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Merv & Bayram Ali (Stepping stone to India?)

Merv and Bairam Ali - Stepping Stone to India?
'Central Asia - A Traveller's Companion' by Kathleen Hopkirk

If you meet a viper and a Mervi, kill the Mervi first.

                                          Central Asian saying

Merv, at this time, is only a refuge for marauders . . . but if it pass into the hands of Russia it will regain its former splendour. But the question will not rest there, that Russia will take Merv merely, and hold it quietly, but she will take the Murghab river also, and march up to it, and thus possess all the country.

Prince Iskander Ahmed of Afghanistan, writing in the 1870s

MERV, THE QUEEN of the ancient world, is now little more than a memory. Even the name has disappeared locally. The modern Russian town on the Murghab river was renamed Mary under Stalin, and the ruins of the magnificent Silk Road city lie ten miles away at a place called Bairam Ali. Old Merv, or Merou, is in fact a series of ruined cities, strewn over several miles on what is today a desolate plain. But it was not always an arid waste. Pliny wrote in the first century AD that this district was the most fertile part of Asia, and Herodotus talks about a great lake to the northwest of Merv. Geographers believe that the Oxus, or Amu-darya, used to flow west into the Caspian Sea and that what is now the Kara Kum desert used to be a rich alluvial plain. Only after the Oxus changed its course, perhaps as a result of an earthquake, and flowed north into the Aral Sea, did what is now Turkmenistan become a desert.

Legend has it that Merv was founded by Zoroaster, the father of fire-worship, who lived around the sixth century BC. Under Darius it was known as Margush, under Alexander the Great as Antiocheia Margiana. For many years a province of Parthia, it nonetheless became a centre of Nestorian Christianity with its own bishop, before being conquered by the Arabs in the eighth century, and then becoming the renowned capital of the Seljuk Turkish empire in the eleventh. Two of the most prestigious Seljuk emperors, Alp Arslan and Sultan Sanjar, are buried there.

Alp Arslan, the 'valiant lion', conquered the Roman empire in Asia in 1072. A famous soldier, he was also a good man who was fatally stabbed by a captive he had just pardoned. He ordered the following inscription to be placed over his tomb at Merv: 'O ye who have seen the glory of Alp Arslan exalted to the heavens, repair to Merou and you will behold it buried in the dust.' The historian Edward Gibbon commented: 'The annihilation of the inscription, and the tomb itself, more forcibly proclaims the instability of human greatness.' Sultan Sanjar, grandson of Alp Arslan and also a just ruler, had the misfortune in about 1150 to be captured by his traditional foes, the nomads of Khiva, and held captive for four years. In his absence they despoiled his city, torturing the inhabitants for good measure, just in case they were concealing any of their wealth. Many were killed, and others were carried off into slavery. When Sanjar eventually escaped and made his painful way across the desert, he thought he had mistaken his route. For where was his beautiful capital and his flourishing oasis? Faced by an abomination of desolation, Sultan Sanjar collapsed and died of a broken heart.

The basis of Merv's prosperity was water, and in the ruins of the old town the ancient irrigation channels can still be made out. For the Seljuks had built a mighty dam on the Murghab river, thirty miles south of Merv, and guarded it with a fortress. Canals had carried the precious water in all directions, thus enabling the oasis to expand and flourish and allowing the rulers to surround the royal palace with groves and gardens. After the attack by the Khivans, Merv had scarcely been restored to prosperity when the arrival of the Mongols led to yet another sacking. Tuluy Khan, youngest and most brutal son of Genghis, razed the city to the ground in 1221, returning a few days after his first onslaught to finish off the handful of survivors who had crept back to their wrecked homes. Anything worth taking was looted by the horde. Only the blue and turquoise glint of smashed tiles lying in the dust, and the shards of iridescent glass, bore silent witness to Merv's past splendours.

After the Mongol devastation Merv came under the dominion at various times of the Uzbek Turks and different dynasties of Persians, and was frequently fought over by the rival rulers of Khiva and Bokhara. When no one else was in control, it was camped in by nomads. Finally, in the eighteenth century, a strong man emerged who repaired the dam and built himself a citadel and a new town out of the ruins of ancient Merv: his name was Bairam Ali Khan. This remarkable man was a Persian, although his mother had been a princess of the Salor Turcomans, and under his stern but wise rule Merv once more saw peace and prosperity. Even the unruly Turcomans, for whom the greatest honour was to be included in an alaman, or raiding party, kept at a respectful distance from their kinsman.

