“In all Fergana no fort is as strong as Akhsi. Its suburbs extend some two miles further than the walled town”. This is how Zakhiriddin Babur, Temur’s descendant, conquerer of India and founder of the dynasty of Great Moghuls wrote about Aksikent in his book Baburnama.
This ancient fortified residence of Ferghana rulers, known as Aksikent or Akhsi as it was called at that time, was built on the hill at the junction of two rivers – the Kasansai and the Syr Darya. In the times of Babur, Akhsi was the second largest city in the Ferghana Valley. Time and natural disasters had no mercy on it and today the ruins of Aksikent are buried under the huge mud hill in twenty kilometers south-west of Namangan.
The archeologists discovered that fortified settlement with a citadel, called Ahshi or Ahsi existed on the territory of Ferghana Valley already in the 3rd century B.C. as part of the Dayuan state. In the environs of Ahsi, just as in the whole Ferghana valley, people bred ‘blood-sweating’ war-horses whom Chinese emperors craved for. Time and again war broke out for the possession of these heavenly fast horses. Historian Sima Qian in his chronicles Shiji (Records of the Historian) reports that in 103 B.C. commander Li Guanli with his army numbering 60,000 warriors sieged Aksikent for forty days blocking the access to the city of drinking water. But there were wells in the fortress and its defenders managed to hold out until the army of a friendly state of Kangju came to the aid of the city.
At the beginning of the 1st millennium the cities of the Ferghana Valley were conquered first by Kushan rulers, then by Turks. But it was at this time that Aksikent was turned into the economic centre of the state. Numerous trade caravans came here from Kashgar and China, Asia Minor and Byzantium. Locally made fabrics, pottery and metalware were in great demand in the international markets. Aksikent increased its significance after the Ferghana Valley was conquered by the Arabs and the town became the capital city of the area. Antique Aksikent was only two kilometres in perimeter. In the 8th-9th centuries, according to the medieval chronicler and geographer Maqsidi, the town grew into a large township encircled by the 18- kilometer-long outer wall with five gates. The archeological excavation proved that there was in Aksikent a citadel with a splendid palace and a jail, whereas in shakhristan (inner city) there was a city mosque and bathhouses. On the bank of Syr Darya river there was a big square for Friday praying. In rabat – the trade suburbs of the city which were protected by outer walls and watching towers, there were bazaars and craftsmen workshops. Archeologists found coins minted in Aksikent in the 9th-11th centuries.
For five years since 2002 the ruins of antique and pre-Mongol Aksikent were researched by the scientists of the British-Uzbek archeological expedition led by Professor of College London Institute of archeology Tilo Rehren. In the urban quarters of craftsmen the scientists discovered fire-resistant crucibles made of kaolin. Such crucibles could resist the temperature of 1300 degrees. For the smelting furnaces the local metallurgists used natural fuel – the wood of juniper tree which being burnt can provide high temperature. It was a necessary criterion for smelting steel from carboniferous iron ore which the nearby spurs of the Tien Shan mountains are rich in. After masterly hammering such steel became exclusively strong, bendable and had a specific pattern, that is, it became the steel known as ‘Damask steel’. No wonder that in the Arabic chronicles of the 10th century it was mentioned that “cold steel from Ferghana was used everywhere from Khorasan to Baghdad”. A British archeologist suggested that not only ready-made cold steel weapons were imported from Aksikent, but the steel itself was delivered to Damascus by the merchants travelling along the routes of the Great Silk Road. In Damaskus, local smiths hammered swords and sabers which gained popularity both in the Orient and in Europe.
At the beginning of the 13th century Aksikent suffered the plundering raid of Kara-Khitan tribes, and later, in 1228 the Ferghana valley was conquered by one of Genghiz-khan’s commanders – Jebe Noyan. The ruler of Aksikent, Ismoil, surrendered to the conquerors and even agreed to guide the Mongols in their raid against Samarkand. However, plundered and ruined by the Mongols Aksikent fell into decay. Only under Amir Temur the town was built up anew in several kilometers down the Syr Darya river to the west from ancient, pre-Mongol Aksikent. This new town on the steep river bank occupied the area of one hundred hectares. And despite the fact that it lost its status of a capital city of the Ferghana Valley, it continued to be one of the most important trade and crafts centres. This is evidenced by numerous findings of glassware, metalware and ceramics. The new entrenched citadel and the palace soon became the favourite residence of the Ferghana rulers.
Aksikent was razed to the ground in 1620 by a severe earthquake. The citizens who managed to survive this natural disaster moved to the north-east, to Namakkon settlement next to the salt-mines. Today this settlement is known as Namangan – a big regional centre.
The ruins of Aksikent citadel look like the creation of nature, not the product of man’s activity. Hardly visible are the remains of brickwork of once majestic buildings. From the mud walls, just as a thousand years ago, one can see the Syr Darya banks buried in verdure of gardens and groves.