Founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BCE, the “Queen of the World” was once reputedly the largest city in the world before Genghis Khan invaded, destroying the city and killing all but a handful of its 1 million inhabitants.
Merv’s heyday was from the 10th to 12th centuries, when it vied with Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad for the mantle of the greatest city in the world, while becoming a centre of manufacture as well as trade, producing cotton, textiles, potteries, jewellery, copper and silver in its factories.
Omar Khayam assembled his astronomical tables at the large observatory, while a Merv philosopher, Bozorghmer, invented the game of backgammon, which spread along the Silk Road routes.
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.
For around 95% tourists to Turkmenistan, the best itinerary is the central route: Ashgabat – Door to Hell – Konye-Urgench. Unless you are really into archaeology, there is generally no need for you to come this far east.
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.
First off, come early. It will be less hot, and a morning mist illuminated by a glowing desert sunset makes for a memorable introduction to the lost city.
Trying to walk the site is a bold plan, but it is really far too big to even consider. Remember, this was a metropolis where over 1 million people lived. The total surface area is about 80 ha. Cycling is possibly an option, if you can stand the heat.
If you have your own car, you can drive around yourself in the site. Without your own wheels, you can either ask for a guide at the museum, or just pick up a taxi driver from Merv to ferry you around without the explanations.
We’re not sure about the current prices. 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, it’s possible to find your way.
The history of Merv is definitely worthy of a book-length tale, but sadly, Central Asia is not a popular topic, and most writers of popular history continue churning out work on Rome and the Second World War. Until that time, Akhilesh Pillalamari’s recap of the annals of Merv will have to do.
There are also 2 good documentaries, mostly about the digs and the extraordinary finds at Gonur Depe: a French/German one from ARTE called Les royaumes oubliés du Turkménistan (not sure where you can watch it), and an English-language 2010 film called Black Sands. This Russian-language travel segment is more about Merv rather than Gonur Depe.
If you are planning to come this far, invest in a copy of the Far Flung Places guidebook. I could write more about the history as well as the sights, but I would just be paraphrasing Simon, who did an excellent job on Merv. Get his book, it’s not expensive.
Erk Kala and Giaur Kala
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.
Mausoleums and köshk
3 mausoleums offer an insight in the extraordinary bricklaying skill the people of Merv developed over the centuries, on a par with the artisans of Urgench. The mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar is probably the most impressive, with fantastic sonic qualities on the inside to boot.
The two fortified manors, or köshk, both called Kyz Kala, are from an earlier period.
Rather than trying to sound knowledgeable about Islamic architecture, I will just direct you to the relevant articles at Oriental Architecture, who actually know what they are talking about.
- Askhab Mausoleums (15th-16th centuries) Reconstructed iwans and tombs honoring early Islamic converts
- Greater Kyz Kala (7th-12th centuries) The ruins of a fortified manor home, known as a köshk.
- Lesser Kyz Kala (7th-9th centuries) Smaller of two fortified köshk in Merv.
- Muhammad ibn Zayd Mausoleum (c. 1140) Seljuq-period tomb of an 8th century martyr.
- Sultan Sanjar Mausoleum (1140-1170s) Tomb of the Seljuq Empire’s last great sultan.
Another intriguing feature are the 4 ice houses that stored ice collected in winter for use during the summer, offering elites ice cream even in the heat of a Karakum summer.
Thousands of years before Merv rose to prominence as a node on the Silk Road, humans had already settled the area. Gonur Depe was the center of this civilization some 4000 years ago. Discover Magazine has a great article unpacking how Gonur Depe has and still is changing historians’ view on early world history.
The most important finds are in the state history museum in Ashgabat. The dig site is what you would expect from an archaeological dig site. It is 80 km west from Mary along a bumpy road.
Just before approaching Merv you pass through Bayramaly. It’s an interesting place in its own right. In 1887, some 90,000 ha close to the ruins of ancient Merv were designated the Murgab Imperial Estate, and a royal lodge built here for the Tsar.
In time, a small town grew up near the new Bayramaly railway station to serve the estate, and Bayramaly retains the best-preserved tsarist-era centre of any town in Turkmenistan. In the Soviet period, the former royal lodge served as the core of a sanatorium for the treatment of kidney problems.