But it could not last. Merv's strategic position at the gateway to Khorassan, Persia's rich northern province, was bound to make it a target for warlike invaders from the north. The next to cast greedy eyes on the oasis was an Uzbek of the Mangit tribe, the Amir Masum, later to be known as Shah Murad of Bokhara. The Uzbeks had come from Mongolia in the thirteenth century with Genghis Khan's hordes, with whom they interbred. The Mangits settled around Bokhara and soon became leaders of the ferocious Uzbek clans who took over much of western Central Asia in the ensuing centuries. In theory subject to the Golden Horde, the rump of the Mongol empire based in southern Russia, the Uzbeks grew bolder as the Mongols declined. In 1783, Masum declared himself King of Bokhara and set about carving out his own empire.

First, he decided, Merv must be taken, and then all Khorassan would be at his mercy. In 1785 he set out at the head of 6,000 mounted warriors, and by a skilful ruse lured Bairam Ali and his men into an ambush, where the ruler of Merv was slain. But his son Mohammed Khan took over, and the city defied Masum, confident that it could sit out an indefinite siege. However, by treachery Masum gained control of the fortress guarding the great dam, and he then destroyed the barrage itself. First flooded and then totally deprived of water, the inhabitants of Merv had no choice but to surrender. Most were carried off as slaves to Bokhara, and the wide, flourishing oasis shrank to a small settlement on the banks of the Murghab. Once again old Merv became a dusty heap of ruins surrounded by the endless sands of the desert.

In 1840 an Englishman, Major James Abbott, was one of the first Europeans to set eyes on the fabled Merv, and he was not impressed, He found the oasis 'more dreary than the desert itself although he was quick to note its strategic importance:

The present Merv is an assemblage, upon the Murghab, of about one hundred mud huts, where a considerable Bazaar is held . . . The trade passing through is very considerable, Merv connecting Bokhara and Persia, Khiva and Afghanistan. Indeed the position of Merv is so important, that it never will be long abandoned and might, with judicious care, rapidly rise from its dust into wealth and consequence.

Abbott, Narrative of a Journey from Heraut to Khiva, 1843

Abbott only glimpsed the ruins of ancient Merv on the eastern horizon, and made out the remains of a mosque and several forts, for he was detained on the banks of the Murghab by the Sarik Turcomans who were currently masters of the oasis. Alternately goaded by insults or assailed by 'sympathizers' who tried to lure him into indiscretions or criticisms of Islam, the blunt soldier had difficulty in keeping his temper. Only the thought of the unfortunate Colonel Stoddart - the British officer languishing in a verminous dungeon in Bokhara at that time - enabled him to maintain an appearance of dignified imperturbability (see Bokhara). The Turcomans, of course, had very little idea who the English were, and as Abbott had few gifts to bestow on them, they were not inclined to treat him with much respect. Luckily they were too cautious to do him any real harm and, after presenting him with a horse as a token of their esteem, they finally let him go on his way to Khiva. 'I bade farewell to Merv', Abbott admitted in his book, 'with no wish ever again to behold it.' After a mile his gift-horse went lame.

The Sariks - like their kinsmen but enemies, the Tekke Turcomans - were notorious brigands and slave-raiders, and their chief prey were the Persians. Periodically the Persians would lose patience and make a determined effort to subdue their Turcoman tormentors, and thus stem the pitiful flow of Persian men, women and children to the slave markets of Khiva and Bokhara. The trouble was, the nomads seemed quite happy to abandon any of their own people who were taken as hostages, and if they were driven out of one place they simply reappeared from somewhere else. The Persians managed to clear the Tekke out of Sarakhs, but they were no better off for the Tekke simply ousted the Sariks from Merv and made that their new base. In 1860 the Shah declared in a rage that he would wipe the Tekke from the face of the earth, and sent an army to Merv. The Tekke were not especially renowned as warriors - their tactic was rather to make lightning raids in semi-darkness - but when fighting for their survival they were like the fiends of hell. (Russia too was to discover this twenty years later at the Akhal oasis - see geok-tepe.) It was the Persians who were routed:

Those who had means of escape fled the scene of slaughter, but the infantry and artillery were killed or captured to a man. The victors collected so many prisoners that they did not know what to do with them. A ready market for slaves existed in Khiva and Bokhara, but the prisoners poured in in such abundance that the price of a Persian slave fell to a pound.

