History of Civilizations of Central Asia

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Volume IV - The age of achievement A.D. 750 to the end of the fifteenth century

icon4.gif (76 octets) Part Two:
The achievements

C.E. Bosworth

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Chapter 18 Urban development and architecture
G. A. Pugachenkova, A. H. Dani and Liu Yingsheng

Part One
(G. A. Pugachenkova)

Part Two
(A. H. Dani)

Part Three
(Liu Yingsheng)

The arrival of the Arabs

When the Arabs arrived in Khurasan and Transoxania they found few towns. The population lived mainly in the countryside, where there were scattered estates with the fortified kushks (castles) of major and minor dihqn (landowner)-suzerains and adjacent settlements. The ancient towns had either shrunk in size (Samarkand, Merv, Termez, Balkh) or been abandoned. The new towns were few in number, and small (Panjikent).

Warfare was rife in the seventh and eighth centuries and, as a consequence, there was a general decline in building activity. This situation only changed in the ninth century, when the sphere of influence of the caliphate finally took in the countries of Central Asla and Islam became solidly established. The cAbbasids relied on the local rulers, requiring only recognition of their supreme authority and the levying of the kharj (land tax), and did not interfere in the internal affairs of the newly established states. One of the consequences of this policy was the rapid development of towns from the ninth to the twelfth century and the general extension of urban culture in Khurasan, Transoxania, Khwarazm and parts of the Turkish lands to the north.


The following typology for towns throughout this region has been generally accepted by specialists. The original – pre-Islamic – nucleus of the settlement was transformed into an arg or kuhandiz (fortified citadel), next to which lay the actual town, the shahristn, which was also walled. Outside this wall lay the district of the tradesmen and craftsmen, the rabad (suburb). Some towns do actually follow this plan, but it is by no means in evidence everywhere and at all times. In Samarkand, for example, in addition to the arg and the shahristn (the site of Afrasiab), two other, adjoining, urban areas took shape, the shahr-i darn (inner town) and the shahr-i birn (outer town), beyond which lay the rabad. Merv possessed an old shahristn (Gavur-Qalca) but a new one (Sultan Qalca) was built, to which the main activities of urban life were transferred. A new fortified shahriyr-arg (town with a citadel) developed there. Immediately to the north and south lay two walled rabads, which extended beyond their enclosing walls. The towns in the northern regions of Central Asia, where the population was predominantly nomadic, were quite small, with an arg and a shahristn. The outer rabads were small and at times non-existent because of the danger of attacks by the nomads.

The shahristns of the medieval towns of Central Asia which were established at that time were strictly rectangular in shape (e.g. Sultan-Qalca at Merv), but where the town had developed in an uncontrolled fashion around an earlier settlement (Balkh, Samarkand) their outline was irregular. They had several gates, located on the main roads into the town. In Merv there were four, in Samarkand six and in Bukhara seven.

One of the principal concerns of town-planners at this time was defence. The towns were surrounded by ditches and enclosed by walls, sometimes by a double wall (Mashhad-i Misriyan, the earlier Dihistan). The walls were flanked by rounded towers from which radial fire could be directed. Particular importance was attached to the defensive capability of the gates: towers rose on either side of the gates and on top of the towers were military and surveillance platforms. Often, a drawbridge was erected to span the ditch.

There was practically nothing regular about the internal planning of the towns. To a certain extent, it was determined by the main streets, which ran from one gate to another, forming intersections at the town centre. They did not run in straight lines and there were sharp bends. These arteries determined the location of the town’s focal points with small squares here and there and the main bazaars stretching along the streets, either uncovered or with light awnings, and sometimes with an extensive covering of vaulted and domed roofs. Between these main streets lay guzrs (Persian, lanes) or mahalls (Arabic, quarters), criss-crossed by a tangled web of alleys, in which living accommodation, the local mosque, the maktab (elementary school) and the public water cistern were to be found and which preserved the communal life-style. The different trades and crafts had their own special quarters: those with harmful side-effects such as potteries and iron-foundries were located in the rabads whereas the ‘clean’ trades (sewing and embroidery, jewellery, etc.) were to be found inside the shahristn.


The architecture of the period reflected the advances which had been made, in particular in construction engineering. Unbaked brick and pis (rammed earth) remained the basic wall-building materials until the tenth century, with wooden roofing or else unbaked vaulting and domes. From the tenth century, baked brick with a high-strength ganch (gypsum) mortar was increasingly employed in monumental architecture. Its use as a building material for walls and vaulted, domed structures provided architects with new ways of putting their ideas into practice, enabling them to devise original solutions in terms of space and volume. As a more costly building material and one whose use required great skill, it was essentially employed in monumental, mainly religious, architecture and in certain structures which had to be waterproof (bridge piers and abutments, bathhouses). It is noteworthy that unbaked brick and reinforced pis structures continued to be used, as in earlier times, in secular buildings, even in the palaces of the rulers, not to speak of the living accommodation and workshops for the general population. This is not just because they were easy and cheap to make, but because clay is a poorer conductor of heat than baked brick, providing protection from the heat in summer and the cold in winter. Baked brick was, however, used for Islamic religious structures, which were built to last.


The development and refinement of various forms of architectural ornament continued from the ninth to the twelfth century. Decorative brickwork made of regular or shaped bricks, wood and ganch carving, passed down from pre-Islamic times but with different ornamental motifs, carved terracotta and, from the twelfth century, the appearance of glazed brick and the use of glazes (pale blue, dark blue, white) to pick out decorative motifs on carved terracotta: such was the variety of decorative techniques which, in interiors, also included decorative painting. The decorative motifs were varied but girih (geometric designs forming a knot) predominated. Their development was linked to the spectacular advances made in mathematical science in the medieval East, which were the basis for Central Asian architects’ and decorative craftsmen’s use of applied geometry. Stylized plant decoration was co-ordinated with girih; and Arabic epigraphy also acquired a special significance, being used for Qur’anic texts and other inscriptions containing historical information relating to influential figures and to the period at which the building was constructed. These inscriptions, which were executed in the geometric Kufic or flowing, cursive naskh scripts, were an important decorative element in the design of the building.