Another highlight is the Cottonseed Oil museum. Started in 1931 to celebrate the accomplishments of the local factory it has remained, by the look of it, more or less unchanged since then. The exhibits are as mundane as they are extraordinary. It’s next to the Cottonseed oil factory (Gmaps), a block away from the Orthodox church.
Founded by Russians in the 19th century, Mary is a pleasant town, with a mix of Russian colonial architecture, Soviet modernism and post-independence dictator chic. Situated along the banks of the Murgab river that flows down from Afghanistan, the construction of the Karakum canal in Soviet times made Mary a major center for cotton production.
The regional museum (entry 10$) has a good collection of artifacts from the archaeological digs at Merv and Gonur Depe that is worth the price of admission. Get a guide for this bit: it doesn’t cost much, it adds some pocket money to these often well-educated people’s paltry salaries and you will come away with a better understanding, or at least, a translation of the objects’ texts.
Make sure they don’t drag you along for the rest of the exhibition, which is a classic Central Asia regional museum: large spaces filled with stuffed animals, bad dioramas, and pictures of the president being awesome.
Bazaar, mosque and church
As always, the bazaar is a highlight. Take your time to poke around. The main mosque is near the regional museum.
The railway station has been remodeled in Turkmen style and has lost its colonial TransCaspian charm. On the other side of the railway tracks stands the lovely Pokrovskaya orthodox church. You would probably pass it by if you were in Russia, but here in Turkmenistan, it’s worth a look.
Soviet reminders include a rather startling MiG-29 airplane near the Pokrovskaya church (Gmaps) on Seydi street, several statues to Russian war heroes and monuments to the Second World War victory.
Mary is connected by slow train with Ashgabat (7 hours – 6$) and Turkmenabat (3 hours – 4$). There are also daily flights with Ashgabat (15$ – 40 min) and a weekly flight to Turkmenbashy. The roads are decent enough for an average 70 km/h.
Both trains and flights tend to sell out in advance. If they are full, that leaves you with the bus to Ashgabat (8 h) and Turkmenabat (6h). It takes longer than it should, the road has not been upgraded yet. Shared taxis are quicker, you will need to negotiate the price.
Food and drink
Where Ashgabat street crosses the Murghab River, a massive outdoor tandoor operation offers tasty samosa and shashlyk. There is also a vegetarian samosa option. Collect your food and sit by the banks of the river to eat. There are plenty of other cafes, all quite similar in their offering.
You can usually find a party every day of the week until around 11 pm in one of the cafes. The crossroads of Turkmenistan and Mollenepes streets is the heart of the party district (bit of an overstatement), with several discos in the neighbourhood.
If you are on a transit visa and are looking for a really cheap place to stay, see our list of el cheapo Turkmenistan hotel recommendations. Wherever you end up, always try to bargain.
$90 double (incl. breakfast). Located near the centre next to the bazaar (Gmaps) it comes equipped with pool, spa, great (and cheap) massage facilities, and comfortable rooms and beds. Negatives? Breakfast is sad, service is typically poor and disinterested. Wi-fi is slow, only available in the lobby, and needs to be paid separately. But at least you do get a good night’s sleep here.
25$ for a single. Bargain. On Yyllik Kocesi 2 blocks from the train station (Gmaps), Rysgal dates from Soviet times, and it shows, but it’s clean enough for most. Make sure air conditioning works before you fork over your money.
$40 double (incl. breakfast). On the southern edge of Mary, about twenty minutes from the centre by taxi (Gmaps). Mixed reviews, but at least the price is alright.
Near the train station (Gmaps) Sanjar Hotel is not a great option (59$ for a lux room). They have running water only for 2 hours in the morning and another 2 at night. The bathroom was out of some Soviet horror movie. They didn’t let us leave our luggage in the hotel after check out and didn’t help us with calling taxis.
Gowshut Han Kochesi (Gmaps) – $70 double (incl. breakfast)
Central, near the main mosque and museum. It impresses from the outside with its modern visage of glass and metal but inside is a terrible disappointment. Dirty, stained carpets, cigarette burns on the sheets, poor service, and room air conditioning that sounds like a column of tanks passing overhead.
25 Nesimi Kochesi (OSM) – A relaxing place to stay, in a residential area a few blocks south of the town centre. The rooms are clean and give out onto a green central courtyard. None of the rooms has its own washing facilities: there are a total of 3 shower rooms and 1 bathroom, each with a toilet, to serve the place. Single rooms are $25, doubles $40.