Sunday, December 19

Beruni and Qyzylqum

We have a long desert crossing ahead of us; so, an early start – the fields outside Urgench are covered with rolling fog in the pre-dawn chill. As day breaks, mothers holding the hands of uniformed boys and girls march them to schoolbus stands by the road.

At first light, we cross the Amu Darya into Beruni (Biruniy) district. The land on this side is salty, for extended stretches a white crust covers the ground and nothing can grow.

This is the birthplace of another Al (it was a popular name around here): Al-Beruni (973-1048.) Edward Sachau writes in his preface to al-Beruni's 'India':

"Early distinguishing himself in science and literature, he played a political part as councillor of the ruling prince of his native country of the Ma'muni family. The counsels he gave do not seem always to have suited the plans of King Mahmud of Ghazna, who was looking out for a pretext for interfering in the affairs of the independent Khiva, although its rulers were his own near relatives. The pretext was furnished by a military emeute.

Mahmud marched into the country, not without some fighting, established there one of his generals as provincial governor, and soon returned to Ghazna with much booty and a great part of the Khiva troops, together with the princes of the deposed family of Ma'mun and the leading men of the country as prisoners of war or hostages. Amongst the last was Abu Raihan Muhammad Ibn Ahmed al-Beruni.

This happened in the spring and summer of A.D. 1017. The Chorasmian princes were sent to distant fortresses as prisoners of state, the Chorasmian soldiers were incorporated in Mahmud's Indian army; and al-Beruni – what treatment did he experience at Ghazna? From the very outset it is not likely that both the king and his chancellor, Ahmad ibn Hasan Maimandi, should have accorded special favors to a man they knew to have been their political antagonist for years … There is nothing to tell us that al-Beruni was ever in the servie of the state or court in Ghazna … al-Beruni probably enjoyed the reputation of a great munajjim, i.e. astrologer-astronomer, and perhaps it was in this quality that he had relations to the court and its head.“

Al-Beruni says of Mahmud Ghazni “he utterly ruined the prosperity of the country (of India) and performed those wonderful exploits by which the Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions, and like a tale of old in the mouth of the people.” This, as Sachau notes, was somewhat out of place in the traditional Muslim glorification of a Ghazi like Mahmud Ghazni.

Mahmud had “proclaimed as his successor his son Muhammad, not Masud, but the latter contested the will of his father, and in the following contest with his brother he was the winner.”

Masud rehabilates al-Beruni and fixes a pension on the scientist, then 61 years old; this leaves him free to write his 'Hindostan.' Sachau observes:

“If (al-Beruni) and his countrymen had suffered and were still suffering from the opression of King Mahmud, the Hindus were in the same position, and perhaps it was his community of mishap which inspired his sympathy for them. And certainly the Hindus and their world of thought have a paramount, fascinating interest for him, and he inquires with the greatest predilection into every Indian subject, howsoever heathenish it may be, as though he were treating of the most important questions for the souls of Muhammedans, – of free will and predestination, of future reward and punishment, of the creation and eternity of the Word of God, &c. To Mahmud the Hindus were infidels, to be dispatched to hell as soon as they refused to be plundered. To go on expeditions and to fill the treasury with gold, not to make lasting conquests of territories, was the real object of his famous expeditions; and it was with this view that he cut his way through enormous distances to the richest temples of India at Thaneshwar, Mathura, Kanauj and Somenath.

To al-Beruni the Hindus were excellent philosophers, good mathematicians and astronomers, though he naively believes himself to be superior to them, and disdains to be put on a level with them … He does not conceal whatever he considers wrong and unpractical with them, but he duly appreciates their mental achievements, takes the greatest pains to appropriate them to himself, even such as could not be any use to him or his readers, e.g. Sanskrit metrics; and whenever he hits upon something that is noble and grand both in science and in practical life, he never fails to lay it before his readers with warm-hearted words of approbation. Speaking of the construction of the ponds at holy bathing places, he says: 'In this they have attained a high degree of art, so that our people (the Muslims), when they see them, wonder at them, and are unable to describe them, much less to construct anything like them.'"


Qyzyl = Red, Qara = Black. The sand in the Qyzylqum seems no more red to me than sand anywhere else, perhaps the Qaraqum desert (in Turmenistan) is really dark for this to be considered ochre. The potholed roads reduce us to 10kmph speeds for much of the morning. Continuing SE roughly along the spine of the doab, we see the lakes Saduar Chash Kala and Rabochiy (along the Amu Darya) between Kulatau and Uch-Uchak. The next 300 miles are barchan dunes and scrub. Strangely, I get a 3g GSM data signal at 40.9 deg N 62.25 deg E -- probably picking up the communications tower at the Turkmen border post of Dzigherbent -- and successfully send off a tweet from this most desolate part of Central Asia.


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