Physical evidence of the Greek colonies in Central Asia, particularly in parts of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, is not easy to come by. The ancient river names Oxus and Jaxartes and even the southern Afghan city of Kandahar (‘City of Iskander’ ie Alexander) provide intangible evidence of a kind. Ancient coins bearing the portraits Greek kings with their famous elephant-head bonnets are physical reminders, as are the buried ruins of some of the Bactrian cities they built, such as Balkh, where finds have included intricately carved Corinthian columns. Occasionally, inscriptions in Greek turn up – as well as inscriptions in local languages written with Greek letters.
Thus there was considerable excitement recently when an unknown inscription in a script linked to Greek, but so far undeciphered, was discovered high in the mountains of western Tajikistan. The discovery was made by Sanginov Khaitali, a resident of the village of Shol in Hisor Sanginov district, who reported his find to local authorities. The inscription is in a gorge of the Almosi River, at a place known as Khoja Mafraj.
Here, at a height of almost 3,000m, archaeologists found a pyramidal rock outcrop with three lines of inscription, made up of 23 individual letters. There had been more, but earthquakes had shattered them – although some fragments were also found, including one with 36 letters carved into it. The letters on the first inscription are yet to be deciphered but are similar to an inscription found at Dashti Navur, near Ghazni in Afghanistan. The text on the second stone is written in Bactrian, but in Greek letters. It has been translated to mean “This is the …of the king of kings, Vima Tactu”. Vima Tactu was the son of Kujuly Kadfiz, the founder of the Kushan kingdom, who ruled about 89-90CE.
According to Bobomulloev Bobomullo, from the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography at Tajikistan’s National Academy of Science, “The discovery of new rock inscriptions in the Almosi gorge replenishes the archaeological map of Tajikistan with new monuments. Along with the famous inscriptions discovered from Surkh Kotal and Rabatak in Afghanistan, it is of world importance.” He says that next year a scientific expedition will continue to study the location of the inscription, where there is a large cemetery, and will also try to reassemble the fallen rocks to help recreate the entire text.
Recent DNA research has revealed that the Saka (Eastern Scythian) tribes that inhabited Eastern Kazakhstan for much of the first millennium BCE had connections to the Greek colonies further south, partly due to trade and partly due to raiding. This connection marks them off from the ‘Pontic’ Scythians of the Black Sea region and from Saka who lived further to the east. Eventually many of these Saka were driven south into the Bactrian kingdoms by nomadic warriors coming from Eastern China. Some of them then moved on into northern India.
The exact route of the Atkinsons’ original journey south from the Altai Mountains towards the Djungar Alatau Mountains and Kapal – now in eastern Kazakhstan – during the summer and autumn of 1848 has always been something of a mystery to me. We know from Thomas’ diary that this was a very difficult journey in which Lucy almost died from exhaustion after their party became lost in the salt desert to the east of Lake Balkhash. However, thanks to some detective work by Almaty-based author Dennis Keen we now have a much clearer idea of where they went.
The Atkinsons had left Moscow together in January 1848 and set off for Siberia and Central Asia in a horse-drawn sleigh. After visiting the Siberian mining town of Barnaul and travelling south through the Altai Mountains they set off for the military encampment of Ayaguz – then known as Sergiopol. It was their intention to follow the military trail south, via a dozen or so piquet posts, to Kapal in the foothills of the Djungar Alatau Mountains.
It was a bad road and for Lucy, who was around seven months pregnant by this time, it must have been particularly difficult, not least because before this journey she had never ridden before. Having crossed the Irtysh River, their route took them directly south into the steppe, then across the outliers of the Ghenghistau Mountains, part of the Tarbagatai range. Although it was mostly flat terrain at this point, not long before reaching Ayaguz on 8th September their cart had become stuck in the very soft and marshy ground, from which they escaped only with the aid of men from the nearby piquet, who were able to pull them out.
The next day they left their carriage at Ayaguz in the care of a Cossack officer and prepared their horses for the long journey south. The season was turning and now there was a sharp frost early in the mornings. They stayed in the yurts of local Kazakhs, but the going was hard. “Having ridden three hours we came to some high ground affording a most extensive view all around us. A more desolate scene cannot be found,” wrote Thomas in his diary. “There was neither tree nor bush or any signs of vegetable life – all was dark and waste.”
