The Eternal Fire of Janbas-Kala

        The highway leading from Urgench north to Karakalpakstan, runs along one of the trails which camel-driven caravans used to take a few millennia ago, traveling through the wilderness of the plateau Ustyurt to Caspian steppes and further to the Volga river. Here, on the Ustyurt plateau there have survived remains of old caravanserais, which once served night's lodging for tired merchants and cameleers.


        The highway runs across the bridge over one of the longest Central Asian rivers – the river Amudarya or Oxus as the antique geographers called it. On the right bank of the river travelers enter the desert landscapes of Ellikala District, with barrows and ruins of ancient fortresses looming in the distance. Two thousands years ago this land was part of the powerful Khorezm State, one of the oldest in the world. The name Ellikala meaning "fifty fortresses" testifies to the fact that in the ancient times there prospered many fortress towns here. Altogether there are over 400 antique and early medieval monuments in Karakalpakstan. This "land of ancient irrigation" still attracts scholars and tourists by its antique fortresses Ayaz-Kala, Kyrk-Kyz, Burgun-Kala, Dev-Kala, Teshik-Kala, Toprak-Kala, Koy-Krylgan-Kala complex, and many others.

        One hundred and sixty kilometers northward from Urgench the highway goes up to the ancient site Janbas-Kala – one of the most remarkable Central Asian antique monuments. The site dates back to the 4th century B. C., to so called "Kanguy" period in the history of ancient Khorezm. Janbas-Kala was the outermost north-eastern fortress town, almost on the border between the "land of ancient irrigation" on the right bank of the Oxus river and the nomadic steppes. The fortress was built on a barren upland which closes a chain of hills stretching south-east from the Sultanuizdag mountains.

        The Jambas-Kala extant strong fortification walls in its plan make a rectangle of 3.5 hectares in area with the angles being strictly oriented towards east, west, north and south. Covered with sand dunes at some places, these double, five-metre-thick walls reach 10 metres in height. Between the outer and inner walls of the fortress there is a 3-meter-wide passageway. The lower part of the walls, up to the level of the embrasures, is wattle and daub with streaks of brickwork; above the walls are made of adobe bricks with the dimensions of their sides being 40x40 centimeters.

        Around the whole periphery the outer walls of the fortress have two staggered rows of arrow-shaped embrasures. Between the rows, from inside, there were built wide ledges for the defenders to stand on. The narrow 20-centimeter-wide embrasures were specially designed to shoot arrows at the foot of walls, almost vertically downwards. Therefore the bottom of the embrasures has steep slopes facing outside. The famous Russian historian and archeologist S.Tolstov, who was the first to research into Jambas-Kala, wrote that the arrow-shaped embrasures of the fortress traced back to Assyrian traditions which were in use throughout the times of the Ahemenid and Parthian Iran, but were not found in the Sassanid epoch. The scientist stated that the embrasures of Asur of the Sargon period were identical to those of Janbas-Kala and of other fortresses of Kanguy-Kushan period.

        Janbas-Kala is quite distinct from most Central Asian fortresses: it has neither corner nor in-wall turrets. However, the design of Janbas-Kala provided for all the necessary actions of defense. For better repulse of the enemy on the flanks, the walls of the fortress were provided with a group of three specially arranged embrasures: the central one directed straight ahead at a right angle, and two side ones directed right and left respectively at an obtuse angle. Each group of such embrasures with apertures of the three embrasures opening inwards was arranged in a small arched niche provided with a space for one archer. Such systems in the walls alternated with a set of 20-30 ordinary embrasures. The corners of the walls also had pairs of embrasures looking sideways.

        The genius of Janbas-Kala's architects can still be fully seen in the well-preserved intricate construction built to fortify the only gate to the town. Having a rectangular perimeter in section, it is a kind of wall projection with the gate inside it. The projection contains five turret-like bastions forming a narrow maze-like passage to the gate. From the embrasures in the bastions the whole passage could be raked with arrows. In case the assaulters managed to get to the gate, the defenders of the fortress could confront them face to face from two vaulted passages of the main walls. At the worst, the defenders could use the vaulted passage annexed to the gate inside the fortress, as well as the inside-looking embrasures.

        It is obvious that Janbas-Kala fortifications without turrets belong to very distant past. It is found neither in antique Mediterranean civilizations nor in the ancient Orient. This type of fortifications was most likely characteristic of only the local Khorezm traditions. But to defend such a fortress a minimum of 2000 men were needed. Then who lived in Janbas-Kala?

        Archeological excavations revealed a wide 30-meter-long street going from the gate to opposite side of the town. On either side of the street there was a large residential area with about 200 dwellings. Thus scientists believe that the adult population of Janbas-Kala was about 2000 people. In case of need the town was defended not only by men, but also by women, which fits with many ancient Khorezmian legends about women-warriors.

