Located near present-day Mary in Turkmenistan, the Merv oasis is one of the most important archeological sites on the old Silk Road. Founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century, the “Queen of the World” was once reputedly the largest city in the world before a Mongol invasion ended her reign in the 13th century.
Mary is the new city founded by the Russians when they conquered Turkmenistan in the 19th century, close to the pile of stones they found a few kilometers away. You should check out the regional museum here before you go to the site. It has a good collection of artifacts from the archeological digs at Merv and Gonur, scale models and a collection of carpets and other ethnological stuff. Cost is 1$, closed on Sundays. Their English-language book Ancient Merv contains all you need to know about the place.
Visiting the Merv oasis
After reading the beautiful words in the guidebook, some travellers complain that there isn’t much to see at Merv. We understand; if you’re not a history buff and your imagination isn’t sparked by ruins, then it is just another pile of bricks (be it a very large, historically important pile of bricks!). Don’t go if you recognise yourself in this.
For the others, the ruins at Merv are a visual guide to 4000 years of history, 5 civilizations and a poignant reminder of the ephemeral nature of our own society. The fact that, besides Sultan Sanjar, there has been no restoration like in Uzbekistan makes this the most pure of all Silk Road sights.
First off, come early. It will be less hot if you come in summer, and a morning mist illuminated by a glowing desert sunset makes for a memorable introduction to the lost city.
At 20m high, the round adobe wall of the fortress of Erk Kala is the biggest and most impressive of the remains at Merv. It was built by the Achaemenids and represents the oldest of all remains.
Giaur Kala was the next, considerably bigger city at Merv. Using Erk Kala as its northern fort, it was built by the Sassanids and gained interesting additions from every future master of the city. Here the crossroads of civilizations tagline that defines the Silk Road comes into its own, with a mosque placed in front of the fort sharing space with a Buddhist stupa and the outlines of a monastery in the southeastern corner.
West of the old water channel, closer to the entrance, stands what is left of Sultan Kala, the capital of the Seljuk people. The Shahriyar ark in the northeast holds the palace and the fort of the Seljuks, while in the centre of Sultan Kala the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar has been standing for the past 900 years. Outside of the fortifications of Sultan Kala are the remains of 3 more forts: Kyz Bibi, Great Kyz Kala and Little Kyz Kala. Another intriguing feature are the 4 icehouses that kept winter ice cold for use during the summer, predating the fridge by a 1000 years!
Mausoleum of Mohammed Ibn Zaid
Before the entrance to Sultan Kala the mausoleum of Mohammed Ibn Zaid offers a holy space in wonderful leafy surroundings. Ribbons are tied to the trees by Turkmen women who wish to have children – if they succeed, they must come back every year and offer a sheep. Not so Islamic if you ask me!
Bronze age and Iron Age settlements
The Merv oasis has been settled for around 4000 years. Archeologists and people looking for a reason to go way off the beaten path might be lured by the ancient settlements in the surrounding area. Gonur Depe is the biggest one, with as its main point of interest excavated fire temples that predate Zoroaster himself. From a scientific point of view, Gonur Depe is a very important location. Contact the museum or your tour operator if you are interested, it’s 80km away from Mary along a bumpy road. A documentary called Black Sands was produced in 2010 about the archeological digs. You can watch the trailer.
How to get there
You can get to Mary by train, airplane, or road transport. Once in Mary, you have 3 possibilities. One is to visit the museum and ask them to guide you. The other is to rent a taxi for the day (20$?) and drive around the site (entrance: 2$) yourself. The second option will be of course cheaper, but don’t expect the taxi driver to know anything besides pushing the gas pedal. The major parts are signposted, though. The third option is that you are taking a tour of Turkmenistan. In that case things will be arranged for you.
Trying to walk the site is a bold plan, but it is really far too big to even consider. The total space is about 80 ha. Cycling is possibly an option, if you can stand the heat.
Since Merv is one of the main tourist attractions in Turkmenistan, all tour companies go here. Check out the list of all Turkmenistan tours.
More history and background
Parts of this article are based on The Silk Roads Trailblazer guide by Paul Wilson, a good guide for travellers with a historic interest. For more on the history of Turkmenistan, Merv, the Seljuks, Achaemenids, Sassanids, Parths, Abbasids and Khorezm people, the Ancient Merv project is the ultimate guide. Unesco has a background page as well, and you can see panoramic pictures at Patrimonium Mundi and CyArk.