This account was given by Colonel Petrusevich, a Russian anthropologist and military surveyor, who made a detailed study of the various Turcoman tribes and who was killed in the last battle of the Tekke at Geok-Tepe.

The Tekke did not attempt to rebuild Merv, but they did construct a mud rampart within which they set up their tents. They also made a new dam on the Murghab and extended the cultivable area of the oasis, though on nothing like the scale of Sultan Sanjar's old irrigation scheme. The Shah of Persia retired to lick his wounds, and Merv was never destined to fall into Persian hands again. But Abbott's prophetic remark about the strategic significance of the oasis was not lost on the two Great Powers of the nineteenth century. For Russia and Britain Merv was the key, not to the riches of Khorassan, but to Herat and ultimately to India.

The British were often regarded by those nations not directly involved as being amusingly paranoid over their Indian possessions, forever panicking about a mythical Russian bogy-man with designs on their precious empire. But in fairness it must be said that Russia's behaviour at this time was equivocal to say the least, and the diplomatic policy professed by St Petersburg was frequently at odds with what actually happened on the frontier. In the course of 'consolidating' her southern border, Russia had quietly annexed Kazakhstan in the first half of the nineteenth century, and had been extending her Central Asian territories ever since. The whole of Turkestan became a Russian province in the 1860s and '70s, bringing the Tsar's empire 1,000 miles closer to India. Where would it end?

Regarding Merv, and Transcaspia generally, the following statements were all made during the course of the 1870s:

His Imperial Majesty has no intention of extending the frontiers of Russia such as they exist at present in Central Asia, either on the side of Bokhara, or on the side of Krasnovodsk.

Prince Gorchakov, Foreign Minister

Merv, with its water communication nearly complete to Herat, lies only 240 miles from that place, to which it is the key. Strategically, the Russian occupation of Merv would place Herat completely at her mercy.

Colonel Valentine Baker

I rode along the road from Merv to Herat. To conduct an expeditionary force of any strength along that route would be an impossibility.

Colonel Grodekov

There is so little impression of difficulty in my mind, that I would undertake to drive a mail coach from Merv to Herat by this road.

Colonel C.M McGregor

We should have no difficulty whatever in taking Merv. People talk of the difficulty of getting there: why, our Cossacks could be at Merv in a week if the Government would only allow us.

Russian frontier officer at Petro-Alexandrovsk

Britain tried hard not to upset the Russians, and forbade its officers - including Colonels Baker and McGregor - to visit Merv, but when word reached London that the armies of the Tsar had begun a campaign against the Tekke Turcomans (see geok-tepe), it became clear to even the most charitable observer that Transcaspia was destined to be the next Russian acquisition. In view of Prince Gorchakov's earlier assurance, the British government felt entitled to an explanation. As usual, this was soothing. In July 1879 the British ambassador to St Petersburg was able to report home that the head of the Asiatic Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry had assured him 'in the most positive manner, that there was no intention on the part of the Russian Government to go to Merv, that their object was simply to put an end to the depredations of the Turcoman tribes in the neighbourhood of the Caspian'.

However, within a few short weeks the Russians were already putting a different gloss on the affair, and on 26 August the ambassador had to add a rider to his earlier report:

M. de Giers intimated that. . . although he had told me that an advance upon Merv was not contemplated by the Russian Government, and formed no part of their existing programme, he did not mean to imply that in different circumstances, and in view of unforeseen contingencies, the occupation of Merv might not become necessary; that in fact, the Russian Government had never intended by a solemn pledge, given for all time, to preclude themselves from ever going to Merv.

