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Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar

The road continues southwestwards to the centre of the Sultan Kala site, where stands the single most impressive building at Merv, the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. Recently restored with finance from the Turkish government, the mausoleum has a square base, with walls 27m in length, and is topped with a double dome, rising to a height of 36m. The original covering of turquoise tiles, visible to the Silk Road traveller when still a day's caravan ride from the city, is, alas, no more. Around the exterior, the base of the dome is surrounded by attractive vaulted arcades. These present five arches along each side of the building, containing latticed balconies with designs based around eight-pointed stars.

The interibr of the building is decorated with white stucco, across which red and blue geometrical designs run along the borders of the walls. Most of this is newly reconstructed: the designs are extrapolations from small fragments of original stucco. There are tall niches in the centre of each wall. The transition between the square plan of the mausoleum and the domed roof is achieved by four large squinches, supporting the roof, between which sit niches. Each of these contain small latticed windows. The name of the architect, Mohammed Ibn Aziz of Serakhs, is found high up on the cast wall of the mausoleum. One local legend runs that the man was killed by Sultan Sanjar, to prevent him from designing another building to rival the beauty of this one. The cenotaph on the floor of the mausoleum was a 19th-century addition, and is not the tomb of Sultan Sanjar.

The construction of the mausoleum pre-dated Sultan Sanjar's death in 1157. The building would have originally stood, not in its current isolation, but as part of a complex of religious buildings, including the city's main mosque. The reconstructed bases of the walls of some of these structures surround the mausoleum.

At the site of ancient Merv, no such preservation had taken place. I had never seen such devastation as this, with only the occasional ruin standing to draw attention to the levelling that had generally occurred. The most exciting of these was the mausoleum of the Seljuk ruler, Sultan Mu'izz ad Din Sanjar, who died in 1157. Evgeni and I inspected it in the company of a woman from the museum in Mary, who was in charge of the restoration work being carried out on the building. The tomb had been enclosed within a huge brick cube from which rose an arched gallery and, above that, the drum of a double dome whose outer skin had once consisted of turquoise tiles so vivid that the mausoleum was visible to travellers a full day's journey across the desert from Merv. The tiles had long since vanished, and so had much else, but the restorers had repaired the cube's outer wall and the gallery above, until these were approximately in their original condition. A panel had been uncovered in the course of their work and hidden behind it was the name of the architect, 'Muhammad orphan from Sarakhs'. The archaeologists who went ahead of the restorers had also discovered that the foundations of the building had been sunk in the form of an inverted pyramid about forty-five feet deep, which they thought was done in order to minimise the effect of earthquakes, always a hazard hereabouts. As the orphaned Muhammad left it eight hundred years ago, this would have been a most handsome building as well as a sophisticated one. The Seljuk bricklayers would have been at work at the same time as master masons were starting to raise the cathedrals at Ripon in England, and at Notre Dame in Paris; and these Gothic marvels had not only survived to our own day in spite of revolutions and wars, but still functioned in the manner of their origins. In Asia the small masterpiece had virtually been destroyed long ago, its skeleton completely abandoned until now.

Nothing else in this wasteland had weathered the centuries even to that extent; and if it had not been for the restorations there would have been nothing at all to connect it to the present day. Historians are maddeningly vague about the shifting of Merv from its ancient site to another position several miles away, where modern Mary now is. But I had little doubt that I was contemplating the result of conquest by Genghiz Khan and his Mongolian hordes; though it was, in fact, the khan's youngest son Tolui who led the attack on Merv in February 1221, for the father was wintering near Balkh, over the mountains in Afghanistan.

Tolui brought his troops to the outskirts of the city and for six days made his preparations to besiege the walls with mighty catapults, mangonels and other appliances that the Mongols had copied from the Chinese. The Governor of Merv and its citizens remained defiant while the besiegers made ready; but on the seventh day, when Tolui gave the order to storm the city, the Governor's courage left him. He offered to surrender Merv if its people were spared, and Tolui accepted this. The gates were opened and the citizenry were driven out to where the Mongolian army awaited them, its soldiers under orders to behead between 300 and 400 victims apiece. Some artisans were spared for transportation to Mongolia and a life of slavery. Otherwise, everyone who could not escape was put to death. Some sources count the death toll as low as 500,000, others as high as a million, but all agree that this was one of history's most dreadful massacres. Sultan Sanjar's tomb was plundered and the adjacent mosque set on fire, as were the other buildings in the city, while its irrigation system was wrecked, effectively beyond repair. Then Tolui and his troops withdrew, laden with booty.

That some inhabitants had survived the initial horror is confirmed by what happened next. After making quite sure that the horde had gone, people crept back into the ruins, where they probably stood incapable of anything but dazed incredulity at what they found. That's when Tolui's army returned and killed all who had escaped their first onslaught. It was an old ruse of Genghiz Khan's, and it never failed. After it had succeeded yet again, there was only a shocking wreckage left of what had lately been the second city in the world. The geographer Yaqut ibn Abdullah, who had spent many months studying in Merv's libraries some three years before these events, and afterwards visited the scene of the carnage, wrote that its splendid palaces and other buildings "were effaced from the earth as lines of writing are effaced from paper, and these abodes became a dwelling for the owl and the raven", fust over a century later, the great Arab traveller Ibn Battuta passed this way and confirmed that Merv, like Balkh, lay in ruins.

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse

Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar