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If you seek the true definition of a ruin, then look no further than the mysterious land of Dekhistan, once a thriving Silk Road state whose grand capital Misrian rivalled Merv and Konye-Urgench. Dekhistan Oasis is the most important archaeological site of Balkan Region, was inhabited for some 3,000 years, from the end of the 3rd millennium bc until the early 15th century. From the 9th century, its capital was the city of Misrian, which covered an area of some 200ha and was sustained by an extensive irrigation system. Misrian reached its peak under the Khorezmshahs, when it was an important centre along the Silk Route from Khorezm to the Caspian region of northern Iran and on to the Arabian Peninsula. Misrian was sacked by the Mongols, but managed to re-establish itself, only to be abandoned altogether around the start of the 15th century, probably due to the decline of its irrigation system, perhaps linked to excessive deforestation of the nearby slopes of the Kopet Dag. Scientists confirm that the region suffered an ecological catastrophe sometime in the 15th century. The forests of the Kopet Dag to the east had been exploited for centuries until the water supply failed for some reason and the well-watered slopes finally became a barren, deeply eroded lunar landscape, one that still dominates the region today. The names of villages such as Bugdayly ('Wheat Filled') hint at earlier agricultural riches, but there is now sand where once wheat grew.

Dekhistan lies deep in the barren mudflats south of Balkanabat, midway between the tumbledown villages of Bugdayly and Madau. Dekhistan is not really on the road to anywhere, and the easiest way to see the place is to book a one-day visit from Balkanabat through Balkansyyahat or one of the travel agencies in Ashgabat. Unless you have your own vehicle, Dekhistan is difficult to get to, and even if you do, you’ll need a guide. Public transport is nonexistent, and although you should be able to get a taxi from Balkanabat, bear in mind that very few locals even know of the site’s existence. From Gumdag, take the road south through Bugdayly. On the road south of Bugdayly there’s a single green marker pointing you off road (there’s nothing written on it) – from here, in good weather, you should be able to see the minaret towers around 6km away. In dry weather you can make this trip in a normal car with no problems, but a 4WD is needed if there’s been any recent rain, and after heavy rains Dekhistan is all but unreachable in any vehicle. The track takes you southeastwards across large expanses of hard, flat takyr, over which it is possible to maintain a reasonable speed in dry weather. The archaeological site of Misrian is visible to the south of the track, some 28km from the main road. The mausolea of Mashat lie just to the north of the track, at the foot of some gently sloping ground at the edge of the plain.

Not much remains on the 200-hectare site of Misrian, apart from two truncated 20m-high minarets from the 11th and 13th centuries, and the decorated remains of a portal that once stood before the Mosque of the Khorezmshah Mohammed.

The city of Misrian was protected by a double row of walls, punctuated by semicircular towers. Within these walls, only a few monuments survive. One of the most attractive comprises the two sides of the portal of the Mosque of the Khorezmshah Mohammed. These twin columns, reaching a height of 18m, are beautifully decorated with brickwork and turquoise glaze in fine geometrical and floral designs, with calligraphic work identifying the names of the architects and the Khorezmshah, who ruled at the start of the 13th century. The area around the mosque has been excavated and restored, presenting numerous fired-brick column bases both in the mosque and surrounding the courtyard in front. A somewhat incongruous sight in the centre of the courtyard is the presence of three evergreen trees, surrounded by a metal fence. An inscription reports that the trees were planted in 1993 on the instruction of the president. In the corner of the courtyard stands the remains of a minaret, now reaching a height of around 20m, and with a diameter of 7m at the base.

This minaret appears something of an ugly duckling when compared with the Abu-Jafar Ahmed Minaret, which stands about 120m away, and is preserved to a similar height. This minaret features two rings of Arabic inscriptions, a third, higher, ring offering pleasant geometric designs, and a spiral staircase snaking up inside the structure. The inscriptions confirm that this minaret is considerably older than that of the Mosque of the Khorezmshah Mohammed, and was built at the start of the 11th century on the design of an architect named Abu Bini Ziyad. A trench dug by archaeologists nearby has uncovered a fired-brick well. A ghoulishly large quantity of bones protrude from the trench walls.

Rudimentary excavations here have also revealed the remains of several caravanserais that once served the Silk Road traders, testimony to the importance of the trade routes on which Misrian stood. The entire site is littered with porcelain, coins and other fragments of life at the time of the city’s collapse. If you’re an archaeologist looking for your life’s work, this Klondike of unearthed treasure is worth considering. Much of the city is literally buried in sand, clay and mud with dune-like lumps that were once houses lying all over the place, while the city walls have been reduced to giant verges surrounding the site. Inside the citadel a small section of the city has been excavated, revealing what is thought to have been a medressa.

You can climb both minarets for good views of the city’s layout, though this is a guano-intensive experience. The cemetery, 7km north of Dekhistan at Mashat, features five semi-ruined mausoleums, including the Shir-Kabir Mosque-Mausoleum, the earliest mosque in the country, being slowly restored and excavated. Circular or octagonal in plan, and all mausoleums now lacking their domes, these date from the 11th or 12th centuries. They have notably deteriorated as compared with photographs taken at the site during the Soviet period. In the 19th century there were reportedly around 20 mausolea here, most long disintegrated.

The most important monument at Mashat lies on a mound, off of this line of mausolea. This is the Shir Kabir Mosque-Mausoleum. This dates from the 9th or 10th centuries, making it the oldest surviving mosque in Turkmenistan, though it has been restored and extended several times. Its interior is square in plan, with a domed roof. There are three niches in each wall, with the mihrab at the centre of the southern wall. This is a beautiful feature, comprising three arched recesses, one inside the other. It is intricately carved with Arabic inscriptions and swirling, floral designs. The mihrab has been boarded up for protection, but gaps between the boards offer a reasonably good view of the decoration. A carved panel in the central niche on the eastern wall is another riot of inscriptions and geometric designs. Above this lower line of niches, and immediately below the dome, arc four squinches, separated by niches. The interior of the building is full of scaffolding poles, from which hang strips of cloth, marking wishes made at the site, some fashioned into elaborate cloth cribs, making clear the nature of the wishes.