Merv (Turkmen: Merw, Мерв, مرو; Persian: مرو, Marv); later Alexandria (Greek: Ἀλεξάνδρεια) and subsequently Antiochia in Margiana (Greek: Ἀντιόχεια ἡ ἐν τῇ Μαργιανῇ) was a major Iranian city in Central Asia, on the historical Silk Road, located near today's Mary in Turkmenistan. Several cities have existed on this site, which is significant for the interchange of culture and politics at a site of major strategic value.
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 Greeks, 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.
Merv has prehistoric roots: archaeological surveys have revealed many traces of village life as far back as the 3rd millennium BC and have associated the area culturally with the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex. The geography of the Zend-Avesta (commentaries on the Avesta) mentions Merv (under the name of Mouru) along with Balkh. In Zoroastrianism, the god Ahura Mazda created Mouru as one of sixteen perfect lands.
Under the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550–330 BC), the historical record mentions Merv as a place of some importance: under the name of Margu it occurs as part of one of the satrapies in the Behistun inscriptions (ca. 515 BC) of the Persian monarch Darius Hystaspis. The first city of Merv was founded in the 6th century BC as part of the Achaemenid expansion into the region of Cyrus the Great (559–530 BC), but later strata deeply cover the Achaemenid levels at the site.
Alexander the Great's visit to Merv is merely legendary, but the city was named Alexandria (Ἀλεξάνδρεια) after him for a time. After Alexander's death in 323 BC, it became the capital of the Province of Margiana of the Seleucid, Greco-Bactrian (256-125 BC), Parthian, and Sassanid states. The Seleucid ruler Antiochus Soter (reigned 281–261 BC) renamed it to Antiochia Margiana; he rebuilt and expanded the city at the site presently known as Gyaur Gala (Gäwürgala) fortress. Isidore of Charax wrote that the Antiochia was called the "unwatered" (Άνυδρος). After the fall of the Seleucid dynasty (63 BC), Bactria, Parthia, and the Kushans took control in succession. In 53 BC some 10,000 Roman prisoners of war from the Battle of Carrhae appear to have been deported to Merv.
Merv was a major city of Buddhist learning, with Buddhist monastery temples for many centuries until its Islamicization. At the site of Gyaur Kala and Bairam Ali Buddhism was followed and practised often at the local Buddhist stupas.
After the Sassanid Ardashir I (220–240 AD) took Merv, the study of numismatics picks up the thread: the unbroken series of coins originally minted at Merv document a long unbroken direct Sassanian rule of almost four centuries. During this period Merv was home to practitioners of various religions beside the official Sassanid Zoroastrianism, including Buddhists, Manichaeans, and Christians of the Church of the East. Between the 6th (553) and 11th centuries AD, Merv served as the seat of an East Syrian metropolitan province, key in the Dualist church's mission east up the Silk Road to Turkestan and China. The Hephthalite occupation from the end of the 5th century to 565 AD briefly interrupted Sassanid rule.
Sassanian rule came to an end when the last Sassanian ruler, Yazdegerd III (632–651) was killed not far from the city and the Sassanian military governor surrendered to the approaching Arab army. Representatives of the caliph Umar occupied the city, which became the capital of the Umayyad province of Khorasan. In 671 Ziyad ibn Abi Sufyan sent 50,000 Arab troops to Merv as a colony. This colony retained its native Kufan sympathies and became the nucleus of Khurasan. Using the city as their base, the Arabs, led by Qutayba ibn Muslim from 705 to 715, brought under subjection large parts of Central Asia, including Balkh, Bokhara, and Fergana. Merv, and Khorasan in general, became one of the first parts of the Persian-speaking world to become majority-Muslim. Arab immigration to the area was substantial. A Chinese captured at Talas, Du Huan, was brought to Baghdad and toured the caliphate. He observed that in Merv, Khurasan, Arabs and Persians lived in mixed concentrations.
