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The Tarim Basin was one of the most uninhabitable places in Asia. Its Northern boundary is the Tian Shan mountains and Southern boundary is the Kunlun mountains. The Taklamakan desert dominates most of the basin. All along the Taklamakan desert sprang up oasis towns. Two branches of the Silk Road criss-crossed it as travellers wanted to avoid this arid wasteland.

Discovery of mummies in the Tarim basin regions have thrown up a series of striking discoveries. The people had Caucasian features. Owing to the dry weather, the mummies are in extremely good condition. Many have physically intact hair which is blond or deep red in colour.The earliest mummy dated 1800 BC was found at Qawrighul. Other locations were Loulan and Xiaohe Tomb Complex.

The genetic testing has yielded interesting results. As per an article published on NYTimes by Nicholas Wade in 2010 : “All the men who were analyzed had a Y chromosome that is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China. The mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consisted of a lineage from Siberia and two that are common in Europe. Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, researchers concluded the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.” Successive migration and inter-marriages could have resulted in this unique mix, which have either rare or no parallel in humans today. The above picture is of a mummy discovered in 1980. She was possibly in her 40s when she died, from damaged lungs. The Loulan beauty as she is known had high cheekbones, a sharp nose and blonde hair.

They lived in harsh weather conditions with possibly high infant mortality. Hence, procreation and fertility was of prime importance. Several of the graves had phallic symbols or items which had a sexual symbolism. They wore felt hats with feathers in them, large woollen capes and leather boots. There were clumps of an unknown material found along the neck of some of the mummies. On being analysed at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, it was determined that the material was actually cheese. This is the World’s oldest cheese dating back to an incredible 3600 years !

The earliest settlers probably survived on agriculture and there may have been some limited contact with other oasis towns. In the later years, long after these people became extinct, some cities like Loulan continued to thrive as an important post on the Silk Road.

As far back as the second century B.C., Chinese texts refer to alien peoples called the Yuezhi and the Wusun, who lived on China’s far western borders.  Interestingly, a number of items excavated from the burial sites like a horse whip and leather rein provide evidence for early horse-riding. There was also evidence of a wagon wheel, a style which is identical to discovery in the plains of Ukraine dating back to 3000 BC.

Researchers also state that the extent of inter-mingling and association that people had in that era may have still not been fully un-earthed or understood by us. Advances in Genetic Science and Archaeological excavation methods will aid in the discoveries as we unravel the mysteries of the past.


  1. http://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/2010/03/16/science/16archeo.html (Articles by Nicholas Wade)
  2. https://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-asia/beauty-loulan-and-tattooed-mummies-tarim-basin-001227 (Article by Margaret Moose)
  3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/07/18/these-red-haired-chinese-mummies-come-from-all-over-eurasia-dna-reveals/#6519d7193e2c (Article by Kristina Killgrove)
  4. http://discovermagazine.com/1994/apr/themummiesofxinj359 (Article by Evan Hadingham)

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Nishapur, located in North East Iran today, was one of the greatest cities of Eastern Khurasan. The other significant cities were Herat, Balkh and Merv. The first two are located in present day Afghanistan and the third in Turkmenistan. Nishapur was strategically located on the Silk Road and connected Asia Minor and Mesopotamia to India and China. In the thirteenth century Yaqut, in his famous geographical dictionary, called Nishapur “the Gateway to the East”.

Brief History

Nishapur was situated in a fertile plain and blessed with a pleasant weather, provided  the ideal environment for a settlement and has been a populous centre since pre-historic times. To the north are high mountains, of which the highest peak is Mount Binalud. The mountain water is carried in streams and underground aqueducts. Although there are references to human settlements since pre-historic times, the names of the towns are not known. Nishapur was found by Shapur I (241-272) or Shapur II (309-79) in the Sassanian period. The town is named after them. In the Sassanian and early Islamic period, the city was also named as Abarshahr. The archeological excavations have not yielded sufficient traces of its Sassanian origin. As is the case with many ancient and medieval cities, it is possible that the actual location of the older cities might be several kilometres away from today’s Nishapur.

According to Arab historians Tabari and Baladhuri, the Sassanian city fell to the Third Caliph Othman (644-56). In fact, the uprising against the Umayyad Caliphate started in Khurasan by a Persian named Abu Muslim, who entered Nishapur as a conqueror in 748. By 750, the Umayyad Caliphate ended and the era of Abassid Caliphate started. The seat of power shifted from Syria to Iraq. This is one of the most prominent events of the history of Arabs.

In the 9th Century, Khurasan became an autonomous region under Tahir ibn al-Husain, with the capital city as Merv. This dynasty was known as the Tahirids. The second in line, Abdallah chose Nishapur as its capital stating that the weather and people were more agreeable. Approximately 5 kilometres from the city of Nishapur, Abdallah established his Palace and quarters names Shadyakh. Under the Tahirids, the later Safarids and Samanids, Nishapur entered a Golden era of prosperity. Although the Samanids had their capital at Bukhara, Nishapur was an important city.  Under the Samanids, Nishapur became an international trading centre. From Ghaznavids, the power passed to Seljuqs under whom Nishapur became part of a large empire.