The palaces of the rulers were distinguished by their large proportions and wealth of artistic decoration. In the Samanid palace in Samarkand (the site of Afrasiab), archaeologists have uncovered several halls in which the walls were decorated with carving in ganch. The motifs are large geometric figures enclosing fine plant decoration. The eleventh-twelfth-century palace in the shahriyr-arg at Merv is on a square plan with a small interior courtyard surrounded by both large and small rooms, but only small decorative fragments have been found. The decoration is extremely rich, however, in the palace of the rulers of Termez at the same period. A courtyard is also the key to the organization of this palace’s plan. There is a portal at the entrance to the courtyard, on both sides of which ire a number of differentiated rooms. Along its axis runs a five-columned portico leading to an audience hall. Within the hall a central area was marked out, at the far end of which stood the throne. Surrounding the central area and separated from it by columns was an ambulatory. The roofs were vaulted. Walls, columns and vaults were covered in the most elaborate ganch carving in which girih, in all its various forms, has pride of place, although there are also heraldic motifs – a pair of lions facing each other with jaws locked together. Carved ganch was also used in many decorative forms to embellish the residences of the rich; outstanding examples were discovered during the excavation of such houses at Merv, Nishapur and Samarkand.


Among works of civil architecture, mention should be made of the public bathhouses. The remains of eleventh-century baths have been discovered in Taraz (a town in the area of northern Turkistan) and in Nasa (Khurasan). Premises have been found there with cisterns for hot and cold water and a system of underground flues for heating the floors with hot air. It is noteworthy that there are traces of ornamental painting, employing special water-resistant paints, on the walls of both bathhouses.


Large market buildings were erected on the main streets in towns. The caravanserais formed a special category. They were to be found in towns, especially towns on the major caravan routes on which most of them were located. The builders’ task was to construct a safe shelter for caravans which had been travelling for many days, providing protection from attack by robbers for the travellers and for the animals that had carried them and their wares, and pleasant conditions for their stay. Hence the solid defences of the caravanserais: high walls, reinforced entrance gates, corner watch-towers and, inside, a well-thought-out division of space to provide for sojourn and rest. Caravanserais were often also used as ribts (defence posts) for the billeting en route of the ruler’s forces.


Particular attention was devoted in the eleventh and twelfth centuries to the construction of religious buildings, especially mosques. The first mosques appeared in Khurasan and Transoxania immediately after their conquest by the Arabs: direct evidence of this is provided by the Arab historians and geographers. The earliest surviving mosques date from the ninth and early tenth centuries. One of these is the Diggaron village mosque at the qishlaq (winter station) of Khazar in the Bukhara oasis; two others are the local Naw Gunbad mosque on the outskirts of Balkh and the Chahar Sutun in Termez. Characteristic features of these mosques are their square plan and brick supporting pillars. The pillars are connected to the walls by arches and corner pendentives effect the transition to the small domes. The number of columns varies (four, six, nine), as does the number of domes, but the basic plan remains the same. The mihrb (prayer niche) is located on the qibla wall (which indicates the direction of worship towards Mecca).

In a special category was the commemorative mosque, erected beside the tomb of a revered religious person such as a sayyid (descendant of the Prophet) or one of the cAlids, or the pirs of Sufi orders, all of them figures who tended to become canonized with the passage of time. An example of this type is the mosque of Talkhatan-Baba near the settlement of the same name in the valley of the Murghab. Providing something of an architectural setting for the tomb, it is a rectangular building divided into three sections. The central section is covered by a large dome, and all the faades are faced with shaped bricks.

An essential structure in any mosque is the minaret (minr) from which the faithful are called to ritual prayers. In this period it was a free-standing tower at the corner of the mosque, and the minarets of large Friday mosques were particularly tall. Minarets in Central Asia are typically round in section, tapering towards the top, but there are a number of variations. At times it is simply a tall shaft, crowned by a multi-arched rotunda for the muezzin pronouncing the adhn (call to prayer): the shaft itself is divided by concentric ornamental bands (the Kalyan mosque in Bukhara, see Fig. 1), the minaret at Vabkent, the two minarets at Dihistan, ‘Brn’s tower’ at Balasaghun, the minaret at Uzgend). Another version, with the shaft resting on an octagonal base, is divided vertically by close-set fluted half-columns and has a second section (the minaret at Jarkurgan by the architect cAli b. Muhammad al-Sarakhs) or an even more complex structure consisting of three sections, each of which culminates in a stalactite configuration (the minaret of Jam). They are built in baked brick, which is also used for decorative effect. These constructions stand as high as 48 m (Kalyan) or even 60 in (Jam).


It has been established from an analysis of medieval architectural monuments in Central Asia that their horizontal and vertical measurements and proportions are based on mathematical laws. There are two variants. In some cases they are a multiple of a gaz (linear unit), which was a sort of architectural module. But geometric proportions were more frequently employed: ratios of the square and its diagonal were most common, although other ratios were also used, such as the sides of a triangle or the golden mean. Their use was due to mathematical progress in the Near and Middle East and, in particular, the development of the applied geometry techniques which were assimilated and widely employed by architects, These were responsible for the harmonious horizontal and vertical proportions of the buildings erected, both as composite units and as separate parts.