It is hard to avoid the impression that the Russians were simply running rings round the British. The different circumstances -totally unforeseen, of course - having duly presented themselves, Merv was annexed by the Tsar in February 1884. But three years before that, and quite unknown to the Tsar or Queen Victoria, the Mervis had tried hard to fly a Union Jack from their ramparts and had insisted on appointing an Irishman as their ruler.

Edmond O'Donovan, former Irish agitator, French foreign legionnaire and now special correspondent of the London Daily News, had gone to Central Asia to report on the Turcoman campaign. Blocked by the Russians, who wanted no witnesses, he arrived clandestinely at the Akhal oasis just in time to see the fall of Geok-Tepe. Hurrying on to Merv, which he was convinced would be next on the Tsar's shopping list, he found himself regarded with the deepest suspicion and was lucky to escape with his life. For the Turcomans were quite unable to understand the concept of a newspaper correspondent, and assumed he was spying - most likely for the Russians. After all, one European looked much like another as far as they were concerned.

O'Donovan was hustled into a hot and airless tent made of sky-blue canvas, into which the entire population of the oasis - not to mention those visiting the bazaar - seemed to follow him. They stared at him and his gear with fascination, and discussed vociferously whether his throat should be cut immediately or later, for news of their kinsmen's defeat at Geok-Tepe had already reached them and Russophobia was at its height. Although he did not know it then, O'Donovan was to spend three weary weeks there under house, or rather tent, arrest, and it would be six months before he was allowed to leave the oasis altogether. Next morning he woke up to find the tent already crammed with Turcomans, who had been squatting there patiently, gazing at their uninvited guest and waiting for him to awaken. Presently, so many people crawled under the edges of the overflowing tent that ail the pegs were pulled out and the whole thing collapsed, nearly smothering the Irishman.

O'Donovan wanted to write to the British authorities in Meshed, across the border in Persia, but the mere sight of his writing things caused an uproar. He was sternly forbidden to put pen to paper, on pain of having his throat cut, but he managed to write secretly to Meshed, and to keep a diary, by waiting until dead of night and then writing under a blanket. As a reporter, he was most eager to see what the mysterious Merv was like, but in these early days he was kept firmly inside the stifling tent, 'in case the dogs should bite you'. The total lack of privacy and the feeling of 'living in the interior of a much-patronized peep-show' was very trying, but when he protested to the old man appointed as his minder, the latter was mystified. Why should he mind being looked at? It wouldn't do him any harm.

After a week he was summoned to attend a council of the elders, held in a large open space seemingly surrounded by the entire population. There was an unnerving hush when he arrived, and poor O'Donovan feared his last moment had come. However, after an hour's interrogation he was taken back to his tent-prison, from where he could hear the clamour of heated discussions which would presumably decide his fate. After a nail-biting interval he was escorted back to hear the decision of the elders. He was not to have his throat cut, he was very relieved to learn, but he would remain their prisoner until the British authorities in Persia sent confirmation that he was not a Russian spy. There was nothing O'Donovan could do in the meantime but sit it out, gathering as much information as he could on Tekke manners and customs, and consoling himself with the thought of the bestseller he would write once he was free.

O'Donovan had arrived in February, and with every week the temperature grew more furnace-like. Surrounded as it is by desert, Merv has an extreme climate variously described by European travellers as 'intolerable', 'insufferable' or plain 'abominable'. O'Donovan soon adopted the loose native dress, and once the Turcomans were reassured as to his nationality he was allowed to move to a traditional dome-shaped tent made of willow wands and felt, which was slightly cooler than being under canvas. His hosts were in no hurry to let him go, but he was now allowed more freedom and began to make a covert plan of his surroundings, taking discreet bearings when possible with a prismatic compass. The Tekke were clearly very alarmed at the Russian conquest of the Akhal oasis - the other main Tekke stronghold - and were doing their best to fortify Merv. A huge rampart was being constructed on the banks of the Murghab, every male inhabitant being obliged to play his part in the toil.

O'Donovan was proudly shown a number of cannon captured from the Persians in their battles of 1860. The Turcomans had great faith in these weapons, but their wooden supports were all rotting away and the guns looked to O'Donovan as if they had been spiked. By keeping his head, and by the judicious handing out of presents, money and medicine, O'Donovan came to be regarded by the Tekke as their trusty friend. One of his rewards was to be taken on a two-day visit to the ruins of old Merv, something he had long wished to do.

