been sewn onto the dress of the dead, which probably indicated his priestly rank;7
– Arbinjan-tepa in ca. 80 km to the west of Samarkand, on the road Samarkand-Bukhara which once was a major trade route. Ceramic cast for moulding crosses was occasionally found there several years ago;8
– Kosh-tepa 2 in ca. 10 km from Urgut, where a rim of a jar featuring a scratched scene of baptism was found in 1973;9
– the area where a bronze cross was found in 2006 appeared to be flooded by the Chimkur gan water reservoir (ca. 70 km south of Samarkand).
– an area near Chinaz, Tashkent province was surveyed in order to pin-point the site of the other of the two Christian settlements in Mawarannahr described by Arab geographers (described separately, v. Addenda).
7 G. V. Shishkina, ‘Netorianskoye pogrebeniye v Sogde Samarkandskom’, Iz istorii drevnikh kul’tov Sredney Azii. Khristianstvo, Tashkent 1994, pp. 56-63. The item is kept at the Museum of the Peoples of the Orient in Moscow.
8 kept at the Institute of Archaeology in Samarkand.
9 M. M. Iskhakov, Sh. S. Tashkhodzhaev, T. K. Khodzhayov, ‘Raskopki Koshtepa’, Istoriya material'noy kul’tury Uzbekistana 13 (1977), pp. 88-97. Current location unknown.
Permanent stainless steel big board was mounted at Sulayman-tepa explaining the significance of it and warning visitors against misconduct.
Twelve previously unknown archaeological sites dating to the early Middle Ages were dis-covered and mapped in the course of our surveys of the Urgut area.
Director of Research,
The East Sogdian Archaeological Expedition.
Conclusion of the excavation project at Urgut
After careful considerations it has been decided by the project leader Dr. Alexei Savchenko and the Society for the Exploration of EurAsia to conclude the fieldwork at Urgut since the project's objective set in early 2004 has been fully achieved with the discovery and excavation of the Christian church and monastery belonging to the Church of the East mentioned by the 10 th century geographer and historian Ibn Hawqal.The results from this project will be published in scientific and popular media in due course which will be mentioned and possibly also published on the Society's homepage.
Alexei Savchenko, Mark Dickens: Prester John’s Realm: New Light
on Christianity between Merv and Turfan. In: Erica Hunter
(ed.): The Christian Heritage of Iraq, Gorgias Press, 2009 (.pdf).