THE LAND OF THE CASPIAN ROSE
River is rich in land, traditions, history and nature, including two species – the sturgeon and the lotus – that have long become more than mere representatives of local flora and fauna.
From the Sarmatians to the Tatars
Located in the Peri-Caspian lowland, the delta of the Volga has attracted nomadic tribes due to its abundance of food and advantageous geographic position since the early days. Not only Mother Volga, as Russians lovingly call it, passed through the local steppes, but also various people. As early as the 7th century B. C., the Sarmatians and Scythians arrived, who have left behind their burial mounds and legends about countless riches.
During the 7th to 8th centuries, the Astrakhan region was part of one of the very fi rst feudal states in Southeast Europe: the Khazarian Empire. The Khazars controlled quite a length of the legendary Silk Road. Having realised that peace was more profitable than war, the Khazars would off er merchants security on a long section of the land route from China to Europe, which brought prosperity to their empire. In the Lower Volga, where the Khazarian capital, Atil, was located, people of various nations and religions lived peacefully – a tradition that Astrakhan still observes today.
Aft er the collapse of the Khazarian Empire in the 10th century, the Astrakhan steppes once again succumbed to the power of the nomads – this time the Polovtsians and the Pincenates. By the 13th century, the Volga Lowlands saw the birth of a new state: the Golden Horde. A settlement called Haji-Tarkhan was established, which was fi rst mentioned in the notes of the traveller Ibn Battuta in 1333: "Th e town was named aft er a certain Turkic haji, a pious pilgrim to the Mecca, who had settled in this place. Th e sultan gave it to him duty-free, making him a tarkhan1, and the place became a village, which later grew into a town."
Gateway to the East
In the travelling notes "Th e Journey Beyond Three Seas" (1466), Russian traveller Afanasy Nikitin mentions Haji-Tarkhan under several Russified names: Aztorkhan, Khoztoran and Astrakhan. Situated at the crossroads of caravan trading routes and commercial waterways, Astrakhan rapidly developed into a large trading city, whose fairs were famous for their goods from Persia and Venice. Astrakhan was established as a truly Russian city in 1557, when Ivan the Terrible annexed the Volga steppes to Russia and shift ed the city itself to the left bank of the Volga River, which was deemed a more strategically-advantageous position to the point that it saw the erection of a white stone fortress in a mere year. The Astrakhan Citadel was built from stones that had once been used in the construction of a former settlement in the era of the Golden Horde. Later, the Citadel survived the attacks of nomads with fl ying colours.
Th e distant location of this region attracted those fleeing the authorities, while scarce human resources were a good reason for jobless people to come here. "Th ere are three trading establishments in Astrakhan: Russian, Armenian and Indian. The first one has 75 shops, the second 74, the third 78," wrote Mikhail Chumakov in his book Th e Historical Description of Russian Commerce (1780–88).
By the 17th century, Astrakhan had become home to over 100 nationalities and all of the world's religions, and served as Russia's gateway to the East of sorts. Th e city became globally famous as the supplier of various valuable goods, such as salt, watermelons, melons and Astrakhan fur (Astrakhan lamb hides with black, brown or grey curly wool).
Sturgeons and Watermelons
However, modern-day Astrakhan is known mostly for its caviar and sturgeon fi sh, whose production started during the time of Peter the Great (the end of the 17th century). His trip to Astrakhan was the result of preparations for the Persian Campaign. The Tsar noted the beauty of the Citadel and the shocking state of the city's streets. So he ordered all vessels calling at its port to bring several poods2 of bricks or stones needed for the improvement of its pavement.
Peter the Great placed stakes on the fi shing of sturgeon and ordered that all places full of these fi shes be put under the control of the Fish Company. It was a gold mine for merchants who rented stretches of the Volga and hired fi shermen to work for them. In 1756, an Astrakhan fi shing merchant, Sapozhnikov, opened a caviar export fi rm, and later became so rich that he could aff ord to collect fi ne art. Pieces from his collection today adorn various halls of he Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the most celebrated of which is Madonna with a Flower by Leonardo da Vinci.
Astrakhan's soil and hot climate were not suitable for growing cereal crops. However, its fruits and vegetables, particularly watermelons, are famous for their amazing taste. Alexandre Dumas narrates in his notes about travelling in Russia: "We were highly recommended Astrakhan watermelons <…> and yet, we were denied them as products unworthy of our attention. To taste one, we had to buy it on our own." Today, at any market in Russia, you'll fi nd sellers telling their customers that their watermelons come from Astrakhan – even though it may not be true – because this provenance guarantees the sweetest pulp.
Regrettably, the local souvenir market carries little resemblance to the riches of Astrakhan's bazaars of bygone eras. However, there are numerous active tourism options, such as SUV mud rallies, camel races (Astrakhan's camels are the largest in the world), hunting and fi shing. Inquisitive tourists might like to visit archaeological excavations, as the Astrakhan region is home to the most ancient burial mounds in Russia. Fans of nature's wonders would be attracted to solonchaks – salt marshes whose water density exceeds that of the Dead Sea – and where there is a railroad running straight into the lake. Otherwise, you might wish to stand still and take in the steppe or one of the numerous small rivers of the Volga's delta, enjoying the bewitching serenity, broken only by the chirping of insects and the rustling of small animals, merging together with the universe…
The Caspian Rose
Ancient Egyptians believed that the god Ra was born from a lotus, while Isida, the fertility goddess, and Osiris, the god of the sun, used this fl ower as their thrones. Many Hindu deities are similarly depicted standing or sitting on a lotus, or holding the flower in their hands. Buddha sits or stands on a lotus, too. In China, the fl ower is worshiped as symbol of purity and chastity. The purity of the lotus is not just a metaphor, as a wax-like film on the flower prevents dirt and mud from accumulating, while water forms drops and fl ows out, washing off the leaves.
In the wild, this sacred plant grows in the languid waters of the Nile and Ganges rivers, but the largest lotus fields in the world are situated in Russia – in the Volga Lowlands, near Astrakhan. Th e blooming season of the Astrakhan lotus, also called the "Caspian Rose", falls between July and September.
1 A title used by various Central Asian people in the mediaeval era – Here and after comments by translator
2 An old Russian unit of weight equal to 16.38 kg.
Text Natalia Makarova
Photos Julia Sherstyuk