Annau – The ancient settlement. Two large mounds, 300m apart, are not hugely exciting to look at, but have proved greatly significant in uncovering information about early agricultural settlement in Turkmenistan.

The north mound was first excavated by the Russian General Komarov in 1886. Komarov cut a trench straight through it, uncovering evidence of ancient civilization. More systematic research was undertaken by the American geologist Raphael Pumpelly, who excavated here in 1904. This work led to the identification of four cultural layers: the Eneolithic Anau I and II cultures, in the north mound, and Bronze Age (Anau III) and Iron Age (Anau IV) cultures of the later south mound, to which the Anau settlement seems to have shifted around 4,500 years ago. Pumpelly did not have an easy time at Anau. A plague of locusts filled up his trenches, and made further digging impossible, prompting him to shift his attentions to Merv. But one find in particular from the Pumpelly expedition has been highlighted by the present-day Turkmen government: the evidence of the cultivation of cereals, including wheat and barley, found even in some of the lowest layers at Anau. The medieval settlement to the east of the two mounds of the ancient settlement lie the ruins of a later one. Its origins seem to lie in Parthian times, when it may have been the settlement of Gatar, mentioned by Greek sources. The place later became known as Bagabad, centred on a fortress some 300m in diameter. The name Anau seems to have been used from the 18th century, and derives from the Persian, meaning «New Water».

The major sight remaining for the visitor today is that of the ruins of the 15th century Seyit Jamal-ad-Din Mosque. The mosque was built in 1456 through the finance of one Mohammed Khudaiot, the representative of the Timurid governor of Khorasan, who chose to site the building at the grave of his father, Sheikh Jamal-ad-Din. The mosque, which lies in the southern part of the old fortress of Bagabad, included an extensive religious complex, with a madrasa and accommodation for pilgrims. Its most distinctive feature, however, was the depiction of two great mosaic dragons high on the portal, as if guarding the central arch. The beauty of this mosaic, the slender dragons winding almost like snakes above the central arch, is well captured by photographs taken by the Soviet archaeological expedition led by Galina Pugachenkova in 1947. But on 6 October 1948 the mosque collapsed in the earthquake which destroyed Ashgabat, taking the mosaic dragons with it. Turkmen researchers have recently attempted to piece together the mosaic from the fragments uncovered at the site. The results of their work are on display at the Museum of Fine Art in Ashgabat.

The main survivals of the mosque are the bases of the two columns of the portal. These retain some blue and turquoise tiles in geometric designs. Behind these columns, the once great mosque has been reduced to a pile of rubble. The courtyard in front of the portal has been cleared. Here stands a reconstructed brick cenotaph, considered to mark the grave of Seyit Jamal-ad-Din and an important shrine pilgrimage site. Another tomb nearby, more colourfully decorated with blue and turquoise tiles, is dedicated to Kyz Bibi. Facing the portal, the small, domed building to your right is said to offer the faithful relief from their heart disorders. The requirement is to crouch inside the tiny room beneath the dome. Little pats of mud on the walls derive from the belief that mud from this holy place, applied at the site of joint pain or an ailment of the skin, can then take the pain away if slapped onto the walls here. Cribs fashioned from pieces of material are representations of wishes for children found at many shrine pilgrimage sites in Turkmenistan. A less common symbol, which you may see here, is an open pair of scissors, representing the cutting of the umbilical cord. Ears of wheat placed on top of the tomb of Seyit Jamal-ad-Din are considered symbols of fruitfulness, and seem to hark back to the discovery made by Pumpelly.