Gava Sughda – Nautaka – Kesh

Issue #1 • 1865

Kesh is a mediaeval region, consisting of individual rustaks, or districts, in the Zarafshan Range and the Guzardarya. Archaeologists think that its capital, which bore the same name, was located on the site of Kitab and Shahrisabz. The history of Kesh is considerably more ancient than the Middle Ages. Its origins go back to the period when the most ancient cities developed on the territory of Uzbekistan and Central Asia as a whole.

Back in the 1980s, archaeologists from Tashkent University discovered the ruins of a large urban centre, Uzunkir, about 70 hectares in area, in the Kitab-Shahrisabz oasis. In the 7th – 6th centuries BC, Uzunkir was surrounded by a stout defensive wall and also had an inner fortress. Not far from Uzunkir was the citadel of Sangirtepa, which was girded by two lines of adobe defensive walls, each 10 m thick. That is why it was called Sangir – the Stone Fortress.

Sangir’s most ancient architecture dates from the 9th – 8th centuries BC. In those remote times, one of the regions of Soghdiana was known as Gava Sughda (literally “Soghdian Settlement”). This information is contained in the Yashty, one of the early parts of the Avesta. It is interesting that the term “Gava” (Gau) is widespread in the Kitab-Shahrisabz and Yakkabagh oases, as well as in the nearby mountains. It is a name given to modern settlements, archaeological monuments and geographical features. It is likely that it was the eastern part of the Kashkadarya Valley that was called Gava Sughda 2,900 – 2,800 years ago. Over 23 centuries ago, when the army of Alexander the Great crushed the Achaemenid kingdom and, covering the vast distance from the Balkans to northern Afghanistan in five years of warfare, reached the Oxus, or Amudarya, the Greeks had an open road to the Soghdian province of Nautaka, where Bessos, the satrap of Bactria and Soghdiana, sought refuge. He killed the last Achaemenid king, Darius III, and proclaimed himself “king of Asia”. Bessos was captured by Ptolemaios Lagos, one of Alexander’s generals, in a small settlement, surrounded by walls and a gate, in the province of Nautaka. The ruins of such settlements, square, round or near-triangular in shape, surrounded by an earthen rampart of defensive walls, with a single entrance are found in the foothills of the Yakkabagh Range.

In the 7th – 6th centuries BC, Gava Sughda started to be called Nautaka. The Old Soghdian name “Nautaka” means “New Settlement”, and one can agree with the specialists who thought that the origin of the word is connected with a more or less solid structure and that “taka” also has the meaning of “power”, “might” or “force”. Nautaka was probably so named because of the building of the huge fortress at Uzunkir, which was strengthened with powerful defensive walls. What is more, not only the town was given this name, but also the vast area of Soghdian settlement from the Zarafshan Range to the Uradarya.

The ancient Greek historian Arrian records that, at the beginning of 327 BC, Alexander the Great rested his army in Nautaka. He selected the spot not because there was much food and fodder in that fertile area, but for purely strategic reasons. When spring came, Alexander set out for the Soghdian Rock (fortress) in the Hissar Mountains, where the unsubdued Soghdians under Oxyartes had taken refuge. Alexander was impressed, but not frightened, by the high, thick walls of the Soghdian Rock. The king decided to avoid bloodshed and called on Oxyartes to surrender. But the ruler of Nautaka was certain that only gods could storm his stronghold in the clouds. Alexander chose 300 Thracians, Thessalians and Macedonians, who had grown up in mountains, to take the fortress. Led by Kleitos, they took one night to reach the stronghold. The besieged inhabitants were obliged to surrender. Oxyartes’ family were among those captured.

The town on the site of Uzunkir had been abandoned by the 3rd century BC and lay empty. The region’s new urban centre was founded on the site of the modern Kitab, on the right bank of the Amudarya. Sources refer to it as Sukhe or Suse. This is probably a corruption of the Soghdian name “Sughud” or the Avestan “Sughda”, i.e. Soghdiana.

The ancient town on the site of Kitab covered an area of almost 40 hectares and had a powerful citadel, a fortified residential district and suburbs. It functioned right up to the end of the 8th century. The city on the Kitab site flourished particularly in the 7th century. This was the time when it was named Kesh. The names of three rulers of Kesh in that period are known from written sources and coin inscriptions – Dichzhe (late 6th – early 7th century), Shish-pir (till the mid – 7th century) and Akhurpat (second half of the 7th century). Under Shish-pir, Kesh established diplomatic relations with the neighbouring states of the East and became the capital of the whole of Soghd.

