27 January 2022
Boris Zheleznyakov is an experienced archaeologist in the Almaty region. He currently provides tours of several sites, including Talgar – a medieval nexus of trade and handicrafts on the Silk Roads, which connected Central Asia with Iran, China, India, and the world. The object is now listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as a component of the Chang’an-Tian-Shan Corridor of the Silk Roads, nominated jointly by China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
When Boris tells of the story of Talgar – or its historical name Talhiz – you can sense a reverence for the site. Having worked as an archaeologist on numerous excavations, Boris has insight into each layer below the thick sheet of snow: the artefacts, the drawings, and the lives lived.
For Boris ‘every archaeological find, every cultural layer, every piece of rock art is an opportunity to reconstruct the pages of history’. The profession of an archaeologist is a varied one: yes, Boris might spend months in the field, uncovering artefacts and inching through history, but equally important are the hours at a desk, writing and contemplating, or the moments where he shares the story of the Silk Roads with those who continue to care about its ‘pages’. He stresses that archaeology is a game of luck. When he begins an excavation, he never knows what new discovery will be made, or how previous chapters of history might be rewritten. His work is based firmly on scientific methodology, but it requires a dose of creativity to interpret discoveries and pass down historical knowledge to the next generation.
When asked about his favourite aspect of work, Boris talks of people, not things: the best expeditions weren’t about the artefacts; they were about the colleagues and his mentors in the field. The best tours aren’t defined by the exhibits, but by the character of his guests. Children, in particular, have an openness and curiosity which allows Boris to challenge ‘preconceived ideas’ and form new interpretations.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that children should be those who appreciate Talgar the most: the wide-open space is a playground for the imagination. It’s easy for them to create their own tale of the artisans and traders, travellers and conquerors who passed through. Adults also may trace the lines of the rabads and imagine the diversity of their wares: from local goods such as clay toys, bronze mirrors and meticulous works of blacksmithing, to imports from far away such as Chinese ivory chopsticks, bronze Persian bowls and Japanese and Sogdian ceramics. The artefacts often paint a picture of the diverse religions which co-existed in Talhiz from the 8th to 13th centuries: a seated Buddha, earthenware and bronze items with Quranic inscriptions, and ceramic lamps with Nestorian Christian crosses were all found during excavations. Alongside Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, Tengri tradition was also widespread. At its heyday from the 11th to 13th century Talhiz housed up to 6000 people, mainly Turks: Karluks, Jikili and Yagma. Their lifestyles varied: some were settled craftsmen or agriculturalists, others preserved nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyles; itinerary traders constantly arrived from afar.
For Boris integrity is the key to being a good guide. Of course, his main priority is to provide guests with compelling accounts of the past, but he is unwilling to do this to the detriment of the truth. People ask for rumours about famous figures passing through the city, or about ghosts and paranormal sightings, but Boris believes that the site itself has enough stories to tell.
Stopping outside the residence of a jeweller, Boris reminisces about an unusual lull in the city’s vibrancy: a so-called ‘period of desolation.’ I.I. Kopylov, the main archaeologist responsible for excavations during the post-war Soviet period, dated a ‘sterile’ layer from the 1060s to the 1090s. The whole city had been abandoned: the rabads for crafts and handiwork, the farmland, the suburbs, the outskirts; all were empty. It seems that infighting between Karakhanid dynasties had cut off the trade routes and caused the locals to flee. But the people of Talhiz did not forget their home. The owners and their children returned to their previous abodes and ‘carried on the work of their fathers’. After thirty years of absence, the jeweller’s ornaments reappear as if time had not passed. For an observer, it is comforting to imagine that after bouts of strife and hardship, life carries on.
Approximately four hundred years later, Talhiz was once again troubled by infighting: this time between the Mongol khanates. The trade routes dried up, and the city gradually shrank to a village. Boris emphasizes how lucky we are to have the settlement site preserved and protected by its heritage status. Talhiz was at risk of being lost many times. Until recently farmers still grazed their livestock upon its land; and ‘dark archaeologists’ secretly removed and sold items from the site, recklessly damaging and mixing the cultural layers. Neighbouring sites have been lost forever: the northern side of Talgar, the historical town of Tunk/Ton on the right bank of the river, and countless other settlements mentioned in chronicles. Thanks to its protected status, Talhiz can now escape this fate.
The Talgar/Talhiz site has a promising future. It is only a forty-minute drive from the major city of Almaty and easily accessible by public transport all year round. Boris hopes to see tourism to the settlement flourish – he envisages the construction of a visitor centre with exhibits from the site alongside plenty of visual, audial, and tactile engagement. If more visitors can be attracted to the town, it will help preserve the history of the Silk Roads, while providing economic opportunity for the people of Talgar.
This material was prepared within the framework of the project "Silk Roads Heritage Corridors in Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran - International Dimension of the European Year of Cultural Heritage", implemented by UNESCO with financial support from the European Union
The content is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union
Permanent link: http://en.unesco.kz/silk-roads-in-kazakhstan-talgar