Nukus: "Zoroastrianism"

Oscar White Muscarella

Curator Emeritus

Ancient Near East Department

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York, New York




June 7, 2009

Dear Oscar,

While traveling across Uzbekistan, I read about Central Asian empires I did not know: the Sogdiana Kingdom, the Khorezm Kingdom, the Kushan Dynasty, the Samanid Dynasty, and the Timurids. It's a dynamic history in a land with a deep past.

I did find one local term I remembered from your Ancient History class at City College: Zoroastrianism.

I recalled (with a little help from the Internet) that Zoroastrianism is a religion and philosophy at least 3000 years old and a possible precursor to Judaism and Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Basic tenets include the idea of a creator - one universal and transcendent god; truth and order versus untruth and disorder. Good thoughts, good words, and good deeds lead to order and happiness.

To visit the Zoroastrian sites, I needed to depart from the normal tourist route and drive much further west into the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan to a city called Nukus.  According to my guidebook, the only sight in Nukus is the Savitsky Karakalpakstan Art Museum, itself, a worthy stop. But outside town I found a hillside necropolis at Mizdakhan and a haunting sight at Chylpyk.

Not far from the Turkmenistan border, the necropolis of Mizdakhan dates back to the 4th Century BCE. Much later, in the 5th Century it became a Zoroastrian cemetery. On the hills are countless gravesites and small mausoleums. The underground and restored Mazlum Sula Khan Mausoleum dates to the late 12th Century, before the Mongol invasion.

Dating back to the Seventh Century, Chylpyk is a huge round mud structure. It sits atop a pyramid shaped hill and seems to brood over the desert. Although it looks like a fortress, Chylpyk probably was a royal house where priests exhibited corpses - a Tower of Silence.

Zoroastrians believed that a human corpse was both physically and spiritually polluting, defiling the sacred elements of fire, water and earth. The bodies of the deceased were therefore exposed to the birds and to the sun until the bones had been completely cleansed. The remains were then placed in ossuary containers and buried. * (The modern Parsi of India, with their similar rituals, are descendents of Iranian Zoroastrians.)

Once again, I must climb a steep slippery dirt path to the entrance of the tower. And once again, the view from the mud-gravel walls is not only the grey-gold desert, but also the large swaths of green fertile farmland along the Amudarya River.

Oscar, are you familiar with the Roman territory called Transoxiana - beyond the Oxus River? (The Oxus is actually the Greek name for the Amudarya.) Beyond the Amudarya, far to the east, lies another great south-north river, the Syrdarya. The broad territory between the rivers is Transoxiana. The area includes the immense Kyzilkum Desert (Red Sands) in the north, and to the south, the ancient-medieval-modern cities of Samarkand and Bukhara and a portion of the Great Silk Road.

This section of the Silk Road has been my own travel route this month. From Tashkent to Samarkand to Bukhara to Khiva to Nukus, I have trod in the footsteps of the Greeks, the Romans, the Huns, the Mongols, the Turks, the Russians and numerous other empires and conquerors who coveted this remarkable and unique region of the world.

Do you recall, Oscar, that several years ago I visited Istanbul - a major terminus of the Great Silk Road in the West?  Last year I visited Xian, China - the terminus in the East.  Now, in Uzbekistan I am filling in the spaces.

Which portion of The Road shall I visit on my next trip?

From Tashkent, east to Kyrgyzstan, the Gobi Desert to China?  Maybe south to Tajikistan, Tibet to India? Perhaps northwest to Kazakhstan and the Ukraine?  Or west to Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan to Syria?

At the moment, I'm thinking west.

Always your grateful student,



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