Ruined Cities, Southern Russia
1. Serai and New Serai
At Tzaref in southern Russia, were ruins which were once--possibly--the Mongol cities of Serai and New Serai, seats of Batu Khan and Janibeg Khan. New Serai was also known as Great Serai, and it was the capital of the Golden Horde; it lies in unusually good pasturage (according to Henry Howorth and also the naturalist Pallas) near the salt works of Selitrennoi Gorodok. In the nineteenth century, Pallas explored the area, and because even then the ruins were being pulled down and defaced, his account (source: Pallas' Travels in the Southern Provinces of Russia) is worth quoting:
"Near the Podpalatnoi Yerik (a ditch which empties itself by one branch into the Tzarefka, and by another into the Akhtuba), there are some curious remains of Tartarian antiquity. I remarked there several traces of houses and sepulchral hills, similar to those which I had before observed above the river Kugultu on the higher steppe. Among them are three ruins enclosed by a square bank of rubbish, without a ditch, and with an outlet towards the south. The monument at Podpalatnoi Yerik is a sepulchral mound of a flat form, raised on a square eminence, and consisting of six contiguous and very low arches covered with earth; its base is about one hundred and fifty paces in circumference, and not above a fathom high, but together with the square on which the vaults are erected it is three fathoms in perpendicular height. This square monument is enclosed by the foundation of a thick wall, which consists of an imperfect sandstone quarried on the opposite bank of the Volga. There appears to have been an entrance in the northern side of this wall, which forms an oblong square of twenty-nine fathoms long and twenty-seven fathoms broad; its base, measured from north to south, is fifty-seven fathoms in extent, and fifty-six from east to west. The space around the vaulted hillocks is considerably excavated within the enclosure, and the vaults of the monument, which probably have long since been plundered of a considerable booty, deserve a more accurate description on account of the solidity of their construction. The walls that support them are formed of pieces of rough unhewn sandstone, about an ell high. The vaults themselves are almost flat, and consist of about six layers of square oblong bricks placed alternately, so that one by its breadth supports and covers two others. The spaces between them are nearly an inch broad, and filled up with a cement which in some places appears to have been poured in while in a liquid state. It has, however, acquired such a solid consistence that it is easier to break the well-burnt bricks than to separate the mortar. This grey cement appears to be a mixture of unslacked lime, pulverised charcoal, and pounded sandstone, instead of the sand used for building. In that mass I observed many particles of lime as white as snow, which readily crumbled into dust, as well as large and small particles of charcoal, this substance being reduced to a fine powder, probably imparted the grey colour to the cement. Perhaps the admixture of charcoal dust may produce an effect similar to the earth of Pozzuola, which, however, must be decided by experiment. The durability of the cement may also be ascribed to a mixture of sour milk, which we may suppose must have been in great abundance among a wealthy pastoral people. In short, the mortar of their vaults is, notwithstanding the constant moisture from above and the saline nature of the surrounding soil, the best, hardest, and driest I have ever seen, and the ruins of the flat vaults almost resist the force of the pick-axe, insomuch that they can only be reduced by small fragments.
" On the western side of this mausoleum, distant about forty-two fathoms, there is a round heap of rubbish, apparently the ruin of a brick tower, from which a wall of an ell thick extends five fathoms to the east-southeast, and thirty-one fathoms to the south-southeast, forming an obtuse angle at a circular pit, where it terminates. The brick and shards scattered here probably belonged to an ancient aqueduct. I shall not attempt to decide whether this has been an apparatus for raising water, but so much is certain that the circumjacent soil having been made perfectly level, indicates a former state of agriculture, besides, it is manifest that at the lowest side of the parapet there has been a mound or bank formed in regular angles, from eight to ten paces broad, and upwards of a thousand paces long. The earth for this bank has been taken from pits discoverable in several places. This enclosure could have served no other purpose than that of a reservoir of water for gardens."
