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Parthian Fortresses of Nisa

The Bagyr neighborhood near Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Turkmenistan
The Parthian Empire was one of the most influential civilisations of the ancient world and a brilliant rival of Rome, which was able to resist the expansion of the European empires. At its peak, the Parthian Empire stretched from Turkey to Afghanistan, and one of its most important capitals was in Nisa. Situated at the crossroads of commerce and power, it was a grand city full of opulent architecture, including a citadel, a treasury, and a temple. While much of it is still to be excavated, the archaeological site of Nisa is a fascinating insight into the powerful Parthian Empire.

As the Roman Empire rose, it seemed as though little could stand in its way as its great armies expanded its territory in every direction. But to the east, there was a civilisation powerful enough to be unconquerable by mighty Rome: the Parthian Empire, which emerged in the middle of the 3rd century BCE and would rule over much of the region until 224 CE. While resisting the Romans, it expanded its domain to cover all of modern Iran and Iraq and parts of Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

One of the most important capitals of the Parthian Empire was Nisa, in the south of today’s Turkmenistan. Situated at the crossroads of important commercial and strategic axes, Nisa was a major trading hub that dominated this region of Central Asia. It also served as an important communication and cultural centre between east and west and north and south. It grew into a lavish city full of religious and political monuments. While the residents of Nisa lived in dwellings around the city, a great citadel was built for the rulers.

Today, the Parthian Fortresses of Nisa consist of two large artificial hills covering ancient ruins, known as Old and New Nisa, indicating the sites of two different stages of the city's development. They conserve the remains of the ancient civilization, much of which is still to be excavated. We do know that Old Nisa once contained a fortress with 43 towers, a royal palace and some temples. Today there are mounds, broken up by excavation pits, and the mud-brick remains of two Zoroastrian temples, kitchens, and a treasury, a courtyard house with a wine cellar and circular chamber believed to have been a ritual site of a Zoroastrian temple. Artifacts unearthed at the site are now in the Turkmenistan National Museum.

History & Today

Visiting the site gives you a fascinating insight into the powerful history of Nisa and the Parthian Empire more broadly. The city is an outstanding symbol of the significance of this imperial power and the archaeological remains illustrate the significant interaction of cultural influences from Central Asia and from the Mediterranean world.

The architecture of Parthian Nisa is comparable to other complexes of the same period, with square buildings surrounded by corridors, courtyard buildings, and a round hall. However, a detailed study of the remains reveals specific combinations of architectural styles, with the wide use of Hellenistic elements, such as the ancient Greek architectural order system, and the inclusion of classic sculptural elements. The royal fortress-city of Old Nisa comprised palaces, temples and tombs.

Archaeological work in the two main parts of Nisa has revealed richly decorated architecture illustrative of domestic, state and religious functions. As you explore the site, you'll be able to see the foundations of the buildings that have been excavated and walk in the same rooms as the rulers of the Parthian Empire two millennia ago. Much of this ancient city is still underground, waiting to reveal its mysteries, but we have already made significant discoveries. Many of the items found here show influences from Ancient Rome and Greece, demonstrating the significant cultural exchange that took place here from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.

Objects found in Old Nisa also depict the exposure of this empire to other Oriental and Western cultures. The antique art of Turkmenistan, which reached a high degree of sophistication during the Parthian empire period, reveals the complex intermixing of different world cultures in this area. At the crossroads of history, the art found here merged the best features of ancient local traditions with Hellenistic and Roman influences.

With its tell surrounded by high defensive earthen ramparts and its impressive palace complex, the ancient Parthian city of Old Nisa is one of Turkmenistan’s most significant cultural sites. Low development and use over the years have helped to preserve the site. Two notable hills enclosed by defensive ramparts are still independently visible, and the antique cultural landscape marked by the massive piedmont of the Kopet Dag has not changed fundamentally since the Parthian period.

Parts of Nisa Complex

The Structure with a Round Temple is square in plan and surrounded by corridors, with a round hall inside of 17 metres diameter. Its walls tilt inwards, a distinctive feature discovered during the most recent excavation.

Archaeologists have also only recently discovered the Red Structure in the northwestern part of the South Complex. It is also a square hall with four columns, surrounded by elongated rectangular rooms. The structure’s northeast façade takes the shape of a wide columned portico (iwan), of which its socle part is covered with a painted stone slab architectural treatment. It gets its name from its many painted red plaster walls.

The Tower-shaped Structure undoubtedly dominated the entire complex and was at least 15 metres high. Its façades were decorated architectural forms (notably Corinthian pilasters made of fired brick) and polychromatic wall paintings featuring battle scenes, as evidenced by the remaining fragments. The specific function of the Tower-shaped Structure has not been established; it is a monolithic square in plan and made of adobe bricks, encircled by two rows of corridors.

