In our first post of this 100 Days – Uzbekistan series, we eluded to sacred fish with mystical origins. Today we’ll describe some of the background behind this teaser, and explore the Chashma Complex which spreads out beneath Alexander the Great’s 2,300 year old Fortress of Nur. The site today attracts thousands of faithful pilgrims from around the world every year, just as it has done for centuries thanks to its historical significance.
In addition to the ancient fortress, the Chashma hosts two important 16th century mosques, and the source of the sacred Nurata spring. Pilgrims from around the world come to drink the water at its source because of its supposed healing properties, and to witness the mysterious origins of the spring’s fish. The water of the spring has been found to contain 15 trace elements including silver, bromine, gold, and iodine. Silver helps the water to keep for long periods of time, such as on the ancient caravan routes, and bromine calms the nerves and helps treat gastrointestinal problems.
As the story goes, 40,000 years ago a meteorite fell and formed a deep crater in the earth. From the crater emerged the spring, the source of which is now beneath the Juma Mosque. The fish, a kind of trout known in Central Asia as marinka, emerge from the well seemingly miraculously. They don’t come from downstream as far as anyone can tell, so they seem to simply be divinely spawned from within the depths of the earth. The water, which is crystal clear and a constant 19.5°c (67.1°F) at the source, flows into an ancient irrigation ditch dating from the time of Alexander the Great’s founding of the city in the year 327 BC.
The concentration of fish seems amazing at first glance until you realize that they are very well fed by the complex groundskeepers. The fish maintain a celebrity like status, and are officially protected. Anywhere else such a plentiful source of trout would be quickly harvested, especially here on the edge of the desert steppe. Legend says that if anyone eats one of the sacred fish, they’ll not only get sick and die, but the body will be covered with white spots. This story seems to keep the fish safe.
The Juma mosque which is built over the source of the spring dates “only” from the 16th century. The impressive 16 meter dome marks the exact spot where the meteorite supposedly fell 40,000 years ago. Pilgrims who visit Chashma believe that the legendary meteorite impact was a manifestation of the divine mercy of Allah, citing the mysterious fish and healing waters as proof. Considering the natural source of water, and the rock outcrop overlooking the steppe in all directions, it’s no wonder why Alexander the Great chose this location to build a fortress.
The oldest monument of the complex, other than the natural spring and 4th century BC fortress overlooking the site, is the Mosque of Namazgokh. With 10th century origins, this mosque was the first known to be built at the pilgrimage site of the Chashma spring. In the 16th century, during the reign of Abdullah Khan bin Iskander of the Shaybanid Dynasty, the mosque was expanded and rebuilt. The unique architectural style incorporated 25 cupolas, which were meant to emphasize the Emir’s power and greatness.
On the other side of the Juma mosque is a cemetery or “mazar” located adjacent to the source of the healing waters. According to guides, the 10th century Bukharan historian Narshakhi described Nur in great detail, including the city fortress. Nearby, according to Narshakhi, was a cemetery where followers of the Prophet Muhammad, – followers who had personally seen him – were buried. The fact that these followers saw the Prophet in person now make their graves a pilgrimage site for today’s devout.
Our visit to Chashma was the highlight of our trip to Navoi in 2016. While not exactly “on the way” back to Samarkand, this detour was orchestrated to give us a taste of Uzbekistan off the well traveled silk-road tourist trail which includes Khiva and Bukhara. Nurata is a city visited so much less frequently by foreign tourists, that as foreign tourists, we became somewhat of a tourist attraction ourselves. After witnessing the miracle of the fish and making our way through the architectural ensemble, we climbed the hill to Alexander’s fortress for a view over the town, and the steppe beyond. That we were included on this family outing remains one of our most authentic memories of Uzbekistan.