If the Parthian site of Nisa makes for a good half-day trip to the west of Ashgabat, the remains of ancient and medieval setlements near the village of Anew provide a similarly straightforward short excursion to the east of the capital. Anew lies just 12km from Ashgabat, on the main road heading east towards Mary. The main sites of interest to the visitor lie among fields to the east of the village. The modern village is spelt 'Anew', following the current usage of the Turkmen government. The spelling 'Anau' is the prevalent version in the archaeological literature, and this spelling has been retained to refer to the ancient and medieval sites.
Frequent buses ply the short route between Ashgabat and Anew. But they depart from the inconveniently peripheral east end of Atamurat Niyazov Shayoly in Ashgabat and, unless you are on a really tight budget, it would make for a much pleasanter trip to negotiate a price with an Ashgabat taxi driver. Travel agencies in Ashgabat will also happily organise a half-day programme. If you do come by bus, the terminus in Anew lies on Azatlyk Kochesi, a couple of kilometres south of the centre of the village. The railway station sits on the main road between Ashgabat and Mary, officially known in town as Gurbansoltan Eje Shayoly. There is little point in using the train to get to Ashgabat, but Anew is also a stop for the daily departures from Ashgabat eastwards to Dashoguz, Atamurat and Serhetabat, and for the twice weekly departure to Serakhs.
The ancient settlement
Two large mounds, 300m apart, are not hugely exciting to look at, but have proved greatly significant in uncovering information about early agricultural settlement in Turkmenistan. The north mound was first excavated by the Russian General Komarov in 1886. Komarov cut a trench straight through it, uncovering evidence of ancient civilisation. More systematic research was undertaken by the American geologist Raphael Pumpelly, who excavated here in 1904. This work led to the identification of four cultural layers: the Eneolithic Anau I and II cultures, in the north mound, and Bronze Age (Anau III) and Iron Age (Anau IV) cultures of the later south mound, to which the Anau settlement seems to have shifted around 4,500 years ago.
Pumpelly did not have an easy time at Anau. A plague of locusts filled up his trenches, and made further digging impossible, prompting him to shift his attentions to Merv. But one find in particular from the Pumpelly expedition has been highlighted by the present-day Turkmen government: the evidence of the cultivation of cereals, including wheat and barley, found even in some of the lowest layers at Anau. In his book Ruhnama, President Niyazov talks of the discovery of grains of 5,000-year-old white wheat, as evidence that Turkmenistan is the place of origin of cultivated white wheat. In 2003, Niyazov decreed that Gawers District, in which Anau stands, be renamed Ak Bugday ('White Wheat') District, to mark the fact that 'the ancient soil of Anau is the motherland of white wheat.' In 2004, the Turkmen government organised an international conference to commemorate the centenary of the Pumpelly expedition. It was called 'Turkmenistan is the native land of the Anau Culture and white wheat'.
The medieval settlement
To the east of the two mounds of the ancient settlement lie the ruins of a later one. Its origins seem to lie in Parthian times, when it may have been the settlement of Gatar, mentioned by Greek sources. The place later became known as Bagabad, centred on a fortress some 300m in diameter. The name Anau seems to have been used from the 18th century, and derives from the Persian, meaning 'New Water'. The major sight remaining for the visitor today is that of the ruins of the 15th-century Seyit Jamal-ad-Din Mosque. To get here, take the turning to the south, 5km east of Anew, passing under an archway inscribed with the name of the mosque, which lies a few hundred metres further on.
The mosque was built in 1456 through the finance of one Mohammed Khudaiot, the representative of the Timurid governor of Khorasan, who chose to site the building at the grave of his father, Sheikh Jamal-ad-Din. The mosque, which lies in the southern part of the old fortress of Bagabad, included an extensive religious complex, with a madrasa and accommodation for pilgrims. Its most distinctive feature, however, was the depiction of two great mosaic dragons high on the portal, as if guarding the central arch. The beauty of this mosaic, the slender dragons winding almost like snakes above the central arch, is well captured by photographs taken by the Soviet archaeological expedition led by Galina Pugachenkova in 1947. But on 6 October 1948 the mosque collapsed in the earthquake which destroyed Ashgabat, taking the mosaic dragons with it. Turkmen researchers have recently attempted to piece together the mosaic from the fragments uncovered at the site. The results of their work arc on display at the Museum of Fine Art in Ashgabat.
THE DRAGONS OF ANAU
A local legend explaining the background to the highly unusual depiction of creatures on the portal of a mosque runs roughly as follows. In days of yore, the town here suffered greatly from the predations of a pair of dragons, who consumed livestock and harvests. The town had a bell, to be rung only in times of distress. One day, the people of the town were mightily surprised to see their bell being furiously rung by one of the dragons. The dragon managed to convey with gestures that they should follow him, and took the townspeople to his mate. She had swallowed a ram, whose horns had become lodged in her throat. She was finding it difficult to breathe, much less to set fire to anything.