We came in view of an immense wilderness of ruined buildings, forming a semi-circle in front of us to the north and south. Between us and the domes stretched in an apparently unbroken line for four or five miles a belt of ruined wall and shattered houses, apparently the remains of former suburban villas and gardens. Even still nourished by the scanty rains and still scantier moisture of the earth itself, the withered gardens displayed remnants of former greenness, choked with masses of ruin. Snakes swarmed on every side and, save these, black eagles, sparrow-hawks and vultures were the only living creatures to be seen.

O'Donovan, The Merv Oasis, 1882

Colonel Petrusevich had also remarked on the absence of life in the steppes of Central Asia:

Without water existence is impossible, and thus in the wastes to the north of Akhal and Merv neither birds nor beasts are to be found. Only where there are wells may be observed a few small members of the feathered race, fluttering about the well-tops in quest of water. The wells are sometimes very deep, nevertheless the birds fly right down them for water.

Exploring the ruins methodically, and taking covert compass bearings which enabled him later to draw a plan of the whole site, O'Donovan was able to distinguish the remains of three separate cities. Giaour Kala was reputed to be the oldest:

The whole of the area within the ramparts is littered with the debris of broken tiles and earthenware vessels, many of the fragments exhibiting the most beautiful tints, and in some cases prismatic colours. I did not come upon an entire utensil of any kind.

In Sultan Sanjar's city, the next in age, there was hardly one brick left standing on another, apart from the imposing mausoleum of the Sultan himself. O'Donovan was also puzzled to see vast numbers of large holes dug everywhere. He knew that this was the city sacked by the Mongols, but this did not explain the wholesale dismantling of the site. His Turcoman companions were able to provide the explanation: the damage was caused by souvenir-hunters and treasure-seekers. For Sultan Sanjar was revered as a saint and his tomb had long been a place of pilgrimage. It was also on a regular trade-route and 'a caravan scarcely ever passed by the place without many of its members trying their fortune by digging holes, in the hopes that they might perchance stumble upon a pot of gold or jewels'. Bairam Ali, the most recent of the ruined cities, had been laid waste barely a century before, and the remains of its high battlemented walls still surrounded the ruins of mosques, palaces, houses and baths.

Although he continued to find the lack of privacy excruciating, O'Donovan gradually became accustomed to Tekke conventions and no longer had to worry constantly about inadvertently committing some frightful faux pas. Religion remained the principal minefield, however. If he joined the Turcomans in their prayers it might be considered blasphemous, yet if he simply ignored them and went about his business this might be construed as an insult. In the end he decided that the safest course was to dismount, if he was on horseback, and stand still in a respectful manner. But he could not win, and even this was criticized. Nothing if not quickwitted, however, when O'Donovan was reproached for never praying by one of Merv's leaders, he replied loftily that Christians - unlike Muslims - prayed all the time. 'You snatch a few minutes from your occupations to pray to your Creator,' he said. 'Our life is one continual prayer.'

As time went by, the Turcomans became more and more friendly towards O'Donovan, each faction trying to outdo the others, until he was created a Khan or leader, and finally - in spite of his protests - actually appointed Ruler of Merv. The truth was that the fear of being annexed by Russia was so strong that the Tekke were only too willing to declare their allegiance to Queen Victoria provided she would defend them. Some scraps of red, white and blue cloth were produced, and O'Donovan was asked to draw the design for the British flag. The bizarre thought of a Union Jack flying over the Merv oasis, and the awful diplomatic repercussions - not least to himself - were too much for even O'Donovan's sense of adventure. He explained as tactfully as he could the need to ask permission first, and the advisability of doing nothing to antagonize the Russians, who were so much nearer than Queen Victoria. By now he felt a pressing need to get away from the place before he got into any more scrapes, but this was easier said than done.

Finally, after innumerable delays and excuses, and by dint of engineering an urgent summons from Tehran to attend 'consultations', Merv's one and only Irish ruler rode out of the oasis on 29 July 1881 and crossed thankfully into Persia. His own book is now very hard to find, but Fitzroy Maclean gives a most entertaining account of his adventures in A Person from England. Sadly, O'Donovan's next assignment was his last, for he was killed in the Sudan in 1883 in the campaign against the Mahdi.

