Mary Regional Museum
The highlight of the city is the collection of the excellent Mary Regional Museum. The museum was previously housed in the 100-year-old mansion built by a Russian brick baron near the river. However, with a new white-marble palace was recently finished to house the museum next to the Hotel Margush. This is Turkmenistan's best museum outside Ashgabat, whose ground-floor archaeological displays provide an excellent introduction to both Ancient Merv and the Bronze Age sites of the northern part of the oasis.
There are several English-speaking guides working here, and a tour is included in the ticket price. Wherever the collection is, make an effort to see it. There’s an extensive ethnography section, including a large collection of Turkmen jewellery, carpets, stuffed animals, a fully decorated yurt and pottery from the time of the Mongol occupation. But best of all is the archaeological section, bringing together artefacts found at both Merv and Margush, including pottery, weapons, household implements and jewellery. The fine quality and design of household items from Margiana is striking and rivals the collection of the National Museum in Ashgabat. A skeleton of a Margiana priestess was once also on display, though a series of deaths and misfortunes among museum staff persuaded them to have the original returned to where it was found.
The first room on the ground floor features a helpful model of the main buildings at the Merv site, though more than a little geographical licence has been used in including in the corner of the Merv model a Bronze Age fire temple from Margush. A long hall lined with display cases follows. The first half of this focuses on the Bronze Age, with some remarkable exhibits from Professor Viktor Sarianidi's excavations at Gonur and Togolok 21, as well as some items from sites further west, including Altyn Depe and Naniazga Depe. The skeleton of a Margush woman believed by museum staff to have been a priestess is a replica: the original skeleton was reburicd several years back after a series of illnesses and tragedies befell members of the museum team. Among the items from the Bronze Age sites are fine stamp seals, perfume bottles, terracotta female figurines and jewellery.
The second half of the long hall features items from Ancient Merv, from retorts used for the production of gold to Seljuk bronze-ware. A ceramic cup dated to the 11th or 12th centuries depicts a couple in an unmistakably romantic embrace. Most of the labelling at the museum is in Turkmen. Occasional English texts offer such explanations as: 'Parfia's age had been changed by Sasanid's age'. Which does not perhaps add much to human understanding.
The next room offers a presentation of the origins and flowering of the Turkmen people, derived from President Niyazov's book Ruhnama. This is followed by a room devoted to the Mongol prcdations of 1221. A display of Mongol ceramics serves mainly to demonstrate the cultural impoverishment of this period in comparison with those preceding it. Next comes a room emphasising the diverse origins of the materials found on this part of the Silk Road, from Arabic inscriptions to Chinese ceramics. Also here is a display about Turkmen tribal formation in the 16th and 17th centuries. The last room on the ground floor is devoted to the work of the archaeologists who have unearthed the treasures of Merv. A team from University College London, partners in the International Merv Project, here contributes a display in English entitled 'Plants and People at Ancient Merv', reporting the results of the collection of seeds from late Sasanian (AD400-600) soil. Barley and wheat were the most abundant crops, apparently suggesting a staple diet of bread and gruel. But the Sasanians also enjoyed grape, peach and almond. Abundant cottonseeds suggested that, in the Sasanian period as today, cotton was an important local crop, both for yarn and oil.
Upstairs, the museum offers two worthwhile permanent exhibitions, both burdened with wordy titles. The first, 'Material Culture of the Turkmen People', comprises seven rooms of nicely presented ethnographic materials, though labelling here is in Turkmen and Russian only. There are extensive displays of silver jewellery, hunting equipment, talismans, carpet-making and domestic implements. The fourth room is a yurt, whose interior furniture includes a crib. A child's dress displayed here is decorated with snake patterns, as talismans against evil. The last room of this exhibition is dedicated to the Turkmen wedding, featuring ornate and heavy wedding dresses, and a kejebe, a structure, placed on a camel, in which the bride is precariously seated. A ring hanging from the ceiling has several scarves attached to it; the basis for a wedding game whose rules can best be summarised as 'jump up and grab one'. A metal bowl displayed here is filled at the wedding with sugared water. Bride and groom both drink from this to ensure that their domestic life starts sweetly.
The second of the permanent exhibitions is 'The Material Culture and Historical Survey of Other People Living on Turkmen Soil", a rare example of a display about non-Turkmen peoples in a museum in Turkmenistan. The first room is focused on Turkmenistan's ethnic Baluchi minority, heavily concentrated in rural areas of Mary Region. Three rooms follow about the arrival of the Russians in the 1880s, and the establishment of the Russian administrative centre here. A symbolic chunk of the Transcaspian Railway is on display, as well as domestic items such as samovars, a sewing machine and ancient gramophone. There are many interesting photographs from the tsarist era, including of the newly constructed irrigation works, and of Engineer Andreev who supervised them.