Merv was one of the most significant oasis cities of the Silk Road and a great city and capital for 2500 years. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999 due to it being a major archaeological site of Central Asian ancient culture covering many many signs of the great past of the area. The same year Merv was also listed by UNESCO as the most impressive historical site in Turkmenistan. Merv first became a notable center under the Achaemenian Empire and was the regional capital for a succession of different controlling dynasties across the next millenium.
In its heyday, Merv was known as Marv-Ishahjahan, “Merv – Queen of the World’” and it stood alongside Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo as one of the great cities of the Islamic world. As a major heart of religious study and a base of the Silk Road, it had a great value to the commerce and refinement of Central Asia. Before the sons of Chinggis Khan turned this great city into the ash, Merv had been a melting pot of religious faiths and ethnic groups. Its buildings made of fired brick, towered over the green oasis including palaces, mosques, caravanserais and thousands of private homes. Now only a spread around ruins, including fortified walls, brick foundations and gazillions of shards of pottery, remain in the area.
Merv is all about ruins and if you are an archaeology lover you will definitely enjoy walking around the ancient settlements here. However, if you are not a fan of the ancient settlements, you may feel bored with these dusty, windswept remains and its better to leave this sight for others.
Merv was known as Margiana or Margush in Alexander the Great’s time. Under the Persian Sassanians, it was religiously liberal, with significant populations of Christians, Buddhists and Zoroastrians living peacefully together. Merv reached its greatest heights during the peak of the Silk Road as a center of power, culture and civilization during 11th and 12th centuries AD when the Seljuq Turks made it their capital.
Merv might have been an inspiration even for the tales of Scheherazade’s Thousand and One Nights. Over the course of its history, Merv experienced a number of attacks, but rather than restoring older ruins, Merv slowly expanded and moved towards west. Overall, five cities were formed next to each other, mainly due to the slowly shifting river locations. The oldest site or Merv is in the Erk Kala area and in later centuries most people lived in the vast walled city called Sultan Kala.
In 1218, Merv was completely destroyed by the invasion of the Mongols and Chinggis Khan demanded a generous tribute of grain, along with a pick of the city’s most beautiful young women.
The unwise Seljuq reply was to assassinate the tax collectors that had arrived to claim the tribute. In return Tolui, the most brutal of Chinggis Khan’s sons, arrived three years later at the head of an army, accepted the peaceful surrender of the terrified citizens and then proceeded to butcher every last one of them, a staggering estimated amount of about 300 000 people.
Merv made a small comeback in the 15th century and was soon at the center of a territorial conflict between the rulers of Bukhara, Khiva and Persia. Persian power eventually won the hearts of the locals when a noble named Bairam Ali rebuilt a dam, which allowed the irrigated region to prosper again and encouraged free trade. The Emir of Bukhara struck back with military force, captured the city and utterly destroyed it in 1795. Russia annexed Merv in 1884 and the Turkmen settlement became known as Bairam Ali. Russians controlled events from Mary, which was their newly built town 30 km to the west.
Gyaur Kala was a large city entity in Merv history, which used Erk Kala as its northern fort. Erk Kala is perhaps the most exciting one of all the Merv sights and the most ancient one as well. The Gyaur Kala and Sultan Kala are also fairly big and there are other sights inside them. Sultan Kala lies just a short walk west from the Gyaur kala.
Gyaur Kala Ancient Settlement
Gyaur-Kala was one of the most powerful Central Asian ancient fortresses with a territory of over 300 hectares. Gyaur Kala was originally built during the 3rd century BC by the Sassanians. The fortress walls are still solid, with three gaps where the gates once were located. The walls of Gyaur-Kala are square with towers placed at an identical distance from each other. The length of each wall is about 2 km. The trail from the south to the north inside the fortress goes directly from the southern gate to the citadel and runs around it to the northern gates. The 11th century Beni Makhan mosque lies in the center of Gyaur Kala.
Erk Kala is believed to have been the center of Achaemenid rule over the oasis meaning the center of ancient Merv. Erk Kala has walls with 25 m in height and the structure resembles the crater of an extinct volcano, 500m in diameter. The fortifications of Erk-Kala have crumbled over time but have preserved much of their height and power. The Erk Kala fortress occupies a territory of about 20 ha.
Beni Makhan Mosque
Beni Makhan mosque lies in the center of Gyaur Kala, built in the eleventh or twelfth century AD. This remarkable structure has gradually been collapsing since it was excavated in the 1980s. It is a fundamental part of the cultural and memorial complex formed in the 10th-12th centuries at the more ancient ruins here.
Buddhist stupa and monastery which was still functioning in the early Islamic era, is located in the southeastern corner of Giaur Kala on a distinguished hill point. The top of a Buddha statue has been found here, making Merv the westernmost known point to which Buddhism spread at its peak.