One of the last things O'Donovan had heard as he rode out of Merv was the fear expressed by many of the bystanders that 'it was the utmost folly to allow me to go away, because immediately I had left the oasis the Russians would come in'. Perhaps the Mervis overestimated O'Donovan's power to keep the Russian army at bay, but there was no doubt that their days of independence were running out. Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated in March, and his son - the new Tsar Alexander III - had invited a number of the Akhal Tekke chieftains to his coronation in St Petersburg. They returned to Transcaspia just after O'Donovan's departure, and their descriptions of the wealth and magnificence of the Russian capital, and the huge numbers of soldiers and artillery in evidence, gave their Mervi kinsmen pause for thought. The Mervis were also unsettled by the apparent prosperity of those Tekke who had become Russian subjects, and some of them began to venture west to Ashkhabad, where the bazaar was now full of alluring European goods. The Russians realized that if they played their cards right, they would be able to take Merv by stealth.

The deed was achieved by a Russian officer who was himself a Muslim, a native of the Caucasus. For his first visit, in February 1882, Lieutenant Alikhanov posed as a merchant who could supply Merv with undreamt-of luxuries if they would agree to trade with Russia. The poor Khans, on the one hand dazzled by the Russian consumer goods and on the other fearing greatly for their independence, were in a quandary. Alikhanov profited by their indecision in making a quick survey of Merv's defences during his early morning walks and, once this was completed, he left. A year later Merv was obliged, under threat of invasion, to accept the suzerainty of her old enemy Khiva, which was now a Russian protectorate. Then, early in 1884, Alikhanov turned up again at the oasis, this time in full uniform and accompanied by a detachment of armed men. Rather than have their city destroyed, he suggested to the Khans, would it not be better to accept the beneficent rule of the Tsar? The Mervis had, perforce, to bow to the inevitable. Within two years Merv and Bairam Ali were stations on the new Transcaspian railway, which would in due course connect up all Russia's vast possessions in Central Asia.

At least the Pax Russica, and the advent of the railway, meant that Europeans could now travel to Central Asia without taking their lives in their hands, provided they were granted permission from St Petersburg. This was not always given, but as long as you had time and the right connections, you were likely to be successful. One of the first was a French civil engineer called Edgar Boulangier. He admits cheerfully in his book Voyage a Merv that his trip was quite unpremeditated. At the beginning of August 1886, finding Paris intolerable, he bought a ticket for Constantinople and boarded the Orient Express. In Bucharest, however, he discovered that Turkey had just imposed quarantine restrictions because of a cholera scare, so he decided to visit the Caucasus instead. In Tiflis he found that his acquaintances had left town for the summer, and it was here that he conceived the idea of going to see the great unknown of Transcaspia and of travelling on the new military railway, which had just been completed as far as Merv. A fortunate introduction to a Russian prince enabled him to obtain the necessary permits, and on 3 September Boulangier found himself in Krasnovodsk.

The railway had not yet been officially declared 'open', and conditions were apt to be a trifle primitive. There was as yet no droshky service from Merv station, and the Frenchman had to set out on foot to find a hotel in the new Russian township which had been hastily constructed. Choking on the fine dust which enveloped him in a cloud, and into which his feet sank up to the ankles, he made his way to the principal hotel. It was full. A young Polish railway worker who spoke French and a little Turki offered to help, and they tramped laboriously round all five of the town's hotels, but to no avail. They were all full of soldiers and administrators who were busy organizing Merv along Russian lines. In the end Boulangier was given a room in a barely finished new hotel, still full of workmen but already colonized by the local bugs and creepy-crawlies. A particularly repulsive specimen scuttled away into a crack in the floor when he lifted the blanket to inspect his bed.

A week earlier, Boulangier was told, when temperatures were still in the 40s centigrade, there had been a plague of scorpions and other poisonous insects, but now that it was autumn they had crept back into their holes. He was advised to boil all water before using it, as the first European settlers had developed painful sores and abscesses. 'You have been warned,' comments Boulangier drily in his book, 'if your holiday plans take you to this little paradise which was nearly fought over by two great nations.' Shrugging off the discomforts of his situation, he sent his card to the Governor of Merv, who was none other than Alikhanov, now promoted to Colonel. One feels there was a certain poetic justice in his appointment to this dusty and bug-ridden 'paradise', in view of his duplicity to the Khans. Boulangier found him sheltering from the heat in a huge tent, adorned with Persian hangings and Turcoman rugs.

Boulangier also called on General Annenkov, whose railway battalions were busy extending the Transcaspian line towards the Amu-darya or Oxus, and whose headquarters was currently at Merv. Although the General had quite a large and handsome house at his disposal, he used this mainly as an office, preferring to live on the special train used by the railway engineers. That way he was always in the right place at the right time to direct work personally on his beloved railway. Delighted to have a visitor who was technically literate, Annenkov invited Boulangier to travel east with him to see how the line was progressing, and in the course of this they stopped off at Bairam Ali to inspect the ruins of old Merv. As an engineer, Boulangier was amazed that such ambitious architecture could be undertaken in the complete absence of stone for building. The thought of the slow, laborious process of making all those millions of sun-baked bricks filled him with awe.

Two years later the Honourable George Curzon, future Viceroy of India, travelled the length of the newly opened railway, which now terminated at Samarkand. Merv, he found, had actually dwindled in size and importance since the Frenchman's visit:

The present Merv consists only of the rickety town which the Russians have built, and which is inhabited mainly by Persians, Jews and Armenians. A visitor in 1886 describes its population as 3,000; but it cannot now be more than one-third of that total. The reason of the diminution is this. From the time of the annexation in February 1884, and while the railway was being pushed forward to Amu-darya, Merv was the headquarters of General Annenkov and his staff. There was a sudden inflation of business, shops were run up, merchants came, and the brand-new Merv fancied that it had inherited some aroma of the ancient renown. A club-house provided a centre of social reunion, and was the scene of weekly dancing and festivity. For the less select, a music-hall re-echoed on the banks of the Murghab the airs of Offenbach and the melodies of Strauss. The Turcomans, attracted by the foreign influx, flocked in large numbers from their settlements on the oasis, and drove an ephemeral but thriving trade. But with the forward movement of the railway battalion, and still more with the occupation by the line of Bokhara and Samarkand, this fictitious importance died away . . . Whether or not the glory of Merv may revive will depend upon the success or failure of the schemes for the regeneration of the surrounding oasis, which are now being undertaken.

Curzon, Russia in Central Asia, 1889

Nine years after Curzon's rather disapproving visit, Merv was descended upon by a positive bevy of English tourists. A mixed party of twenty turned up in Transcaspia in November 1897 and were conducted on a Cook's tour of the province in a special train. The charming Russian officers appointed as their guides and companions made sure that their impressions of Russian hospitality were highly favourable, and at every halt they were greeted with receptions, balls and spectacles. The English entered into the fun with great enthusiasm, toasting their hosts in halting Russian (rapturously received) or only slightly less halting French, and cheerfully submitting to tours of Russian improvements. No doubt the Russians, who for their sins or merits had been posted to Central Asia, were delighted to see some congenial new faces, but there was probably a hidden political agenda too. For in this Great Game era it behoved Russia to present the face of a benevolent provider of schools and sanitation rather than that of an aggressive conqueror of territory.

At least one of the Englishmen wrote a book about his unusual holiday. Mr J.T. Woolrych Perowne describes a typical day of sight-seeing and entertainment at Merv:

When we got up in the morning we found that, as at Ashkhabad so here, a programme had been arranged for us, so we took our places in the droshkies which were ready waiting and started out to visit a Merv village. It lay some twenty minutes away on the other side of the Murghab, which we crossed by a rather crazy wooden bridge, which apparently does duty for trains, carriages and pedestrians alike. It was a glorious day, but the dust was as thick as a sand storm and nearly choked us all as we drove. Just on the other side of the river lies the modern Russian town, if indeed we could call such a small settlement a town, and high over the houses loom the mighty unfinished mud walls of the fort which was built under forced labour by the Tekkes after the fall of Geok-Tepe.

