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Bronze Age Margiana (Gonur)

The Merv Oasis was an important centre for human settlement long before Achaemenian times. A remarkable Bronze Age civilisation existed here, known variously as Margush, meaning 'lowland', or by the Greek name ot Margiana, along the Murgab River in what is called the Margiana Oasis. The greatest of these ancient settlements, currently being excavated around Gonur Depe (Gonur Hill; admission 3M, camera 4M), has stunned the archaeological world for its vast area and complex layout.

It has been gradually uncovered since the early 1970s by Professor Viktor Sarianidi, who heads the Margiana Archaeological Expedition. and still works at the site, continually uncovering new findings.The Bronze Age sites are to be found at or beyond the northern edge of the present-day oasis, in land which is now desert. Climatic change and progressive desertification caused the abandonment of the area, with the result that the ruins of the Bronze Age settlements are well preserved beneath the desert soils. The Margiana sites seem to have had close ties with those at Bactria, in present-day northern Afghanistan. Sarianidi considers Gonur to be one of the great civilisations of the ancient world and while this claim may be disputed, it certainly is a fascinating site. Sarianidi argues that the Bactria-Margiana complex was a major centre of ancient civilisation, and has speculated that Margiana may even have been a birthplace of Zoroastrianism, being at some point the home of the religion’s founder, Zoroaster. The adjacent sites have revealed four fire temples, as well as evidence of a cult based around a drug potion prepared from poppy, hemp and ephedra plants. This potent brew is almost certainly the haoma (soma elixir) used by the magi whom Zoroaster began preaching against in Zoroastrian texts.

What is certain, however, is that Gonur is one of the oldest fire-worshipping civilisations, parallel to the Bactrian cultures in neighbouring Afghanistan. The first agricultural settlements appeared in the area around 7000 BC and developed a strong agriculture. It is believed the city was slowly abandoned during the Bronze Age as the Murgab River changed course, depriving the city of water. The current excavations have been dated back to 3000 BC.

The Bronze Age Margiana sites are all remote, and you will need a guide to get you here. One of the main travel agencies in Ashgabat, can organise a trip to the most worthwhile site for tourist visits, Gonur, which Sarianidi believes to have been the principal settlement. To get here, you need to make for a peasants' association named Turkmenistan, which lies on the northern edge of the oasis, about 50km from Merv. On reaching the village, turn onto a rough track to your right, and then sharp left, so that you skirt around the eastern side of the village. Gonur is some 30km from here, by a track which quickly turns to sand. A 4x4 vehicle is required. The trip from Mary or Bayramaly will take around two hours, each way.

The Gonur site is fascinating. The single largest excavation is ot what Sarianidi describes as a palace complex, covering some 10ha and built at the end of the 3rd millennium bc. Avast network of walls have been excavated, like an earthen maze. Sarianidi believes that the palace itself was at the centre of the site, surrounded by administrative buildings, and accessed by a deliberately narrow entrance only 80cm wide. The largest hall in the palace complex, whose mud walls have been recently reconstructed as part of a conservation effort, is known as the throne hall. A stone sceptre was found in one of the two niches here.

Around the palace have been identified a number of structures of apparently Zoroastrian religious use. Thus on the cast side of the complex Sarianidi has identified a fire temple; on the west side a 'temple of sacrifice'. South of the complex, a basin some 100m long and 70m wide is suggested as a possible temple of water. Close to this, excavations in 2004 revealed a room roughly 10m square, containing such treasures as a bronze chariot, which Sarianidi thinks might have been a royal tomb. On the north side of the palace complex, a large open area near which a number of ovens have been excavated is described as the square of communal eating. During the later period of occupation of the site, there seems to have been a growing impoverishment faced by the occupants of Gonur. Areas at the heart of the complex were given over to industrial use, including a large double kiln. Green clay has fossilised onto the stone here like globs of glue.

To the southwest of the palace complex, on slightly higher ground, lies the site of what is described as a temple complex. Evidence such as the round corner towers suggests that this complex is of a later date than the palace site. Seeds embedded in the plaster covering numerous vessels found here included those of hemp, poppy and ephedra, and appear to have been used in the production of a narcotic drink known as haoma, used by the priests. This site was excavated earlier than the palace complex, and is not now as impressive.

A third excavated part of the Gonur site is a large necropolis, to the west of the palace site around the present-day irrigation canal. It seems to have been in use from the end of the 3rd millennium to the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. Almost 3,000 burials have been excavated here. Several different types of tombs were identified, from simple pit tombs for the poorest citizens to more elaborate burials for the rich, in which the body was placed in one chamber, the possessions of the deceased next door. Most disquieting were a number of burial pits with round chambers and burnt walls, like ovens. Some of the bones in these showed evidence of diseases, such as osteoporosis. In one of these pits the female occupant was buried upside down.

The excavations are ongoing and during your visit you may have a chance to speak with the archaeologists and inspect the mostrecent findings. There is also significant effort being put into conservation, although the work being done (sealing the ruins with mud bricks) is covering up some of the most photogenic portions of the city. The Royal Palace and necropolis are the most fascinating sites to visit.

Gonur is a two-hour drive from Mary and you’ll need at least two hours there. A 4WD is required and the final 20km of road is little more than a rough track in the dirt. You can organise a trip through any travel agency. Expect to pay 120M to hire a driver, and a further 90M for an in-depth guided tour. There is nowhere in the area to buy food or water, so pack a lunch before setting off.