More than 1,000 years before the foundation of Ancient Merv, the fortress town of Gonur Depe (also referred to as Gonur Tepe) was densely populated. The name Gonur Depe comes from Turkmen meaning Grey Hill. The town dates back to the bronze age and it is believed that it was abandoned due to the natural course change of the Murgab river. It was found buried in 1972 and it remains an active archaeological site with constant work in progress.
During the excavations, archaeologists were able to connect several areas of the town to zoroastrianism. Furthermore, it is believed that the place was not only important for zoroastrianism, but actually its birthplace. The main archaeologist on site, and also Gonur Depe ruin’s finder, Viktor Sarianidi, strongly believes that Gonur was home to Zoroaster himself. The highlight of the site is the necropolis that, until today, displays human remains as well as animal remains that were sacrificed to accompany people in the afterlife. According to archaeologists, lots of aspects about this place remain a mystery. For example, it is speculated that material found on the site were part of immortality drink ceremonies composed of, most probably, hallucinogenic substances.
Even though the site is also an archaeological park, it holds completely different historical importance than Ancient Merv. Though worth it, getting to the site is complicated as it involves riding through unpaved roads. It is recommended for visitors to hire a local guide that can help them through the two hour drive to Gonur Depe. 4x4 vehicles are also a must to arrive at the destination safely.