"The popular tradition relative to the monument near the Podpalatnoi Yerik is that the palace of the Khan formerly stood there. I imagine, however, that this ruin, as well as the numerous vaulted piles of brickwork, are the ancient sepulchres of the Mongol-Tartar princes and other persons of distinction. The leaden tubes which are said to have been found near these vaults have probably been used instead of the spiracles usually made in Muhammedan tombs. It is certain that in the sepulchres of this country immense riches have formerly been discovered, consisting of jewels and vases and ornamental horse furniture of massy gold and silver. The major part of this treasure has been secretly disposed of to the goldsmiths and merchants, while the remainder is still preserved in the cabinet of curiosities belonging to the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg.
"About one hundred fathoms north-west from the great mausoleum there is a large heap of rubbish or ruins thrown together, and nearly one hundred fathoms in circumference. It appears to have been part of the materials of a building. About sixteen fathoms farther towards the west-southwest is another square mass of ruins of a moderate size. One hundred fathoms northwest from the latter, and above one hundred fathoms from the large monument, a third oblong and very considerable pile appears, which is probably the ruins of a building; and two hundred fathoms westward there is a circular sepulchral hill, simply vaulted with bricks. This hill is opposite to and about one hundred fathoms distant from a lake, which is a verst long, and surrounded with dwarf willows. The lake contains a sweetish water, and is much frequented by a variety of the feathered tribe. According to tradition, it is asserted to be the true sugar lake of Kharashish, the divorced consort of the Khan Dshenovak (i.e., of Janibeg Khan), who is so often the subject of conversation among the Kalmuks. This lady, it is reported, had fixed her habitation near the above lake, and ordered a large quantity of sugar to be thrown into it, to decoy aquatic birds from the circumjacent parts. By this stratagem the Khan (her husband), who was a great lover of hawking, was induced to resort to the vicinity of her residence, and thus she eventually effected a reconciliation. All the heaps of ruins in the valley are distinctly visible from this lake, and there is also a distance prospect of the pile situated on the high steppe beyond the Tzaritza, which I have already mentioned in my former travels, and the large sepulchral hillocks beyond the Kligultu."
"In some parts of this low country there is said to be a regular road paved with bricks leading over a swampy ditch, and in other places small regular arches of brickwork are discoverable, which probably have served as a ground. work for the felt tents of the chiefs in a country so rich in pasturage. In my opinion the ruins are not the remains of the dwelling-houses, but partly of mosques and partly of vaulted chapels which have been enclosed by walls like the modern cemeteries of the Nogays. A wandering nation, such as the Golden Horde of these countries, could no more be induced to reside in houses than the Khans and princes of the Kalmuks along the banks of the Volga; though the fortress of Yenataevka had been purposely established the dwelling-houses built for their accommodation. The whole border of the high steppe above the valley of Tzarevy Pody is covered with innumerable sepulchral hills, and those called Kurgans, which are scattered down along the banks of the Akhtouba, as far as the Solanka, and upwards beyond Saplavnaya. Some of these hills are very large, and may be seen at a great distance, but nearly the whole of their vaults have been opened."
"The largest sepulchral monuments are erected on the most prominent parts of the country, as in Siberia. The ruins of the old Tartar capital and its dependent villages stretch over a wide area of the steppe on the upper Akhtuba, and cover a space of seventy versts, including the bends of the river, and stretch from the village of Nishni Akhtubinsk, opposite Zaritzin, towards the east and south-east, as far as Saplawinskoi and the village of Prishibinskoi. Near Saplawinskoi there is a large heap of bricks, which the Russians call Metshetnoi Bugar, or the hall of the house of prayer, and the Kalmuks, Temahne Balgasun, or the camel's tower. The Kalmuks report that Janibeg Khan kept his mares there, whose milk was conveyed by tubes from this tower to his residence, but the numerous sepulchral hillocks scattered over the steppe sufficiently indicate the purpose to which this building was formerly consecrated."
"From Prishibruskoi may be seen the beautiful valley of Tzarevy Pody, or the Royal residence. It is upwards of fifteen versts long and seven broad. By the Kaimuks it is called Jan Wokhani Balgassun (i.e., the town where Khan Wokhan ruled). The Tartars, however, call it Janibeg Khan Serai. Many coins have been found over this area, while the worked stones and debris have been used in building the tower of Zarefka ..."