Merv gained renewed importance in February 748 when the Iranian general Abu Muslim (d. 755) declared a new Abbasid dynasty at Merv, expanding and re-founding the city, and, in the name of the Abbasid line, used the city as a base of rebellion against the Umayyad caliphate. After the Abbasids became established in Baghdad, Abu Muslim continued to rule Merv as a semi-independent prince until his eventual assassination. Indeed, Merv operated as the center of Abbasid partisanship for the duration of the Abbasid Revolution of 746–750, and later on became a consistent source of political support for the Abbasid rulers in Baghdad; the governorship of Khurasan at Merv was considered[by whom?] one of the most important political figures of the Caliphate. The influential Barmakid family, based in Merv, played an important part in transferring Greek knowledge (established in Merv since the days of the Seleucids and Greco-Bactrians) into the Arab world.
Throughout the Abbasid era (750-1258), Merv remained the capital and most important city of Khurasan. During this time, the Arab historian Al-Muqaddasi (c. 945/946 - 991) called Merv "delightful, fine, elegant, brilliant, extensive, and pleasant". Merv's architecture perhaps[original research?] provided the inspiration for the Abbasid re-planning of Baghdad. The city was notable as a home for immigrants from the Arab lands as well as for those from Sogdia and elsewhere in Central Asia (Herrmann 1999). In the period from 813 to 818, the temporary residency of the caliph al-Ma'mun effectively made Merv the capital of the Muslim world and highlighted Merv's importance to the Abbasids. Merv also became the center of a major 8th-century Neo-Mazdakite movement led by al-Muqanna, the "Veiled Prophet", who gained many followers by claiming to be an incarnation of God and heir to Abu Muslim; the Khurramiyya inspired by him persisted in Merv until the 12th century.
During this period Merv, like Samarkand and Bukhara, functioned as one of the great cities of Muslim scholarship; the celebrated historian Yaqut (1179–1229) studied in its libraries. Merv produced a number of scholars in various branches of knowledge, such as Islamic law, hadith, history, and literature. Several scholars have the name Marwazi (المروزي) designating them as hailing from Merv, including the famous Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (780–855). The city continued to have a substantial Christian community. In 1009 the Archbishop of Merv sent a letter to the Patriarch at Baghdad asking that the Keraites be allowed to fast less than other Nestorian Christians.
As the caliphate weakened, Arab rule in Merv was replaced by that of the Persian general Tahir b. al -Husayn and his Tahirid dynasty in 821. The Tahirids ruled Merv from 821 to 873, followed by the Saffarids (873-), then the Samanids and later the Ghaznavids.
In 1037, the Seljuks, a clan of Oghuz Turks moving from the steppes east of the Aral Sea, peacefully took over Merv under the leadership of Toghril Beg—the Ghaznavid sultan Masud was extremely unpopular in the city. Togrul's brother Çagry stayed in Merv as the Seljuk domains grew to include the rest of Khurasan and Iran, and it subsequently became a favorite city of the Seljuk leadership. Alp Arslan (Sultan: 1063-1072) and his descendant Sultan Sanjar (died 1157) were both buried at Merv.
During this period Merv expanded to its greatest size—Arab and Persian geographers termed it "the mother of the world", the "rendezvous of great and small", the "chief city of Khurasan" and the capital of the eastern Islamic world. Written sources also attest to a large library and madrasa founded by Nizam al-Mulk (Vizier: 1064-1092), as well as many other major cultural institutions. Perhaps most importantly, Merv was said[by whom?] to have a market that is "the best of the major cities of Iran and Khurasan" (Herrmann 1999).
Sanjar's rule, marked by conflict with the Kara-Khitai and Khwarazmians, ended in 1153 when Turkish Ghuzz nomads from beyond the Amu Darya pillaged the city. Subsequently, Merv changed hands between the Khwarazmians of Khiva, the Ghuzz, and the Ghurids - it began to lose importance relative to Khurasan's other major city, Nishapur.
In 1221 Merv opened its gates to Tolui, son of Genghis Khan, chief of the Mongols, on which occasion most of the inhabitants are said to have been butchered. The Persian historian Juvayni, writing a generation after the destruction of Merv, wrote
The Mongols ordered that, apart from four hundred artisans. .., the whole population, including the women and children, should be killed, and no one, whether woman or man, be spared. To each [Mongol soldier] was allotted the execution of three or four hundred Persians. So many had been killed by nightfall that the mountains became hillocks, and the plain was soaked with the blood of the mighty.
Some historians[who?] believe that over one million people died in the aftermath of the city's capture, including hundreds of thousands of refugees from elsewhere, making it one of the most bloody captures of a city in world history.
Excavations revealed drastic rebuilding of the city's fortifications in the aftermath, but the prosperity of the city had passed. The Mongol invasion spelt the eclipse of Merv and indeed of other major centres for more than a century. After the Mongol conquest, Merv became part of the Ilkhanate and was consistently looted by Chagatai Khanate. In the early part of the 14th century the town became the seat of a Christian archbishopric of the Eastern Church under the rule of the Kartids, vassals of the Ilkhanids. By 1380 Merv belonged to the empire of Timur (Tamerlane).
In 1505 the Uzbeks occupied Merv; five years later Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty of Persia, expelled them. In this period a Persian nobleman restored a large dam (the 'Soltanbent') on the river Murghab, and the settlement which grew up in the area thus irrigated became known as "Baýramaly", as referenced in some 19th-century texts. Merv remained in the hands of Persia (except for periods of Uzbek rule between 1524 and 1528 and again between 1588 and 1598) until 1785, when Shah Murad Beg, the Emir of Bokhara, captured the city. A few years later, in 1788 and 1789, the Bukharan Manghit king, Shah Murad Beg razed the city to the ground, broke down the dams, and converted the district into a waste. The entire population of the city and the surrounding oasis of about 100,000 were then deported in several stages to the Bukharan oasis and Samarkand region in the Zarafshan Valley. Being the last remaining Persian-speaking Shias, the deportees resisted assimilation into the Sunni population of Bukhara and Samarkand, despite the common language of Persian they spoke with most natives. These Marvis survive as of 2016 — Soviet censuses listed them as "Iranis/Iranians" through the 1980s. They live in Samarkand as well as in Bukhara and in the area in between on the Zarafshan river. They are listed as Persian-speaking, but counted separately from the local Tajiks due to their Shia religion and the maintaining their ancient Mervi identity.
Merv passed to the Khanate of Khiva in 1823. Sir Alexander Burnes traversed the country in 1832. About this time, the Tekke Turkomans, then living on the Tejen River, were forced by the Persians to migrate northward. Khiva contested the advance of the Tekkes, but ultimately, about 1856, the latter became the sovereign power in the country, and remained so until the Russians occupied the oasis in 1884. By 1868 the Russians had taken most of Russian Central Asia except Turkmenistan. They approached this area from the Caspian and in 1881 captured Geok Tepe. Merv was taken bloodlessly by an officer named Alikhanov. A Muslim from the Caucasus, he had risen to the rank of major in the Russian service. After fighting a duel with a superior officer he was demoted to the ranks and by 1882 had risen to lieutenant. In 1882 he entered Merv, claiming to be a Russian merchant, and negotiated a trade agreement. Meanwhile, Russian agents had used a mixture of bribes and threats to develop a pro-Russian party in the area. The Russians occupied the oasis of Tejen, eighty miles to the west. In 1884 Alikhanov entered Merv in the uniform of a Russian officer along with a number of Turkoman notables who had already submitted. He claimed that the troops at Tejen were the spearhead of a larger force and that local autonomy would be respected. Seeing no hope of support from Persia or Britain, the elders submitted. The next Russian move was south toward Herat. By 1888 the city was entirely abandoned.
Some exploratory excavations at Merv were conducted in 1885 by the Russian general A.V. Komarov, the governor of the Transcaspian oblast, 1883–89; Komarov employed his Tsarist troops as excavators and published his collection of trophy artifacts and coins from the area in 1900. The first fully professional dig was directed by Valentin Alekseevich Zhukovsky of the Imperial Archaeological Commission, in 1890 and published in 1894. The American Carnegie Institute's excavations were under the direction of a geologist, Raphael Pumpelly, and a German archaeologist, Hubert Schmidt.
Merv is currently the focus of the Ancient Merv Project (initially as the International Merv Project). From 1992 to 2000, a joint team of archaeologists from Turkmenistan and the UK have made remarkable discoveries. In 2001, a new collaboration was started between the Institute of Archaeology, University College London and the Turkmen authorities. This Ancient Merv Project is concerned with the complex conservation and management issues posed by this remarkable site, furthering our understanding of the site through archaeological research, and disseminating the results of the work to the widest possible audience.
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 (from Persian, "the citadel fort") is the oldest part of the city of Merv complex. Built in the 7th century BC Erk Gala was built as a Persian Style fortress controlling the oasis on the Murghab River. The Erk Gala fortress later served as the acropolis for the Hellenistic city and later the Arc of the Islamic city.
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 mudbricks 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.
Even after the foundation of Soltangala by Abu Muslim at the start of the Abbasid dynasty, Gäwürgala persisted as a suburb of the larger Soltangala. In Gäwürgala are concentrated many Abbasid-era "industrial" buildings: pottery kilns, steel, iron and copper-working workshops and so on. A well-preserved pottery kiln has an intact vaulted arch support and a square firepit. Gyaur Gala seems to have been the craftsmens' quarters throughout the Abbasid and pre-Seljuk periods (Herrmann, "Seventh Season" 13).
Soltangala (from Sultan Qala, the sultan's fortress) is by far the largest of Merv's cities. Textual sources (Herrmann 1999) establish that it was Abu Muslim, the leader of the Abbasid rebellion, who symbolized the beginning of the new Caliphate by commissioning monumental structures to the west of the Gäwürgala walls, in what then became Soltangala. The area was quickly walled and became the core of medieval Merv; centuries of prosperity which followed are attested to by the many Abbasid-era köshks discovered in and outside of Soltangala. Kushks (Persian, Kushk, "pavilion", "kiosk"), which comprise the chief remains of Abbasid Merv, are a building type unique to Central Asia during this period. A kind of semi-fortified two-story palace whose corrugated walls give it a unique and striking appearance, köshks were the residences of Merv's elite. The second story of these structures comprised living quarters; the first story may have been used for storage. Parapets lined the roof, which was often used for living quarters as well. Merv's largest and best-preserved Abbasid köşk is the Greater Gyzgala (Turkmen, "maiden's fortress"), located just outside the Soltangala's western wall; this structure consisted of 17 rooms surrounding a central courtyard. The nearby Lesser Gyzgala had extraordinarily thick walls with deep corrugations, as well as multiple interior stairways leading to second-story living quarters. All of Merv's kushks are in precarious states of preservation (Herrmann 1999).
However, the most important of Soltangala's surviving buildings are Seljuk constructions. In the 11th century CE, the nomadic Oghuz Turks, formerly vassals of the Khwarazmshah in the northern steppes, began to move southward under the leadership of the Seljuk clan and its ruler Togrul Beg. Togrul's conquest of Merv in 1037 revitalized the city; under his descendants, especially Sanjar, who made it his residence, Merv found itself at the center of a large multicultural empire.
Evidence of this prosperity is found throughout the Soltangala. Many of these are concentrated in Soltangala's citadel, the Shahryar Ark (Persian, "the Sovereign's citadel") of the, located on its east side. In the center of the Sharhryar Ark is located the Seljuk palace probably built by Sanjar. The surviving mud brick walls lead to the conclusion that this palace, relatively small, was composed of tall single-story rooms surrounding a central court along with four axial iwans at the entrance to each side (Ettinghausen 276). Low areas nearby seem to indicate a large garden which included an artificial lake; similar gardens were found in other Central Asian palaces (Williams 2002). Any remnants of interior or exterior decoration have been lost due to erosion or theft.
Another notable Seljuk structure within the Shahryar Ark is the kepderihana (from Persian, "Kaftar Khana, or "pigeon house", i.e., the columbarium). This mysterious building, among the best-preserved in the whole Merv oasis, comprises one long and narrow windowless room with many tiers of niches across the walls. It is believed by some [sources] that the kepter khana (there are more elsewhere in Merv and Central Asia) was indeed a pigeon roost used to raise pigeons, in order to collect their dung which is used in growing the melons for which Merv was famous. Others, just as justifiably (Herrmann 1999), see the kepderihanas as libraries or treasuries, due to their location in high status areas next to important structures.
