Thursday, December 17, 2015

Sarmoung's Way/8 - GOBUSTAN (Azerbaijan)

Stones speak in Gobustan. Sometimes they sing also, trying to tune their voice to the gabble of nearly 400 mud volcanoes surrounding the most important reserves of petroglyphs in Azerbaijan. The problem, however, is to understand what the hell are saying over the past 15 thousand years.

Archaeologists, explorers, even musicians have given a try, but everyone has been able to understand one part only of their so complicated history, just because their stories force us to consider times and places that seem to have little in common.

"It is said that once the Sakain, i.e. the angels, and the images of the gods, have cried over Janbusad, as well as all Sakain had wept on Tammuz”.

Here we go, again. Azad is an inexhaustible wealth. Exactly like the oil and gas fields that stud 64 very arid kilometres between Baku and the archaeological site, tirelessly hailed from the arms of blue drilling machines. He takes a step and stops. Points graffiti and begins to rummage through the memories of the entire Fertile Crescent. Massive neck, obsidian-eyed, he is not the usual guide repeating the lesson at 33 rpm. Gobustan, for him, is rather a crossroads, the place where the knowledge of a millennial tradition that knows no differences of race or creed converges, even admitting to have in front one the oldest puzzle of humanity. To follow him in his digressions, however, implies having in mind a geographical map whose cardinal points extend from Armenia to Khuzestan at least.

Oh yes! More or less, this is just the area in which they developed the cult of Harran - he seizes the opportunity, without turning an hair to my wrinkles of dismay - a cult proved until the thirteenth century AD, when Sabians were already submerged by Islam’s wave since a long time. But I could bring you dozens of further examples”. I shake my head in resignation.

"In short, if you let me finish, slowly you will make head and tail too. You must have patience, but it is a virtue often lacking in you, Europeans".

Curious he does not feel a European himself, as the government of his country - with a barrage of entertainments such as Eurovision or Rally Gran Turismo - has been doing anything to be recognised as the extreme eastern appendix of the Old Continent.

"As I told you, the legend says that the images of the gods gathered together from all corners of the Earth in the Temple of the Sun, around the large golden image suspended between Heaven and Earth.

I recommend you, pay attention very well! Write down every detail, because you will need then for your fallen angels and your mysterious Sarmoung.

So, the big image of the Sun was in the center of the temple, surrounded by the picture of the Moon, followed by those of Mars and then Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and, finally, that of Saturn. At this point, the idol - which was suspended between Heaven and Earth - fell down and began to cry Tammuz and told his painful story. Then all the idols wept and moaned all night; but as soon as the morning star raises, they all flew off and returned to their temples in all corners of the world”.

I look at Azad, more cryptic than ever, but he has a sly smile that does not bode well.

Certainly he hasn’t resigned himself to Isaac Jafarzadeh’s hypothesis that, first of a long series of researchers visiting Gobustan, raised an admissible doubt in 1939: perhaps the six thousand engravings of dancing men, totemic animals, solar boats and long caravans, scattered in the reserve southwest of the Azeri capital, "are not directly connected to each other”.

The stratifications of petroglyphs would be yes witness of a long succession of civilisations in the area, but not all are required to speak the same language. After all, it can work: which link may exist between the incisions left by Alexander the Great’s hoplites and the soldiers of the XII Roman Legion, the legendary "Fulminata"? 

And what about Thor Heyerdahl’s studies, ready to involve in Gobustan even the brave Vikings, whose typical rowing boats would find their first and irrefutable prototype just here? In Soviet times, the famous Azerbaijani percussionist Gird Mahdiyev had raised no less disorientation, when in front of a strictly Marxist audience he began to tap stones on some isolated rocks of the site, revealing unsuspected “hollow sounds": then geologists were quick to point out it was merely a physical phenomenon due to the presence of gas inside, but many “yalli-yalli" images, referring to the ancient neolithic dance where rows of men and women holding hands, could actually be traced to non-ordinary states of consciousness

Legionnaires? Vikings? Shamans? From whatever angle you approach Gobustan, there’s no doubt that something big, really big, is at stake between these extreme eastern foothills of the Caucasus. No coincidence that UNESCO itself, in 2007, decided to grant the title of World Heritage site. I raise my hands to the sky, in surrender, but Azad took the opportunity for handing me a paper hot off the press.