The townspeople managed to extract the sheep from the throat of the ailing dragon. She was cured instantly. In gratitude, the dragons took the townspeople on their backs, and flew them to a mountain cave, which sparkled with diamonds. With their treasure, the people of the town built a wonderful mosque, with mosaic pictures on the portal of the two dragons which had made its construction possible.
The main survivals of the mosque are the bases of the two columns of the portal. These retain some blue and turquoise tiles in geometric designs. Behind these columns, the once great mosque has been reduced to a pile of rubble. The courtyard in front of the portal has been cleared. Here stands a reconstructed brick cenotaph, considered to mark the grave of Seyit Jamal-ad-Din and an important shrine pilgrimage site. Another tomb nearby, more colourfully decorated with blue and turquoise tiles, is dedicated to Kyz Bibi. Facing the portal, the small, domed building to your right is said to offer the faithful relief from their heart disorders. The requirement is to crouch inside the tiny room beneath the dome.
Little pats of mud on the walls derive from the belief that mud from this holy place, applied at the site of joint pain or an ailment of the skin, can then take the pain away if slapped onto the walls here. Cribs fashioned from pieces of material are representations of wishes for children found at many shrine pilgrimage sites in Turkmenistan. A less common symbol, which you may see here, is an open pair of scissors, representing the cutting of the umbilical cord. Ears of wheat placed on top of the tomb of Seyit Jamal-ad-Din are considered symbols of fruitfulness, and seem to hark back to the discovery made by Pumpelly.
The modern settlement
Anew is basically a large village, strung out along the Mary road not far from the encroaching eastern suburbs of the city of Ashgabat. But it is also formally the capital of Ahal Region. While in practice the region centres around Ashgabat, Anew's administrative role has given the village a few oversized public buildings. The regional branch of the Senagat Bank, for example, in front of which stands a statue depicting Saparmurat Niyazov's father Atamurat, working his abacus. A large but uninviting park nearby, planted with rows of conifers, is also dedicated to Atamurat Niyazov.
The most interesting public building in Anew is the flamboyant Museum of White Wheat, built by the Turkish construction company Polimeks in commemoration of Pumpelly's discoveries. The museum was opened by President Niyazov in June 2005 as part of celebrations marking the reported fulfilment of the annual wheat harvest quota of 3,100,000 tonnes. The design of the building is striking: a circular, white marble-faced structure, topped by two golden crowns of giant ears of wheat. There are wheat-oriented decorations everywhere, including on the street maps and benches around the museum. In front of the museum stands a golden statue of a suited President Niyazov, depicted parting a field of wheat. Ten columns decorated with wheat motifs stand sentinel around the statue.
Following the grand opening of the museum, most of the exhibits were promptly withdrawn, reportedly pending the appointment of a museum director, and at the time of writing the museum was not properly open, though employees of the construction company working on site were happy to show visitors around. The ground floor displays focus on archaeology, including pottery found at Anau, and a handful of blackened grains of the celebrated ancient Anau wheat. Photographs of Raphael Pumpelly interest mainly for the length of the archaeologist's beard, which reaches comfortably to his stomach. There are photographs too of President Niyazov, brandishing a scythe in a field of wheat to signal the start of the harvest. Display cases promising treasures from Merv and Margiana stood empty at the time of research. The basement features displays on grain production in post-independence Turkmenistan. A display case features a Heinz-equallmg 57 varieties of wheat, from Tejen-5 to Neutrality. A variety named Turkmenbashy is, we are told, capable of yields of an impressive 70kg per hectare. The Golden Age variety has particularly bushy ears. There is a display on the baking of bread, centred around a model of a traditional clay oven, or tamdyr, more empty display cases, and some toy tractors. A chart depicts the remarkable reported growth in the wheat harvet since independence, from 70,000 tonnes back in 1989 to a target of 5,000,000 tonnes by 2020.
A forgotten monument to Soviet icons lies to the east of Anew. Nine kilometres out of town, on the road to Mary, take the unmarked asphalt road to the left, heading off at roughly a 45° angle from the main road. After about a kilometre, you reach a long-abandoned car park. From here, walk across the adjacent railway line to reach a once smart pathway between now wild conifers. This takes you to a short flight of steps, above which stands a stone obelisk. This is the Monument to the Nine Ashgabat Commissars, members of the Bolshevik leadership in Ashgabat, who were hanged in 1918 following a coup in the town during the Civil War. The inscription has long since gone from the obelisk: the ghostly shadow of a hammer and sickle now makes its imprint on the stone. During the Soviet period, trains would respectfully sound their horns when passing this place. Now, it is silent.