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This barren place, a site called Gonur, was once the heart of a vast archipelago of settlements that stretched across 1,000 square miles of Central Asian plains.
They traded with distant cities for ivory, gold, and silver, creating what may have been the first commercial link between the East and the West.
They buried their dead in elaborate graves filled with fine jewelry, wheeled carts, and animal sacrifices. News of this lost civilization began leaking out in the 1970s, when archaeologists came to dig in the southern reaches of the Soviet Union and in Afghanistan.
"The mornings here are beautiful," he says, gesturing regally with his cane, his white hair wild from sleep.
"No wife, no children, just the silence, God, and the ruins." Where others see only sand and scrub, Sarianidi has turned up the remnants of a wealthy town protected by high walls and battlements.
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