The City of Merv in Turkmenistan: a city stuck in time, untethered from modern influence and one with a rich history, but now, barren, deserted land with minimal human presence. The story of Merv can be considered a Riches to Rags story, only in this case, it is about a city and not a human. We can surely agree that Historical Architecture is an elaborate device for time travel—one in which the visitors can experience stories of the past while moving through spaces forged centuries ago. The same is about Merv, and its historic stone architecture, a Device of time travel, now abandoned.

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The Kiz-Kala fortress, part of Ancient Merv State Historical and Cultural Park_© Cheryl Collins / Merv | ancient city, Turkmenistan

Also known as Alexandria at one point in time, Merv was one of the most prosperous cities millennia ago. It was at one point the capital of the Islamic Caliphate and became one of the largest cities in the world with a 500,000 people population.

Situated on the historical Silk Road, once a major Iranian city, Merv was at one point filled with prosperity and riches. Due to the abundant presence of rivers, canals, and deltas, the land was a rich agricultural base, growing wheat, millet, barley, melons, rice, cotton, and the breeding of silkworms.

From the Turkoman empire, the breeding of horses, camels, sheep, cattle, asses, and mules was abundantly practiced, along with working on silver and steel production. However, the Mongol Genocide and Invasion in the 13th Century bled it dry. Despite efforts of rebuilding, the city of Merv became a shadow of its once prosperous self. A city that was once revealed in—is now a collection of ruins.

State that the city has been left in

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A Buddhist complex in Merv_© Deidre Sorensen, 2012 / A buddhist complex where archaeologists found a Buddha head statue in the ruins of the ancient city of Merv, Turkmenistan | Deidre Sorensen Photography

Merv was never the same after the Mongol Invasion. With the majority of its population terminated and mud and brick architectural marvels destroyed, any attempts towards restoring the city to its former glory were in vain. The Mongol destruction of the Dam: the heart of Merv’s agriculture, trade, and prosperity, and the killing of reportedly 700,000 people, Merv turned into a wasteland.

The subdivided areas of Erk Gala (Erk Kala), Gäwürgala (Giaur Kala), and Soltangala (Sultan Kala) are now a collection of ruins that have religious influences of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and predominantly, Islam. The Ruins and their existence can allude to the existing Roman Forum. While people from around the world visit the Forum, Merv scarcely has any large footfall in its direction.

The reason behind the abandonment

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Rebuilding Brick by Brick_© De Agostini, C Sappa; Getty Images / Lost cities #5: how the magnificent city of Merv was razed – and never recovered

The Mongol attacks left the city and its remaining inhabitants devastated. With the Dam’s destruction, agricultural growth halted, and its identity as a trade city vanished. 

Any attempt towards rebuilding was destroyed, as the city was razed by Uzbekis: the nail in the coffin for any hopes towards reinstating Merv to its former glory. This led to the complete abandonment of the city in the 1800s.

With nothing left to keep the city and its trade flowing, the city digressed from an oasis town to a barren desert, therefore, making a living there unsustainable and leading to its current state of desolation.

What is the condition today? 

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The Great Icehouse_© Oldest and best-preserved: Ancient Merv in Turkmenistan

The city is currently only inhabited by Turkmen of the Teke tribe and some Persians/Tajiks. There are relatively large minorities of the Beluch/Baluch and therefore the Brahui within the Merv Oasis. However, the population remains scarce, and the only floating population that exists; is in the form of visitors.

With periodic addition and renovation of a few structures throughout the centuries, attempts towards making Merv habitable have been made. However, the city is now just a landmark and tourist spot; that needs to be preserved and given due conservation strategies to withstand the strong gusts of the sands of time. Given the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, Merv is now just a visiting place for enthusiasts of history and tourists who are intrigued by its fall from grace.

Is it funded & preserved, and will it be revived in the future?

Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar Restored_© Ancient Merv

Merv is currently the main target of the traditional Merv Project (initially because of the International Merv Project). From 1992 to 2000, a joint team of Archaeologists from the UK and Turkmenistan made noteworthy discoveries. In 2001, a replacement collaboration was placed in situ, between the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and the Turkmen authorities. This Ancient Merv Project cares about the complex conservation and management issues posed by this remarkable site, furthering its understanding of the location via archaeological research and disseminating the results of the work to the widest audience possible.

Merv is an example of what can occur when a city is left to the mercy of those that seek to destroy it. When looted of its prosperity, richness, and most of all, its people, the city was looted of everything that made it great, to a point from which there was no return. One can only hope that attempts are made towards conserving and refurbishing the city to showcase its former presence to the world and be visited by people from all around the world, who are interested in its story and history of the tragedy it faced.

A city that was once open to visitors and tradesmen from all of Asia and the Capital of the Islamic Caliphate, is now just known as a site close to the city of Mary in Turkmenistan.

References

Swati Chopra, Kathleen Kuiper, Kathleen Sheetz, Grace Young; The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2013). Merv, ancient city, Turkmenistan. [online]. (Last updated 09 April 2013). Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Merv [Accessed 1 July 2021].

Akhilesh Pillalamarri; The Diplomat (2015). The Desolation of Merv. [online]. (Last updated 06 June 2015). Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2015/06/the-desolation-of-merv/ [Accessed 3 July 2021].

Kanishk Tharoor; The Guardian (2016). Lost cities #5: how the magnificent city of Merv was razed – and never recovered. [online]. (Last updated 12 August 2016). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/12/lost-cities-merv-worlds-biggest-city-razed-turkmenistan [Accessed 4 July 2021].

Author

A final year architecture student, currently studying in SVKM-NMIMS Balwant Sheth School of Architecture, Mumbai, he has allied interests towards architectural photography and writing. Having a penchant for films and philosophy as well, he is of the belief that architecture and design have the ability to capture the most pivotal moments in life itself.

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