Although it is not much more than dusty ruins now, the city of Merv has had its share of prosperity and destruction over the centuries. People had first settled in this area over 4000 years ago. It was once (maybe) visited by Alexander the Great (and named after him for a while), was a place Roman prisoners of war were once deported to, a centre of Buddhist, and then later Islamic learning, and by the 11th century CE was ruled by the Turks. But that all came to a crushing end in 1221, when the son of Genghis Khan, Tolui, destroyed the city and the 1,000,000 inhabitants there and the surrounding area. Although people continued to live there in the ensuing centuries, it never had the same population or prominence as before. By 1888 the entire city was abandoned. In 1999 it received World Heritage status, but I have to admit that I couldn’t see the benefit of it. Many of the remaining buildings are deteriorating from year to year, with little protection offered from the elements (walls made of mud don’t do well when exposed to the elements). That said, I still found it an interesting place to visit.
After getting our bearings at the little museum at the entrance to the site, we stopped at the Sultan Sandzhar Mausoleum. This is a cubic-shaped mausoleum with a dome on top. It was built by the order of the Sultan, who died and was buried in it in 1157. However, after the Mongol invasions in 1221, his body was removed and buried elsewhere (unknown), so the tomb remains empty, even now. However, I found it a beautiful building, as it was light and airy and full of light.
When we first arrived there was a large group of local tourists there to pay their respects, but after they left, we had the place to ourselves. The tombstone reads, “This place is ennobled by the remains of the one who was called Sultan Sandzhar from the descendants of Turks-Seljuks… He was Alexander the Great of his time; he was the patron of scientists and poets and was accepted by Islamic world in the state of prosperity and happiness owing to sciences and arts.”
I also appreciated the fact that you could still see some of the original carved inscriptions on the walls, the fact that they’ve last nearly a thousand years is quite impressive.
After a more detailed look around the outside of the mausoleum, we headed to one of the hills to get an idea of the scale and scope of Merv. The sheer scale of the place was impressive, even if the number of monuments was minimal (and hard to see in the distance). Then it was off to the Tomb of Hodja Yusuf Hamadani, a famed Sufi teacher, who died in 1141. We couldn’t go inside here, but we did get to meet some very lovely local people who were preparing a massive feast for lunch. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay, as we had many things to do and see.
Next we visited a pair of mausolea of two Askhabs (or associates) of the Prophet Mohammed. They belong to al-Hakim ibn Amr al-Gifari and Buraida ibn al-Huseib al-Aslami, both who lived in the 7th century. Both mausoleums are cubic in shape with metal grills covering the doors/windows. Behind them are two large portals (“iwans”) that were constructed during the Timurid period (15th century). They had intricate blue and turquoise tiles, although one of the portals had been restored and the other not so much.
Around this area were some more modern cemeteries. Of course I was more than curious about them and would have liked to explore them further, but we didn’t have time for that.
Our final stop in Merv was the Major and Minor Kyz-Kala – old fortresses with a type of pleated, or corrugated walls. The Major Kyz-Kala was known as the Maiden’s Fortress, and the Minor one (just to the south) was for young men, but it was in far worse condition. The sad thing is that our guide showed us some photos of these fortresses from only a few years ago, and it was a little distressing to see how much they’ve deteriorated in such a short time. I hope they find some way to save these structures, as I haven’t really seen anything like them anywhere else.
Monuments: Mostly mausoleums, spread out over a large area.
Grounds: Mostly flat with some hills. This is the desert so it can get quite hot in the summertime (50C) – when we were here it was in the mid-40s so we were guzzling water every chance we got. Bring shade (hat, umbrella, scarf) to help when you are in the hot sun.
Visitors: a few around the mausoleums, other than that we didn’t see anyone else.
Notes: Bring a tele-lens (or binoculars) to see things in the distance – everything is the same colour here, so can be hard to see from viewpoints.
Site: State Historical and Cultural Park “Ancient Merv”
Location: about 30km from the city of Mary. It’s easy to do a day trip here from Ashgabat as there are daily flights here from various parts of the country.