The Parthian Fortresses of Nisa

Nisa (also Parthaunisa) was an ancient city, located next to the modern-day Bagir village, 18 km southwest of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan and not far from the border of Iran. Nisa is recognized as the first center of the Parthian government assumed to be founded by Arsaces I (reigned c. 250 BC–211 BC), and was reputedly the royal necropolis of the Parthian kings, although it has not been clearly stated that the fortress at Nisa was either a royal residence or a mausoleum. 

Excavations at Nisa have exposed large buildings, mausoleums and shrines, many recorded documents and a stolen treasury. Many Hellenistic artworks have been revealed, as well as a large number of ivory rhytons, the outer rims (coins) decorated with Iranian subjects or classical mythological scenes. Nisa was later renamed Mithradatkirt (“fortress of Mithradates”) by Mithridates I of Parthia (reigned c. 171 BC–138 BC). Nisa was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake, which occurred during the first decade BC. Nevertheless the fortress ruin of Nisa was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2007

Old Nisa

The site of Old Nisa comprises about 14 ha area on a natural hill. The largest building here is the so-called large quadrate hall square with sides of 60 m. Focused around a large courtyard, this building seems to have been a well-preserved treasury. There was only one narrow entrance into the building, and the rectangular chambers around the yard seem to have been sealed with bricks as soon as they were filled. This did not stop the place from falling later victim to robbers, but not everything was stolen. Archaeologists uncovered a collection of the fine ivory rhytons in 1948, carelessly thrown in a heap in one of the chambers. These drinking vessels have become one of the symbols of Turkmenistan, though some superstitiously recall that they were uncovered just before the 1948 earthquake devastated the area.

There is also another collection of buildings just 150 m to the north of the quadrate hall. The structures remaining here are much less striking than those of the main complex but it was from this northern complex that some of the most important artifacts were discovered during excavations.

Wine Store

The wine store lies on the east of the treasury building. It contains large clay vessels which possibly held the wine. This building proved particularly valuable to archaeologists because each of the vessels was accompanied by little clay shards, ostraca, on which mundane information was written about the origin and date of purchase of the wine. Thanks to this data, researchers studied more about the economy and human geography of the region in Parthian times, as well as established the Parthian name of the fortress itself.

Bagyr Village

If you have time, head to Bagyr village to see some more monument worth a glance. To the west side of the access road leading to the Old Nisa site, you will see crumbling mud-brick walls. These rectangular 19th century ruins are what is left of the Kulmergeen Kala. Turkmen families would have lived in yurts and mud buildings within the courtyard protected by them. At the far western side of the village is a mausoleum known as Shaikhalov which in fact is a restored octagonal building with a domed roof. The tomb is said to be that of the 10th century Sheikh Abu Ali Dakkak. A brick gate stands next to the mausoleum and pilgrims say a prayer as they walk through it.

Sights and destinations near Nisa

Page updated 8.2.2021

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