A City Buried in The Sands Of Time
Updated: Apr 3
Picture this: You are a wealthy traveling Chinese merchant in the year 1,221 AD. You have a caravan of horses, camels, and workers with you. With them are precious items, silk, cloth, cotton, textiles indigenous to East Asia, and spices that are worth as much as gold in the far west.
Coming from the cold climate of the Tian-Shan Mountains, you are now traveling through the arid desert lands of Central Asia and are frightfully tired and parched. On the horizon, in the middle of an alien-like desert, you see this wondrous sight.
A towering metropolis with walls as high as 20 meters, enclosing massive buildings, and beautiful flora and fauna all around. You have just arrived at the oasis of wonders, one of the paradise lands in the middle of the desert created by the god Ahura Mazda, the cultural capital of the Seljuk empire. The city of Merv in what is now known as Turkmenistan.
You walk to the city gates and awe at the towering gilded wooden gates, it opens, you and your caravan are let inside. Upon entering in you are presented with an incredible sight. Gardens and orchards all within the boundaries of the city. Beautiful architecture of canals and bridges dotting the land. Lush greeneries and richly cultivated land, juxtaposing an arid Karakum desert as if to act as a reprieve for the travelers trading their wares along the Silk Road's most trepidatious segments.
On the city’s limits stand five miles of enclosing walls running around an oblong circuit, jotted with strong and towering guard bastions and four large gates - one of which you went through, protecting the city from nomadic invaders. The houses were closely built and the streets, though beautifully architected are narrow. Among the houses lie large structures; mosques, schools, libraries, and bathhouses.
You settle in one of the Caravanserai, an inn for weary travelers, and jostle for room with other traveling merchants from India, Iraq, and even the Mediterranean. You feel a bit hot and tired, so you head off for the city’s icehouse, a conical shaped building where residents accumulate snow during the winter and is engineered to allow wind in from its sole opening to permeate the mud-brick structure for cooling man and produce alike.
You rest for the night, and in the morning you leave for the cities of the middle east where you’ll trade your wares for exotic goods, and gold to justify your long tirade across the Silk Road. Good thing too because a few months later, the Mongol Horde, led by Genghis Khan’s son starts the siege of Merv which will culminate to one of the bloodiest massacres in human history.
Merv, a demonstration of how high we believe our civilizations are and have been; but also showing how little we humans actually mean to the flow of time. Once the most advanced region on Earth along the lines of Constantinople, Cairo, and Alexandria of Egypt, and a part of the strongest empire at the time, the Persian Empire, it was one of the major cities along the Silk Road.
The mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, built in the early 12th century AD to honor the long-ruling Seljuk sultan “could be seen from a day’s journey away” described by the Arab geographer Yaqut Ai-Hamawi as having a dome glazed in turquoise tiles, and intensely blue.
A Once Glorious City Now Covered by The Sands of Time
During its heyday, Merv was a cultural capital. It attracted the brightest mathematicians, historians, astronomers, and artists the world over. It started trends not only in scientific and astronomical standards but also in architecture, fashion, art, and music. To be Marwazi suggests a heightened degree of cultured sophistication akin to that of the ancient Romans and greeks.
Though in relative seclusion, in the Karakum desert, it was a worldly city, an exemplar of the commercial and intellectual culture flourishing along the Silk Road at the time. Merv was also religiously pragmatic. Mahayana Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, a modern form of Zoroastrianism, and of course Islam; as a matter of fact, Merv was once called the queen of Islam.
Traces of human inhabitance can be found as early as 4,000 years ago. Merv’s ancient roots are older to the Romans than the Romans are to us. One of its older sites is called Gonur Depe which was a location of paramount importance to the cultures living during the 3rd to the 1st millennium BCE. The religion practiced then was a proto-Zoroastrian religion, much older than Jewish and its branch-off religion Christianity, and Islam.
The city has changed hands more times than can be counted, from the original Indo-Iranian settlers to the Seljuk Turks, to the Mongols, to the Turkmen. Even Alexander the Great, making the city part of his empire, once visited the metropolis. The city was once named after Alexander, and on his death, it became the capital of the province of Marghiana of the Seleucid Empire.
The Mongol’s laid siege to this ancient city for three days, declaring that if they were allowed in to occupy Merv, they would not hurt the city and its inhabitants. They lied.
Soon as the gates were opened, the Mongol horde laid waste to this once-proud testament to human achievement. They plundered its riches, enslaved its children, butchered its men, and raped its women.
Apart from reportedly 400 artisans, nearly a million people which accounted for 500,000 marwazi, and around another 500,000 refugees - in some accounts more - were massacred during this onslaught. The ancient city’s famous 12 libraries containing books including old Greek and Roman texts along with most of the entire architecture have been razed to the ground, never to rise again to its full respect and glory.
Only a few buildings were left standing, to represent what was Merv - one of the greatest cities in history.
Digging Up This Ancient Ruin From The Clutches of Entropy
The breakup of the Soviet Union has led to the rediscovery of one of the world’s most extraordinary archaeological treasures.
Perestroika and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1992 led to the opening up of Merv to archaeologists for the first time in 70 years. Following this period, the International Merv Project was established with a team of archaeologists from around the world, coordinated by the British Museum, the University College of London, and the Academy of Sciences in Turkmenistan.
Like what happened in Chichen Itza in Mexico, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Tikal in Guatemala, this expedition resulted in the most bedazzling of archaeological finds since the discovery of King Tutankhamen of Egypt.
It’s overwhelming. “The sheer size of it all, and the fact that the mud-brick buildings have survived for over 1,000 years is mesmerizing to the mind.” says the lead British scientist of the expedition, Dr. Georgina Hermann.
Merv is the largest archaeological site in the common era and is also the oldest. One of the important findings discovered was that Merv is not just one city. It is multitudes of cities, as many as the number of occupiers it had over the course of 4,000 years.
Furthermore, Merv are not cities on top of each other, each erasing the previous occupier's history. but cities built beside one another. Each one dating back to a point in time much farther than the rest. This makes it similar to a time capsule offering the chance to look at it at face value archaeologically speaking.
Merv in Pop-Culture
The White Sun of The Desert, a legendary classic from 70’s Soviet-style cinema, has scenes shot in Merv. Directed by an icon of golden age cinema Vladimir Motyl, it also featured the Caspian Sea, and other famous sights in Central Asia. The cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin watched this movie and it has been a tradition for cosmonauts to experience this film of great Russian artistry since.
Merv in Decline
Sadly, the latest occupiers did not do Merv justice. In the 1950s, the Soviets diverted water from the Oxus river to create the Karakum Canal, the longest man-made canal in the world, to enable cotton to grow in the region. The canal was an environmental double-edged sword. Creating livelihood for people at the time, and the greening of the desert surrounding Merv, but also resulted in the drying up of the Aral Sea.
What was once formerly barren land is now covered in grass and rising dampness in the air that eats away at the mud-brick monuments.
The few remains of long lost strongholds as well as defensive walls that used to be the witnesses of enormous power stand silently stripped of their grandeur in the middle of nowhere and the only citizens that settle in the destroyed fortresses are some little desert rodents and herds of camels nibbling wilted shrubs.
CentrAsia Tours can guide you not only through this epic ancient wonder but also through time.