Coming from Mary you pass through the town of Bairam Ali, and turn left on a road heading north from the Central Bazaar. After 4km a sign points right towards the Merv complex. On the road towards ancient Merv is a small ticket office for the Merv complex and the Margush Archaeological Museum (admission free; h7am-dusk), which houses a tiny collection of artefacts and old photos.
Mausoleum of Mohammed ibn Zeid - From the ticket office, continue east and take your first left (north) to an early-Islamic monument, the 12th-century Mausoleum of Mohammed ibn Zeid. The small, unostentatious earthen-brick building, which was heavily restored in the early 20th century, benefits greatly from an attractive setting in a hollow that is ringed by spindly saxaul trees. Like the other Sufi shrines (Gozli-Ata and Kubra), this shrine is also an important site for Sufi pilgrims. There’s confusion as to who’s actually buried under the black marble cenotaph in the centre of the cool, dark shrine. It’s definitely not Ibn Zeid, a prominent Shiite teacher who died four centuries before this tomb was built and is known to be buried elsewhere.
Earliest remains - The oldest of the five Merv cities is Erk Kala, an Achaemenid city thought to date from the 6th century BC. Led by Alexander the Great, the Macedonians conquered it and renamed it Alexandria Margiana. Under Parthian control (250 BC to AD 226) Zoroastrianism was the state religion but Erk Kala was also home to Nestorian Christians, Jews and Buddhists. Today Erk Kala is a big earthen doughnut about 600m across. There are deep trenches that have been dug into the ramparts by Soviet archaeologists. The ramparts are 50m high, and offer a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding savannah-like landscape. On the ramparts it’s easy to see small hills that were once towers. From this vantage point you can see that Erk Kala forms part of the northern section of another fortress – Giaur Kala, constructed during the 3rd century BC by the Sassanians. The fortress walls are still solid, with three gaps where gates once were. The city was built on a Hellenistic grid pattern; near the crossroads in the middle of the site are the ruins of a 7th-century mosque. At the eastern end of the mosque is an 8m-deep water cistern that’s been dug into the ground. In the southeastern corner of Giaur Kala a distinct mound marks the site of a Buddhist stupa and monastery, which was still functioning in the early Islamic era. The head of a Buddha statue was found here, making Merv the westernmost point to which Buddhism spread at its height.
Sultan Kala - The best remaining testimony to Seljuq power at Merv is the 38m-high Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, located in what was the centre of Sultan Kala. The building has been recently restored with Turkish aid and rises dramatically in the open plain. Sanjar, grandson of Alp-Arslan, died in 1157, reputedly of a broken heart when, after escaping from captivity in Khiva, he came home to find that Chinggis Khan’s soldiers had laid waste to his beloved Merv. The mausoleum is a simple cube with a barrel-mounted dome on top. Originally it had a magnificent turquoise-tiled outer dome, said to be visible from a day’s ride away, but that is long gone. Interior decoration is sparse, though restoration has brought back the blue and red frieze in the upper gallery. Inside is Sanjar’s simple stone ‘tomb’ although, fearing grave robbers, he was actually buried elsewhere in an unknown location. The name of the architect, Mohammed Ibn Aziz of Serakhs, is etched into the upper part of the east wall. According to lore, the sultan had his architect executed to prevent him from designing a building to rival this one. The Shahriyar Ark (or Citadel of Sultan Kala) is one of the more interesting parts of Merv. Still visible are its walls, a well-preserved koshk (fort) with corrugated walls, and the odd grazing camel. North of the Shahriyar Ark, outside the city walls, lies the Mosque of Yusuf Hamadani, built around the tomb of a 12th-century dervish. The complex has been largely rebuilt in the last 10 years and turned into an important pilgrimage site; it is not open to non-Muslims. Archaeologists have been excavating a number of sites around Sultan Kala, revealing the foundations of homes. If you have an experienced guide they should know the location of recent digs.
Kyz Kala - These two crumbling 7th-century koshk outside the walls of Merv are interesting for their ‘ petrified stockade’ walls, as writer Colin Thubron describes them, composed of ‘vast clay logs up-ended side by side’. They were constructed by the Sassanians in the 7th century and were still in use by Seljuq sultans, 600 years later, as function rooms. These are some of the most symbolic and important structures in western Merv archaeology and they have no analogies anywhere else.
Mausoleums of two Askhab - One of the most important pilgrimage sites in Turkmenistan are the mausoleums built for two Islamic askhab (companions of the prophet), Al-Hakim ibn Amr al-Jafari and Buraida ibn al-Huseib al-Islami. The two squat buildings sit in front of reconstructed Timurid aivans (iwans, portals) that honour the prophets. In front of the mausoleums is a still-functioning water cistern.
Ice Houses - South of Sultan Kala and Giaur Kala are three ice houses built during the Timurid era. The giant freezers, made from brick and covered by a conical-shaped roof, were used to keep meat and other foods frozen during the summer. The ice house closest to Giaur Kala is perhaps the best-preserved structure. They now sit in a fairly neglected state, but are worth a quick look.