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My Silk Road The Piglet stumbles across the continent

48 - The ancient civilisation of Merv

TURKMENISTAN | Thursday, 8 November 2012 | Views [445]

Merv - windowless 6thC nunnery

Merv - windowless 6thC nunnery

The visit to Merv really began with the National Museum tour at Ashgabat where many of the artifacts found at Merv are kept.  The ruins themselves are about 30 mins drive away from Mary.    They were discovered in the 1970s when a Russian archaeologist decided to excavate the area near the River Murgab and found the remains of a city, now called Margush, that dated back to the Bronze Age (more than 2000 BC).  This puts Merv on a par with other great ancient civilisations such as Mesopotamia, China and Egypt – although strangely, during my own schooldays, Merv wasn’t part of the teachings when I studied ancient civilisations.   However, what is commonly known as Merv is a more recent settlement dating back to around 5thC and which flourished through the 16thC. 

The people of Merv were originally from the old settlement of Margush which is now located at a place called Gonur Depe where the River Murgab originally flowed.  Artifacts discovered there indicated that its people practiced an early form of Zoroastrianism and placed great faith in the natural elements of fire, water and earth.   Sediments from Margush indicated that they drank a potent potion consisting of various herbs and possibly also hallucinogens to aid in their worship (some things don’t change…).  The peoples of Margush were also astonishingly skilled craftsmen; at the National Museum, I saw small intricately carved carved gold goats and other animals not more than one cm high.  But this was not all.

When the river began to shift, people left Margush and migrated to the region now known as Merv.  Merv comprises an older site called Erk Kala (where the migrants originally settled) and a more recent site called Sultan Kala established by the Seljuks.   Not much is left of Erk Kala now except for the citadel which today resembles a huge cauldron or the mouth of a volcano.  It was worthwhile to climb up the old walls of the citadel to get a panoramic view of the entire area of Merv. 

Sultan Kala has several interesting sites.  There is an old Muslim women’s monastery from 6th-7thC with thick windowless walls shaped like corrugated paper; supposedly the house of a feudal lord was converted into the monastery which housed daughters of wealthy religious families.  It was said that when the Mongols attacked the region, the nuns threw themselves from the top of the monastery to avoid “a fate worse than death”.   There are also several important tombs at Merv.  There are tombs of two “askhabs” (followers specifically designated by the Prophet Mohammed to spread Islam) as well as the tomb of a holy and learned 11thC philosopher who asked to be buried near the askhabs.  A mosque has now been built near this tomb to serve the many pilgrims who come to venerate the tomb (Mosque of Hoja Yusuf Hamadani – “hamadani” because the philosopher was from Hamadan, now in Iran).    

The highlight of the ancient Merv is considered to be the 12thC Seljuk Mausoleum of the Sultan Sanjar.   The mausoleum was built by an architect from Sarakhs (near the border between Turkmenistan and Iran where I will make the border crossing into Iran) who was relatively unknown at that time.  The whole project had been commissioned by the Grand Vizier during the lifetime of the Sultan and he not only ordered that the architect never reveal his commission but had him killed after the mausoleum was completed.  Cleverly, the architect carved his name and the entire story on the backside of one of the bricks at the base of the mausoleum’s dome.  The brick was later discovered when the mausoleum was reconstructed.

Having heard the story of Margush, the original Merv, I asked my guide whether it was possible to visit Margush or what is known today as Gonur Depe.  I had not known about Gonur Depe before and therefore hadn’t specified it on the itinerary.  To my excitement, my guide said that it was possible; but the downside was that the drive was a good 3 hours away on bad roads and that we need to find a 4-wheel drive to take us.  I decided this was money well spent ($100 for the 4-wheel drive) and we set off for Gonur Depe after a quick lunch.   The drive to Gonur Depe passed from a smooth tarmac-ed highway onto a bumpy road and then into the desert.  Fortunately we had a very experienced driver who knew the exact trail through the sands (and knew how to dodge the camel herds that we almost hit in the desert).

We arrive in Gonur Depe at around 5pm, almost sunset.  The site is guarded by one old man in a wooden shack, with a huge dog (looks like a sheep dog).  The entrance fee to the entire site is only 6 manats (less than US$3) and my guide walked me through the various parts of the site, hurrying me as it was getting dark.   I was really quite lucky as my guide had in fact had previously joined one of the excavations at the site and knew the various areas well.   The site that has been excavated is a royal palace with three layers of walls, and an outside settlement for workers in the royal palace.  The royal palace has various sections: dining, worshipping, throne room, funeral preparations.  The rooms are even designated with clever “entrance” and exit” signs.  One of the most interesting finds at the site is two pottery kilns.  Scattered everywhere around the kiln and in fact throughout the site are fragments of broken Bronze Age pottery.  There were also several large “water filters” leading to pools from which people took fresh water.  It defies belief that more than 4000 years ago, people had such advanced skills.  Several burial locations were also found, but interestingly, not of humans but of animals – horses, camels and sheep buried with pottery and other everyday household goods.  They must have been beloved by their keepers.   The visit to Gonur Depe (old Merv) was an impromptu idea and quite hectic, but I am glad I decided to bite the bullet.   It was around 9pm when we got back to Mary and I was exhausted - but it was another day where another (travel) dream came true.

(Hope you will enjoy the photos though not sure I've managed to do justice especially with the failing light at Gonur Depe).


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