"Comparing the ancient solar stations of Abuli in Georgia and Carahunge in Armenia - these are the results of researchers Irakli Simonia, from James Cook University, and Badri Jijelava, from Ilia State University (often both mentioned even in the new museum at the entrance of the site) - it is plausible that Gobustan, in turn, was chosen as a privileged point of star gazing, thanks to the sacredness accorded to its rare natural phenomena. With volcanoes erupting flames up to 15 meters, as it happened just a few years ago, Gobustan was so different from any other nearby area, that has always exerted an irresistible charm on whoever visited it. The ascent and descent of celestial bodies, the constant movement of the stars, as well as the activities of the Earth - being the most accurate indicators of space and time to adjust the daily activities of old times - might have been represented by a set of geometric figures, like dancing people and running animals. The ruins of a cromlech, on the other hand, let think that Gobustan had been used as a solar temple during the Bronze Age, just because of its morphological arrangement; but this result comes mainly due to the presence of engravings of boats topped by a radiating sun".

Fine. Among the inexhaustible series of explanations, it could not miss the archaeo-astronomical one. The puzzle, however, is at the starting point again. “So what! Do not you get there yet?” - Azad teases - "Come on, come on, try putting it all together! The fallen angels ... the planets in the House...the observatory of the sky: everything starts to be so clear”. Patiently, the volcanic Azerbaijani guide invites me to retrace our steps, guiding me back along the narrow paths that wander between large engraved boulders and dominate the flat profile of the Caspian Sea. A little embarrassed, I look for solidarity towards the three bronze troglodytes guarding the entrance to the museum, but they have something else to think about, with their heavy clubs on their shoulders.

"Here it is, our Rosetta Stone!”. Archaeologist’s pitiless wand lands on one of the renowned "ships of the Sun"; just the kind had kindled Thor Heyerdhal’s enthusiasm, prompting him to identify god Odin’s birthplace, Azer, with the strip of territory extending from the peninsula of Azov on the Black Sea till the Absheron one in Azerbaijan, where the temple of eternal fire burns (and from which the country is named). "I do still help you: this time, however, a support comes from Abasali Rustamov, another archaeologist. After analysing the spatial orientation of the ancient drawings in relation to the horizon, exactly like the astronomical alignment of some rocks to the occurrence of the winter solstice, he concluded that the entire area would have served to mark the points of heavenly bodies shifts in different periods of the year, using the flat and "resonant" stones as altars for the worship of the sun. Are you there? Let’s roll! Dig into your astronomy knowledge! Think: Are not the lamentations for Tammuz a kind of "living fossil", a now unconscious ritual, but actually born to remember the only fall ancients really cared about? Perhaps don’t you call “fallen" stars, in astronomy, just those ones subjected to precession? Yup!? And we're not talking about any of a star, by golly! We have to do even with the pin of antiquity, Sirius, the dog-star, the head of the planets, the eighth planet for some folks!”.

A bright spot peeps in the sky. The air whipping the plain, on which the dusk looms now, hits on reddened cheekbones. According to the Julian calendar, Sirius regularly rose every four years to July the 20th, apparently without ever being influenced by any phenomenon of precession. Not surprisingly, in ancient times, this had led to the conviction it was more than one of many fixed stars. Around 139 AD, however, the unthinkable happened, plunging the world into dismay: Sirius “fell down". In its own way, it had begun to be subject to precessional influences time before, as the emblematic myth of Pan’s death had announced perhaps, but it is only in that year that the sothic cycle was registered officially. "Here we are! Here we are! - Azad rejoices, almost he has donated me a gold bar - yes, here we really are! And it's all about an Italian! Funny, isn’t it? Without the help of your fellow countryman Giorgio de Santillana, who wrote that archaeo-astronomy masterpiece known as "Hamlet's millin unsuspected times, we would still be here to rack our brains! All gods, all angels, all myths, they are always and anyway codes to explain the variations of the precession! Long live Italy! Long live Azerbaijan!”.

Strange people, these researchers. Sometimes they seem to live in other worlds. And it is also a shame that "Hamlet’s mill" explains much, but not everything. Without counting that is not the result of Italian hands only. If archaeo-astronomy certainly can provide a common denominator for understanding cosmology and cults developed in different community of the Caucasus, serious concerns remain about another boiling point: “when”. Current theories on the Cradle of Civilization, developed between the great Eurasian mountain range and the Fertile Crescent, fail to offer an explanation of why ancient civilisations owned a so well developed knowledge of astronomy. Our history, whether attributable to Sumerians, Indians or not Egyptians, begins anyway in a too advanced way. And, perhaps, the route of the "ships of the Sun" in Gobustan, about which Heyerdhal talked so much, should be seen turning eyes differently.

"Azad, I am not entirely convinced we have come to a full stop”. Suddenly it’s my Azerbaijani guide to gawk at me with suspicion. "Do not take it out on me, though. Probably Heyerdhal saw well in recognising a similarity between Scandinavian Viking ships and the engraved ones in Gobustan, but he could have dropped a clanger as well, ascribing their origin to Caucasians. Astronomy tells a lot, but not everything. There is another researcher of ours, Felice Vinci, who, starting from the descriptions in the Iliad and Odyssey, has invited to take into account also climatic influences on possible migrations of the ancient civilisations. In short, there are many arguing today the poles might have been inhabited in very old times, never considered critical for the evolution of man until now”. The Azerbaijani guide shakes a momentary thrill. "Maybe the ships of the sun didn’t go up to Scandinavia, but came to the Caucasus just from Scandinavia".

If he was a flag, Azad would now be at half-mast. Plumped down on himself, too. The competition among countries of the Caucasus, all committed to claim on each other the most ancient origins, is still a delicate issue. Yet the visceral attention to the motions of the Sun, with all the mythological fears related to its possible demise, may have really found a first basis of observation at the North Pole, where the light-darkness dichotomy, so fundamental in the development of religious cults, as much as atmospherical paradoxes due to the inclination of the terrestrial axis, have been visible to everyone since ever. If the climatic optimum of the so-called "Atlantic period", attested between 5,500 and 2,000 BC, gave birth to the advanced Scandinavian Bronze Age, what to think of all those amazing geographical coincidences that place the Land of the Four Rivers among the Lappish Tara, Ivalo, Mounio-Tornionjoki and Ounas-Kemijoki? Could not Sumerians - as suggested by the traditional Baltic songs - be descended to Mesopotamia, through those same river and lake ways that were used several times in history as a "highway" between the north and south of the world?

Sun is finally set and only wind's puffs howl on the desert plain. Along the horizon it stands just a brighter, bluish strip, maybe the flat profile of the Caspian Sea, which together with the Black Sea, the Aral Sea and Lake Urmia, is now the last witness of that immense Paratethys Sea dried up 5.5 million years ago. A bombastic guffaw bursts suddenly, scaring away even the jackals. "It's funny! Maybe I just sit next to last of Sarmoung!". No. He hasn't taken it well. I'm afraid the Nordic Cradle theory has hurt Azad’s pride. "Do you know where does the name of the Caspian Sea come from? One of the most authoritative sources is the ancient geographer Strabo, who mentions that Caspi people, or Caspians, were scattered southwest of our great salt basin. Gobustan would be then the land of allocation of this tribe which, according to Iranology professor Ernst Emil Herzfeld, descended from powerful Kassites: a mysterious pre-Indo-European people coming from the Zagros Mountains in Iran and revived the astronomical knowledge of Sumer from 1595 until 1155 BC. Oh well, Mister Caspani, perhaps you should go over there to find the solution to your dilemma!”. He inspects the sky, scratching a little his head. The disappointment seems already behind his shoulders. "Or maybe not". With his inseparable wand, Azad takes to draw in the sand a profile almost similar to the Caucasus. He fixes a point in Gobustan. Then another one in the heart of Georgia, at the height of Uplistsikhe. Straight, his wand runs from the first to the second point. It stops. Then continues without hesitation to the north-west ...

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