After seeing the village, which reminded some of them of Egypt, and hearing some native flute music, which they thought 'weird in the extreme', they were hurried off to watch one of the spectacular mock-battles between Cossacks and Turcoman cavalry so beloved of the Russians in Central Asia (see ashkhabad). There followed an al fresco luncheon with much drinking of toasts and a number of cordial speeches. A glittering ball at the Club rounded off the day.

Next morning their train took them to Bairam Ali, whence they embarked on a droshky drive around the ruins of old Merv. 'The traveller who expects to see ruins such as those of Greece or Rome', warns Perowne, 'will be bitterly disappointed as he drives across the waste that once must have seen the flourishing cities of so many dead centuries.' The Glory that was Greece and the Splendour that was Rome could not, he felt, be matched by the Desolation that was Merv. In fact, as their Russian hosts seemed to be quite ignorant of Merv's past, the visit meant little to the English group:

Our drive lasted about four hours, during which we drove through a desolating wilderness of ancient crumbling walls and gateways, with here and there a meaningless ruin standing up gaunt and bare against the sky. No ivy or creepers are here to make decay picturesque, or ruins romantic. A desolation of miles of shapeless mounds and enormous brick city walls do not raise much emotion in a Westerner's heart . . .

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it would appear are size and importance, for in only a year the oasis of Merv seems to have changed out of all recognition. John W. Bookwalter, an American businessman, was not interested in ruins, but he saw new Merv - which Perowne could hardly bring himself to call a town - in a quite different light:

Like all the new Russian towns, the city is laid out with great regularity, the streets running at right-angles and fringed on both sides with rows of beautiful trees. The private residences are elegant, with all the modern improvements, and almost always located in the middle of a great square, forming a splendid park. A handsome boulevard of several miles in length, and ornamented by a double row of trees on either side, extends through the city. Owing to the richness of the soil, bright sunshine, and an abundance of water for irrigation, the creation of a beautiful park or delightful boulevard in this genial climate is the work of only a few years. From the extent and solidity of the improvements seen everywhere, the Russian has evidently entered this country with great confidence, and to stay.

Bookwalter, Siberia and Central Asia, 1899

It is hard to believe that he is talking about the same place as Curzon or Perowne. Admittedly, the purpose of his book was to persuade Americans to trade with Russia, which he saw as an up-and-coming nation with a huge untapped market for American goods. 'In my travels throughout this great empire', he claimed, 'it was impossible for me not to observe everywhere the many evidences of Russian fondness, and even partiality for, American goods.' Perhaps as a result he tended to see even arid Transcaspia through rose-tinted glasses. Nobody else has ever called Merv's climate 'genial'. Perowne had described the land between Merv and Bairam Ali as being covered with cane-brakes and juniper bushes, but to the imaginative Bookwalter it was an impenetrable jungle inhabited by tigers. At least they were agreed on the desolation of old Merv. 'Not a single human inhabitant now dwells in this silent city,' Bookwalter informed his readers. 'The ghoulish hyena and noisy jackal find their lair in what was once the glory and home of nearly two million people.'

Perhaps the American writer Michael Myers Shoemaker, who travelled in this area in 1902-3 and published an engaging book entitled The Heart of the Orient, should have the last word:

The glaring hot day draws to its close as our train approaches the ancient city. Already the atmosphere has taken on that wonderful golden glow which in the still air of the desert heralds the approach of night and marks the passing of the sun. As I gaze from the carriage window at Bairam Ali, as far as the eye can reach spread the ruins of the wonderful city - mile after mile of crumbling arches, tottering towers, and ruined mosques. In the clearness of this air distances are annihilated and ruins miles away are as distinctly visible as those nearer at hand. One stands awe-struck as one's eye roves over the vast desolation, The silence is so intense that even the puffing engine of our train seems impressed by it and grumbles in a monotone.

No sign of life in all the desolate prospect save some lonely floating vultures, and even they, turning from the desolation of Merv, soon vanish in the distance, and as they go the day departs, while from the vast ocean of black sand stretching away to the eastward far beyond the city the moon rises slowly . . .

Two millions of people lived here once, and now you cannot even find their graves, while these ruins of the palaces and houses they once inhabited are sadder than any grave. All is vanity. Truly as I gaze outward into the deepening shadows tonight I fully appreciate that all is and has ever been - vanity.