Thomas says that soon after this they came to a small, isolated hill on which there were many tombs, “some of considerable size, built of stone in a conical form, with a large chamber containing graves…The tombs are extremely curious and of a very ancient date.” The likelihood is that Thomas is describing the Mausoleum of Kozy Korpesh and Bayan Sulu, located 7 kms southwest from Tarlauly village, on the right bank of the Ayaguz river, 11 kms to the west of Tansyk station. This ancient mazar (mausoleum) commemorates the love between the beautiful Bayan-Sulu and her lover Kozy Korpesh, a kind of Kazakh Romeo and Juliet. It was built in the tenth century and is now a protected monument.
Conditions became worse, with salt flats and no fresh water. They saw mirages and for a time were lost, with Lucy becoming more and more distressed. By Sunday 13th September, they could see the Djungar Alatau Mountains far in the distance, but they were still facing a long journey of some 80kms to the next piquet. In fact, this turned into a marathon journey, which they did not complete until 9am the next morning, by which time Lucy had fallen from her saddle and found it very difficult to get back on. As Thomas wrote in his diary: “I can’t speak too highly of Lucy’s courage and endurance during 22 hours on horseback, frequently riding very fast in the day and then riding through the nights across such a desert. Here we might have been plundered and overpowered had some of the bands of Baranta (robbers-ed) known of our march. Our arms were all kept in readiness and several would have bit the dust ere we had been taken.”
Thomas adds that during the night they had ridden past “thousands of the conical mounds.” I have not been able to establish the precise location of this place, but as Thomas wrote at the time, “I should like much to see this place in the daylight”. They rode on, their party at this time consisting of Thomas and Lucy, their Cossack guide Peter and five Kazakh horsemen. The sand was deep. Again, on the 16th September, they came across large numbers of kurgans. “There was a great number about 20 versts to the west, one of great magnitude and high. I regretted being unable to visit them as they appeared like a large town in the distance”, wrote Thomas.
Further on Thomas mentions more great barrows, “one of them at least 150 feet diameter and not less than 60 feet high. I ascended this, winding round by a path made by the sheep in the hope of getting a view of the Lepsou (River-ed).” Later that evening they finally made their way to the Lepsou. Atkinson’s diary account stops at this point, but we know the couple eventually made it to the Cossack fortification at Kapal a few days later and in early November Lucy gave birth to her son, Alatau.
Dennis Keen has been able to track most of the Atkinsons’ journey by identifying the piquets on the old Cossack road south from Ayaguz to Kapal and transferring them onto Google maps. Their names are as follows:
Here is the route as mapped by Dennis. This is the first time this route has been properly marked.
If you look closely at Google Earth, you can actually see this old road still exists, although I have no idea if it is still used or is passable by wheeled vehicles. The route can also be seen on this old Russian map, which marks all the piquets.
Although I have now followed much of the travels of the Atkinsons through the Djungar Alatau Mountains, I have not so far attempted this long, dismal journey through the salt marshes and steppes for more than 400 miles. It must wait for another day.
I have some very sad news to report. Andrey Gennadyevich Babenko, a national parks inspector and one of our official guides for the 2018 Zhetysu Expedition in eastern Kazakhstan, was killed in July when his horse was swept away while crossing the Agynakata River in the Djungar Alatau Mountains. Andrey, 49, was a highly experienced and competent inspector and his death is a tragedy. This river runs through the Solnechnaia Dalina (‘Sunny Valley’), and eventually into Zhassyl Kol, a place I have visited three times in the past. The Agynakata River is fast and strong and when we crossed it in 2018, it required good teamwork and safety ropes. However, we all got across it without trouble. The next day, Andrey – who had arrived that morning to escort us down the mountain to the campsite at Zhassyl Kol – enjoyed a moment of peace on the Suyk Plateau together with his colleagues Sergei and Maksut.
We extend our condolences to Andrey’s family and take a moment to remember a real professional. These national park staff spend their lives out in the wild mountain areas of the Djungar Alatau, in every kind of weather. We salute their bravery…
I should add that in 2019 I was also swept off my horse into a fierce mountain river, the Big Bascan, not far from Zhassyl Kol. On that occasion, my life was saved by one of the national park inspectors, Ruslan Nurgozhanov, to whom I will eternally be grateful. You can see film of that event here.
The Djungar Alatau Mountains never cease to surprise. I had passed through some of the magnificent wild apple forests in the past, but during this trip I was able to form a much better impression of these spectacular areas. According to some estimates, there are hundreds of millions of apple trees in the mountains, with more than 35 separate species. In fact, the ancestor of all domestic apples, Malus sieversii, is found in these forests – a fact established in the early 20th century by biologist Nikolai Vavilov who traced the apple genome back to a grove near Almaty.
It is likely that the Tian Shan apple seeds were first transported out of Kazakhstan by birds and bears long before humans cultivated them. By the time humans began to grow and trade apples, the Malus sieversii had already taken root in Syria, where it was discovered by the Romans, who dispersed the fruit even further around the world.
During my recent trip I was fortunate enough to be taken to see a 300-year-old Sievers apple tree high up in the mountains. Still producing fruit, the tree can only be reached after a long journey in a 4×4 vehicle followed by a 20-minute walk. It is magnificent.
During the Soviet period, thousands of hectares of apple forest were cleared for agriculture, but now there is a determined effort to protect this important area. Climate change is another challenge, but for now these wonderful forests continue to exist and impress.
Nor was it just the natural beauty of the mountains that impressed me. No-one visiting this part of eastern Kazakhstan can fail to notice the vast number of ancient tombs – known as kurgans – that dot the landscape. Most of these date to a period over 2,500 years ago, when the Scythians (known locally as the Saka) dominated the area. These kurgans can be found from Ukraine in the west to Mongolia in the east, but eastern Kazakhstan is a particular hotspot. In the hills not far from Lepsinsk we visited a huge kurgan at Uygentas. Constructed from massive round stones, it was surrounded by 150 or more subsidiary kurgans.
Further south, in the Kugaly Valley, more than 100 massive kurgans dominate the landscape. All over this region there are similar structures, some looted in ancient times, but mostly still intact. Excavations at Eleke Sazy (see my previous articles) in the Tarbagatai Mountains show that the burials often include remarkable artefacts made of pure gold.
Signs of an even older civilisation are not hard to find in these mountains. At Karabulak, not far from the town of Tekeli, hundreds of beautiful petroglyphs dating back 4-5,000 years can be found. Horses, deer, cattle, ibex and humans are all represented in these artistic works.
These are just some of the wonders I came across on this trip. Food for thought…
Just back from my latest visit to the Djungar Alatau Mountains of Eastern Kazakhstan, the first since 2019. Not so much as expedition as an exploratory visit, gathering information for future projects. I had originally intended to take horses in the Tarbagatai Mountains, to the north of Lake Alakol, to fill in yet another part of the journey undertaken by Thomas and Lucy Atkinson during their return from the Great Steppe in the summer of 1849. However, no horses were available and so we returned south to the Djungar Alatau.
En route, we were able to complete a circuit of Alakol lake itself and to visit Ostrov Kishkene-Araltobe, one of three islands in the central part of the in lake. The islands are protected places, due to the presence there of a very rare species of relict gull, Ichthyaetus relictus, which can be found on just a handful of lakes in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China and whose total numbers are estimated at around 10,000. It is classified as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List.
The Alakol State Sanctuary was created to protect the lake as an important breeding and nesting ground for this and other wetland birds after UNESCO designated the Alakol Biosphere Reserve as part of its Man and Biosphere Programme in 2013. Not far away, on Piski Island, for example, there are flocks of flamingo, and 40 species of other birds.
Sadly – and despite prominent warning signs telling people not to land on the island – there is a constant stream of speedboats bringing visitors from both Kabanbai on the north-east coast of the lake and from the southern shore also. Many of the boats have ‘boom box’ sound systems that blare out pop music during the 30-minute crossing to the island. Signs of human activity on the island, including empty bottles, beer cans, plastic waste, etc, are everywhere. Unless this activity is stopped, the future for the Relict Gull on Alakol Lake looks bleak.
