To the south of present-day Turkmenistan, near the modern town of Mary, lie the remnants of what was once one of the most important oasis cities on the Silk Road. So significant was it that not only did it become the capital of the Seljuk Empire, but during the 12th and early 13th centuries, it might have been the largest city in the world.

This is Merv, situated south of the Karakum Desert, the world’s tenth-largest desert stretching between the Caspian Sea and the Amu Darya River. Merv’s strategic location between the Hari Rud and Murgab rivers made it a gateway to Iran and Afghanistan.

The site has been inhabited since at least the 3rd millennium BCE, and it features in Zoroastrian legends as one of the 16 perfect lands created by the god Ahura Mazda. From the 6th century BCE onwards, a series of cities, founded by different civilizations and empires, succeeded each other closely to form the great oasis city of Merv.

The first was the Achaemenid Margu, founded by Cyrus the Great between 559 and 530 BCE, now known as Erkgala. It is the smallest of all. Surrounding it is the Hellenistic and Sassanian metropolis, called Gäwürgala, which also served as an industrial suburb of the Abbasid and Seljuk city. This, called Soltangala, is the largest of all and the core of medieval Merv, with numerous fortified buildings. Lastly, the city of Tamerlane was founded a short distance to the south, now called Abdyllahangala.

Among these four cities and their surroundings are scattered ancient buildings and constructions, all together forming the Archaeological Park of ancient Merv.

After Alexander the Great’s death, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Soter renamed it Antioch of Margiana in the mid-3rd century BCE and expanded and fortified it. This is the part of the city now known as the Gyaur Gala fortress.

The Sassanians took the city in the early decades of the 3rd century CE and held it for almost four centuries. During this period, various religions coexisted there, including official Persian Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The size of the impressive fortifications they built is evidence of the city’s importance.

In 671, the Arabs conquered Merv and made it the capital of the Omega province of Khorasan, refounding and expanding it.

Merv’s architecture and buildings would inspire the Abbasid reconstruction of Baghdad, as 10 considerable-sized libraries, as recounted by Yaqut al-Hamawi, attracted scholars from across the Arab world.

In 1037, the Seljuk Turks, originating from the Aral Sea steppes, peacefully took over Merv and made it the capital of their empire. During this period, the city reached its zenith, being described by Arab and Persian geographers as the capital of the eastern Islamic world.

Between 1150 and 1210, it was the largest and most populous city in the world, with around 200,000 inhabitants over an area of 130 square kilometers, surpassing Constantinople and Baghdad. The Persian historian Juvayni claims that the number of Merv’s citizens killed by the Mongols when they took the city in 1221 amounted to 1.3 million, which is undoubtedly an exaggerated figure but attests to the place’s importance.

The Mongol invasion marked the definitive decline of Merv, although its walls were still rebuilt. By 1380, it belonged to Tamerlane’s empire. In the following centuries, it underwent numerous conquests and changed hands repeatedly.

In the 18th century, it was under the protection of Nader Shah, but after his death, it was ravaged by Shah Murad, the emir of Bukhara, leaving the area barren. The entire population, around 100,000 inhabitants, was deported in stages to the oases of Bukhara and Samarkand. As they were the last Shiites of Persian-speaking origin, the deportees refused to assimilate into the population of the places where they were sent, maintaining their Merv identity to this day.

When the Russians conquered the area in 1883, the city was completely abandoned. George Curzon, who would become the British Viceroy of India, visited Merv that same year and wrote: In the midst of an absolute desert of crumbled bricks and clay, the sight of walls, towers, ramparts, and domes, extending in bewildering confusion to the horizon, reminds us that we are in the midst of past greatness.

The first archaeological excavations were carried out by the Russian general A.V. Komarov in 1885, using his troops as excavators. The first systematic professional excavation was conducted by the Russian archaeologist Valentin Alekseevich Zhukovsky in 1890.

Since 1992, a joint team of archaeologists from Turkmenistan and University College London has made notable discoveries in Merv.

Today, the most prominent remains of buildings are concentrated in the citadel of Soltangala, where the Seljuk palace is located, which had an artificial lake in its center. Also, the kepderihana, which experts are unsure whether it functioned as a pigeon house, treasury, or library.

But the best-preserved structure in Merv is the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, from the 12th century, located in Sultan Gala. It is the largest Seljuk mausoleum and the first to combine mosque and mausoleum. It has a square plan with sides of 27 meters, with a large central dome supported by an octagonal system of ribs and arches.

The exterior of the dome was turquoise in color, and its height made it visible to caravans approaching when they were still a day’s march from the city.

The most striking feature for visitors today is the walls of Soltangala, fortifications that began as adobe structures eight or nine meters high, with horseshoe-shaped towers every 15-35 meters. In the mid-12th century, they were considerably reinforced by adding a smaller secondary wall in front, reaching a thickness of five meters. These walls resisted at least one of the Mongol army’s assaults before capitulating in 1221.

Merv is the oldest and best-preserved of the oasis cities on the Silk Road in Central Asia, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on February 28, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Merv, la ciudad del actual Turkmenistán que fue la más grande del mundo en el siglo XII


S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane | State Historical and Cultural Park “Ancient Merv” (UNESCO) | Sunita Dwivedi, Ancient Merv- the Queen of the World and its link with India | O’Donovan, Edmund, The Merv Oasis | Wikipedia

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