Intriguing Places and Names

Sogdia. Merv. The Oxus and Indus. Oxiana. Srubnaya. Alagou. Arachosia. Kyzylkun. Orontes. Lukka. Lusatia. Yenisei. Yilou. Maritsa.

All the names of places, most lost to time and existing only as archaeological sites or cultural names, fragments of parchment or preserved bamboo slices with travel records and receipts that survived in lost border posts at the edge of a desert or in a cavern or an off-hand mention in some traveler’s account preserved in fragments in a later work. For some reason they fascinate me, not just the sounds of the names and guessing their pronunciation, but the places they hint at and the stories they could tell.

I’ve been reading Barry Cunniliff’s synthesis history about the development of Eurasia, focusing on the region between the Balkans and central China. He goes back to the time of the Neolithic Revolution (20,000 years ago and more) and works his way forward, tracing the flow of plants, animals, ideas, and peoples across the steppe and natural passage ways into Central Europe and into China, with a few detours into South Asia. It’s a magnificent book that pulls together a lot of things I’d read bits of, or seen references to, but never had a good way of filling in the gaps between. It also changes a few things in my world picture, and has finally kicked me into sketching out that academic paper I’ve been contemplating about comparative steppe frontiers – Old World and New World.

Part of the story comes from archaeology, and places long since vanished. And they had names, fascinating names, evocative names, names that can take my imagination out along the great mountain ranges and the ferocious deserts, to the hidden plateaus and lost cities, to the lapis mines or the great cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, to trade oases and isolated valleys perched among rhododendron forests where wisps of mist and cloud snag on flowers and white peaks alike.

For example, the Oxus River (now the Amu Darya) means a great lost civilization. When I was little, my parents had a huge (to me) History of Civilization book with all sorts of illustrations of Mohenjo Daro and Sumar and Shang Dynasty China and of the raising of the stones at Stonehenge and other vanished times and places. I remember being fascinated by the cylinder seals and remains from the Indus Valley civilization and other lost worlds. That fascination stuck around and to this day “Indus River” means first the archaeological sites, and then the body of water. Oxus River likewise, and I still think of it as the Oxus.

Merv was a city-state built on trade, on an oasis at the edge of the desert, linking mountain, desert, and steppe and connecting east and west. Orontes is another river, this one in what is now Syria that starts in the mountains and flows north, then west into the sea. The Hittites and Egyptians fought a battle in the region then called Lukka. The Yilou were a people (and a place) in what is now Manchuria, one of the steppe nomadic groups who connected Siberia with Scythia and spread artistic motifs and beliefs across Eurasia. Lusatia is a little pocket of land in what is now Germany and Poland, with a Sorbian/Wendish Slavic name meaning swampy. Sogdia is an ancient place-name for the region in what is now Tajikistan, a place mentioned in the Vedas and Avestas, near Bactria, where Samarkand and Bukhara thrived for their day and then faded.

The names bring to mind caravans and traders, horses with brilliantly patterned saddle blankets and braided manes, tile-covered gateways into markets filled with spices and lapis, silks and amber, raw emeralds and diamonds, limps of frankincense the size of my fist, carpets with designs that might well be magic spells, and in the distance, a wall of mountains, white-fanged and blue, that hide mysterious worlds. Think of Rudyard Kipling’s “Himalaya heaven-ward heading, sheer and vast, sheer and vast/ In a million summits bedding on the last world’s past . . .”  Or lush rolling landscapes with stands of oak and chestnut trees on the hills, the land of the Halstatt Culture and earlier peoples.

Perhaps because it is autumn, and autumn makes me restless, tempted to wander, to roam westward, or north, or just away. The names and places in the book start that whisper about “Something lost beyond the ranges/ Something lost and hiding, go!”

R. Kipling – “Jobson’s Amen” and “The Explorer.”


6 thoughts on “Intriguing Places and Names

  1. Interesting, and I think I’ll get a copy too… Only played on the ‘fringes’ of that world, never got in country per se…

  2. Central Asia, at least the places I’ve been, is that fascinating mixture and crossroads you describe. Merv (now Mary) is beautiful. The bad thing about most of these ancient cities is the Soviet, and post-Soviet, attempts at conservation/restoration/reconstruction. In some cases, they’ve totally ruined the ruins by superimposing the image of what they want it to be, rather than letting the remains speak for themselves. Mary, fortunately, hasn’t been totally “conserved,” (or at least hadn’t when I was there), so you could get a sense of how incredible the work was, especially given the technology of the time.

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