Merv is an ancient settlement located in the Karakum Desert, through which caravans traveling along the Silk Road passed. In ancient times, Merv was the most important junction on the international caravan route of the Great Silk Road and the capital of the prosperous region of Margiana. Today Merv is an ancient city located in the southeastern part of Turkmenistan, 30 km east of the city of Mary in the city of Bayramaly. In the Zoroastrian holy book Avesta, Merv is referred to as “Maru”. However, later the name of the city was changed to “Margush”, “Margiana”, “Margava”, “Maru” and “Merv”. It was also called “Maru-shahu-jahan”, which in translation means Mary – the soul of kings. Ancient Merv today occupies an area of thousands of hectares. In the ruins of Merv there are no less than five ancient settlements – “Erk-kala”, “Gyaur-kala”, “Sultan-kala”, “Abdullakhan-kala” and “Bayramalihan-kala”, which are surrounded by walls and runes. Behind each of them is a centuries-old history of the rise and fall of kingdoms and dynasties, the history of wars and a continuous chronicle of creation, the revival of the city after severe social upheavals.
Merv has never been an ordinary city. In the Middle Ages Merv was one of the most important cities of Islam, the capital of Seljuk Empire and a bustling commercial center with hundreds of thousands inhabitants. During the Silk Road era, merchants sold camels, horses, silk, gold, jewelry and spices in Merv. The oasis was famous for its cotton crops and orchards, and legends were made about the taste of melons grown here. The dry soil of the oasis was the source of the building material. Clay was used not only for the construction of ordinary houses, but also for mosques, palaces and city walls. Merv was built entirely of clay, which served as an excellent insulating material in the extreme climatic conditions of Central Asia with summer heat and cold winter.
Today, this ancient city is a vast field of ruins resembling a lunar landscape and grown on the fertile soil of the Murghab River oasis, which descends from the mountains of Afghanistan and branches out in the Karakum to form a vast delta. Since time immemorial, the course of the river has carried fertile sediments with it. The first well-developed civilization of the Margush flourished here four thousand years ago. Archaeologists found here a temple of fire, palaces of the rulers, and many tombs. The first written mention of Merv appears in the Avestan chronicles in VIII-VI centuries BC.
The Erk Kala was the first citadel, the core of the city, in the 6th century BC. Later it was surrounded by a huge wall whose height reached about 30 meters. Very quickly, the city grew into the capital of the whole oasis. There were temples, barracks, the ruler’s house and other buildings in the city. When the great military leader Alexander the Great arrived in this city, he was struck by the beauty and uniqueness of the area and ordered to build six fortresses near the city, and to wall the area with a strong wall. After this, the first city of Merv was named Alexandria Margiana. The Macedonians did not dominate the territory of modern Turkmenistan for long.
After Alexander’s death, his vast empire fell apart and Merv became part of the new state of Seljucs. King Antiochus of Seleucia made a significant contribution to the development of the city and built a new city – Gyaur Kala. The old fortress became a trade center and grew by 30 meters from the original size of the city. In 53 BC, the Romans lost their first major defeat against the Parthians, and 10 thousand Roman soldiers were taken prisoner. They were sent to Merv where they are believed to have been engaged in the expansion of the city wall, which included three phases. The first wall was relatively thin, but it was already more than 10 meters high. Soon the wall was strengthened, its thickness doubled and its height increased by 2 meters. Further expansion work turned the wall into a gigantic structure 20 meters high, 14 meters thick and 8 kilometers long. Even though a mighty wall surrounded Merv it remained a cosmopolitan city and excavations have revealed that there was once a Buddhist monastery here.
Major and Minor Kyz-Kala – were built in the VI-VII centuries.
Sometimes being called Great and Little Kyz-Kala, the word Kyz-Kala, which means “Maiden’s fortress”, was famous for its legend about the capricious daughter of a feudal lord who tried all kinds of suicides until one of them committed suicide. After repenting and realizing her mistake, the beauty jumped from the walls of the fortress after her suitor. Nevertheless, one cannot say for sure whether rich and powerful merchants lived there, or whether it was a place for official receptions. Major Kyz-Kala is poorly preserved until our days. The fortress consisted of two floors. On first floor, there were five rooms, and the stairs leading downstairs went through an arch-shaped corridor. The interior was supported by retaining walls. The layout of the second floor can only be imagined from the surviving fragments. It had about five rooms arranged round a courtyard. The Major Kyz-Kala has the appearance of accordion-like walls, as if the walls were folded together. Also in a Minor Kyz-kala, interior elements such as stairs, door arches and ceiling niches have been preserved to this day. The characteristic method of construction using the column-shaped walls of the Kyz-kala was developed not only for defense purposes but also to stabilize such large structures of clay bricks. Later this method was used in other parts of Central Asia.
In the seventh century, the first army of Arab-Muslim conquerors conquered Merv. The arrival of the Arabs gave a new impetus to the development of Merv and educational institutions and libraries appeared here. There was a great flow of migration from neighboring countries. More and more Muslims settled outside the walls of the ancient city, creating new markets, caravanserais and residences for rulers. Later, by order of the Seljuk Sultan Melik Shah, the city was surrounded by its own 400 hectares of defensive wall and was called Sultan Kala, which means the Sultan’s city. In the northeastern part of Sultan Kala was built citadel – Shahriar Ark, where the palaces of sultans, administrative buildings and military barracks were located.
Sultan Sanjar Mausoleum
In the XI-XII centuries, Merv became the capital of the Great Seljuk state and reached its peak of prosperity, gaining the status of the largest city in the world. The Seljuks made Merv the capital of their vast empire, stretching from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. It was from this palace that the great Sultan Sanjar ruled the fate of his empire for 60 years. Scholars flocked to Merv from everywhere, and it was a pleasure to live here. Sultan Sanjar built his mausoleum in the center of the city with the height of 38 meters, width 27 meters, and wall thickness 5 meters and it was cubic in shape. Sultan Sanjar named the mausoleum *Dar al Ahir* which translated meant the otherworldly world. The mausoleum was topped with a blue dome, which was visible even after a day’s journey. Today the dome has been restored, but unfortunately not in its original luxurious form. The mausoleum is a monument to the former greatness of the merv, a monument to which pilgrims stretch out day after day. After the death of Sultan Sanjar in 1157, the Seljuk dynasty declined and the Khorezmians, who took possession of the city, subsequently plundered Merv. The brief decades of rule by the Khwarezm shakhs, who seized Merv soon after the death of Sultan Sanjar, were good for the city.
Nevertheless, the great ages were followed by a time of desolation. One cold morning of February 1221 one of Genghis Khan’s army appeared at the city gates. Although the inhabitants surrendered, the city was looted and razed to the ground, and its levees and canals were destroyed. The annals say that the Mongols decided to capture four hundred artisans and a certain number of specially selected boys and girls. Everyone else, including women and children, was decided to be exterminated. Each Mongol warrior was to execute 300 to 400 inhabitants.
Two centuries later the Timurids restored Merv and its irrigation, but they failed to regain their former power. At the end of the XVIII century Merv was destroyed again and has not been restored since. Later, at the end of XIX century a new city of Mary emerged, located 30 km west of Merv.
Nowadays Merv is a true archeological paradise for archeologists and scientists, who come here from different countries of the world and make excavations on the ancient Turkmen soil, continuing the scientific traditions of their predecessors, who studied Merv since the late 19th century. In addition, in 1999 Ancient Merv was included into the UNESCO World Heritage List. Merv is the cultural heritage of Turkmens where the unique and majestic culture of ancient ancestors of the Turkmen people are rising from the ashes. A visit to Merv will be interesting for all history lovers and explorers of the Great Silk Road. The scale of ancient Merv ruins will fascinate and amaze anyone.