Sarai Batu Founded in Astrakhan Region of Russia
The ancient settlement of Sarai Batu – the former capital of the Golden Horde and a major ancient trading center was founded in today’s Astrakhan region of Russia. This part of Russia is vastly different from rest, it has vast plains and deserts, salt lakes and even camels.
From about 1710 to 1765 there was a nitrate factory in these places. The part of the ancient settlement was surrounded by a stone wall. Bricks from the settlement were also used in its construction. Closer to the end of the 18th century the National academy organized several scientific expeditions to describe unknown parts of the Russian empire. Some members of those expeditions compiled information about the settlement. In 1770 such remaining buildings were mentioned: a mosque, mausoleums and underground crypts.
Two years later the grand rich building with crypts (probably mausoleum) was described. Some time later some remains of the walls and floors were excavated as well as architectural decorations, ceramics and coins. In 1875 this tower was mentioned as the last remains of the ancient city.
Apart from excavating great collections of decorations, ceramics, coins etc., the explorers started to point out slow destruction caused by local peasants. It was little by little established that the settlement was 18 kilometers long. Such marvellous water systems were discovered in 1909.
The first record of the settlement is dated back to 1254, when the French ambassador visited the place. There were no fortification works around, only a part of it was surrounded by a rampart.
In 1333 Arabian travellers mentioned that the settlement was inhabited by Mongols, Kipchaks, Circassians, Russians and Byzantines. It is worth noting that every nation lived in a different part of the city. In the period of its golden age the capital of the Empire counted about 75 000 people.
During the second half of the 15th century the trade ceases and the city went out of existence. In the first half of the 16th century the ruins were taken to bricks which were used in the Kremlin construction. In 1922 the first scientific excavations were initiated. The plan of the settlement was created and the city was divided into 7 parts according to the social characteristics. All the excavated objects got classified: ceramics, coins, architectural decorations.
Several dwelling places were studied as well as underground crypts, a Golden Horde well, mausoleum and burials. For the purpose of preservation all the objects were buried again after examination.
In 1931 a very important discovery was made – two joined buildings were found: an old mausoleum with burials and an ancient mosque. In 1969 the topographic plans of the large settlement were compiled, the archeologists defined its center, the main stages of its foundation, rise and desolation.
In 1966 a ceramics workshop, dated the 15th century, was found. On the basis of the found material the differences between the ceramics of the 14th and the 15th centuries were defined.
In 1967 one more very significant discovery was made – glass workshop which used to produce beads, bracelets, pendents and ring parts were found. Several furnaces, which were used for preparing the glass mass, were found as well as many glass items, blanks and waste products. In an ancient burial crypt 23 silver coins of 1430s were found.
In 1975 three major objects were found: two aristocratic estates and a vast ceramics workshop. Large “palace” could boast of several living spaces with corridors for connection, a bathroom and a square pool with a pipeline. Some rooms were decorated with gilt and relief.
Andrei Proshkin’s “The Horde”
The reconstructed capital of the Golden Horde Sarai-Batu appeared in 2011 on the territory of the settlement of Selitrennoye thanks to the movie by Andrei Proshkin “The Horde”.
The story of a journey of the Moscow metropolitan Aleksii (“St. Alexii” was the name of the script by Yuri Arabov) to the Horde was filmed at the historic site, at a distance of 130 km from Astrakhan, near the settlement of the genuine Sarai. After completion of filming process it was decided to leave the motion-picture sets that have been built for three months for future use.
First of all, they will be used for tourism. We cannot call what we now see on the shores of Akhtuba an exactly reconstructed city. It is rather a collective image of the Horde capital. The real one is preserved only in the foundations gone under the ground and the rich cultural layer.
The city is compared with Pompeii, but it is one thousand years younger and suffered from no global catastrophes. We can only guess about the way it looked and why it completely disappeared from the face of the Earth in a relatively short period of time. The creators of the motion-picture sets paid attention to the description of historians and archaeological findings from the Selitrennoye settlement.
For example, they recreated the external signs of the exotic water supply system of Sarai-Batu: a huge wheel with pitchers that were gradually filled with water from the river. Another source of inspiration for the film artists was presented by the medieval cities of Central Asia – Bukhara, Samarkand, Harezm, as well as Arab cities with their old clay adobe houses.
The Selitrennoye (“Nitric”) ancient settlement representing the remnants of the medieval capital of the Golden Horde that are now hidden under the ground is called an open-air museum. The capital of the Horde is most often referred to as Sarai-Batu, which means the Palace of Batu. The official name is Sarai-al-Maqrus, the Palace blessed by God. The name Old Sarai refers to the popular belief that the city was chronologically the first capital of the Golden Horde. Later it moved to a new city – New Sarai. Today historians doubt both this version and chronology. The earliest archaeological findings on the Selitrennoye ancient settlement were discovered already in the XIV century. Perhaps the city was actually founded by Batu Khan as a typical yurt city of nomads, then it was built up with brick and wooden buildings, and it reached prosperity in half a century, already under the reign of Uzbek Khan. According to another hypothesis, Sarai-al-Maqrus was exactly New Sarai built during Uzbek’s reign, and Old Sarai was situated in the area of the Krasnoyarskoe ancient settlement, or somewhere else in the lower reach of Volga, lower than the Selitrennoye settlement. When it got washed off by high waves of the Caspian Sea, the new capital was moved to the place that the water did not reach. Anyway, Sarai-Batu stood in the heart of the huge state of the Mongols, at the crossing of roads from Europe to India and from China to Europe.
Descriptions of contemporaries and researches of archaeologists create an image of a civilized, multiethnic and multifaith city with the area of 36 square kilometers and nearly one hundred thousand inhabitants. The faith tolerance of Horde is supported by the fact that in 1261 Sarai became the centre of Sarai Orthodox episcopate, and later of Catholic episcopate. The city, of course, had the Khan’s palace, city estates of emirs and crafts quarters, a mosque and churches of other denominations, bathes and a market, numerous necropoleis, s sewerage and a water supply system of a special design. The logical question how a city could disappear if not without a trace, then from the face of the Earth, has an answer. Sarai-Batu gradually decayed together with the Mongol Empire, and then was officially dismantled. It is believed that under the reign Ivan the Terrible – and on his instructions – the Astrakhan Kremlin was built of bricks from Sarai. And local residents dismantled the abandoned Tatar capital to get building material without any decrees
Here’s a short video of the reconstructed city. Enjoy.