Monday, March 26, 2012

Merv, an Ancient Silk Road Oasis in Turkmenistan

merv turkmenistan ancient sites and art tour
Great Kyz Kala, Merv
The oasis of Merv in the Karakum Desert, the fourth biggest desert in the world, was at the crossing of the Amu Darya river on the main east-west caravan route to Bukhara and Samarkand. One can imagine the pleasure of dust-covered merchants and pilgrims when they finally arrived in this fabled city.

Merv today, in present-day Turkmenistan, is a collection of ruined cities that were continuously occupied from about 600 BC, when it was settled by Zoroastrians, to 1850 or so when it was abandoned by Turkmen.

Known as Margiana, it formed part of the empire of Alexander the Great and later the Seleucid kings. Merv reached the high point of its development in the Seljuk period, especially during the government of Sultan Sanjar (1118-1157) who made it the capital of his empire. It was a magnificent centre of science, education and culture, attracting astronomers and mathematicians such as Omar Khayyam.

It was one of the most important cities of Islam: a vibrant commercial centre with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. Indeed, it considerably exceeded in size not only Damascus and Jerusalem, but also large cities of Western Europe of the 12th -14th centuries such as Paris, Bologna and Naples. An elaborate system of canals made life possible in Merv: the oasis was famous for its cotton plantations and orchards, while the taste of its melons was legendary.

merv turkmenistan ancient sites and art tour
Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, Merv
This brilliant flowering came to a violent end in 1221 when it was sacked by the Mongols, who slaughtered many of its inhabitants and destroyed the complex water system. Merv was restored in 1418 by Shakhruh, son of Amir Timur and ruler of an independent state with its capital in Herat.

In the 16th century Merv came under the domination of the Uzbek Turks and  was constantly exposed to raids and annexations by rulers of neighbouring kingdoms. This lack of stability led to the relocation of the ancient West-East trade route from Merv to Herat. When Alexander 'Bokhara' Burnes crossed the country in 1832 a much diminished Merv was ruled by the Khans of Khiva.

The Merv Archaeological Park is an area of more than 1,000 hectares: the changing water course determined where new cities were built. There are five separate, adjacent cities. It was declared a World Heritage site in 1999. The Ancient Merv Project, an ongoing collaboration between the Turkmen government and the Institute of Archaeology at the University College of London, has yielded remarkable finds and knowledge about this important site.

merv turkmenistan ancient sites and art tour
Salor torba fragment Ashgabat's Carpet Museum
Turkmenistan's tourism industry is small. Independent travel is not possible: you must travel with a Turkmen guide throughout the country. There are few guide books in English. The excellent Turkmenistan: The Bradt Travel Guide (2006) is out of print and hard to come by. Written by former British ambassador there, Paul Brummel, it is insightful and comprehensive.

Related posts:
Turkmenistan: Tracking Down Mosaics
Buddhist Sites of Termez, Uzbekistan
The Ancient Site of Afrosiab, Samarkand
Ernst Neizvestny's Last Soviet Sculpture - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan