I am back from my last travels within the fair island of Ireland. A lot of impressions, ideas, and topics to blog about. Unfortunately, experience shows that while I travel I simply don’t have the leisure to post. As a result, this blog has been sadly neglected. Now that I am back home, however, I expect I will be able to resume blogging at my regular rate (until I go away on another trip…).
The next few blogs will probably be devoted to what I have seen in my recent travels. One of the highlights was a tour of the symbolic landscape in Belfast. Today, however, I want to write about my visit to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg:
(all photos by the author)
The Hermitage is one of the oldest and largest world museums. One can easily spend a week exploring it. I only had half a day, so I focused on the Hermitage collection devoted to the history of Siberian and Central Asian cultures. The rooms housing this collection are located in one of the farthest, and most difficult to reach corners of the Winter Palace (the residence of Russian emperors). I had to follow a circuitous route, which involved going up one floor, wending my way through an endless sequence of luxurious halls, and locating a staircase that would take me down back to the first floor.
There were throngs of tourists queuing up to enter the museum (we bought tickets on the internet, and were able to bypass the line; the additional benefit was the permission to take pictures, as long as no flash was used).
But the Central Asian rooms were deserted – few people were able (or interested enough) to get this far. But if you have an interest in the history of Central Asia (as I do), this was indeed the jackpot.
Most people think of the nomads of Central Asia as rude barbarians, far below the level of civilization achieved by their neighbors, who built the first mega-empires, such as the Achaemenid Persia and the Han China. The facts are quite different. Not only were the Central Asians supreme in inventing the most powerful military technologies of the Ancient and Medieval Eras (primarily having to do with horse-based warfare), they also produced some of the most consequential ideological innovations (including the Monotheism and the Mandate of Heaven). They also produced a very elaborate material culture.
We know this thanks to a peculiar property of burial monuments (Kurgans, or barrows) of the chieftains of the so-called Pazyryk culture (sixth to third century BCE in the Altay region). By chance or design, these barrows suck cold air during the winters and retain it in summers. As a result, the burial goods are permanently frozen, so that the organic materials – cloth, wood, horn, leather – have been preserved until they were excavated by modern archaeologists.
One of the most spectacular finds is the huge felt carpet from the Fifth Pazyryk Kurgan:
This carpet was made with the base of thin white felt (3 mm thick). On top of the base, the ancient masters sewed figures cut from colored felts. The carpet repeats the same scene: a horseman approaches a female deity holding a flowering branch. Here’s the detail showing the horseman:
The chieftain who was buried in the Fifth Pazyryk Kurgan was about 55 years old. His mummy was prepared before burial by removing entrails and brain, and shaving most of his hair.
It’s a bit of a pathetic fate for this man, who clearly was a powerful and respected warrior in his life, to be now a subject of idle curiosity of throngs of tourists …
On the other hand, the chief buried in the Fifth Kurgan was luckier than the one in the Second Kurgan. The Fifth Kurgan’s chief probably died of natural causes (in the last years of his life he had some degenerative disease that limited his mobility). By contrast, the Second Kurgan’s chief was killed by his enemies. His head was cut off and scalped:
Note the vertical cut on his forehead – this was probably the sword cut that killed him. After his death, the victors punched holes in his cut-off head:
They probably used the holes to pass a leather thong so that his head could be hanged from the saddle of his victor. Somehow the relatives/retinue of the vanquished chief were able to recover his head, so that he could be buried with appropriate honors in the Second Kurgan. There is clearly a great story here – for someone like Neal Stephenson to flesh out (no pun intended).
Incidentally, all noble chiefs were elaborately tattooed:
Another fine example of Pazyryk art is the saddlecloth from the First Kurgan:
It uses a similar technique to the one in the great felt carpet. However, the Pazyryk artisans also knew how to make true woven carpets. The oldest pile carpet known to archaeologists was made in Altay between the sixth and third centuries BCE:
Finally, I’ve got to include a picture of at least one horse mask:
Lest the readers think that Iron Age Central Asians only excelled at ornamental arts, I should point out that they had very skillful weapon-makers (e.g., bowyers) and blacksmiths. They also had a remarkable grasp of mechanical arts, as illustrated by the four-wheeled cart, made from birchwood, found disassembled in the kurgan: