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2012 Issyk Kul Expedition: Search for a Sunken Palace

After a year of careful planning, our National Geographic team is now set up at a base camp on the northern shore of Issyk Kul, one of the world’s highest and deepest lakes, in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan.

So why are we here? Issyk Kul, which means “hot lake” in Kyrgyz, was a critical location along the fabled Silk Road, with routes running along its shores. Nestled in the largest east-west valley in the high Central Asian mountains, Issyk Kul was renowned in historical documents as a strategic point along the Silk Road that was vied and battled for over the millennia. Countless traders, caravans and nomadic tribes and armies traveled along the 113-mile long lake, leaving a remarkable archaeological legacy behind.

A map of the Silk Road, with Issyk Kul located in the top center of the map. Map courtesy Fred Hiebert.

Since the nineteenth century, Russian scientists and, subsequently, Soviet archaeologists and researchers from the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences have studied the ancient remains around Issyk Kul, which range from petroglyphs and 3,000-year-old kurgans (nomadic burial mounds) to early Christian monasteries and medieval cities.

 

Zoomorphic petroglyphs (ca. 1500 BC) near Issyk Kul. Photo courtesy Fred Hiebert.

Early on, Issyk Kul also drew attention from researchers for the remains that lie beneath its stunning cobalt waters. It’s an endorheic lake (meaning that it has no outlet) with abundant underwater springs, and the water level has fluctuated dramatically over the centuries, submerging settlements, buildings and even entire cities that had been established on earlier shorelines. Issyk Kul was one of the earliest sites for underwater archaeological research in Central Asia, with divers exploring its depths as long ago as the 1860s.

A 19th-century diver in Issyk Kul. Photo from Vinnik 1959.

In the Middle Ages, the region around the lake was hotly contested by two divergent lines of descendants from Genghis Khan: nomadic, shamanistic Eastern Mongols and the city-dwelling, Islamic Western Mongols. The legendary Western Mongol leader Tamerlane (Timur, 1336-1405) was said to have battled for the lake region in the early 1400s, and there are medieval accounts of palace built by the conqueror on the northern shore of Issyk Kul.

This rumored building has been one of the most frequently cited phenomena in the lake, and a site associated with it was first investigated by a Russian historian, G.A. Kolpakovsky in 1869. A few decades later, the historian V.V. Bartold theorized that the site was associated with the 15th century palace as described by the medieval Arab historian Ibn Arab Sheikh.

The existence of such a building is of major historical importance, as it would document a critical expansion of Tamerlane’s empire, and the possibility exists that the building was constructed in the style of the Timurid state buildings at Samarkand and Shakhrisabz, as well as the Taj Mahal. If this is indeed a newly discovered Timurid monumental building, it would be a very significant addition to the catalogue of Islamic architecture.

Sky-blue tiles on a Samarkand mosque preserve the ancient tradition. Photo by Gordon Gahan.

 

Since Bartold first presented his theory that there may indeed be a monumental building associated with Tamerlane in Issyk Kul, archaeologists and historians have repeatedly returned to the site, located near the town of Cholpon-Ata.

In 1926-27 the archaeologist P.P. Ivanov carefully studied the underwater ruins in and made a map, “so that future researchers could not spend too much time searching for their interest.” His work however, was never published and only came to light only in 1957.

In 1959, Dmitri Vinnick of the Kyrgyz Institute of History returned to the question of the nature of the remains and began systematic archaeological survey of the site. He reported regular walls made of brick, wooden beams and blue-glazed tiles of a Timurid type, but ironically, due to Soviet political repression of “Central Asian” history–i.e., finding evidence of Tamerlane’s (a Muslim) conquest of the region–his work was not followed up and he was not allowed to publish on this important finding.

 

A diver on the 1959 Vinnik expedition to Issyk Kul. Photo from Vinnik 1959.

Since 1985, Professor Vladimir Ploskikh, vice-president of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, has been conducting underwater surveys and excavations in Issyk Kul, and beginning in 2010 we have partnered with him to explore the history of this fascinating lake, and to finally resolve the question of whether there is truly a legacy of one of the world’s most legendary conquerors beneath its waters.

 

National Geographic Archaeology Fellow Fredrik Hiebert at work in Issyk Kul; Photo courtesy Brad Vest/National Geographic.

Last year, a small National Geographic team conducted a visual and remote sensing survey of the site, and what we found compelled us to stage a full-scale examination this year. Armed with a toolkit of high-tech remote sensing equipment, along with traditional exploration, diving and underwater excavation, we’ll be spending a month on this beautiful, mountain-ringed lake, and we’ll introduce you to our team and share updates with you on our progress, as well as information on the fascinating history of Issyk Kul and an insider’s look at how an underwater archaeological expedition on one of the world’s highest lakes gets done. Feel free to ask questions in the comments, and stay tuned for our discoveries!