Nishapur was possibly located in a high seismic zone as its history is full of reference to earthquakes and in one account, it is said that the city was destroyed and re-built eighteen times. Despite all this, there was a time when Nishapur rivalled Baghdad and Cairo as a cultural, intellectual and trading centre.

In 1221, the army of Genghis Khan destroyed the city and killed all its inhabitants. His favourite son in law was killed in Nishapur and to avenge his death, Genghis’s son Tolui destroyed the city. After this event, the city could never recover its past glory. It is said that the famous poet Farid-ud-din Attar perished in this mayhem.


Nishapur was an important centre for Ceramic pottery, Metal-work, Carpet-weaving, Wooden work and Glass work. It was famed for its Turquoise, which was mined locally. The city had a grand bazar which enabled the trade which in turn was key to the city’s prosperity.

The Metropolitan Museum’s Excavations at Nishapur:
  • Fragments of a Plate with Engraved Designs
    Fragmentary Plate with Engraved Designs40.170.131
  • Stone oil lamp
    Stone Oil Lamp38.40.116
  • Fragments of a Plate with Engraved Designs
    Fragmentary Plate with Engraved Designs40.170.131
  • Painted dado panel
    Painted Dado Panels40.170.176
  • Animal-spouted pitcher
    Animal-Spouted Pitcher38.40.247
  • Fragment of a cornice panel
    Fragment of a Cornice Panel40.170.441
  • Bowl with Arabic Inscription, He who multiplies his words, multiplies his worthlessness
    Bowl with Arabic Inscription, “He who multiplies his words, multiplies his worthlessness”40.170.25
  • Bowl with green, yellow, and brown splashed decoration
    Bowl with Green, Yellow, and Brown Splashed Decoration38.40.137
  • Two Bowls with Figures and a Footed Plate with Birds
    Two Bowls with Figures and a Footed Plate with Birds38.40.290
  • Physicians Cupping Glass or Alembic
    Physician’s Cupping Glass or Alembic40.170.132
  • Bowl with Arabic Inscription, Blessing, prosperity, well-being, happiness
    Bowl with Arabic Inscription, “Blessing, Prosperity, Well-being, Happiness”40.170.15
  • Ewer with inscriptions and hunting scenes
    Ewer with Inscriptions and Hunting Scenes38.40.240
  • Strand of beads
    Strand of Beads48.101.70

Famous people

Nishapur was also a centre of learning and culture. Amongst the many philosophers, Mathematicians, Poets and historians of this region, Omar Khayyam and Attar are the most well known.

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), the famous mathematician, astronomer and poet was born here. He is best known in the Western world for his poem ‘Rubaiyat’. It is not very well known that during his life he became popular as a Mathematician and his work contributed to the development of non-Euclidean Geometry and Algebra. His work has been credited with transmitting Arab Mathematics to Europe.

Farid-ud-Din Attar (1145-1221) was a Sufi Mystic poet who had an immense and lasting influence on Persian poetry. The ‘Conference of the Birds’ is his best known work.

Nishapur chess set

Chess set, 12th century. Iran, Nishapur. Stonepaste; molded and glazed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Pfeiffer Fund, 1971

To conclude, there are two interesting anecdotes. As an Indian, it is interesting to know that the Nawabs of Awadh state in 18th and 19th century India were Persians from Nishapur.  When Mughal King Humayun was defeated by Sher Shah Suri, he fled to Iran. His wife was a Shi’a muslim from the Safavid nobility. The Safavids supported Humayun in reclaiming Mughal India. A large part of the Persian cavalry was stationed in Awadh and the mix of Persian and local Awadhi language gave birth to Urdu- a new language.

While Chess or ‘Shatranj’ was popular in Persia, as Firdausi says, Chess arrived from ‘Hind’ (India). Surprisingly, no early chess pieces have been unearthed in India. The earliest and finest chess pieces were excavated in Nishapur in 1930s and 1940s by the Metropolitan Museum expedition. The highlight of the Metropolitan Museum collection is a complete chess set (only missing one pawn) excavated in Nishapur dated to the the 12th century. Perhaps, this is symbolic of Nishapur’s high culture and refinement. Omar Khayyam, in his poem, made Chess a metaphor for how destiny shapes our lives.

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.”


  • Pictures from Metropolitan Museum Website (met museum.org)
  • Shah Mat ! (Checkmate!) by Maryam Ekhtiar, Associate Curator, Department of Islamic Art (met museum,org)- April 4, 2012
  • Nishapur: Some Early Islamic Buildings and Their Decoration By Charles Kyrle Wilkinson (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) – Google Books

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