2. City of Majar
The ruins of this city were situated on the river Kuma. The area was visited by Gmelin in 1772; he described three sets of ruins, in three separate sites. The principal ones were called Middle or Great Majar, and were situated on the left bank of the Kuma, between the lakes of Biwalia or Bibala and Tamuslava. When Gmelin was there he found an elevated quadrangular plain, five versts in diameter, the whole of which was covered with ruined buldings. He writes:
"These ruins are evident indications of the former existence of a great and magnificent city, and some remains of buildings are yet in such a state as to prove this to demonstration. Others are more completely destroyed; and of the greater part, the ravages of time have left nothing but rubbish and the foundations, vaults more or less perfect, and similar relics. Such of the ruins as are in the best preservation are situated in general on the extreme border of the quadrangle, and surround the rest of the town. They are of superior dimensions, built of larger and more durable bricks, more profusely embellished, and stand more detached; they likewise exhibit traces of ditches and walls, and seem from all appearances to have been castles of the grandees, erected with a view to strength, splendour, and durability. The bricks resemble those still made by the Tartars of Astrakhan, that is to say, they are broader and thicker than ours. In the external walls, a mortar composed of lime and sand is used only here and there, the cement generally employed being clay alone; but within almost all the rooms are plastered and whitewashed. The foundations are mostly of brick, some few of stone, but all extremely solid. The beams and wood-work are fir.
"The figure of the buildings yet preserved is square, octagonal, and circular. All of them are from four to nine fathoms in height, and the square and octagonal are surmounted by a kind of pyramid, or rather diminish upward in the form of a pyramid. Narrow winding staircases, seldom more than fifteen inches wide, concealed in the walls, conduct to these pyramids or cupolas, which receive light through apertures resembling windows in the sides. The cupolas are arched at the top. In every house there is a lofty and spacious hall with two windows, likewise built of stone, from which a door leads into the principal apartment on the ground-floor. The entry to the hall is on the outside, and low. Thus every building consists of no more than one principal apartment on the ground-floor, the hall, and the cupola or pyramid. The first receives light from a small narrow window at a considerable height on each side, and on one or two sides there is a still smaller aperture very near the floor, likewise for the purpose of light, or perhaps of air. On the outside of the walls of the principal apartment and of the hall, there is a recess a brick in depth, and this recess is always arched at the top, probably for ornament. Within are several similar recesses or niches.
"The style of the circular buildings differ still more from the modern European and Asiatic architecture. These are likewise from four to nine fathoms in height, not large, arched and pointed at top; and they so nearly resemble the round Persian and other watch-towers, that they might be taken for them, if they did not stand among the other buildings on level ground, and had not windows instead of loopholes. These were probably magazines.
"In the middle of the principal apartment is a circular aperture three or four feet in diameter, closed with a stone which exactly fits it. This aperture leads to a horizontal subterraneous passage, frequently no longer than the room itself, but which in many instances proceeds in a straight line, and runs to the extremity of the court-yard, where is also a closed entrance. It is provided with several air-holes.
"The decorations of the buildings consist of blue, green, red, or white glazed bricks, which are neatly inlaid among the others in the form of triangles, squares, parallelograms, crosses, hearts, and other figures, both in the interior and exterior of the walls of the lower apartment, and of the pyramid or cupola; just in the same manner as in the buildings of Selitrennoi Gorodok.
"The smaller wall incloses the court-yards of the above-described principal buildings in the form of a square, be the buildings themselves of whatever figure they may. Each of these court-yards has one or more graves, probably of the owners and their relations. Where there are several, they are all placed by the side of one another. Every grave has a stone, either standing upright or flat. The latter are about two yards long, and on the upper side there is generally the figure of a coffin common in Germany; but some have also geometrical and other figures, which to me appeared arbitrary; but might be a representation of the signature or arms of the deceased : thus you see upon them triangles, crosses, squares, &c. The surface of one large gravestone was divided by two diagonal lines into three compartments; in the centre was the figure of a coffin, and a figure in each of the two others.
"Besides these detached graves in the court-yards, there are also general burial-places, and one in particular beyond the lake of Biwalla (the river Bywalia) full of gravestones of different kinds.