Early mediaeval Kesh was located in a densely populated plain and was surrounded by many settlements and gardens. The city had defensive walls and consisted of separate residential districts. Handicrafts and building work were well developed in Kesh, and trade was brisk. This stemmed not just from the city’s great social, economic and administrative importance, but also from its position on the lively caravan route that ran to Samarkand, the Tashkent oasis and the Fergana Valley and, in the opposite direction, towards the Middle East.

The Arab geographer Makdisi notes that Kesh was a large city, with buildings made of clay and wood, as in Bukhara, and adds: “it is fertile and produces early fruit”. Pointing to the abundance of water and “fine gardens” in Kesh, Ibn Khaukal writes: “In the city there are two large rivers: one, known as ‘the river of the fabric bleachers’, springing from the Sinam Mountains and flowing southwards from the city, and the other, the Asrud, springing from the Kashk-rud area and flowing to the north of the city”. Kesh was besieged by the Arabs led by Muhallab in 699, and the people of Kesh stubbornly resisted the invaders up to the mid – 8th century, having no wish to acknowledge the rule of the caliphate. During that troubled period, the Arabs had to organise several punitive campaigns against the Kesh region. In 776, Kesh became the centre of Mukanna’s uprising against the Arabs. The suppression of the revolt entailed the destruction of Kesh. In the 9th century, the once lively city lay empty, and the site of Kitab was abandoned until the 18th century.

Arab geographers record that the old city and the fortress lay in ruins, although a major mosque and a prison were still functioning and the suburbs of Kesh were still habitable. Arab writers make no mention of the reason for the city’s catastrophic decline at the end of the 8th century, possibly so as not to recall Mukanna’s rebellion, which had posed a certain danger to the caliphate. Scholars think that, even in the 9th century, members of the Takhirid dynasty were wary of Kesh’s very warlike population. In order to intimidate the local inhabitants, the caliphate’s governors adopted a number of decisive measures, involving the destruction of the old city’s defensive walls and fortress and the eviction of its people. This policy completely undermined Kesh’s once important social and economic position and was intended to obliterate the rebellious city and even the memory of it as the former capital of Soghd.

A new urban population gradually took shape 7 km to the south of early mediaeval Kesh-Kitab, in its former agricultural outskirts, on the site of modern Shahrisabz, which was also called Kesh and continued the history of the urban culture of the oasis in a new location. The fast-growing trade and craft centre on the site of Shahrisabz had already attained considerable size by the 12th century. From the late 14th century onwards, the city’s old name, Kesh, gave way more and more to a new one, Shahrisabz. The traditional idea that Kesh-Shahrisabz was a green city with many good buildings was very persistent. The late mediaeval writer Mahmud ibn Wali recorded: “Kesh is one of the cities of Maveraunnahr. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, with a very good and attractive climate. Its fields and open spaces are very beautiful and much loved”. The city’s prosperity and growth are linked with the name of Amir Timur. He became the ruler of Kesh at the age of 25. He ordered architects to design a number of remarkable buildings that made Shahrisabz famous throughout the East. In 1404, Shahrisabz was visited by the Spanish envoy Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo. Impressed by the splendour of the famous Ak-Saray palace, the European recorded in his diary: “There are so many sections and rooms that it would take very long to describe them.” He was struck by the walls of the reception halls and rooms, decorated with paintings and tiles of different colours. Clavijo notes that “. even in Paris, where there are skilled craftsmen, this work would be considered very beautiful”.

In the 15th century, Shahrisabz had a rectangular layout and was divided into separate districts. The local aristocracy and the clergy lived in the north-western corner of the city, not far from the Ak-Saray palace. The central street, beginning at the Termez Gate, divided Shahrisabz into two, almost equal parts. In the centre of the city, it crossed the main road that linked the east and west gates. The dome-shaped Chorsu covered market was built there and, in the south-eastern part of Shahrisabz, the Dorutilavat and Dorussiadat architectural complexes.

A deep, wide ditch was dug outside the city’s fortifications, crossed by drawbridges at the gates. Across one of them, the members of the Spanish embassy to the court of Timur entered the town. While still in the suburbs, Clavijo had noted that there were many gardens and houses, causing him to describe Shahrisabz as a “large city”. The Kitab-Shahrisabz oasis has, thus, seen the development over 2,700 years of an ancient city that has had various names – Sughud, Nautaka, Kesh and Shahrisabz.

Author: Anatoliy Sagdullayev

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