Follow the Expedition

All Blog Posts in This Series

On Twitter @kristinromey and @fredhiebert

A special thanks to our supporters, both scholarly and financially: the Seaver Foundation, the Waitt Foundation, the National Geographic Society, Dr. Fred Starr, and Rob Jutson, as well as to our facilitators in Kyrgyzstan – Asia Mountains Travel – especially Elena Dudashvili. Thanks to all!

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Bolushbek
    Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
    January 1, 8:34 am

    Looking forward to see any news on that. Till that moment, if you need any help , l would happy to help you guys: the team of national geographic society.

  2. K
    Seattle
    September 14, 2013, 2:41 am

    am I missing something? why are there no photos of what you actually found? lots of hi-res photos depicting absolutely nothing. great scuba suit, show us what you saw. reminds me of the head of artifacts in egypt- always getting in the way of the truth. lots of talking about something but never actually showing it. that’s like saying you’re going to make a documentary about buying shoes, showing a bunch of excellent high impact photos of anywhere, mall parking lot and food court, writing about how much you love your new shoes and never showing a picture of them. give me a break. are you a researcher? journalist? coward?

  3. Ibraim
    Kyrgyzstan, Issyk-Kul region, Karakol
    January 19, 2013, 1:26 am

    Very interesting information! I am surprised when I read this article. Thank you for studying the Issyk-Kul! If you need help, I’ll help you all the way I can!

  4. kubat
    Bishkek
    January 7, 2013, 3:17 am

    You can find my Arian ancestors there.

  5. Mbye Babou A. Njie
    Banjul, The Gambia
    October 23, 2012, 11:15 am

    Very interesting, needs following up for the whole find

  6. Sohil
    tgnmZKoNma
    September 23, 2012, 2:15 pm

    siberian / Hey Aaron, having owned and raced a 68 383 Roadrunner (which alas I was fecrod to sell back in the day) I can only drool at what you guys did. How much did it set you back. The car would be absolutely useless here in Alaska, but that doesn’t prevent me from dreaming of I have a couple of pictures of my Roadrunner I can send you man if Chrysler still made cars like that I wouldn’t be in a Treg.Also owned a 356SC, 911T and a BMW 728 (and a VW Westphalia) when I was in Europe.Keep up the good work!greg (aka siberian)

  7. Kristin Romey
    September 19, 2012, 11:05 am

    Hi Dianna! Issyk Kul is definitely salty, and judging from our equipment it’s certainly more corrosive than fresh water. Stay tuned for our next post, where we talk about the conditions we’re working in, which range from a few cm of water to deep environments.

  8. Dianna Maree
    Southern California
    September 18, 2012, 2:28 pm

    @Karley – Marine biology is studying the ocean or brackish weters life – this is a freshwater lake. Do check out Nat. Geo. for your interest in marine biology, though! @ Nat. Geo. crew – I see the photo posted is in shallow water…how deep are you exploring? Is fresh water less corrosive than salt water?

  9. Gail Plimpton
    SaddleBrooke, Arizona
    September 16, 2012, 3:59 pm

    Kristin. Thanks for sharing this exciting part of your job. No wonder you love it so much. Good luck and be safe. See you on your next visit to Mom and Dad’s place.

  10. Club of Travellers Central Asian., Tilek Moldokulov
    Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek
    September 11, 2012, 3:49 pm

    Welcome to Kyrgyzstan! One of the amazing place of Central Asian.

  11. Kristin Romey
    September 11, 2012, 12:02 pm

    We are so happy to be here! Issyk Kul is an amazing place!

  12. kubanych
    Bishkek
    September 11, 2012, 11:28 am

    This is our beautiful pleaсes in Kyrgyzstan. Isyl Kol is the pearl of Kyrgyzstan… Welcome to our lake.

  13. Alice Lee
    Plano, Texas
    September 10, 2012, 7:00 pm

    I lived on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul from 1999-2001 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I remember hearing stories about submerged villages. I am eager to hear the results of your research. P.S. Don’t forget to drink some kymyz (fermented mare’s milk).

  14. Marina
    Kyrgyzstan
    September 10, 2012, 5:40 am

    Kristin, we interested in publishing translation of this article in one of the local newspapers. With photos, used here. Can we do it? Authors will be listed, of course.

  15. Tynar
    Bishkek
    September 10, 2012, 3:31 am

    Amazing news!

  16. Karley
    Walnut,Ms
    September 9, 2012, 11:03 pm

    I love marine biology. I cannot wait until I can study it. Please if you have any cool or interesting facts, or even marine biology camp news or trips,then please send them to me.
    Thanks,
    Your biggest fan

  17. ashley
    September 8, 2012, 5:50 pm

    Buy a T shirt that changes the world. http://bit.ly/worldchanger3

  18. Altyn
    Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
    September 8, 2012, 2:27 am

    NatGeo, welcome to lake Issyk-Kul!
    This is an exciting news! :-)

  19. Marat
    Bishkek
    September 7, 2012, 6:41 am

    Welcome to Kyrgyzstan! There’s so much to discover! :)