"The buildings in the centre of the city, surrounded by these durable edifices, are now almost all mere heaps of rubbish forming small hills. They must have been run up with bad materials, and have been partly built of unburnt brick alone. Nevertheless, every house has its court-yard encompassed with a wall and ditch, and its tenants repose in their own ground, as traces of the walls and gravestones plainly evince-proofs of the once flourishing state of this city.
"Not far from Majar, near the lake of Biwalia, I saw a sepulchre, the occasion of which I was quite at a loss to divine. This burial-place cannot have been discovered but by some accident, perhaps by some person sinking in there; for it is totally destitute of any of the marks that would excite a suspicion of the existence of such a receptacle. In a spot overgrown with reeds is a bole two yards deep, four long, and about the same in breadth, with shelving sides, which was covered with clay and turf, as it partly is still. It is almost full of decayed human bones, to all appearance the remains of persons slain in battle.
"The first Majar (or Lower Majar) is situated on the Kuma, eighteen versts from Great Majar, and consists of the ruins of three edifices and court-yards at some distance from one another. One of them exactly resembled the octagonal buildings described above, both in form and architecture, but was of larger dimensions than any of those structures, and the ornaments of glazed brick had sustained less injury. The two others stand each at the distance of about two hundred fathoms from this edifice, and all three in the form of a triangle.
"On the Kuma, three versts beyond Middle Majar, are the ruins of houses the same kind, which are called by the Russians Upper Majar. Opposite to Middle Majar, on the other (the right) side of the Kuma, are some few relics of former settlements and habitations."
Henry Howorth comments on this passage:
"To this description of the remains of Majar, Gmelin adds that in 1735, while the Tartars were still masters of this country, Tatischtscbew, governor of Astrakhan, sent some persons with a strong escort to explore these ruins, and to collect antiquities. By this means, as we are told, he obtained a writing upon very strong blue paper <Note: the Mongols still use the same kind of paper, which is either blue, brown, or black, for copying the sacred books of Lama religion upon, in gold, silver, or white letters. Of this sort were the Tibetian and Mongol writings found at Semipalatna and Ablai-kit . . .> and several coins, which he (as an antiquary !) took to be Scythian. It is matter of regret that nobody knows what has become of these collections, for in 1735 much greater curiosities must have existed there than in Gmelin's time, or at present; since the avarice of the Russian peasants prompts them to such researches wherever there are ruins and ancient graves, as leave nothing to be gleaned after them.
"Galdenstiidt, who was at Majar on the 4th of July, 1773, found there, in an area of four hundred square fathoms, about fifty different buildings of brick. He considers them not as habitations but sepulchral edifices, all of which were provided with subterraneous vaults, which are not cellars but graves where the coffins were deposited. About five hundred fathoms to the west of this burialplace were the ruins of a Muhammedan mosque with its tower or minaret, and five hundred fathoms further to the west the remains of another edifice of the same kind. He is of opinion that between the two might once have stood houses, of which indeed no traces are now left, but which were probably, according to the mode of building common in this country, of light boards and wickerwork. From some inscriptions Galdenstiidt ascertained that Majar was inhabited in the eighth century of the hejira ; and from the style of the ruins he concludes that the people were Muhammedans, and according to history Nogays.
"Pallas says, that in 1780 thirty-two buildings were yet left, partly in good preservation, partly lying in ruins, and that there had formerly been ten others in the form of towers : but since numerous colonists have settled on the Kuma, and erected villages, all these remains of Majar have disappeared ; as they employed the bricks in building their houses, because timber is a great rarity in the adjacent country. Thus seven years later Pallas found but four chapels, as they are called, standing, the sites of the others being marked only by heaps of rubbish."
Pallas also said that similar bricks to those found in the Tartar ruins, and glazed on one side only, were used when he wrote for chamber ovens, and were made at Cherkask, on the banks of the Don. After describing in detail the ruins as he saw them, he says :-
" We often met with similar enclosures near the principal tombs on the banks of the Volga, and I have not the least doubt that all these remains of antiquity formerly belonged to the same horde."
