Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Nevkat – An Ancient Silk Road City

From the Blog " Postcard from Bishkek / Observations from an expat" by Ian Claytor in the Kyrgiz republic, the following article which he wrote on May 15, 2011:

Nevkat – An Ancient Silk Road City

About eight kilometres East of the city of Kant in Northern Kyrgyzstan lies the modern village of Krasnaya Rechka, (“Red River”). This is the site of the ancient towns of Suyab and Nevkat (“New City”), a Silk Road city that flourished between the 6th and 12th centuries. The identification is based on manuscripts found at the site.

By all accounts, Nevkat was a major metropolis. Indeed, it was probably the largest of all the medieval cities in what is now Kyrgyzstan – and, according to one author, was the “most north-easterly of the central Asian ‘super cities’” and was, at one time, “one of the world’s most important trading centres”.

Founded by the Sogdians, (an Iranian speaking people), in the fifth century, in the seventh and eighth centuries it boasted a population of 100.000. It had over 18 kilometres of city walls – as long as those of ancient Rome – which enclosed an area of 25 square kilometres. Inside these walls were public buildings, markets, gardens and even farms.

In the North-eastern part of the city was a vast citadel, built on a massive artificial platform – which is all that remains easily visible today. Measuring some 800m across and 20m high – 30m in the extreme South-Eastern corner where it is thought the ruler’s palace was located, the mound comprises some 13 million cubic meters of earth and mud bricks, it is five times the size of the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt and it, apparently, is the largest man-made mound in the world. It has been estimated that a workforce of several thousand must have been employed in its construction – which could have taken a decade, or more.

This citadel was almost certainly an “upper town” for the ruling elite of the city – probably Sogdians, who are also known locally as Saks. However, it was not a mono-cultural city. A necropolis showed signs of a number of different funeral techniques and traditions. Other peoples who are thought to have populated the city include Chinese, Uighurs, Tibetans, Persians as well as the local Saks. Archaeologists have found artefacts showing that Buddhists, Zoroastrians Nestorians, Manicheans and pagans all thrived here.

Particular archaeological finds have included: the remains of a large sculpture of the Buddha, which would have stood 12 meters high when complete, which were discovered in the corridors one of the two Buddhist temples uncovered. Also shards of 1.000 year old pottery litter the site.

Nevkat and the other towns of the Chuy Valley are mentioned by the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang, who visited the area in around 620 CE.

All that remains today are irregular mounds and a couple of eroded clay walls of the ancient fortifications, but, as Daniel Prior writes in The Bishkek Handbook:
"For those who are able to sightsee without seeing standing buildings, Krasnaya Rechka – prettier in setting and more conducive to contemplation than the history-factory at Burana – offers a subtle vista on the past. From the summit of the citadel, where the ground underfoot is thickly strewn with pieces of thousand-year-old pottery, on a clear day, you can see almost to Ch’ang An and Byzantium."

Despite it’s place in history, finding Nevkat is not actually easy. A lot of local people are not aware that it is there, and there are no signposts. Indeed, I have attended a couple of meetings where I and other foreigners, (they tend to be Japanese, who seem to have a fascination with the Silk Road and this particular period), have talked about the difficulty of finding the place and even of having to abandon the search.

In fact, the easiest way to see Nevkat, (albeit from a distance), is when travelling from Bishkek to Issyk Kul on the new road that bypasses the villages and the towns of Kant and Tokmak. It is possible to see the mound of the citadel and the embankment that marked the site of the old town rising from the Chui plain.

To get to Nevkat: First, head for the modern village of Krasnaya Rechka, about 30 km east of Bishkek. Go just a bit more than 2 km past the gas station at the eastern end of the village, and you’ll see a dirt road off to your left (north). Turn onto the track and go on for about a kilometre. You can’t miss the citadel. It looms 20 meters over the valley floor.

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