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The sad story of Merv

Sacred Horses: The Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy by Jonathan Maslow

The train pulled out of Mary alongside a huge old cotton mill, like the dilapidated gins still to be found in Mississippi and Alabama. The Murgab River was the same color as the Tedzhen, but almost completely stagnant—dammed either fore or aft of the railway to make a reservoir. Mary has some of the best archaeological artifacts in Central Asia, but they are spread over several sites as the city was built, added onto, and rebuilt repeatedly during centuries of various dynasties and continual warfare. By studying the dreadfully translated booklet on the Silk Road that Sasha Skorokhodov had given me as a going-away present, I was able to figure out a thumbnail chronology.

At the time of Alexander's march, the lands along the Murgh Ab, or River of Birds, were known generally as Margiana—i.e., the margin of the known world. The Seleucid dynasty built the city of Antioch under Hellenic influence in the century after Alexander. King Antiochus Soter, "being striked by the land fertility of Margian" (sic) ordered a 250-kilometer contoured wall constructed with four gates. Highways cut the city from north to south and east to west.

Merv was founded next, its vast suburbs spilling out from the defensive wall left by the Seleucids. The Sasanid period was marked by religious tolerance because, in addition to the official state Zoroastrian necropolis, the Sasanids left behind in Merv Christian temples with wide staircases and Buddhist temples with large clay statues of the Buddha. By the sixth and seventh centuries, numerous fortified country seats like the castles of feudal Europe were built, with walls up to forty-five feet in height. Then came the conquest of Merv by Islam, and rule by the Arabian caliphate. Merv reached its height in the eleventh and twelfth centuries under the Muslim Seljuq dynasty, when the city occupied the crossroads of the northern and southern caravan routes and considerably exceeded in size not only the Near East cities of Damascus and Jerusalem, but such European cities as Paris and Milan. As the booklet put it, "Splendid erections—mosques, madrasahs [universities], libraries, mausoleums, palaces, and rich townhouses—adorned Merv at this period." The Madjan Canal crossed Merv from south to north, supplying the entire city with plenty of water from brick overflows.

From the windows of the Turkmenistan Express, I managed only a fleeting glimpse of the mausoleum of the Seljuc Sultan Sandjar (1118-1157). It is the most remarkable architectural work of Central Asia's medieval period, when Merv was called "the jewel of the sands, the pleasure city of the Shahs" by Arabic travelers. The mausoleum of Sultan Sandjar stood off by itself a mile or so from the railroad tracks, a sandstone tower at least one hundred feet high, with a dome shorn of it s original tiles. Nothing could be more impressive and spooky than this priapic monument standing naked against the cloudless desert sky, and no work of human hands could better symbolize the terrible calamity that followed soon after its construction.

It was less than a hundred years after Sultan Sandjar's death when Genghis Khan's youngest son Tului entered Persia in pursuit of the khwarizm shah's son, Jalabad-Din. After a furious twenty-two-day seige outside the walls of Merv, during which the Mongols employed their  Chinese engineers to build an earth embankment against the city's ramparts, Tului sent word to Merv's governor Merik that surrender would save his life. He invited Merik and his intimates to dine in the Mongol tents, then asked for a list of the six hundred richest men in the city. The governor and his friends obediently wrote down the list. Then, in front of the horrified Merik's eyes, the Mongols strangled his companions. The six hundred rich men were taken from the city and put under guard, and the Mongols entered the streets of Merv. The inhabitants were ordered out into the plains. The evacuation took four days while Tului sat on a gilded dais, singling out military leaders, who were immediately decapitated. The men, women, and children were separated and handed over to Mongol soldiers, who raped, strangled, and slashed to death all but the four hundred craftsmen Tului wanted for rebuilding the city as a Mongol fortress. The six hundred rich men were tortured till they gave up their treasures, then done away with. The vacated dwellings were put to the torch, the irrigation system completely destroyed, and the walls of Merv razed. The only survivors were some five thousand devout Muslims who had hidden in cellars: The Mongols returned and hunted them down, and Merv was left empty of human life.

Only the mausoleum of Sultan Sandjar remains, in a sea of sand no longer watered by the great irrigation works along the Murgab. The jewel of Islam had been turned into the lifeless waste one can still view from the windows of the Turkmenistan Express eight hundred years later.