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State Historical and Cultural Park 'Ancient Merv'

Turkmenistan
The city of Merv has a long history and has existed in some form for millennia. It's been the capital of empires and is said by some historians to have been the world's biggest city at one point. Its ancient monuments are some of the best-preserved on the Silk Road, while the medieval fortresses were once the centre of culture and science in the region. There was a time when Merv attracted mathematicians, philosophers, and poets from across the world - now it's travellers who come here to admire the remarkable heritage and architecture.

History of Merv

State Historical and Cultural Park 'Ancient Merv' was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999. Merv was nominated according to two criteria. The city has left an important footprint on the region's history. The ancient and medieval cities of Merv oasis greatly influenced the cultures of Central Asia and Iran for at least four millennia.

The history of this large city and the capital of the region counts back more than two thousand five hundred years. Merv, like Bagdad, Cairo, or Damascus was one of the most important capitals of the Islamic world. The height of its influence as a city was during the 11th-12th centuries, the period of Great Turkmens-Seljucks’ governing. Their empire spread from the lower reaches of the Amu Darya to the Mediterranean. Seljucks’ Merv was one of the finest cities of the time. This city emerged on the fertile soil of the Murgap River’s oasis. Geographer Yakut, who lived in Merv for three years during the 13th century described his impressions, stating “But for the Mongols, I would live and die in this city. I could hardly tear myself from this place." Merv attracted scientists and traders from the whole Islamic world. In 1221, Mongol hordes raided almost all the cities of Central Asia, Merv among them, and burned down priceless book depositories in the city. The city was never able to fully recover to the height of its past influence, but daily life still persisted.

Merv is the system of ancient settlements located near the riverbed of the Murgap River, the currents of which constantly shifted from the East to the West. Because of this, Merv was often described as the “traveling city” or “the city of the drifting river." As time passed, these ancient settlements were abandoned and became unique “timekeepers” which have been represented on the ground for many generations. The Huge Seljuk city of Gyaur-Kala was built next to the earlier ancient settlements. The area of Gyaur-Kala was 400 hectares and served as the capital of the region and military base station from the 6th century BC until the period when it became a part of Seljuk city now called Sultan. Ruins of these ancient cities occupy more than 1000 hectares, including late medieval Merv (Abdulla-khan-Kala and Bairamali-khan-Kala), as well as a great number of other important historical monuments, such as sultan Sandjar’s mausoleum. Given the regional and international history and importance of these ruins, all these ancient cities were taken under the control of the government of Turkmenistan and formed the basis of the State historical-cultural “Ancient Merv” reservation.

Main Sites

Erk Kala

Erk Kala is one of the most outstanding fortresses in the world due to its age and preservation. The settlement of this fortress dates back to the 6th century BC. The fact that it is still standing after thousands of years is proof of advanced construction techniques. It occupies an area of around 20ha and consists of a thick wall that goes up to 34 metres high. It is a truly impressive and monumental structure. Just a quick walk around the building would take approximately thirty minutes. Visitors should save some time to be able to appreciate this site in its full glory before moving on to the next stop.

Gyaur Kala

Kala, this part of the Ancient Merv is a walled square city surrounded by 2km of walls. Inside these walls, visitors will find the remains of what is thought to be an old mosque, a monastery, and cisterns. The name Gyaur-Kala means "fortress of the infidels", that is, non-Muslims. Indeed, before the conquest of Merv by the Arabs, the religion of fire worshipers - Zoroastrianism, as well as large communities of Buddhists and Christians, dominated here. Gyaur-Kala was located at the crossroads of trade routes, not far from the northern routes of the Great Silk Road, where rich caravans passed through the settlement all year round. Archaeologists have found Buddha statues, clay tablets, and stupas here. The remains of an artisan-metal worker's house workshop, as well as a quarter of flour millers of the 3rd century AD have been excavated near the remains of the castle and religious buildings. Remains of the first Friday mosque were also discovered. The city was completely abandoned after being destroyed by the Mongols around 1221.

Sultan Kala

In the XI-XII centuries. Merv was surrounded by a high fortress wall and a moat. The resulting fenced area is called Sultan-Kala - "the fortress of the sultans." In its northeastern part, there was a citadel-Shahriar-Ark, which housed palace buildings, servants' dwellings, administrative buildings, and military garrison barracks. This is the best-preserved construction of the archaeological site and it's still possible to see the intricate artwork that covers the walls of Sultan Kala’s mosque. This is where, around the 11th century, Merv saw its glory becoming one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Abdullah Khan Kala and Bairam-Ali-Khan-Kala

They are the newest fortifications of Merv of the post-medieval period. Abdullah Khan Kala is located 1 km from Sultan Kala and was built by Shah Rukh in 1409. At present, one can still see the detailed construction of the walls from the Timurid period. Later, the territory of the city expanded, and around the 18th century, a fortress was added to the western wall, which became known as Bairam-Ali-Khan-Kala. It was one of the last settlements in Ancient Merv and was inhabited until Merv was completely abandoned around the 1800s.

The Great Kyz Kala and Lesser Gyz Kala

The Great Kyz Kala dates from the 6th century to around the 12th century. It is believed that the fortification served as home to someone important in Merv’s public life. Unlike other adobe monuments of Merv, this semi-fortified castle with outer defensive walls has been attracting the attention of researchers for more than a century. Impressive and today powerful corrugated walls have been preserved to a height of up to 15 meters. Recent work at the Great Kyz-Kala, the largest surviving monumental keshk in Central Asia, has provided more detailed information on construction and use. Excavations show that this complex was built in the 8th-9th century AD. with well-equipped rooms on the second floor, including a large hall, as well as functional rooms and storage areas around the courtyard on the lower floor. The complex was located within an enclosure containing gardens and possibly ancillary buildings. This particular keshk may have served as an elite luxury country residence, perhaps for the governor of Merv.

The Great Kyz Kala castle
The Great Kyz Kala castle


How to get there

The easiest way to get to Merv is to fly directly to Mary from Ashgabat. From there, you can easily find different types of tours that will take you to Merv. Visitors in Turkmenistan might find it hard to use public transport or arrange transportation on their own, making tours and private transfers a popular and simpler choice when planning this trip.

How to Visit

The main areas of Merv are Erk Kala, Gyaur Kala, Sultan Kala and Abdullah Khan Kala. Because they're spread across a large distance, a full day is recommended to visit them all and you may find it easiest to take a tour. Mary is the biggest city near the site, about 30km from Merv, and tours leave regularly. Basing yourself in Mary is also convenient because it has a number of hotels and restaurants.

At an oasis in the arid landscape of Turkmenistan, the monuments of Merv rise up between tufts of green grass, forming markers to trace more than four thousand years of history. Different eras built their cities in slightly different locations, and you'll need transportation to get between them all. The enormous 7th-century fortress of Kyz Kala built with adjoining columns is particularly impressive, as is the restored Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. But as you explore the sands of time, you'll also find yourself walking in the foundations of vast settlements.

Erk Kala's massive fortress
Erk Kala's massive fortress

At an oasis in the arid landscape of Turkmenistan, the monuments of Merv rise up between tufts of green grass, forming markers to trace more than four thousand years of history. Different eras built their cities in slightly different locations, and you'll need transportation to get between them all. The enormous 7th-century fortress of Kyz Kala built with adjoining columns is particularly impressive, as is the restored Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. But as you explore the sands of time, you'll also find yourself walking in the foundations of vast settlements.

Sights and Attractions recommended by the locals

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

Visit

State Historical and Cultural Park 'Ancient Merv'

Hours

The best time to visit Merv and its ruins is during March to April and October to November. During the summer, or around June to August, the heat and dryness intensifies, which can be a problem for some visitors.

Pricing

Entrance fee – 6$
Excursion – 6$
Allowance for photo – 3$
Allowance for video – 6$