ancient merv, an archaeological gem in the karakum desert


Turkmenistan is a country full of unexpected surprises, and if you have nerve enough to navigate the quite complex and a bit costly visa process, it is well worth the trip. One of the country’s most important sites is that of the ancient city of Merv, a UNESCO listed archaeological site, located in the Mary Velayat in the south-eastern part of the country.

Merv lies on one of the main pathways of the ancient silk road that facilitated trade in the ancient world between Europe, Africa and the Far East. The broad delta of rich alluvial land created by the Murgab river, which flows northwards from Afghanistan, forms an oasis at the southern edge of the Karakum Desert. The ancient city of Merv developed at the heart of this oasis, close to the course of the main river channel in antiquity. The succession of cities, which together once encompassed over two thousand acres, date from the 5th century BCE.

In the 5th century BCE the Achaemenian Empire, stretching from Turkey to India and from Central Asia to Egypt, stimulated a growth in long-distance trade. A flourishing administrative and trading center developed in the Murgab delta, now called Erk Kala. We know little about this first city, as the earliest settlement lies some 17 meters below the modern day surface, buried under a sequence of more than 1,500 years of buildings and daily life. As such it is relatively inaccessible to archaeological exploration.

The region was brought into the Hellenistic yoke in the late 4th century BCE, as Alexander the Great swept through on route to the Oxus and India. The eastern territories of his empire soon became part of the Seleucid Empire, and Antiochus I [281-261 BCE] began a massive expansion of the city at Merv: the earlier city of Erk Kala was converted into a citadel and a vast new walled city was laid out, Antiochia Margiana [today called Gyaur Kala].

The city of Gyaur Kala was to develop with the ebb and flow of empires and trade over the next 1,000 years. The Parthians [from c 250 BCE] and then the Sasanians [from 226 CE] developed Merv as a major administrative, military and trading centre. The defenses were repeatedly rebuilt and strengthened and the vitality of the city is reflected in the numerous building programs and in the wealth of objects recovered from the excavations within Gyaur Kala. There were also periods of decline, particularly when nomad invasions or migrations destabilized the area. During the 5th century CE, for example, Merv was probably the base for the disastrous campaigns against the Hephthalite Huns – during which the Sasanian elite were systematically killed.

With the coming of Islam in the 7th century CE, the urban landscape and the conduct of daily life began to change, as did Merv’s role in the wider world. As the capital of Khurasan [the ‘eastern land’] Merv became a center for Arab expansion, intended to relieve the over-crowding and religious and political discontent of towns such as Basra and Kufa in southern Iraq.

In the 740s the commander Abu Muslim took control of Merv, raising his black banners to proclaim the start of the Abbasid revolution. Baghdad was soon established as the capital of the new empire, but Merv’s status as the capital of Khurasan had grown and now the empire from east of the Great Desert to the frontiers of India was administered from here.

Merv had probably already started to wane by the later 12th century, as east-west trade had begun to be dominated by the seaborne routes between the Far East and Europe. By the early 13th century trade became disrupted by the movement of nomadic peoples to the east: the rising Mongol Empire. In 1221, a Mongol army arrived at the gates of Merv. They spent six days riding around the defenses, looking for the weak points, before the town negotiated a surrender. Unfortunately, whatever the basis of the surrender was to have been, it was hardly a success.

According to historical accounts the townspeople were massacred and the city was obliterated – burnt to the ground and abandoned. Various estimates have been given for the number of people put to death, ranging up to a million. Small settlements sprung up now and again in the area, but nothing that resembled the former glory of the multicultural and cosmopolitan Merv. By the 15th century the last old town was largely abandoned in favor of a new planned town, later called Abdullah Khan Kala, which was built some 2 kilometers to the south.

Today at the site you can still see some quite unique and impressive structures, the use of many of which archaeologists can only speculate. It is quite a hike to the desert ruins of Merv, so I suggest hiring a car and driver for the day. I would also caution against traveling to Merv in August when on a normal day temperatures can reach 45c and above.

If you do make it to Merv, you will be treated to thousands of years of history in one important site, and will be one of the very few intrepid travelers who have actually seen it in person.