From Mary to the Ancient City of Merv Turkmenistan
Posted On July 12, 2014
If you haven’t traveled to Turkmenistan, you’re not alone. I bet they really don’t see many visitors due to the challenges of getting approval to visit. You can read about it on the Lonely Planet guide to Turkmenistan or trust me, there is no such thing as independent travel. You’re required to have a guide and simply taking your guide to places you decide you want to go is also off the list. You strictly have to check in as scheduled and not deviate off course. In our travel along the silk road, Turkmenistan was initially planned to be a quick stop, but they wouldn’t have it. They required us to spend at least one night and even that came across as extremely suspicious to them. I do think we had some extra scrutiny, but after all the attention, we did make it through the border fairly quickly (about an hour). It was good to know that we could essentially got to the front of the line as “tourists.” We didn’t see any other tourists the entire time we were in the country, but I did meet a lot of friendly people and the nicest camel I’ve ever met in my life… and in my travels that is a lot! The opposite end of the spectrum is the camel at Petra that spit and bit at me.
While I’m on the topic of camels which is one of my favorite things about Turkmenistan, we saw a lot of camels simply roaming through the desert. In some countries you see sheep on the hills. In Turkmenistan, you see groups of camels by themselves just walking along the desert. It’s amazing how long they can go without water. There were often 2 or 3 adults among a group which may have a handful of young ones eating near by. For these more wild camels we never knew how crazy they might be, but we took our chances for some good shots being cautious and then snuggling up with this lovable camel.
The deserts of Turkmenistan do have a lot of green in them. Our guide was pointing that from space it looks pretty green. Much of what Turkmenistan looked like on the drive across looked like the picture above. I hear there are even more great adventures out through the sand, but we didn’t get to spend that kind of time. Our trip to Turkmen was a part of a bigger trip across the silk road.
Some maybe most wouldn’t be able to point out where Turkmenistan is on the map. It’s north of Iran, West of Afghanistan, and shares a large border with Uzbekistan and finally the Caspian sea to it’s West. We would start our journey in Bukhara and spend the night in Mary after seeing Merv. I want you to see a few pictures of life today in Turkmenistan based on what I saw as we drove across this fascinating land.
First you do see lots of flags and statues including the famous Turkmen symbols from the special star to the Turkmen rug symbols for the tribes on the national flag. I think every tour in Turkmenistan starts out by explaining the nomadic tribes and their tribal symbols on the flag. Great story or unifying tribes.
These ladies were selling their wares on the side of the road out in the desert. Most of it looked hand made from camel fur. Pretty amazing what they could make with a little wool and camel yarn. These ladies covered up their faces pretty quickly when they saw us take our camera’s out.
Kyrgystan has yurts in the mountains, and Turkmen has yurts in the desert.
Many muslims in Turkmenistan (93%). They are a very religious people it seemed to me for the most part, despite being a former soviet country.
Women wear very long dresses and young girls wear their long hair down. Once married the hair goes up.
Statue and Soviet looking bus. You do really see a variety of old and new in the cities.
Traditional dinner in Mary. Yep more Shishka, but these were very fresh and tender.
Now for the old. In Merv I had two favorites both part of the ancient city of Merv which is part of the Unesco heritage site. Merv is the oldest and best-preserved of the oasis-cities along the Silk Route in Central Asia. The remains in this vast oasis span 4,000 years of human history. A number of monuments are still visible, particularly from the last two millennia.
Palace, Dome and Ruins… (even a little came in the photo… can you see it?)
I appreciate this quote on Merv. While I saw there, I tried to imagine the city in it’s 12th century times as potentially the largest city in the world!! “Merv (Turkmen: Merw, Persian: مرو Marw), formerly Achaemenid Satrapy of Margiana, and later Alexandria (Ἀλεξάνδρεια) and Antiochia in Margiana (Greek: Ἀντιόχεια τῆς Μαργιανῆς), was a major oasis-city in Central Asia, on the historical Silk Road, located near today’s Mary in Turkmenistan. Several cities have existed on this site, which is significant for the interchange of culture and politics at a site of major strategic value. It is claimed that Merv was briefly the largest city in the world in the 12th century. The site of ancient Merv has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.”
Merv was home to practitioners of various religions beside the official Sassanid Zoroastrianism, including Buddhists, Manichaeans, and Christians of the Church of the East. While in much of it now you see mounds these were once great walls. The idea that Zoroastrians were in the same town as Buddhists and Christians is amazing to me.
“It is during this period that Merv expanded to its greatest size—Arab and Persian geographers termed it “the mother of the world”, the “rendezvous of great and small”, the “chief city of Khurasan” and the capital of the eastern Islamic world. Written sources also attest to a large library and madrasa founded by Nizam al-Mulk, as well as many other major cultural institutions. Perhaps most importantly, Merv was said to have a market that is “the best of the major cities of Iran and Khurasan” (Herrmann 1999). It is believed that Merv was the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153, with a population of 200,000”
As we walked around trying to soak in the history and imagine the vast cities within cities, we were in awe.
Now in much of what was the largest city, you see mounds. In 1221 Merv opened it’s gates to the son of Genghis Khan, named Tolui.
Not much to see now. Looking from the walls of the city toward the dome at sunset.
Artists rendition of the “before”
It is during this period that Merv expanded to its greatest size—Arab and Persian geographers termed it “the mother of the world”, the “rendezvous of great and small”, the “chief city of Khurasan” and the capital of the eastern Islamic world. Written sources also attest to a large library and madrasa founded by Nizam al-Mulk, as well as many other major cultural institutions. Perhaps most importantly, Merv was said to have a market that is “the best of the major cities of Iran and Khurasan” (Herrmann 1999). It is believed that Merv was the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153, with a population of 200,000” – Merv Wikipedia Article
Sultan Sanjar mausoleum, the old dome. It really is the best preserved of everything we saw in Merv. This 12th-century mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, also in Sultan Gala is the largest of Seljuk mausoleums and is also the first dated mosque-mausoleum complex.
The stacked rocks reveal that buddhists have visited the place and leave prayer rocks.
The ruins of Merv were fascinating to explore. With civilization after civilization for millinum it is overwhelming to think of this area as some of the oldest continuous civilization.
In conclusion… Turkmenistan was a fascinating visit. I do recommend Turkmenistan on any silk road tour. I wish I could have made it to the door to hell or derweze. Make sure you look that up to see if it fits you’re schedule. Otherwise if you want some history and friendly camels, Soviet city of Mary/ and Ancient city of Merv is a great destination.