So I mentioned these photos to someone, and they said “I can’t see them because they’re on your facebook page,” and so I put them up here. I visited Merv, Turkmenistan in 2004. It showed me things I’d never seen before.
In the 12th century Merv was a thriving metropolis, which sometimes hosted the Seljukid emperor. It stood in the heart of Turkish (or Turkmen, if you like) Khorasan, the northeasternmost really legitimate province of the Abode of Peace under Islam (a few hundred miles further east you’d get into Mawarannahr – “what-lies-beyond-the-river,” the abode of border forts and ribats and occasional marauding Sino-Turkic infidels). It had pottery kilns and streets and markets and gardens and even crucible steel production facilities, and it was mostly made out of mud brick. And then in 1220 the Mongols sacked it and slaughtered the population and it never quite bounced back.
700 years later Merv attracted the attention of Soviet archaeologists, who had stories to tell about its rulers and the glories of the past and the superstition of religion. These archaeologists, and a lot of historians of Islamic architecture in the West, got very excited about the mausoleum of the last Great Seljuk emperor worth the name – Sanjar – which was mentioned in contemporary texts and showed great advancement in architecture and engineering and could be fitted into neat narratives of the development of architectural prowess under Islam, and stood pretty much in the center of the city.
They got much less excited about the other buildings of the Merv oasis, because they didn’t know what they were for. They weren’t identified in contemporary texts. And although they were unusual and distinctive and big and numerous, they weren’t remarkable from an engineering standpoint. Over the past 90 years a lot of them have fallen down. Now Merv is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which you’d think would protect what remains, but actually the government of Turkmenistan doesn’t take any very great pains to keep them standing. So here is what they looked like in 2004:
They have names like “palace” and “great Kyz Kala” (something like fortress – probably nothing of the sort) and “little Kyz Kala” and “Citadel” and “dove house” (maybe a library?).
The defensive works were of much clearer interest, because they showed a document of how long Merv’s history as a settlement might stretch back, and how many times it might have been re-fortified. It turns out that an inner city, smaller than the total city area but by no means modest, may have been continuously occupied for about 3000 years, and that its walls had been strengthened by degrees over that time, until they formed a formidable defense indeed. Cutting a road through them displayed many, many successive layers of brickwork:
Now the whole city – something like 12 square kilometers – lies intact in the ground. It’s fallen down, it’s been looted, wild camels crop tamarisk in the shade of mud-dunes that were once city walls – but if you dig anywhere, evidence of the city is just under the surface.