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Merv

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 37.6636 N 62.1756 E
No:482        (list of all attractions)
Category:Ancient cities and towns, Abandoned cities and towns, Fortified settlements
Values:Archaeology, Architecture, History
Rank:3
Address:Asia, Turkmenistan, Mary Province, some 30 km east from Mary
Name in Turkmen:Merw
Alternate names:Alexandria (ancient), Antiochia in Margiana (Seleucids)
UNESCO World Heritage status:State Historical and Cultural Park "Ancient Merv", 1999, No.886
Founded:˜ 670 BC (as a city)
Flourished:the 3rd century AD - 1221
Abandoned:1788
Ruins of Merv, Turkmenistan
Ruins of Merv (Grand Kyz Qala palace). This is characteristic köshk - inner city palace. / Peretz Partensky, / CC BY-SA 2.0

Nothing is forever - even Merv today is in ruins. This city existed for some 2000 years and for a while it was the largest in the world. Remember this, New York, Hong Kong or London!

History

Merv differs from most cities of the world - it has survived and flourished under more than 10 different cultures, languages and religions, always remaining a splendid centre of trade, science and art. There was needed a terrible tragedy to erase this vivid city - and it happened... It is hard to believe to all of this today, when visitors see just somewhat bland adobe walls and remnants of several buildings scattered over enormous, deserted plain.

Abandoned Merv, Turkmenistan
Site of Merv. Once upon a time here was one of world's largest cities. / Paul, / CC BY-SA 2.0

Below follows a timeline of this amazing city:

  • the 3rd millenium BC: small villages start to develop at the inland delta of Murghab River, where the life-bearing waters of river spread in the desert and dissappear.
  • 2300 - 1700 BC: settlements evolve, they form a part of Bronze Age civilisation, named Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex by scientists.
  • around 670 BC: Cyrus the Great expands Persian Empire (Achaemenid Empire) to Central Asia and Merv is founded. Most likely it was one of the most important centres of Central Asia. Merv is mentioned in several ancient writings.
  • around 330 BC: Persian Empire is conquered by Alexander the Great. Although Pliny the Elder writes that Alexander was in Merv, this most likely did not happen. Merv for a short while is renamed to Alexandria.
  • 312 BC - middle of the 2nd century BC: Merv is renamed to Antiochia Margiana, it is the capital of the Province of Margiana, part of Seleucid Empire. Influence of Hellenistic culture is observed.
  • around 165 BC - 224 AD: Merv is urban centre in Parthian Empire (generation of Persian State). Develops Silk Road and Merv is a major centre on this ancient trade highway for some 15 centuries.
  • 224 AD - around 651 AD: Merv is included in Sassanid State (for a while - also in Kushan State). As the Murghab River steps back towards the west, a new city - Gäwürgala - is built next to the old one. In this multicultural trade city are built Buddhist, Christian, Zoroastrian and other temples. Merv is major centre of Buddhist learning and important Christian centre - seat of East Syrian metropolitan province (553 - the 11th century AD). Enormous church was built, now its ruins are named Kharoba-Koshuk.
  • 651: near Merv is killed the last Sassanian ruler Yazdegerd III, city is taken by Arab army, Islam is brought to these ancient Persian lands. Merv becomes a capital of Khorasana - province of Umayyad state.
  • 671: in order to dilute the local Persian population and to conquer and subdue Central Asia, 50,000 Arab troops are sent to the city. Soon Merv becomes the most fervent supporter of Islam in Central Asia, earlier than the remaining Persia.
  • 748: Merv for a short while becomes a centre of the newly founded Abbasid Caliphate, but the capital soon is moved to a newly built city - Baghdad. Merv provides urban planning and architectural inspiration for Baghdad and other Arab cities. City is increasing, more and more scientists are coming to study in the enormous libraries of Merv.
  • The 9th century: Arab rule gradually becomes weaker and Persians take over the governance of Merv. Here are more than 10 great libraries, city still is major centre of Christianity and at the same time - one of the great centres of Islam teaching.
  • 813 - 818: Merv is declared as a centre of the Muslim world by caliph al-Ma'mun.
  • Wall of Erk Gala in Merv, Turkmenistan
    Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar - first Seljuk ruler of Merv. / Peretz Partensky, / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
    1037: Turks (Seljuks) peacefully take over the city, Merv becomes the main Seljuk city. Golden times of Merv start: city turns into large metropolis with many interesting amenities: giant market, diverse cultural institutions.
  • Middle of the 12th century - early 13th century: Merv is one of the largest cities in the world. It is assessed that in the middle of the 12th century there lived some 200,000 people, but in the middle of the 13th century - up to 500,000 people.
  • 1153: city is pillaged but quickly recovers.
  • 1221: year of tragedy. Merv opens its gates to Mongols and intruders kill almost all inhabitants of the city as well as hundreds of thousands of refugees from other cities who hid behind the walls of city. Just few hundreds of people are left alive, mostly artisans and scientists. It is possible that up to one million died. This is one of the most tragic events in human history, still posing many questions about the dark side of human soul.
  • Middle of the 13th century: fortifications are hastily rebuilt but the metropolitan spirit never returns to Merv.
  • the 13th century - 1505: Merv is part of the empire of Timur.
  • 1505 - 1788: Merv is smaller city of local importance which is governed by Uzbeks, then - Persians and finally by Bukhara.
  • 1788 - 1789: Merv is razed down upon the order of Emir of Bukhara and irrigation systems deliberately destroyed. People are displaced to other areas of Bukhara and many have retained their Persian self-identity up to this day.
  • the late 19th century - now: archaeological exploration started and on-going.

Description

Erk Gala in Merv from above, Turkmenistan
Ancient part of Merv - Erk Gala from above. / Mark Nesbitt, / CC BY 2.0

Merv is the best preserved Silk Road oasis in Central Asia and represents a cultural monument of global importance. City was huge - central part is 5 by 5 km large. Murghab River changed its course towards the west - thus the city also over the time was extended to the west.

City developed as an oasis city overlooking Murghab River, on a trade route between Persia to the south and Bokhara and Samarkand to the north and later - on Silk Road.

Although now this area looks semi-deserted, it was very fertile in ancient times. Here was built intricate system of irrigation canals and all kinds of local crops and fruits grew here. Rather early - in the 5th century AD - here was grown also cotton and silk. In Merv oasis were developed famous and demanded breeds of horses and other animals. It seems also that locals produced high class weapons and other items, in Merv was developed steel industry.

Merv is very complex monument of history: it consists of several walled cities located next to each other.

Wall of Erk Gala in Merv, Turkmenistan
Wall of Erk Gala. Premises were built inside this giant fortification wall. / Paul, / CC BY-SA 2.0

These cities are:

  • Erk Gala - oldest and smallest one (500 by 400 m, 12 - 20 ha), developed in Achaemenid times, starting from the 7th century BC. It has an impressive ringwall around - this ringwall has rooms inside and it seems, that local people gladly lived inside it during the hot and cold times of the year. Erk Gala later served as a spiritual centre of the city.
  • Gawurgala (Gyaur Gala) partly surrounds Erk Gala and is located to the south from it. This city was built during the Hellenistic and Sassanid times, starting from the 3rd century BC until the middle of the 8th century, well after the coming of Islam. The city was inhabited also in later times - mostly as an industrial suburb to the new city. Especially impressive are the remaining walls of Gawurgala. The 7.4 km long fortifications consist of three walls, each built on the top of the previous. Nowadays this city provides much information about crafts in early medieval times as well as valuable numismatic material. Here is located Beni Mahkan mosque. Here are found also remains of Buddhist and Christian temples.
  • Wall of Erk Gala in Merv, Turkmenistan
    Small Kyz Qala - remnants of inner city palace. / Paul, / CC BY-SA 2.0
    Soltangala (Sultan Kala) - by far the largest city which was built in Abbasid and Seljuk time. Construction of this city started in the 8th century to the west from Gawurgala. This city was built very fast and encircled with approximately 12 km long fortification walls. Characteristic buildings here are köshks - residential buildings of influential and rich people. These köshks were similar to two-flor palaces with corrugated walls. Most impressive structure here (and in the whole Merv) is Grand Kyz Qala (Greater Gyzgala) palace (from Turkmen "maiden's fortress" which was built outside the city walls, to the west from it. This palace had 17 rooms an central courtyard. Another city palace is Small Kyz Qala (Lesser Gyzgala) with very massive walls. Impressive are also later Seljuk buildings - remnants of palace (possible Sanjar palace), mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar (the 12th century), where the later has been preserved almost intact. Unusual structure is Kepderihana - possible pigeon roost or, possibly, library. Walls of this city still are 8 - 9 m tall. Later in front of these walls was built one more and also the suburbs (Isgendergala) were surrounded by massive, 5 m thick wall.
  • Shaim Kala - extension of metropolis which was developed since the 7th century AD. Also this part of city was enclosed in fortification walls.
  • Abdyllahangala (Abdullah Khan Kala) - is smaller city, built in Timurid times (the early 15th century) to the south from the older cities.
  • Bairam Ala Khan Kala - fortified extension, built in the 18th century, now also in ruins.

Remnants of many buildings are scattered around the areas of these cities and also outside their walls.

Map

See Merv on the map of Turkmenistan!

 

References

  1. A. K. M. Yaqub Ali. Pundranagara: an Emporium of North Bengal. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Vol. 53, No.1., June 2008, Dhaka.

Landmarks of Turkmenistan

Door To Hell, Turkmenistan
Door To Hell / Tormod Sandtorv, / CC BY-SA 2.0

Turkmenistan is mostly covered with deserts - but it has not been always like that. In the past here developed some of the earliest cities in the world.

Ancient cities and towns

Mari 5,000 years ago, Syria
Mari 5,000 years ago, Syria / Balage Balogh / CC BY-SA 3.0

Category of ancient cities and towns in this site includes those settlements which have developed as urban areas at least 1500 years ago - around 500 AD. The oldest densely inhabited permanent settlements in the world could be Jericho in Palestine (densely built already at 9400 BC) and Çatalhöyük in Turkey (7500 BC).

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