Merv Oasis


Ancient Merv

Ancient Merv



Merv oasis is one of the most ancient regions of Central Asia where the highly developed system of the artificial irrigation and the thick net of settlements existed at the Bronze Age.
At different historical periods the Merv oasis was named Mouru in the sacred book of the Zoroastrians Avesta, Margush – in the cuneiform texts of the Achaemenids, Margiana – in Greek-Roman works, Merv – in sources of Sassanian and Arabian periods, Maru – in later Turkmen legends.
In the 6th century BC, the Achaemenids captured Margush. In ancient times the Murghab’s delta was a populous oasis and a part of either Bactria or Parthia. From the 4th to the 3rd centuries BC, the son of the founder of the Seleucid country Antioch built a new capital of the region. It was given the name of the Seleucia or Antiochia of Margiana (Gyaur-kala in Merv). Clay walls 250 kilometres long surrounded the whole oasis to shield it from raids of nomads and the desert sand.
Merv’s joining the Parthian Empire in the time of Mitridate II approximately in the year of 115 BC promoted the towns quick development as a large craft centre and crossroad of transit trade at the Great Silk Road between China and Rome.
Under feudal development, public and political life in Central Asian towns were gradually moved out of citadels to newly developed territories, protected by fortress walls. In the early feudal period Gyaur-kala was Merv’s shakhristan. At that time it was the largest city in the Middle East.
In the second part of the 7th century Southern Turkmenistan (Northern Khorasan) was invaded by the Arabs who began to introduce a new religion, Islam.
The “Queen of Cities”, as it was known in the Islamic world, Merv was considered as the second city after Baghdad between the 8th and 13th centuries. It was an important point on the Great Silk Road.
The 11th century was marked by the formation of a powerful Turkmen state led by the Seljuk dynasty, which made great contributions to the history of the Middle East.
Merv gained the epithet “Shakjahan” (King of Universe) in the 10th century and began to develop intensively under the Seljuks. In the period of Sultan Sanjar, it was the capital of the great country, the largest city in the Middle Asia and in the whole Muslim East. Its area together with suburbs was 1,800 hectares with a population of 150,000 people.
In 1221 it was completely destroyed by the hordes of Genghis Khan (including the library said to have 150,000 books). After the Mongol invasion Merv was restored only 200 years later by Shakhrukh, the son of Tamerlane.
During the whole 16th century rulers of neighbouring countries constantly exposed Merv to raids and annexations. In 1510 it became a part of the state of the Safavids and later was conquered by the Shaybanids.
In 1727 Nadir, the future khan of Iran, evicted all the people of Merv to Mashhad. Ten years later he himself began to restore the deserted city to prepare an arsenal for a war campaign against China. After Nadirshah’s death, strife began again, with Afghan and Bukahran troops devastating the town. They destroyed the irrigation system and ravaged the Murghab oasis. In 1882 Turkmens drove the Bukhara emirs out and soon built a fortress on the new banks of the Murghab, which had changed its bed. So the present town of Mary was built, unconnected with the sites of ancient Merv.
Merv is a group of sites of the ancient town of different periods: Bairamalikhan-kala, Abdullakhan-kala, Sultan-kala, Erk-kala (the fortress-citadel), and Gyaur-kala.

Sightseeing and excursion

Excursion to Merv – full day:

Bairamalikhan-kala. The site of the ancient town of Bairamalikhan-kala, with its territory almost completely occupied with modern city buildings, corresponds to the 18th-century Merv. The fortress walls and the northwestern corner tower preserved only in the northern part of the site.

Abdullakhan-kala was founded in 1409 by the Timurid ruler Shakhrukh. Originally the city wall had four gates: all that survives of these gates today are the breaks in the eroded walls.
Two fort-like structures (keshks) are the high-corrugated walls of massive buildings known as the Large Kyz-Kala and the Little Kyz-Kala. Kyz-Kala, an unusual windowless castle outside the city wall, was nicknamed the house of maidens tears when Sultan Sanjar started using it for intimate gatherings in which all the guests were men and all the women were slaves.
Between the Large Kyz-Kala and the walls of the Sultan-kala can be seen a small reconstructed mausoleum, known as Kyz Bibi.

Sultan-kala The most outstanding among preserved monuments is Sultan Sanjar Mausoleum. Completed in 1140 AD it is an impressive building of exquisite brickwork. It was included in the ensemble of large palace buildings rising up in the centre of the medieval capital, which is the site of Sultan-kala now.

Shahriar Ark or Citadel The walls of this irregularly shaped citadel in the northwestern corner of the city were built considerably later than the main city walls, probably by Sultan Sanjar. Two structures survive to a greater or lesser extent above ground, the palace and one of the corrugated buildings or keshks.

Askhabs Mausoleum The complex consists of a pair of mausoleums housing the cenotaphs of two Askhabs or companions of the Prophet. The tombs belong to al-Khakim ibn Amr al-Ja-fari and Buraida ibn al-Huseib al-Islami. In the 15th century the Timurids built a religious complex around their graves. Now it is a place of pilgrimage.

Mausoleum of Muhammad ibn Zayd was built by the order of governor of Merv in the early 12th century. It is one of the best examples of an Islamic shrine in the Merv oasis. The building was restored in the mid-20th century.

The Talkhatan Baba Area consists of the mausoleums of Talkhatan Baba, Imam Qasim, Imam Shafi and Imam Bakr. The west facade of the prayer hall at Talkhatan Baba, although heavily restored, is one of the best examples of Seljuk decorative brickwork.

Mosque of Yusuf Hamadani This complex was built around the grave of the dervish Abu Yaqub Yusuf ibn Ayub, who came from the city of Hamadan in western Iran in the first half of the 12th century. The present mausoleum is a modern rebuilding of a 19th-century reconstruction and houses a black marble cenotaph decorated with inscriptions and floral designs.

Erk-kala A giant circular clay rampart that is all that remains of what was a 6th century BC fortress. At that time extensive fortress walls of raw brick surrounded the city. The present height of the walls is of 25 metres.

Gyaur-kala The site of the ancient town of Gyaur-kala corresponds to Antiochia of Margiana. Both Erk-kala and Gyaur-kala continued in use throughout the Parthian and Sassanian periods and into the early Islamic period. The name “Gyaur-kala” came later and it means Castle of the Infidels. Together with the state religion Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity coexisted. The large house of the Christian community and the Buddhist monastery (sangarama) with mortar were excavated on the site of the ancient town of Gyuar-kala.

The Friday Mosque or Beni Makhan Mosque was erected in the second half of the 7th century, soon after Merv had been conquered by the Arabs. The mosque was restored in Sejuk period in the 11th – 12th centuries, when the interior was lavishly decorated with carved brick and stucco. Remains of a minaret have been found.