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Earliest times to the Parthians

The earliest sites of human occupation in Turkmenistan include the caves of Dam Dam Chashma and Jebel along the flanks of the Big Balkan massif in the west, which were inhabited in Mesolithic times. In a series of Neolithic settlements along the piedmont of the Kopet Dag range, pastoralism and the cultivation of wheat and barley were practised as early as the middle of the 6th millennium BC. Known by archaeologists as the Jeitun Culture, these sites include the village of Jeitun itself, the oldest known agricultural settlement in Central Asia.

From the middle of the 3rd millennium Be, larger proto-urban settlements emerged in this piedmont belt. By the middle Bronze Age, sites such as Namazga Depe and Altyn Depe occupied a significant size, contained multi-roomed houses with open courtyards and had clearly defined artisans' quarters. Excavations at Altyn Depe revealed a large ziggurat-like monumental structure. Another area of Bronze Age occupation, the northern part of the Merv Oasis, where the ongoing excavations of archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi continue to yield fascinating treasures, may have been settled by emigrants from the foothills of the Kopet Dag.

Archaeologists have described a period of cultural decay in the piedmont area around the mid-2nd millennium BC, when Altyn Depe and Namazga Depe were abandoned. By the early Iron Age, settlements centred around fortified citadels were dotted around the Kopct Dag piedmont and the Merv Oasis. Another early Iron Age culture had developed in Dekhistan in the southwest of the country, where extensive irrigation systems brought water from the River Etrek.

The first of the major Central Asian empires was that of the Achaemenians, Persians of Zoroastrian faith. The empire, founded by Cyrus the Great, stretched at its height from Egypt to northern India and held sway from around 550-330BC. The settlement of Erk Kala at Merv was founded at this time. The Achaemenian Empire fell to the great conqueror from Macedonia, Alexander the Great. Following Alexander's early death in 323BC, those parts of his territory in present-day Turkmenistan went to Seleucus Nicator, ushering in the Seleucid Dynasty. Merv, then known as Antiochia Margiana, was rebuilt by Seleucus' son, Antiochus I.

While a successor Hellenistic state continued to hold Bactria in present-day Afghanistan, Greek rule in Turkmenistan ended with the arrival of the Parthians around 250BC. The Parthians were highly skilled warriors: the famous Parthian shot was a sting in the tail provided by archers on horseback, who turned round in the saddle to fire back on their opponents whilst riding away from them. In 53BC, at Carrhae in Mesopotamia, the Parthians defeated the Roman General Crassus, whose head and hand were delivered after the battle to the Parthian ruler. Many Roman soldiers taken prisoner at Carrhae were resettled at Merv. The most important Parthian site in Turkmenistan is Nisa.