Turkmenistan: Merv

By: Nguyen Huong Tra My


Merv, located near the Mary province of Turkmenistan, is an oasis city established on the delta of the Murghab river, which takes its roots from the Afghan mountains and vanishes up north in the Karakum desert.

Being surrounded by the Karakum desert has provided a natural isolation for Merv, and also made it an important stop for obtaining food on the Silk Road.

Human settlements on the site of Merv existed from the 3rd millennium BC until the 18th century AD. It changed hands repeatedly throughout its history.

Under the Achaemenid Empire, it was the centre of the satrapy of Margiana. It was subsequently ruled by the Arabs, Turks and the Safavid Persians.

During the 12th and 13th centuries it became one of the largest cities in the world, having a population of as many as 500,000. In 1221 the city opened its gates to an invading Mongol horde; the resulting destruction of the city proved devastating.

Historical accounts contend that the entire population (including refugees) of a million people were killed.

Though rebuilt after the Mongol destruction, the city never regained its full former prosperity. Between 1788 and 1789 the city was razed for the last time, and its population deported. By the 1800s the city was completely deserted.

The present inhabitants of the oasis are primarily Turkmens of the Teke tribe and some Persians/Tajiks. There are relatively large minorities of the Beluch/Baluch and the Brahui in the Merv Oasis as well.

Economy of Merv

The oasis is irrigated by an elaborate system of canals cut from the Murghab. The country has at all times been renowned throughout the East for its fertility. Every kind of cereal and many fruits grow in great abundance, e.g. wheat, millet, barley and melons, also rice and cotton.

Cotton seeds from archaeological levels as far back as the 5th century are the first indication that cotton textiles were already an important economic component of the Sassanian city. Silkworms are also bred in this regard.

The Turkmens possess a famous breed of horses and keep camels, sheep, cattle, asses and mules. Turkmens are workers in silver and armour.

One of the discoveries of the 1990s excavations was a 9th - to 10th-century workshop where crucible steel was being produced, confirming in detail contemporary Islamic reports by Islamic scholar, al-Kindi (AD 801–866).

He referred to the region of Khorasan as producing steel. This was made by a co-fusion process in which cast iron and wrought iron are melted together.

Carpets from the region of Merv are sometimes considered superior to the Persian. They also make felts and a rough cloth of sheep's wool.


As with Gonur, Merv lies in the Murgab river delta, the area generally considered to be the ancient land of Mouru, the third Vendidad nation.

The ancient city of Merv (Persian Marv), lies 30 km east of the city of Mary (a corrupted form of Merv) capital of the province, or vilayet / welayatlar, of the same name located in south-eastern Turkmenistan bordering Afghanistan.

The province has an area of 87,000 square kilometres and a population of 1,146,800 (1995 figures). It is claimed that in medieval times, Merv was the largest city in the world.

Merv lies on one of the main arms of the ancient Silk Roads that carried trade between Europe and Africa and the Far East.

Historically, Merv was also an important departure point for the 180 km journey across desert northwest to ancient Amul (today Turkmenabad) located on the banks of the Amu Darya river.

The ruins of ancient Merv are located near the small town of Bairam Ali, a Russian garrison town established in the early twentieth century.

The broad delta of rich alluvial land created by the Murgab river, which flows northwards from Afghanistan, forms an oasis at the southern edge of the Kara Kum Desert.

Climate of Merv

Merv is dry and hot in summer and cold in winter. The heat of summer is oppressive. The wind raises clouds of fine dust which fill the air, rendering it opaque, almost obscuring the noonday sun.

These clouds make breathing difficult. In winter the climate is pleasant. Snow falls rarely, and when it does, it melts at once.

The annual rainfall rarely exceeds 125 mm, and there is often no rain from June until October. While in summer temperatures can reach 45 °C (113 °F), in winter they can be as low as −7 °C (19 °F). The average yearly temperature is 16 °C (61 °F).

Ancient Cities of Merv

In 1999, UNESCO nominated Merv as a World Heritage Center, with status of Historical City and Cultural Park.

It was Turkmenistan's first World Heritage Site and achieved the status because of its unparalleled significance as one of most complex urban archaeological remains in the world.

Merv is one of the rare archeological parks where the civilizations built during the five thousand year period are not in the form of layers on top of each other.

Merv consists of a few discrete walled cities very near to each other, each of which was constructed on uninhabited land by builders of different eras, used, and then abandoned and never rebuilt.

Four walled cities correspond to the chief periods of Merv's importance: the oldest, Erkgala, corresponds to Achaemenid Merv, and is the smallest of the three.