Also worth reading is Klaproth's account (Klaproth, Travels in the Caucasus):
"These ruins, of which I could find nothing but the traces, are situated on the elevated brow of the steppe on the left of the Kuma, and on both sides of the Bibala, and extend northward as far as two small lakes of salt water. They occupy an area of about four versts and a half in length from north to south, and very little less in breadth. The destruction of these remains of antiquity has been occasioned chiefly by the settlement of several colonies, which have established themselves in this neighbourhood, and have pulled them down for the sake of the serviceable bricks. Their total demolition, however, is to be ascribed more particularly to Count Paul Sergeitsch Potemkin, who ordered the greatest part of the buildings remaining in his time to be taken down, that the materials might be employed in the erection of the governmental town and fortress of Yekaterinograd, projected by himself. The peasants of Pokoinoi and Praskowyno have since carried away such quantities of bricks, that out of all the edifices only two burial chapels are now left, and these are going rapidly to decay.
" As the particulars already quoted from Gmelin and Gilidenstidt are more circumstantial than any that I am capable of giving, I shall merely subjoin the description of a burial-vault underneath one of the chapels still standing, which I caused to be opened. The sunken floor of this building, which was quite open towards the east, was covered to the depth of more than two feet with bricks, rubbish, and earth; these were cleared away with shovels, when I found a hole, two feet and a half in depth and two in width, covered with a large lime stone. This was the entrance to the vault, which was nine feet long and five and a half feet broad, but scarcely high enough to allow a person to stand upright. It was built of bricks laid edgewise; and in the middle, upon an elevation of brickwork, was a coffin made of thick deal boards, with the bones of the deceased, of the ordinary size, but which were much decayed, and authorise the inference that they must be of considerable antiquity. The skull had fallen to pieces, otherwise I should have taken it with me. Besides these objects there was nothing whatever worthy of notice in the vault. The air was pure, and our wax tapers burned extremely bright in it. The coffin lay in the direction from north to south. I would have had the vault under the other chapel opened also; but the Armenians assured me that they had examined it about a year before, and that it exactly resembled this in every particular.
"From the remaining ruins and from the foundations, the site of the town may easily be recognised, and it was evident that the burial-place was towards the Kuma. Every impartial person must admit that most of these remains are indications of a city, as are also the numerous ancient European and Tartar silver and copper coins, the gold and silver rings and earrings, the bronze mirrors, and other utensils which are still frequently found buried in the earth; further, the mosaic pavements of blue, white, and green glazed tiles, stone seats, and among the rest also a large reservoir for water of hewn stone, which now serves a peasant at Praskowyno for a corn bin.
"The name Majar, given to these ruins, is old Tartar, and signifies a stone building; it is synonymous with Thashtan. By the neighbouring Nogays and Turkomans they are likewise called Kirk Majar, that is, the forty stone buildings. Here, as in Turkish, Kirk does not merely signify forty, but it is the number which denotes a great multitude, like six hundred in Latin. In some Tartar dialects indeed, the word Majar also means a large four-wheeled waggon, but here that signification seems to be totally inapplicable. Some tribes of the Russian Tartars in the lofty mountains of the Caucasus, at the source of the Chegem and Terek, assert that they are descended from the inhabitants of this Kirk Majar.
"The following facts afford incontestable proofs that Majar was a town built and inhabited by Kipchak Tartars.
"i. The form of the buildings and sepulchral chapels is characteristic of Southern Asia ; and the latter in particular exactly resembles those which are to be seen near Tiflis in the Tartar burial-place on the rivulet of Zakuissi. The fashion of adorning the walls with tiles, which are glazed on one side with different colours, is also Tartar and Mongol. Thus in Dauria are to be found the ruins of an ancient city, and the same kind of green, blue, and red bricks as here; and in Tiflis the walls of the citadel of Naraklea, erected by the Turks, are in like manner ornamented with glazed tiles of different colours.
"2. The inscriptions in the Arabic language yet extant on gravestones are of Muhammedan Tartar origin. Several that I saw were inscribed in letters resembling the Cufic, and others in Niss'chi characters; the two most perfect of which are the following:- Here is buried the deceased, who needs the mercy of God in eternity, Sina, son of Muhammed, the son of Chalil in the year of the hejira seven-and-forty and seven hundred.'
