Merv and Mary

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The next morning Merv was our destination. The ruins at Merv turned out to be that - just "ruins" - with very little semblance of having ever been a city. But what you come here for is to see what was the site of one of the greatest cites on Earth. Everything has gone now, and just banks of earth remain from the vast city walls. Plus a couple of restored buildings. The oil money that the Turkmen President has ploughed into the white marbles buildings of Ashgabat, has not reached Merv. The site needs money spent to stop further crumbling of what is left.

Merv is on the southern edge of the Karakum Desert, on the banks of the Murghab River. The site of one of the greatest cities to ever grace the trading routes of Central Asia. Though not as colourful architecturally as other Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan (Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand), Merv is still a very impressive site. It spreads across 100 square kilometres of desert, today a ghostly echo of its former glory. Situated at a major crossroads of the Great Silk Road – where caravans would head west to Khiva, north to Bukhara, east to Balkh and south to Herat – Merv dates back to the time of Alexander the Great and was a melting pot of religion and culture.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage. The city rose to prominence under the Sassanians and the Seljuk Turks and during the 11th and 12th centuries it rivaled even Baghdad in importance, being known as Marv-i-shah-jahan (Merv, Queen of the World). Its end though was swift and bloody when, in 1221, the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan swept onto the desert plains. The city refused to pay tribute and in an act of savagery that was extreme even by Mongol standards, the entire city of nearly one million people was put to the sword. The Persian historian Juvayni, writing a generation after the destruction of Merv, wrote β€œThe Mongols ordered that, apart from four hundred artisans. .., the whole population, including the women and children, should be killed, and no one, whether woman or man, be spared. To each [Mongol soldier] was allotted the execution of three or four hundred Persians. So many had been killed by nightfall that the mountains became hillocks, and the plain was soaked with the blood of the mighty.” Excavations revealed drastic rebuilding of the city's fortifications in the aftermath, but the prosperity of the city was over. The Mongol invasion was to spell the end for Merv and indeed other major centres for more than a century. In the early part of the 14th century, the town was made the seat of a Christian archbishopric of the Eastern Church. By 1380 Merv belonged to the empire of Timur (Tamerlane).

Merv was passed to Khanate of Khiva in 1823. Sir Alexander Burnes traversed the country in 1832. About this time, the Tekke Turkomans, then living on the Tejen River, were forced by the Persians to migrate northward. Khiva contested the advance of the Tekkes, but ultimately, about 1856, the latter became the sovereign power in the country, and remained so until the Russians occupied the oasis in 1884. By 1868 the Russians had taken most of Russian Central Asia except Turkmenistan. They approached this area from the Caspian and in 1881 captured Geok Tepe. Merv was taken bloodlessly by a man named Alikhanov. He was a Muslim from the Caucasus and a lieutenant in the Russian Army. In 1882 he entered Merv claiming to be a Russian merchant and negotiated a trade agreement. Meanwhile Russian agents had used a mixture of bribes and threats to develop a pro-Russian party in the area. The Russians occupied the oasis of Tejend eighty miles to the west. In 1884 Alikhanov entered Merv in the uniform of a Russian officer along with a number of Turkoman notables who had already submitted. He claimed that the troops at Tejend were the spearhead of a larger force and that local autonomy would be respected. Seeing no hope of support from Persia or Britain, the elders submitted. The next Russian move was south toward Herat.

A force of the British Indian Army consisting of a machine gun detachment, 40 Punjabi troops and a British officer resisted the Bolsheviks near Merv in August 1918 in what was the first direct confrontation between British and Russian troops since the Crimean War.

The oasis is irrigated by an elaborate system of canals cut from the Murghab. Note that this area is in fact the delta of the Murghab River, which flows and disappears into the Karakum Desert at this point. The country has at all times been renowned throughout the East for its fertility. Every kind of cereal and many fruits grow in great abundance, e.g. wheat, millet, barley and melons, also rice and cotton. Cotton seeds from archaeological levels as far back as the 5th century are the first indication that cotton textiles were already an important economic component of the Sassanian city. Silkworms have been bred. The Turkomans possess a famous breed of horses and keep camels, sheep, cattle, asses and mules. Turkomans are excellent workers in silver and noted as armourers. One of the discoveries of the 1990s excavations was a 9th- to 10th-century workshop where crucible steel was being produced, confirming in detail contemporary Islamic reports: a major achievement in the history of technology. Carpets from the region of Merv are sometimes considered superior to the Persian. They also make felts and a rough cloth of sheep's wool.

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After wandering round Merv we headed back towards Mary, stopping for lunch - kebabs and Plov, which in one form or another were our staple diet throughout the trip. Mary was developed by the Soviet Union as a centre for cotton production through the use of extensive irrigation. In 1968, huge reserves of natural gas were discovered 20 kilometres west of the city. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the proclamation of independence of Turkmenistan, in May 18, 1992 Mary became the centre of Mary Province.

Next morning we went on to the Mary Museum of History, whose collection of relics encompass over 5000 years of history and include artifacts from ancient Merv, along with a collection of Turkmen carpets.

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Mary Museum
Russian Church
Local Market
Dinner by the river .. .. was a barbecue with kebabs

The museum was founded in 1968 as Mary Historical and Revolutionary Museum. The new building was built in 2010. The cost of the building - $18 million. Museum is located in the large two-story building of white marble and granite colour. The museum consists of the central and lateral facade and ground floor. The museum has about forty thousand exhibits including oriental miniatures, tapestries, drawings, ceramics and sculptures, ancient traditional clothes, Turkmen carpets, jewellry, silverware, utensils, musical instruments, ancient weapons, ancient manuscripts, documents on the history of the region, all kinds of flora and fauna of Mary Province. In the hall is a collection of archaeological finds, most of which are artifacts of the ancient Margu.

Next morning we were on the road from Mary to the Iranian border, and from thence to Mashhad

On to Mashhad

Silk Route Holiday 2013