Tourism is increasing around Alakol, with thousands of visitors travelling from Almaty in the south and from Oskemen in the north to spend time on the rapidly developing resorts. Without enforcement action to stop the disturbance caused by the speedboats and visitors, birdlife on the lake will be decimated.
Recent camera-trap videos from remote parts of Kazakhstan show that in some parts of the country – despite the depradations of illegal hunters in the past – wildlife is flourishing. Check out this video of Siberian Ibex, captured recently in the Altyn Emel National Park:
Or this remarkable piece of film showing a large herd of saiga antelopes crossing a river in Western Kazakhstan:
The saiga is included on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), where it has been listed as a critically endangered species since 2002. It has been hunted illegally in the country and a couple of years ago thousands of the animals died from a respiratory disease, but the population is now growing.
According to the Kazakh Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity, there are three populations of species in the country: at Betpakdaly in Central Kazakhstan, at Ustyurt in Mangystau, and at Aktobe and Uralsk population in Western Kazakhstan.
“The population of saiga is 1,318,000 individuals by now, which is 56 percent higher than in 2021, when there were 842,000 saigas. This year, there are 801,000 Uralsk saigas, 28,000 Ustyurt saigas and 489,000 Betpakdaly saigas,” eco-activist Saken Dildakhmet wrote in late May.
It is believe that almost 90 percent of the world’s saiga population lives in Kazakhstan, with the remainder in Mongolia and Kalmykia.
The rare Himalayan Brown Bear, listed in Kazakhstan’s Red Book of endangered species has also been sighted recently at Altyn Emel:
I was lucky enough to see both Siberian Ibex and a bear during a visit to the Djungar Alatau Mountains in July 2019. Two other large mammals, lynx and snow leopard, also inhabit these mountains. Lynx are seen regularly, as this recent footage from Altyn Emel shows:
Snow leopards are very hard to see in the wild, but have been caught regularly on camera traps. These were filmed in July last year in the Altai Mountains in north-east Kazakhstan:
“Photographic evidence of the presence of the snow leopard in East Kazakhstan is great news. The last traces of the snow leopard’s presence in the Kazakh part of the Altai Mountains were obtained in the winter of 2017 near the Russian-Kazakh border. These were the footprints of a female with a cub. Then there were no tracks of a snow leopard until 2021,” said Alexander Karnaukhov, senior project coordinator for the WWF in the Altay-Sayan ecoregion.
Kolsay Lakes National Park in the Almaty Region also reported photographic evidence of three snow leopards on its territory in July last year. This national park is reported to be home to at least 16 snow leopards. The snow leopard is protected in Kazakhstan, where there are thought to be approximately 120-130 animals, out of a global population of around 7,000.
The WWF project, backed by Kazakh environmental organisations, for the conservation of the snow leopard in East Kazakhstan began in 2015. East Kazakhstan is a place of migration for snow leopards and other rare animal species from Central Asia to the Altai mountains and vice versa. The snow leopard has become a symbol of the Altai and Sayan mountains at the junction of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China.
Recent historical research has thrown up some remarkable connections between the spread of the Black Death in Europe and the cultivation of a kind of grain grown in Central Asia for the last 10,000 years – millet. What’s more, the new research shows that this terrible disease arrived on the fringes of Europe and in the Middle East almost 100 years before the accepted date for its spread throughout Europe. Historian Monica H Green, writing in the latest edition of BBC History Magazine, makes the case that it was millet seed grown in Central Asia that was the primary vector for this terrible pandemic disease. But how and why did this influence the spread of this disease?
First, it should be noted that the latest scholarship involves identifying the specific nature of the disease – Yersinia pestis – that arrived from the east. The genome for this disease has now been fully identified and this has allowed its traces to be identified in humans going back thousands of years. Those existing strains of plague that are most closely related to the Black Death are found in the Tien Shan Mountains and the Djungar Basin – areas that correspond today to parts of Western China and also to Eastern Kazakhstan. It is here that burrow-living marmots still harbour strains of the disease.
Once the genome had been identified, it allowed a kind of family tree of the disease to be built. Although traditionally, the Black Death is said to have arrived in Europe in the 1350s, the latest research, based on the examination of original documents in Arabic, now shows there were outbreaks around 100 years earlier, in the middle of the thirteenth century.
