A significant capital for 2,500 years, Merv was one of the most important oasis cities of the Silk Road, and is among the major archaeological sites of Central Asia. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999. Merv first became a significant centre under the Achaemenian Empire, and across the millennia which followed was a regional capital for a succession of controlling dynasties.
In its heyday it was known as Marv-ishahjahan, ‘Merv – Queen of the World’, and it stood alongside Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo as one of the great cities of the Islamic world. A major centre of religious study and a lynchpin on the Silk Road, its importance to the commerce and sophistication of Central Asia cannot be underestimated. Today, almost nothing of the metropolis remains. Before the sons of Chinggis Khan laid waste to the great city and slaughtered its population, Merv had been a melting pot of religious faiths and ethnic groups. Its buildings of fired brick towered over the green oasis, and included palaces, mosques, caravanserais and thousands of private homes.
It was from Merv in the 8th century that Abu Muslim proclaimed the start of the Abbasid revolution. At the height of its importance as the eastern capital of the Seljuk Empire in the 11th and 12th centuries, it was a vital centre of learning. Here Omar Khayyam worked on his celebrated astronomical tables. Merv was sacked by the Mongols in 1221 in devastating fashion, and although archaeologists now question earlier figures of a million or more people massacred in this single event, it was undoubtedly one of great brutality. But the city of Merv was to rise again, albeit never reaching its earlier prominence. It remained in occupation during the Mongol period and later, under the 15th-century Timurid leader Shah Rukh, a new city was established here.
One of the most unusual features of Merv, and one of the reasons for its particular attraction tor archaeologists, is its character as what British scholar Georgina Herrmann describes as a 'wandering city'. It is made up of five separate but near adjacent cities. In the geographically unconstrained flat plain of the oasis, and a historical context of continually shifting water-courses, new cities tended to be built alongside rather than on top of the old. The result is a series of easily discernible cities representing different historical periods, scattered across the arid plains to the north of Bayramaly.
The scattered ruins left today include fortified walls, brick foundations and gazillions of shards of pottery. It became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1999 and is deservedly considered the most impressive historical site in the country. Merv can easily be visited on a day trip from Mary but it’s essential to have your own transport, and preferably a guide to make sense of it all.
Getting There & Away - The present site's status as the outcome of Merv's 'wanderings' means that it covers a large area. Ignoring the various outlying monuments and the Timurid city of Abdullah Khan Kala, the three oldest city sites alone spread across well over l,000ha. Merv is not therefore a site which can be comfortably managed on foot, especially in summer. So, the only way to see the site without an exhausting walk is by car. From Mary expect to pay 20M for a car and driver for four hours (the minimum amount of time needed to see the main monuments). Buses go between Mary and Bairam Ali every half hour or so; the journey takes about 45 minutes. Guided tours are available from any travel agency and this is the way most people see Merv.
Travel agencies in Turkmenistan are experienced in putting together guided visits to the site. You could also arrange a local guide in Mary. The cheapest option would be simply to hire a taxi in Bayramaly to ferry you between the main monuments.
To get to the site, from the northern side of Bayramaly's central bazaar take the northbound road, away from the town. A concrete monument to 'Gadymy Merw' marks the road, which runs along the western walls of Abdullah Khan Kala. After 4km you will reach another concrete signpost, to the 'State istorical and Cultural Park Ancient Merv'. Turn right here, passing between a curious pair of kinked concrete obelisks, whose design supposedly suggests a Seljuk lamp.
Behind these obelisks are two pillbox-type buildings, which accommodate the small Margush Archaeological Museum. The building on the south side of the road is mostly devoted to the Bronze Age sites of the northern part of the oasis. You may also be able to buy a copy of the excellent guidebook to Ancient Merv produced by the International Merv Project. Its partner building over the road concentrates on the Merv site itself, including coverage of the work being done by the International Merv Project to combat the considerable threats to the site. A particular problem has been the rise in the water table which followed the construction of the Kara Kum Canal in the late 1950s. This 'rising damp' is undermining many of the fragile mud-brick walls, at a rate all too clear from a comparison of present-day structures with photographs taken earlier this century. The small museum provides a worthwhile site orientation for visitors who have not seen the much more comprehensive coverage in the Mary Regional Museum.