The best-preserved of all the structures in Merv is the 12th-century mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, also in Sultan Gala. It is the largest of Seljuk mausoleums and is also the first dated mosque-mausoleum complex, a form which was later to become common. It is square, 27 meters per side, with two entrances on opposite sides; a large central dome supported by an octagonal system of ribs and arches covers the interior (Ettinghausen 270). The dome's exterior was turquoise, and its height made it quite imposing; it was said that approaching caravans could see the mausoleum while still a day's march from the city. The mausoleum's decoration, in typical early Seljuk style, was conservative, with interior stucco work and geometric brick decoration, now mainly lost, on the outside (Ettinghausen 271). With the exception of the recently "reconstructed" exterior decoration, the mausoleum is largely intact, and remains, just as is in the 12th century.
A final set of Seljuk remains are the walls of the Soltangala. These fortifications, which in large part still remain, began as eight-to-nine-metre-high (26 to 30 ft) mud brick structures, inside of which were chambers for defenders to shoot arrows from. There were horseshoe-shaped towers every 15 to 35 metres (49 to 115 ft). These walls, however, did not prove to be effective because they were not of adequate thickness to withstand catapults and other artillery. By the mid-12th century, the galleries were filled in, and the wall was greatly strengthened. A secondary, smaller wall was built in front of the Soltangala's main wall, and finally the medieval city's suburbs – known today as Isgendergala – were enclosed by a 5-metre-thick (16 ft) wall. The three walls sufficed to hold off the Mongol army for at least one of its offensives, before ultimately succumbing in 1221.
Many ceramics have also been recovered from the Abbasid and Seljuk eras, primarily from Gäwürgala, the city walls of Soltangala, and the Shahryar Ark. The Gäwürgala ware was primarily late Abbasid, and it consisted primarily of red slip-painted bowls with geometric designs. The pottery recovered from the Sultan Gala walls is dominated by 11th–12th-century color-splashed yellow and green pottery, similar to contemporary styles common in Nishapur (Herrmann 2000). Turquoise and black bowls were discovered in the Shahryar Ark palace, as well as an interesting deposit of Mongol-style pottery perhaps related to the city's unsuccessful re-foundation under the Il-khans. Also from this era is a ceramic mask used for decorating walls found among the ruins of what is believed – not without controversy – to be a Mongol-built Buddhist temple in the southern suburbs of Sultan Gala.
Shaim Kala was built in the 7th century AD. Shaim Kala was a self-contained walled city intended to relieve the over-crowding, and to deal with religious and political discontent of the newly arrived peoples.
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.
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 have been bred. The Turkomans possess a famous breed of horses and keep camels, sheep, cattle, asses and mules. Turkomans 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.
The oasis of Merv is situated on the Murghab River that flows down from Afghanistan, on the southern edge of the Karakum Desert, at 37°30’N and 62°E, about 230 miles (370 km) north of Herat, and 280 miles (450 km) south of Khiva. Its area is about 1,900 square miles (4,900 km2). The great chain of mountains which, under the names of Paropamisade and Hindu Kush, extends from the Caspian Sea to the Pamir Mountains is interrupted some 180 miles (290 km) south of Merv. Through or near this gap flow northwards in parallel courses the Tejen and Murgab rivers, until they lose themselves in the Karakum Desert. Thus they make Merv a sort of watch tower over the entrance into Afghanistan on the north-west and at the same time create a stepping-stone or étape between north-east Persia and the states of Bokhara and Samarkand.
Merv is advantageously situated in the inland delta of the Murghab River, which flows from its source in the Hindu Kush northwards through the Garagum desert. The Murghab delta region, known to the Greeks as Margiana, gives Merv two distinct advantages: first, it provides an easy southeast–northwest route from the Afghan highlands towards the lowlands of Karakum, the Amu Darya valley and Khwarezm. Second, the Murgab delta, being a large well-watered zone in the midst of the dry Karakum, serves as a natural stopping-point for the routes from northwest Iran towards Transoxiana – the Silk Roads. The delta, and thus Merv, lies at the junction of these two routes: the northwest–southeast route to Herat and Balkh (to the Indus and beyond) and the southwest–northeast route from Tus and Nishapur to Bukhara and Samarkand.
This place was a stop on the Silk Road during the time of the Han dynasty. Here merchants could trade for fresh horses or camels at this oasis city.
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).