How so? We know that the major event taking place in the middle of the thirteenth century was the arrival of the Mongols, who by this time were concentrating their campaigns on parts of the Middle East, including Syria and Mameluk Egypt. Recent scholarship has now identified plague outbreaks in these regions at this time. The explanation appears to be connected to millet. This humble grain, cultivated for thousands of years in the East, was regarded by the Mongols as a ‘superfood’. A Mongol cavalryman could sustain himself for a day on a cupful of millet, which he would turn into porridge. Throughout their devastating campaigns in the Middle East, including the siege of Baghdad, large Mongol caravan trains were bringing millet from the Tien Shan region across Asia to provision their troops. Soon after, recent research shows that there were outbreaks of the Black Death.
And the explanation? Rodents must have travelled with the millet caravans and it was the fleas on these rodents that spread the disease so efficiently.
After the withdrawal of the Mongol armies from eastern Europe and the Middle East back to their homelands, the disease appears to have died back, with very few cases reported. Only in the 1350s did it return. Again, Dr Green has an explanation. She says that Genoese traders at the city of Kaffa (now Feodosia on the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea) began trading with grain merchants in the 1340s, after a long period of trade embargoes. Rather that the apocryphal story of Mongols flinging the carcasses of dead animals over the city walls to infect the residents, she says in was once again rodents living in the grain consignments that were responsible for this new outbreak of the Black Death. The disease itself had lingered in isolated pockets following the initial infection a century before. The Genoans brought the grain back to Italy, where the disease soon reached pandemic proportions throughout Europe in the comparatively well populated towns, with their already established populations of rodents.
So what do we know about the extent of cultivation of millet in the Tien Shan region at the time? In fact, there is quite a lot of evidence. As early as the fourteenth century we have evidence from the Arab traveller and writer Ibn Batuta (1304-1369), who noted that when halting by their watchfires for the night, he was lulled to sleep by the martial songs of the Mongols who, he observed, ate no bread, nor any other solid food, but lived on a kind of porridge made of millet, in which they boiled pieces of meat; he says this was a mode of preparation which was customary with their predecessors – the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Slavonians.
At this time, the city of Kailac was flourishing in the Zhetysu Region of what is now Kazakhstan, close to the banks of the Lepsou River, which flows from the Djungar Alatau Mountains (the foothills of the Tien Shan) towards Lake Balkhash. Perhaps this was one of the cities from which the grain transports were organised towards Europe and the Middle East? From the writings of Thomas Atkinson we know that millet grows all over this region and that there are the ancient remains of extensive irrigation channels in the area.
In his diary for 1849, for example, Thomas Atkinson describes his and Lucy’s journeys through the Djungar Alatau Mountains as they explored the river valleys of this remote region. The Djungar Alatau chain is part of the Tien Shan massif. While the couple were in the valley of the Lepsou River he came across a grain he had not seen before. His diary for 14th July reads as follows:
“A ride of an hour and a half brought us down into the valley of the Lepsou, a very short distance from the mouth of the gorge in the mountains. At this place it has become a deep and rapid stream and very difficult to cross. Its banks are covered with poplar and birch trees with a great variety of flowering shrubs. The valley is about two versts wide and most of it cultivated by the Kazakhs. Here they grow prasci, a grain used in their cooking instead of rice. It is much like oatmeal, but never used as bread.”
He added that the whole of the Lepsou Valley was irrigated by channels taken from the river at the point where it leaves the mountains. “The Kazakhs are very clever in this branch,” he says. “Some of the channels are carried along the side of the sand hills for probably 60 or 70 versts (40 miles – ed), running up and down the sides of the gullies to keep the proper fall. From these channels hundreds of others are cut and then the whole surface can be kept moist, the only thing required in this climate to ensure a most abundant crop.”
Atkinson mentions at another point in his diary that this grain was widely sown and was watered from many small channels that allowed it to grow luxuriantly. “Another month will make it ripe and then the scene will be changed. There will be many people at work gathering it in with oxen treading out the grain and men throwing it up that the wind may carry away the chaff.”