        In the ruins of Janbas-Kala dwellings there was found a huge number of ceramic fragments, terracotta statuettes and various artifacts made of metal and other material. Among them were bracelets, signet-rings, jade and crystalline pyrite beads, and, notably, a large number of glass beads of various shapes and colours. Such glass beads were wide-spread in the northern Black Sea area, which proves well-established foreign trade connections of ancient Khorezm. However, among hundreds of Jambas-Kala artifacts there was not a single coin to be found, which proves that the town had existed in the 1st century the latest, as in Khorezm coins came into being only at the beginning of the 2nd century, in the times of the Great Kushans and Khorezmshakhs.

        The residents of Janbas-Kala were most likely farmers working in the fields outside the town. One of the excavations brought to light the remains of a tandyr clay oven, whereas in other rooms of the dwelling there were discovered grain graters typical of Kanguy period.

        The brickwork of the fortress walls still bears the impression of tamga clan brands. This interesting find explains remarkably symmetrical arrangement of residential blocks in Janbas-Kala. It appeared that the brand on the walls of the dwellings located on the left is totally different from the one on dwelling walls on the right side. Scientists believe this to be the evidence that two clans once united for mutual defense and economic matters, conjointly built the fortress town and began to live in it. One of the clans was probably made up of farmers and craftsmen, whereas the members of the other clan were stock-breeders.

        Janbas-Kala residents professed Zoroastrianism, one of the world's oldest religions. Zoroastrianism was spread for more than a thousand years over a huge area between Khorezm and India, and Xinjiang and the Middle East. Across from the gate, at the other end of the town, there were found the ruins of a fire temple. The temple was the center of the town's spiritual life. There still remains an oval pedestal, on which the holy fire in a metal altar used to burn day and night, as was required by the Zoroastrian religious rituals. Along the wall there is a partly-ruined long stone bench for the priests who were to keep the eternal fire by feeding it with fruit tree twigs. It was the place where they performed the fire purification ceremony and sang Avesta hymns.

        Most scholars believe that it was Khorezm where Zoroastrianism originally appeared. It is impossible to establish either the exact date the religion originated, or the date of birth of its prophet Zaratustra (Zoroastr in Greek). Scholars only suppose that he lived in the 8th – 7th centuries B.C. By that time Khorezm had developed into a prosperous civilization, which then could have been an intellectual background of the new religion.

        Janbas-Kala temple had also a large room where, judging by a great number of fragments of earthenware and animal bones inside it, the Zoroastrian dining ritual Boj Giriftan would take place.

        It is wrong to think that fire-worshippers burnt their dead. They would place them on the flat tops of dakha "silence towers" or just leave in desolate places for birds and animals to feed on. Then the bones of the dead would be put in special assuary containers. In the outskirts of Janbas–Kala in the 1960s archeologists discovered a collection of such containers. Made of baked clay and covered with engobe, they date back to the 1st century. Most likely, the place these assuarys were found in, was a kind of necropolis of Janbas-Kala. The containers were of various sculptural forms: a woman sitting on a throne, a horse-rider, etc. But the most interesting are those in the form of an architectural construction. They look like toy fortresses with arrow-shaped "chessboard order" embrasures, cornices and pilasters. It is obvious that these architectural containers were models of real constructions of the time.

        For five centuries Janbas-Kala residents had to repeatedly defend their town from hostile nomads. In the 1st century during one of the invasions of nomadic tribes the assaulters failed to seize the fortified gate by force. However, to the south of the gate they managed to break the wall open with a ram, and burst inside. The enormous number of metallic arrow-heads of two types, found inside the town, testifies to a fierce fight that took place in there. Most of the residents were probably killed, the rest were captured and sold as slaves; the fire temple and dwellings were destroyed. For two thousand years rain and wind have taken their toll, too: most of the remaining constructions have been eroded away. Only the fortress walls keep telling us about the former grandeur of Janbas-Kala.

        In Uzbekistan there are a lot of Zoroastrian monuments. Janbas-Kala, which is the oldest of them and is included in the tour "The Golden Ring of Ancient Khorezm", is notable for being the earliest embodiment of the basic architectural canons applied in the construction of antique Khorezm fortresses in the later period. Almost all of them had similar fortified gates, with projections containing maze-like passages. The architects of Janbas-Kala were also among the first who developed the typical of Central Asian fortress town symmetrical arrangement of residential blocks. Even the oval form of the altar pedestal in Janbas-Kala fire temple was reproduced in the Zoroastrian temple in Teshik-Kala eight centuries later.

        At the foot of Janbas-Kala, among sand dunes, there are pitched nomadic tents – yurts. It is the place where travelers can find lodging and rest in the shade on ayvan platforms under reed shelters, where they will be treated to rich shurpa soup and refreshing tea with Asian sweets. After sunset on the endless night sky there appear myriads of unbelievably bright stars. And when the moon lights up above the ancient fortress, the eternal fire of Janbas-Kala seems to be still shimmering in the ruins of the temple. And there comes the feeling of the eternal universe