Sultan Kala Ancient Settlement
Sultan Kala is the third and most extensive of the walled cities of Merv. The new city of its time, reached its peak under the Seljuks. It was walled in the 11th century under Malik Shah. During the reign of Sultan Sanjar, when Merv was tne of the most prominent cities of the world and during that time the northern and southern suburbs were also walled, giving the city a total area of some 600 ha.
By the time of the arrival of a large Mongol force in 1221, the city had already weakened but its walls still set a challenging obstacle for the Mongols. The Mongols did not, however, need to attempt to breach them: the defenders of the city negotiated a surrender under which they would be spared and opened the gates to the Mongol army.
Shahriar Ark Citadel
Walled Shahriar Ark Citadel is located east side of the road, after passing the Sultan Kala. It was built in the 12th century to enclose a palace and administrative complex and the residences of the urban elite of the Seljuks. The ruins of the palace are close to the center of this site. The building was based around a central courtyard, surrounded on each side by iwans. The best-preserved building in the Shahriar Ark, however, stands to the northeast of the palace. It is a about 20 m long rectangular building and around 8 m in height. Its outside walls have a distinctive design of vertical corrugations.
Kempter khana is the inner part of the Shahriar Ark. Based on one theory, it was used as a “pigeon house” due to its niches, but there is no academic consensus as to the purpose of this unusual building. It is the inner part of the Shahriar Ark.
Soltan Sanjar Mausoleum
Sultan Sanjar Mausoleum is one of the rare buildings in Merv that have survived to this day intact. It lies in the middle of the Sultan Kala. The tomb was restored with the aid of the Turkish and Turkmenistan governments and today it is listed as one of the UNESCO World Heritage sights in Merv. The tomb is also known as ‘Dar-al-Akhyre” (The Other World). It strongly indicates the greatest achievements and prosperity of Seljuks. Next to it, there are the ruins of large monumental buildings – the palaces of Seljuk rulers and a mosque.
Sultan Sandzhar Mausoleum is a genuine ancient tower of cubic shape crowned by a two-level dome with turquoise encasement. Three-level galleries run beneath the dome in the form of alternating openwork arches. The mausoleum was erected by the order of Sultan Muizeddin Sandzhar. He was buried in 1157 but in 1221 when Mongolian troops attacked Merv, the remains of the Sultan were reburied in an unknown time and place. Therefore there is an empty grave under the tombstone of the mausoleum.
Mosque and Mausoleum complex of Hodja Yusup Hamadani
The mosque and mausoleum complex of Hodja Yusup Hamadani is one of the most popular places of shrine pilgrimage in Turkmenistan. Hodja Yusup was a Sufi scholar of the 12th century, whose teachings formed a significant factor in the development of Sufism in Central Asia. He studied theology in Baghdad and settled later in Merv, where he enjoyed the support of Sultan Sanjar.
He was buried in the city after his death in 1140. The mosque here was one of the few ones in Turkmenistan, that were allowed to operate, albeit under tight control, during the Soviet period. The open-sided square mausoleum, towards the rear of the complex, is a recent reconstruction. A group of buildings along the west side of this, around a central ivan, were possibly initially built in the Timurid period.
Mohammed Ibn Zayd Mausoleum
Mohammed Ibn Zayd Mausoleum is one of the most mysterious shrine complexes in Turkmenistan. Ibn Zayd was a Shia leader, killed in 740 AD, while leading an uprising against the Umayyads in the city of Kufa in present-day Iraq. I may therefore be that the mausoleum at Merv is perhaps just a symbolic construction, built by his followers. This mausoleum at the core of the complex, dates from the Seljuk period.
Mohammed Ibn Zayd Mausoleum has a square, domed chamber and the dome is raised by four squinches, separated by corners. An inscription written around the top of the walls, displays the date of construction of the mausoleum as 1112 AD. The latest restoration occurred in the early part of the 20th century. The mausoleums are surrounded by several large saxaul trees, that are considered sacred and from which hundreds of strips of cloth, representing prayers, are hanging,
The Askhab Mausoleums, located in Merv, were built during the Timurid era to honor two of Prophet Muhammad’s earliest followers, Abu Dhar al-Ghifari and Abu Buraidah al-Aslami. These mausoleums consist of two iwans, which are monumental portals commonly used in Timurid architecture. The original structures were likely built in the Seljuq era but were destroyed during the Mongol invasions in the 13th century. The Timurids reconstructed them in the 15th or 16th century.