Gäwürgala (also known as Gyaur Gala), which surrounds Erkgala, comprises the Hellenistic and Sassanian metropolis and also served as an industrial suburb to the Abbasid/Seljuk city, Soltangala – by far the largest of the three.

The smaller Timurid city was founded a short distance to the south and is now called Abdyllahangala.

Various other ancient buildings are scattered between and around these four cities; all of the sites are preserved in the “Ancient Merv Archaeological Park” just north of the modern village of Baýramaly and thirty kilometers east of the large Soviet-built city of Mary (Herrmann 1993).

Erk Gala

The oldest of Merv's ruins, Erk Kala (a modern name meaning citadel castle), date from the 5th century BCE.

Constructed by the Persian Achaemenians, Erk Kala appears to have been the central city of Margush as it was known to the Achaemenians serving as an important administrative and trading centre.

It lay at the hub of the spectacular Silk Roads along which trade between the furthest reaches of the Persian empire flourished.

The site is some 12 hectares in size and lies 17 metres below today's surface. Buried under more than 1,500 years of buildings old and new, it is virtually inaccessible to archaeological exploration.

Little is therefore known about this enclosure. It is possible that the ruins of an earlier city lie beneath Erk Kala's ruins.


The foundation of Gäwürgala (Turkmen take from Persian "Gabr Qala" ("Fortress of the Zoroastrians") occurred in the early Hellenistic era under the rule of the Seleucid king Antiochus I.

The city was continuously inhabited under a series of Hellenistic rulers, by the Parthians, and subsequently under the Sassanids, who made it the capital of a satrapy.

Gäwürgala was the capital of the Umayyad province of Khurasan and grew in importance as Khurasan became the most loyally Muslim part of the Iranian world during Islam's first two centuries.

Gäwürgala's most visible remaining structures are its defensive installations. Three walls, one built atop the next, are in evidence.

A Seleucid wall, graduated in the interior and straight on the exterior, forms a platform for the second, larger wall, built of mud bricks and stepped on the interior.

The form of this wall is similar to other Hellenistic fortresses found in Anatolia, though this unique for being made of mud-brick instead of stone. The third wall is possibly Sassanian and is built of larger bricks (Williams 2002).

Surrounding the wall was a variety of pottery sherds, particularly Parthian ones. The size of these fortifications are evidence of Merv's importance during the pre-Islamic era; no pre-Islamic fortifications of comparable size have been found anywhere in the Garagum.

Gäwürgala is also important for the vast amount of numismatic data that it has revealed; an unbroken series of Sassanian coins has been found there, hinting the extraordinary political stability of this period.


By the beginning of the eighth century CE, suburbs had risen near the Majan canal which flowed a kilometre west of Gyaur Kala city wall.

When Abbasid Abu Muslim established dynastic power in February 748 CE, he relocated the government buildings and major bazaars from the ancient city to a location near the suburb.

Merv prospered at this site under the Abbasids and Tahirids, but went through a period of decline when political power moved to Nishapur and Bukhara.

The Seljuks arrived in the eleventh century CE and revived the city, establishing Merv as their eastern capital and calling it Marv al-Shahijan (today called Sultan Kala).

In the process, they built fortification walls around the suburbs, a task that was completed at the end of the eleventh century during the reign of Sultan Malikshah (1072-92 CE).

Sultan Sanjar (1118-57 CE) is credited with construction of a fortified citadel, the Shahriyar Ark, in the northeast corner, and two additional walled suburbs that extended the city to the north and south.

The Shahriyar Ark citadel enclosed a palace complex, administrative buildings and residences for the elite.

In 1221 CE, a Mongol army advanced on Merv and its cavalry rode around the walls for spent six days looking for the weak points.

The terrified residents negotiated a surrender which only served to open the gates and allow the Mongols to enter, after which they proceeded to massacre the townspeople and burn the town.

The city remained occupied, an impoverished shadow of its former self, until the Timurids integrated the area into their empire in the late 14th century CE.


Fihl, E. (2010). Exploring Central Asia From the Steppes to the High Pamirs 1896–1899. Volume II. Washington D.C.: University of Washington Press. Frumkin, G. (1970). Archeology in Soviet Central Asia. Leiden/Köln: E.J. Brill

K. E. Eduljee. (2005-17). Morou – Merv. Turkmenistan Region Page 4. Retrieved January 01, 2020. Zoroastrian Heritage.

Tucker, J. (2003). The Silk Road: Art and History. London: Philip Wilson.

UNESCO World Heritage Center. UNESCO WHC Nomination Document. (n.d.) Retrieved January 05, 2020, from: http://whc.UNESCO.org/uploads/nominations/886.pdf.

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