When I first read this, I was unsure about the identity of ‘prasci’ or ‘prassa’. It turned that prosso is the Russian/Slavic word for a variety of millet – Panicum miliaceum, which is known as Prosso Millet. In Kazakh it is known as tary and is still grown and consumed widely in Kazakhstan, often in the form of a dessert pastry, called zhent, in which it is mixed with butter and honey.
This important grain was first cultivated in northern China 10,000 years ago. It is notable for its very short life cycle – it produces grain only 60 days after planting – and low water requirements. It produces grain more efficiently per unit of moisture than any other grain species and is also very tolerant of high temperatures. Its wild version is common throughout Central Asia and in addition to evidence for its cultivation in north-east China, traces can also be found in Georgia and Germany dating back at least 5,000 years.
Other writers and travellers have also identified millet cultivation in Central Asia. Robert Michell, writing in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1868 about the Syr-Darya River in Kazakhstan states: “Between these elevations on the North side of the river, where they are more numerous, is the little valley of Aigerik, where the Kirghizes (Kazakhs-ed) sow millet and barley.” The inveterate traveller Henry Lansdell noted in the 1880s that the Kazakhs dammed up mountain streams to water their oats and, especially for the nomads, their millet. The nineteenth century German writer Friedrich von Hellwald observed that millet was grown in the Tarym Basin in Xinjiang, whilst the great Russian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky noted that “For a more substantial meal the Mongol mixes dry roast millet in his cup and, as a final relish, adds a lump of butter or raw sheep-tail fat (kurdiuk).”
Today millet is regarded as a superfood, rich in both protein and dietary fibre, gluten-free and full of micronutrients such as calcium, iron and phosphorus. But, as we have seen, these qualities were recognised over 800 years ago, when millet helped fuel the expansion of the largest empire in world history – and also brought pandemic calamity to Europe and the Middle East.
My book Travellers in the Great Steppe was launched in both Kazakh and Russian-language editions in Nur-Sultan last week in an event attended by over 100 guests, including deputy foreign minister Roman Vassilenko, who chaired the event, and around 20 ambassadors, including British Ambassador Kathy Leach and Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to the UK, Erlan Idrissov. It was hosted by Qazaq Geography, whose chairman, Orman Nurbayev, also attended.
The event, held at the National Academic Library in Nur-Sultan, was covered by many national media and TV channels, which can be found here and here. Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the UK, HE Erlan Idrissov, spoke about the importance of the book for young Kazakhs in particular. British ambassador Kathy Leach also spoke warmly of the project. The book was translated by the National Translation Bureau.
My recent talk at the Royal Geographical Society on Lucy Atkinson is now available for viewing/listening on the RGS website. You can find it here. The talk, Lucy Atkinson: One of the ‘Greats’ in the Pantheon of Travellers, was given on 24th January as part of the ‘Be Inspired’ series. I argued that Lucy’s achievements as a traveller/explorer matched those of almost any of the women travellers who preceded her – and many of the women who followed. She was one of the most adventurous of nineteenth century travellers, reaching places that no other Europeans had ever seen and covering almost 40,000 miles through Siberia and Central Asia. Not to mention that she gave birth to a son, who travelled with her wherever she went. And yet today her name remains almost unknown. Surely it is time she was given the recognition she so richly deserves.
About 60 people turned out yesterday afternoon at the Royal Geographical Society in London to hear my talk Lucy Atkinson: One of the ‘Greats’ in the Pantheon of Travellers. My aim in this talk was to place Lucy’s achievements as a writer and explorer in the context of other women travellers from the mid-nineteenth century and before. The exploits of such pioneers as Abby Jane Morrell, Mary Boddington, Eliza Fay, Maria Graham, Lady Florentia Sale and Ida Pfeiffer were outlined in some detail.
Most of these names are probably unknown to all but the most erudite readers, but they all made their mark. At present there is no specific place to celebrate their achievements, although the RGS itself is planning to introduce more inclusive space into the building. Undoubtedly it is an anomaly that a portrait of Lord Curzon hangs above the fireplace in the main entrance hall to the building, as during debates within the RGS in the 1890s he strongly opposed women being granted fellowship on the grounds that they were incapably of scientific work!