The southeast and northeast corners of the structure consist of large projecting rectangular towers. There was possibly a similar tower in the northwest corner of the structure, but this has not been archaeologically confirmed. Adjacent to the structure’s southeast corner is the huge square of the above-mentioned Structure with a Round Hall. The entrance to the Tower-shaped Structure was located in the northern façade and was decorated with a columned portico facing the site’s central square.

Also facing this square was the façade of the Structure with a Square Hall, which stood adjacent to the northeast corner of the Tower-shaped Structure. The façade was divided equally with stepped pillars. The square hall had three entrances, two of them on either side of a wider and higher central one. The ceiling of the square hall was about 20 metres long and was supported by four massive four-lobed columns of fired molded brick (the complex of this structure also had three-lobed columns; the plinth of one of them was excavated in the adjacent chamber). The interior walls of the square hall were decorated with semi-circular pillars. The second tier, at three metres high, had painted clay sculptures of people larger than life-size between its columns. On the opposite wall of the hall there was a passage to a small chamber with three doorways. Two that were opposite each other led to side chambers and the third one led outside, most likely to a balcony or a terrace. Excavations at this location found many architectural decorative elements including acanthus, ornamented veneers, parapet merlons and other terracotta elements widely used to decorate façades and interiors. The passage in the northern wall leads to a corridor-like room 3,2-m long, with its walls coated with red plaster to 1,5 m, above which they were plastered in white alabaster. The red and white sections were bordered by two black stripes with a white stripe in between.

The Northeast Structure stands immediately adjacent to the Structure with a Square Hall and comprises two large courtyards, three porticos with colonnades (one at the entrance and two inside) and several auxiliary rooms. This is the least explored and least-preserved part of the central complex of Old Nisa. It is commonly described as a palace or as a special dining facility that was used for ritual feasts.

The central complex is also likely to include the recently discovered Southwest Structure. According to research, it was an auxiliary facility that was located adjacent to the temples and was used to service them. In the middle, it had a large open courtyard surrounded by multiple narrow rooms, including a food storage area, a kitchen and small workshops. This is evidenced by the presence of huge ceramic vessels (hums) that were used for storing liquids or grains. Many ceramic architecture artefacts were found here, including tiles used for roofing and metopes, decorative panels with relief paintings, which were used to decorate temple façades and interiors.

The North Complex of Old Nisa includes a wine vault and a large square structure surrounded by a number of auxiliary buildings. The design of this structure reflects local architectural and planning traditions that date to the late Bronze Age. The main feature of the complex is a large atrium with walls oriented to the cardinal directions. Along the atrium’s perimeter, there are elongated rooms with doorways in between. In the centres of these rooms, there were rows of columns that supported the ceilings. In the courtyard there were columns as well, along the walls, that formed a typical iwan.

The only entrance to the enclosed courtyard was located on its southern side. Many of the doorways were carefully walled up and the rooms were turned into royal storerooms over the course of the complex’s existence. This is where archaeological excavations uncovered many beautiful ivory rhyton, drinking containers often in the shape of an animal head, well known across the world as masterpieces of Parthian art. The wine vault (madustan, in ancient Parthian) found nearby contained one of the most remarkable discoveries at Nisa. Here, archaeologists found more than 2750 ceramic ostraca with Parthian inscriptions – the world’s largest collection of Parthian written artefacts. They are now fully translated and published.

How to get there

If you are on a tourist visa, you will most likely be traveling in a 4×4 with your tour guide while visiting Turkmenistan. Nisa is situated 12 km to the southwest of Ashgabat (the current capital of Turkmenistan), an approximately 20–30 minute drive. The site is open daily from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm.

Ashgabat is the only city with international flights in and out of Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan Airlines still does not use online booking, so if you are flying with them you must buy your tickets through an agent.

For independent travelers without their own means of transport, this leaves the train or a (shared) taxi. Some buses also exist. All three are inexpensive and relatively comfortable ways of getting around Turkmenistan. Minibuses and taxis leave when full, while large buses leave according to a timetable.

In cities, cabs or buses will take you around. Winter has little effect on the transport system in Turkmenistan.

Entrance fee – $6
Excursion fee – $6
Permit for taking photos – $3
Permit for filming– $6

Archaeological work in the two main parts of Nisa has revealed richly decorated architecture, illustrative of domestic, state and religious functions. As you explore the site, you'll be able to see the foundations of the buildings that have been excavated and walk in the same rooms as the rulers of the Parthian Empire two millennia ago. Much of this ancient city is still underground, waiting to reveal its mysteries, but we have already discovered so much. Many of the items found here show the influences from Ancient Rome and Greece, demonstrating the significant cultural exchange that took place here from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.

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Many World Heritage sites are temporarily closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Please check official websites for more information.

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Parthian Fortresses of Nisa