Merv was known as Margiana or Margush in Alexander the Great’s time. Under the Persian Sassanians, it was considered religiously liberal, with significant populations of Christians, Buddhists and Zoroastrians cohabiting peacefully. As a centre of power, culture and civilisation, Merv reached its greatest heights during the peak of the Silk Road in the 11th and 12th centuries, when the Seljuq Turks made it their capital.
Legendary Merv may even have been the inspiration for the tales of Scheherazade’s Thousand and One Nights. Merv suffered a number of attacks over the course of its history, but instead of being re built on top of the older ruins, Merv slowly spread west. In total, five cities were constructed next to each other, largely because of the shifting rivers. The oldest section was the Erk Kala and in later centuries most people lived in the vast walled city called Sultan Kala. All of this was completely eradicated in 1221 under the onslaught of the Mongols. In 1218 Chinggis Khan demanded a substantial tithe of grain from Merv, along with the pick of the city’s most beautiful young women. The unwise Seljuq response was to slay the tax collectors. In retribution Tolui, the most brutal of Chinggis Khan’s sons, arrived three years later at the head of an army, accepted the peaceful surrender of the terrified citizens, and then proceeded to butcher every last one of them, an estimated 300,000 people.
Merv made a small comeback in the 15th century and was soon at the centre of a territorial dispute between the rulers of Bukhara, Khiva and Persia. Persian influence eventually won out when a noble named Bairam Ali rebuilt the dam, which allowed the irrigated region to prosper, and encouraged free trade. The Emir of Bukhara struck back with military force, captured the city, and utterly destroyed it in 1795. Russia annexed Merv in 1884 and the Turkmen settlement became known as Bairam Ali. Russians monitored events from Mary, their newly built town 30km to the west.
One unverifiable legend maintains that Merv was founded by Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, the Persian divine whose dates are usually given as 628-551 вс, and whose prophetic beliefs, once the religion of an empire, now survive chiefly among the Parsees of India. Just as speculative is the notion that Merv was where Scheherazade saved her life, when others had perished the morning after the night before, by telling Shahriyar the tantalising stories that in time became celebrated as The Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights). What we do know is that this was an important staging post on the Silk Route, deriving from its position as an oasis on the edge of the desert. It was also an archbishopric of the Nestorian Church, whose fundamental assertion that there were two separate persons in the incarnate Christ, one divine and the other human, was denounced as heresy at the Council of Ephesus in ad 431; in spite of which the Church flourished from its base at Ctesiphon on the Tigris, and expanded across Asia for several hundred years. Merv was simultaneously headquarters of the most westerly province of the Sassanian rulers of Persia, whose dynasty collapsed at the seventh-century Islamic invasion of Central Asia. Yet Merv expanded and its reputation was much enlarged under Islam, especially when it became the capital of the Seljuk Turks, whose empire extended through Anatolia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine. Even before the Seljuks, it was regarded as the second most important city in the known world, preceded only by Baghdad. It contained palaces, an observatory, many important libraries; and its artisans were so skilfully sophisticated that they could counterfeit the finest Chinese porcelain and despatch the pieces in the caravans bound for Europe, where connoisseurs mistook the forgeries for originals. It manufactured textiles in both cotton and silk, for export as well as local use. Merv in those days was a walled city, some fifteen miles in extent, from one side to the other. Even by the standards of today, it was a metropolis.
"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse