The Merv oasis, in the Murghab River delta in present-day Turkmenistan, has held a major metropolis in many empires. At its height, Merv was one of the greatest cities in the world, with a population greater than all but Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley. Its prime location along the Silk Road connected the East and West, making Merv a center of culture and trade. In the last 4000 years, possession of the region has changed hands many times, solidifying the importance of the region in history.
The Merv oasis was first settled during the Bronze Age. Evidence of a major settlement in the Merv region suggests the presence of a large population. Up to 7000 people likely lived in the central settlement, known today as Gonur. Ancient Merv declined after the century 17th century BC, when climates changed and the river irrigation system dried (Keys). Populations gradually began to recover during the 8th century BC.
In 600 BC, the region was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched across central Asia, connecting Turkey and India. The first major city of the oasis, Erk Kala, was built during this time. Almost three hundred years later, Alexander the Great and his armies seized the city. Though it is unlikely that Alexander the Great personally visited the region, the city was temporarily renamed Alexander in homage to him (Cyark). His successor, Antiochus I, chose Merv as the location for the construction of Antiochia Margiana, a massive Greek-styled city that became prosperous as a trading center along the Silk Road. Antiochia Margiana, today known as Gyaur Kala, contained large open spaces, likely used for markets or as “protected campsites for travelling caravans passing along the Silk Road” (Cyark).
During the thirdcentury, the Sassanian dynasty took control of the region. Gyaur Kala became a major regional administrative center for the Sassanid Empire, functioning as strategic military post for various campaigns across Central Asia. Following the decline of the Sassanid Empire, Merv was incorporated to the Arab Umayyad Caliphate centered in Damascus. However, the area quickly became “the epicenter of a political and religious revolution” (Keys). In 748, revolutionary leader Abu Muslim seized power from the Ummayads, co-opting a large portion of Umayyad territory in the process. Muslim built a new city west of Gyaur Kala, the Sultan Kala, which became a major “centre of Muslim scholarship, with many famous libraries” (Cyark).
In the 11th century, Merv was captured by the Seljuk Empire. Under the Seljuk Turks, Merv became the major capital of the eastern empire, with a massive urban population of over 200,000, making it one of the largest cities in the world. The city quickly became a spiritual hub, with diverse religious bodies practicing within the city walls. It would remain religious capital of the empire for over 200 years.
The 13th century marks a dark time in the history of Merv. Following Mongol occupation, the city and surrounding region was required to pay tribute to the Mongol leader Ghengis Khan and his son, Tolui Khan. In 1221, the city refused the high tributary demands, killing the Mongol emissaries instead. In response, Genghis Khan sent troops to Merv and decimated the population, and killed as many as 700,000 inhabitants and devastating the region (Handelman). All thirteen libraries were destroyed, and up to eighty percent of the city was abandoned or destroyed. The Mongols built a small military community near the ruins of Sultan Kala but Merv, as a cultural and religious center ceased to exist. Following the decline of Mongol dominance during the 16th century, the region passed between several groups, continually declining in both size and significance. The destruction of the Soltanbent dam in 1785 permanently altered the course of the Murghab River, which had been essential for the creation of Merv’s oasis.
In the 19th century, the region was incorporated into the territory of Imperial Russia and became part of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (Turkmen SSR) after the Russian revolution. Today, Merv is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its various cities are the source of many archaeological digs. The region possesses an incredibly rich history, which is reflected in Merv’s diverse background.
David Keys, Cities in Dust. (Geographical, Campion Interactive Publishing 0016741X, Aug 2005, Vol. 77, Issue 8).
Stephen Handelman, “Musings on Empires in the Ruins of Merv”, The Toronto Star, (Friday, 3/6/1992).
Cyark Archives. (http://archive.cyark.org/ancient-merv-intro)