"The year of the hejira 747 commences April 23, 1346, and ends with April in the year 1347 of the Christian era.
"The other inscription, which is of later date by about thirty years, is as follows:-' The judge of the Faithful, Kasai Muhammed, son of Taij-uddin (Crown of the Faith), in the year seven-and-seventy and seven hundred.'
"The year 777 of the hejira falls between the 1st of June, 1375, and the 18th of May, 1376. This stone, which is in excellent preservation, I took away with me from Majar for the sake of the date.
"All the other sepulchral inscriptions containing dates, which were partly expressed in words and partly in figures, belonged to the eighth century of the hejira; and of these I found five more; but excepting the lower part, comprehending the date, they were too much defaced to be entirely made out. When Pallas asserts that he found no stone* with inscriptions at Majar, he proves that he took no great pains to look for them. They are now, indeed, no longer to be met with among the ruins, but may be seen in the court-yards of the neighbouring peasants, who use them for building. Many of them also are said to have been employed in the walls of Yekaterinograd.
"3. Almost all the silver and copper pieces found at Majar were coined at Serai, the residence of the jingiakhanids in the Vipchak, or in other cities of their empire."
3. The Legend of Kazan
Henry Howorth continues:
"Let us now turn to Kazan. Kazan in Arabic means cauldron. Some suppose the town was so called from its being surrounded by mountains and forming a hollow something like a cauldron. The legends of its foundation give a different etymology. According to these its founder Batu was once feasting here, when the only cauldron which the party had to cook their dinner in was lost in the river, which was thence called Kazanka, whence the name of the town ; but it is clear that Kazanka is merely a Russian adjectival form derived from Kazan.
"An old legend, preserved by a writer of the sixteenth century, whose narrative was published at St. Petersburg in 1791, tells a story about the original site having been frequented by great numbers of serpents, some with two heads, one like a bull's, the other a serpent's ; the former feeding on vegetables, the latter on men and animals. There were other serpents like vipers and dragons, which constantly harassed Batu and his followers, and devoured many of the workmen who were building the town. A sorcerer was summoned, he surrounded the chosen site with hay, furze, and venomous herbs, and then set fire to the hedge so made. The serpents were either burnt or suffocated, but a large number of men, horses, and camels also fell victims. The surrounding marshes and woods still swarm with serpents. In spring they collect in myriads on the hills which remain uncovered by the inundation. Dr. Fuchs, one of the professors of the university, mentions how he one day in the end of May came across one of these hills covered with serpents of various sizes; how the police officers and others took their guns loaded with heavy shot and fired upon the reptiles. "Thousands," he says, "leaped into the water, but although we kept up an active fusillade for several minutes, the hillock still remained like an ant hill, covered with serpents. Forced to abandon this spot, we drew near a second, and a third, but finding everywhere similar obstacles to our landing, we were obliged to continue our navigation. Near Kazan is a mountain on which is a monastery called Zilantof, a corruption of the Tartar for serpent hill, and a Tartar legend affirms the hill was once the retreat of a dragon, which on being killed, its effigy was put by the Khan on the arms of Kazan, which still represent a winged and crowned serpent of a fantastic shape. Another legend assigns the foundation of the town to the time of Timur. We are told that when he overran Bulgaria he beleagured Bolghari for seven years, during which its Khan Abdulla was killed, while his sons Altin Bek and Alin Bek escaped. The former on Timur's withdrawal founded the town of Iski Kazan, which got its name from a kettle, which his attendants had taken to the river to fill with water for his bath, being lost. Iski Kazan remained the capital for a century. A later prince named Ali Bec, removed the site to Yanghi Kazan (i.e., New Kazan), the present town.
"So much for the legendary accounts of the foundation of Kazan. It will be noticed that the former one attributes its foundation to Batu Khan, but this is exceedingly improbable. The name does not occur anywhere till long after his day, while it certainly existed some time before Timur's invasion, and it is more likely that it gradually sprang into existence on the decay of Bolgharip which it displaced."
Main source: Howorth, Henry H., History of the Mongols 9th-19th Century, vol II.1.