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Merv by Colin Thubron

In fact Merv was many cities. It may have been founded by the dynasty of Alexander the Great, but in 250 ВС it passed to Parthia, and here the 10,000 Roman legionaries captured in the defeat of Crassus were brought exhausted into slavery. An apocryphal story sites The Thousand and One Nights in Merv, and in the late eighth century Muqanna, the Veiled Prophet of Khorasan, kindled schism here against the occupying Arabs.

In the heart of its lush oasis, where the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean gathered and disgorged its luxuries and ideas, it became, after Baghdad, the second city of the Islamic world. Home to Hindu traders and Persian artisans, it swelled to a mighty cosmopolis of races and interests, with rich libraries and a celebrated observatory, and was the seat of a Christian bishopric as early as the fifth century.

But it reached its zenith under the Seljuk Turks, who filtered southwards from the Aral Sea late in the tenth century, established their capital here in 1043, and pushed their empire deep across western Asia. Under the prodigious sultan Alp Arslan their dominion stretched from Afghanistan to Egypt, and in 1071 they advanced into Asia Minor, crushed a vast and motley Byzantine army at the battle of Manzikert, and captured the emperor. Alp Arslan, 'the valiant lion', became a paradigm for his people. High-minded, generous and austere, he redeemed himself from sainthood by some bursts of intemperance and exorbitant quirks of dress. He accentuated his enormous height with a towering hat, and his moustaches were so long that he knotted them behind his head before hunting. On his return to the capital, at the head of a 200,000-strong army, he was about to pass judgement on a captive commander at his feet, when the man plunged a knife into his heart. 'You who have witnessed the glory of Alp Arslan exalted to the heavens,' ran his epitaph, 'come to Merv, and you will see it buried in the dust.'

But the tomb, and the inscription, have gone. In 1221 the Mongols of Genghiz Khan overswept the whole country. The terror they inspired quakes in the descriptions of Moslem writers still. The barbarians were as many as grasshoppers, they wrote: squat, foul-smelling men whose skin was tough as shoe-leather and pitted with lice. Their arrows turned the sky to a sea of reeds, and their horses' neighing shut the ears of heaven.

The sack of Merv was one of the most atrocious in history. Toloi, the Khan's youngest son, granted its inhabitants their lives if they surrendered, so they opened their gates, and were driven out on to the plain. Then each Mongol soldier, it is fantastically recorded, was ordered to decapitate between 300 and 400 citizens, and within a few hours they had slaughtered over half a million. Systematically they wrecked and fired the city: irrigation works, mosques, tombs. Then they vanished with the same phantom speed as they had come. It was a frequent Mongol ruse. They did not go far. Timidly the runaway survivors crept back into their ruins, and must have wandered them in stunned hopelessness. Then, suddenly, the Mongols returned, and completed their massacre.

More than a century later, the city still lay in ruins, and the sands were flowing over it. Now the remains of the later town destroyed by the Bukhariots had flopped into dust alongside.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron