An international archeological expedition to Lake Issyk Kul, high in the Kyrgyz mountains, proves the existence of an advanced civilization 25 centuries ago, equal in development to the Hellenic civilizations of the northern coast of the Pontus Euxinus (Black Sea) and the Mediterranean coast of Egypt.
The expedition resulted in sensational finds, including the discovery of major settlements, presently buried underwater. The data and artefacts obtained, which are currently under study, apply the finishing touches to the many years of exploration in the lake, made by seven previous expeditions. The addition of a previously unknown culture to the treasury of history extends the idea of the patterns and regularities of human development.
Kyrgyz historians, led by Vladimir Ploskikh, vice president of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, worked side-by-side with Russian colleagues, lead by historian Svetlana Lukashova and myself. All the Russians involved were experienced skin-divers and members of the Russian Confederation of Underwater Sports. We were responsible for the work done under water. Scuba divers ventured into the lake many times to study its bottom.
Last year, we worked near the north coast at depths of 5-10 metres to discover formidable walls, some stretching for 500 meters-traces of a large city with an area of several square kilometers. In other words, it was a metropolis in its time. We also found Scythian burial mounds, eroded by waves over the centuries, and numerous well preserved artifacts-bronze battleaxes, arrowheads, self-sharpening daggers, objects discarded by smiths, casting molds, and a faceted gold bar, which was a monetary unit of the time.
Lake Issyk Kul has played a tremendous role since the inception of human history due to its geographic location at the crossing of Indo-Aryan and other nomadic routes. Archeologists found traces of many religions here-Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Somewhere in the vicinity was Chihu, the metropolitan city of a mighty state of Wusung nomads, which ancient Chinese chronicles mentioned on many occasions.
The Great Silk Road lay along the lake's coast until the 18th century. Even today, the descendants of caravan drivers recollect their ancestors' stories about travelling from Asia to Europe and back.
Tamerlane built a fortress on one of the lake islets to hold aristocratic captives and keep his treasures. The famous Asian expeditions of Russian explorers Dmitry Przhevalsky and Pyotr Semyonov-Tianshansky started from that spot.
The latter left us an enticing mystery. When he visited Venice in 1850, he looked at the Catalan Atlas of 1375 and came across a picture of a lakeside monastery with the caption: "The spot is named Isikol. Here is a monastery of Armenian brethren, which is rumored to possess the relics of St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist."
Semyonov-Tianshansky embarked on a relentless but vain search for the shrine. To all appearances, the monastery was engulfed by water. Hydrologists have not to this day sufficiently studied the unique lake with regular shifts in its water level. Some changes are gradual, others sudden and disastrous since they are caused by earthquakes and torrents of water rush from lakes higher up in the mountains. Floods recede sooner or later, and people come back to the shores-only to become the victims of other floods 500-700 years later.
Throughout the years of their partnership, Russian and Kyrgyz archeologists discovered and examined more than ten major flooded urban and rural settlements of varying ages. Their ample finds generously add to present-day ideas of everyday life in times long ago.
Some artifacts are stunning. A 2,500 year-old ritual bronze cauldron was found on the bottom of the lake. The subtlety of its craftsmanship is amazing. Such excellent quality of joining details together can be presently obtained by metalwork in an inert gas. How did ancient people achieve their high-tech perfection? Also of superb workmanship are bronze mirrors, festive horse harnesses and many other objects. Articles identified as the world's oldest extant coins were also found underwater-gold wire rings used as small change and a large hexahedral goldpiece.
Side by side with the settlements are remnants of ritual complexes of times immemorial, dwellings and household outbuildings. Later expeditions will study them.
The information collected there allows us to conjecture that local people had a socio-economic system hitherto unknown to historians. As a blending of nomadic and settled life, it either gradually evolved into something different or-more likely-was destroyed by one of the many local floods. Legends confirm the latter assumption.
Nikolai Lukashov, a member of the Russian Confederation of Underwater Sports, took part in the the Issyk Kul expedition.