The iwans were restored in 1992 and feature intricate tile work with geometric patterns and Kufic inscriptions. The colors used in the tile work are cobalt blue, turquoise, and tan-colored brick. The conservationists carefully matched the original colors to create a seamless blend of old and new tiles. The iwans serve as backdrops for the two small tomb chambers that house the cenotaphs of the two companions of Muhammad.
In addition to the tombs and iwans, there is a small sardoba located nearby that was once used as a source of clean water. Unfortunately it has been polluted with trash and may no longer be suitable for drinking. The site also features a modern prayer hall and a refectory. It is believed that the mausoleums were originally intended as sites of ritual commemoration, and not the actual burial sites of the two companions.
The Great Kyz Kala, or “Maiden’s Castle,” is the largest ancient group of structures outside the west wall of Sultan Kala. It includes, the Great Kyz Kala , Lesser Kyz Kala, the Kyz Bibi mausoleum and two more köshks, or fortress-like buildings. Archeologists identified that these two fortresses were built according to the same plan. The immediate vicinity of the buildings has been preserved and the ground surface displays little sign of change. Residential and utility rooms that formed a courtyard were built inside both fortress.
For the steppe, it was an extremely convenient structure: in summer it was always cool here, and warm in winter. This structure was also used as a barn where harvested foodstuff were stored, so it is not surprising that the fortress could face a long siege. The two parts of the Kyz-Kala fortress were connected with the help of the eastern gate, on which towers were erected.
Great Kyz Kala
The Great Kyz Kala is the largest fortress-like buildings and apparently served as the semi-fortified home of an important official, possibly even the governor of Merv. Big Kyz-Kala had two floors: on the first floor there were 5 rooms and a staircase leading downward passing through an arched corridor. According to the fragments of the second floor, it also had 5 rooms located around the courtyard.
Little Kyz Kala
Unlike Great Kyz-Kala, little Kyz-Kala is not that well preserved. The little Kyz-Kala stands about a hundred meters to the south from Great Kyz-Kala. Its layout was the same yet it has survived in far worse condition. The folded facade can be seen only on the eastern side of the structure.
Kyz Bibi Mausoleum
Kyz Bibi is a small reconstructed square mausoleum, open on all sides and located west of the Sultan Sanjar Mausoleum and South of the road. It is not known who is buried in the tomb and there is no sarcophagus inside the tomb. However, some scientists believe that this may be the burial place of Sultan Sanjar’s wife, Turkan-Khatun. Pilyavskiy, who researched the tomb before the renovations, dated the tomb to the 11th-12th centuries.
Abdulla Khan Kala
Abdulla Khan Kala is located in the southern part of the Merv site within the group of monuments linked to the Timurid rule in the 15th century. Abdullah Khan Kala lies some 3 km south of Sultan Kala and was built in 1409 by Shah Rukh, who had taken control of the empire of his late father Timur, known as Tamerlane in the West.
This fortress has a square plan and its city crumbling walls, made from the mud-brick, are its most prominent surviving feature. You can also still see the canal surrounding the walled city.
Bairam Ali Khan Kala
Bairam Ali Khan Kala is another landmark located just next to to the Abdulla Khan Kala. The fortress has the shape of a three-wall structure and is linked to the western wall of Abdullakhan-Kala. The date of the fortress construction is not known but it was named after the governor Bairamali-khan (1781-1785) who was greatly respected by the residents of those times.
Bairam Ali Khan was the ruler of Merv in the latter part of the 18th century, killed in 1785 by Uzbek forces led by Shah Murad of Bukhara. His demise led to the final decline of Merv during the following decades.
Merv Ice Houses
These large ancient “freezers”, made from brick and covered by a conical-shaped roof, were used to keep meat and other foods frozen during the summer. They can be found south from Gyaur Kala.
First Ice House
A building with the diameter of 13 m, believed to be a Timurid ice-house, is located in wasteland about 500 m to the north of Abdullah Khan Kala. Today it is a roofless building of rounded pyramidal shape and its interior walls pierced with many beam-slots. Most archaeologists believe that the buildings were used for the storage of ice, although some sources claim that they may have been water wells.
Second Ice House / Koshk Imaret
Some 100 m to the southeast from the first ice house, you will reach the second ice-house. It is a building known as the Koshk Imaret. This is a Timurid pavilion, that would once have lain in the heart of gardens. It is rectangular in plan, with its main, arched, entrance on the west side of the building, flanked by arched niches. Traces of plaster have been found on the inside of the building, still preserving the pink color in which the pavilion was originally colored.
Third Ice House
This ice house has a rather different form from the others, having a taller and steeper design. Fragments of wooden beams have survived in many of the slots around the internal walls. Some researchers believe that the buildings may date from the Seljuk rather than the Timurid period. This ice house, the closest to Giaur Kala, is perhaps the best-preserved structure among the three.