It was a Parthian palace-city, over two thousand years old. And that was the sorcery of this land. For miles it lay empty of anything but modern villages or state farms, and then - as if the intervening centuries had concertinaed - the dry air or shifting sand would have preserved an ancient era in dreamlike isolation, like this city of Nisa.
Barely eighty years after Alexander the Great marched through this region to India, the half-nomadic Parthians rebelled against his successors and were establishing their own empire. Nisa must have marked the northern limit of their domination, and it looked formidable still. Nothing stirred there.
Ahead of us the city seemed as ghostly as he. Built of baked earth, it shared its colour with the dust around it. Wind, rain and the pulverising sun had eliminated all its detail and left behind a tawny labyrinth of walls and towers.
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron
Some 15km west of Ashgabat, the village of Bagyr hosts one of the most popular destinations for a short excursion out of the capital: the Parthian site of Old Nisa, known as Konye Nusay in Turkmen. Old Nisa has a striking geographical location, on top of a small hill on the southeast side of the village, offering splendid views towards the Kopet Dag Mountains to the south. The western end of the Serdar Health Path is clearly visible at the foot of these hills. While most visitors see only Old Nisa, that site represents just a small part of the history of settlement here. A little over a kilometre to the northwest of the Old Nisa site, a series of ridges mark the walls of New Nisa (Taze Nusay), with the present-day village of Bagyr standing between the two. While Old Nisa, which seems to have been either a Parthian royal residence or temple complex, was abandoned at the end of the Parthian period, the main town of New Nisa was revived in the 5th century, and grew to-become an important medieval Silk Road centre. It flourished under the Seljuks in the 11th and 12th centuries, and later fell under the domain of the Khorezmshahs. The Mongols sacked the town in 1220 with customary brutality, but it revived, to be finally abandoned in the early 19th century in favour of the adjacent new Tekke Turkmen settlement of Bagyr.
To reach Old Nisa from Ashgabat, take Georogly Kochesi westwards out of town, passing the ornate western gate into the city. Three kilometres further on, turn left at the roundabout, signposted to Bagyr, and then left again at another roundabout in the village. You will see a modern arch on your right welcoming you to Old Nisa. This is flanked with concrete models of the ivory drinking horns, rhytons, which are the best known of the artefacts uncovered at the site. There is a ticket office here (21,000 manat to visit), which also contains a useful relief model of Old Nisa. The site is through the arch and up the hill. Travel agencies in Ashgabat offer half-day tours to Nisa.
The site of Old Nisa covers around 14ha, an irregular pentagon in plan, standing on a natural hill. The site is reached by way of a concrete staircase from the car park. A rather ugly viewing platform at the top was built for the visit here of an ailing President Mitterrand in 1994. Parthian inscriptions found during the course of excavations give the name of the fortress as Mithradatkirt. Some researchers have accordingly linked the construction of the site to the Parthian ruler Mithradates I. Others suggest that it was built earlier, possibly in the late 3rd century lie, and later renamed in honour of Mithradates. Archaeologists continue to debate the function of the complex. It has been described as either a royal residence or a religious complex. Or possibly both.
From the viewing platform, a concrete path leads across the site to the main complex of excavated buildings. Large depressions to your right probably mark the sites of water reservoirs. Continuing (currently Italian-led) excavations, some rather confusing conservation work and a reconstruction programme which has added a small museum in the heart of the excavated site all make it less than straightforward to get to grips with the plan of rooms and corridors, but there are some interesting structures to see here. In the southwestern corner of the main complex is a round hall, some 17m in diameter, its walls standing to a height of 4m or so. A row of statue-filled niches is believed to have run along the upper wall of this hall. Northwest of here lies the so-called tower-like building, the scene of recent conservation work which has controversially included the addition of a two-roomed museum, albeit using mud-brick construction and preserving the traces of plasterwork found on the original walls. The first room of the museum contains some delightful fragments of wall painting from Old Nisa and another Parthian site near by, Mansur Depe, as well as a large amphora. The second room is to be furnished to give the visitor a sense of life in the Parthian era. The museum is, however, frequently locked.
To the west side of the tower-like building lies the site of the latest excavations. To the northeast is the quadrate hall, with interior walls ot roughly 20m, each wall containing six fired-brick columns. Where one of these columns is missing, an inverted semi-cylinder displays the horizontal marks once traced by ropes. Only one base survives of what were once four columns in the centre of the hall. It is an attractive survival - a sturdy-looking fired-brick column, its exterior presenting four semi-cylinders. All those fired-brick columns have led archaeologists to conclude that this was a tall structure, whose upper walls contained niches with large, brightly painted clay statues, fragments of which have been found. These depict both male and female figures. Archaeologists have proposed that the statues represented deified members of the Parthian dynastic leadership.
About 150m to the north of the quadrate hall is another assemblage of buildings. The structures remaining here are much less striking than those of the main complex, but it was from this northern complex that some of the most important artefacts found at Old Nisa were unearthed. The largest building here is the so-called large quadrate hall, square in plan with sides of 60m. Centred around a large courtyard, this building seems to have been a well-protected treasury. There was only one narrow entrance into the building, and the rectangular chambers around the yard seem to have been sealed with bricks as soon as they were filled. This did not stop the place falling later victim to robbers, but not everything was stolen. Archaeologists uncovered a collection of the beautiful ivory rhytons in 1948, carelessly thrown in a heap in one of the chambers. These drinking vessels have become one of the symbols of Turkmenistan, though some superstitiously recall that they were uncovered just before the 1948 earthquake devastated the area.
To the east of the treasury building, a wine store was identified, containing the large clay vessels which would have held the wine. This building proved particularly valuable to archaeologists because each of the vessels was accompanied by little clay shards, ostraca, on which mundane information was written about the origin and date of purchase of the wine. This information has allowed researchers to learn much about the economy and human geography of the region in Parthian times, and also to establish the Parthian name of the fortress itself.
The village of Bagyr has some further monuments worth a glance if you have time. To the west side of the access road leading to the Old Nisa site, you will see crumbling mud-brick walls. These are the ruins of Kulmergen Kala. These 19th-century defensive walls are rectangular in plan. Turkmen families would have lived in yurts and mud buildings within the courtyard protected by them.
On the far western side of the village is a mausoleum known as Shikhalov, a restored octagonal building with a domed roof. The tomb is said to be that of the lOth-century Sheikh Abu Ali Dakkak. A brick gate stands next to the mausoleum. Pilgrims say a prayer as they walk through it.