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The exterior of the Shahriyar Ark, one of the most prominent sites in Ancient Merv.

Ancient Merv State Historical and Cultural Park

Turkmenistan
The ancient city of Merv has a long history and has existed for millennia. Some historians say it was the world's biggest city at one point. Its ancient monuments are some of the best-preserved on the Silk Road, while its 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, travellers come here to admire the remarkable heritage and architecture.

History of Merv

Ancient Merv, a State Historical and Cultural Park has left an important footprint on the region’s history. Its medieval cities greatly influenced the cultures of Central Asia and Iran for at least four millennia.

© Milonk / Shutterstock
© Milonk / Shutterstock

The history of this large city dates back 2500+ years. Merv, like Bagdad, Cairo, or Damascus, was one of the most important capitals of the Islamic world. The height of its influence was during the 11th and 12th centuries. This was the period of Great Turkmens, where the 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.

“But for the Mongols, I would live and die in this city. I could hardly tear myself from this place." - Geographer Yakut, who lived in Merv for three years during the 13th century

Merv attracted scientists and traders from the entire Islamic world. In 1221, Mongol hordes raided almost all the cities of Central Asia, including Merv, and burned down priceless landmarks and centers of knowledge. Though the city was never able to fully recover to the height of its past influence, daily life still persisted.

The green represents the rule of the Seljuk Empire at its height © Sidhe / Shutterstock
The green represents the rule of the Seljuk Empire at its height © Sidhe / Shutterstock

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 and the river's direction changed, these ancient settlements were abandoned. 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.

The site comes to life no matter the time of day © Eziz Charyyev / Shutterstock
The site comes to life no matter the time of day © Eziz Charyyev / Shutterstock

Main Sites

Erk Kala

Erk Kala is one of the most outstanding fortresses in the world. The settlement still standing after thousands of years is proof of advanced construction techniques. It occupies an area of around 20 hectares surrounded by a thick wall, 34 metres high. Walking the circumference takes approximately thirty minutes. It is a truly impressive, monumental structure.

Gyaur Kala

Kala is a walled square city surrounded by 2km of walls. Inside these walls, visitors will find the remains of an old mosque, a monastery, and cisterns. The name Gyaur-Kala means "fortress of the infidels", or fortress of the non-Muslims. Indeed, before the conquest of Merv by the Arabs, the religion of fire worshipers - Zoroastrianism, as well as Buddhism and Christianity, was prominent here. Gyaur-Kala was located at the crossroads of trade routes, not far from the northern routes of the Great Silk Road, where caravans passed through the settlement all year round. Archaeologists have found Buddha statues, clay tablets, and stupas here. The remains of an artisan metal workshop, as well as a quarter of flour millers of the 3rd century AD, have been excavated as well. The city was abandoned after being destroyed by the Mongols around 1221.

© Ron Ramtang / Shutterstock
© Ron Ramtang / Shutterstock

Sultan Kala

In the 6th and 7th 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 Merv saw its glory as one of the most densely populated cities in the world in the 11th century.

Abdullah Khan Kala and Bairam-Ali-Khan-Kala

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

The stunning reflective water around the site walls © Site of Ancient Merv
The stunning reflective water around the site walls © Site of Ancient Merv

The Great Kyz Kala and Lesser Gyz Kala (6th - 12th centuries)

Unlike other adobe monuments of Merv, this semi-fortified castle with outer defensive walls (up to 15 metres tall) has attracted the attention of researchers for more than a century. Excavations show that this complex was built in the 8th-9th century AD with well-equipped rooms on the second floor, a large hall, 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 © Poliorketes / Shutterstock
The Great Kyz Kala Castle © Poliorketes / Shutterstock


How to get there

The easiest way to get to Merv is to fly directly to Mary from Ashgabat. Visitors to 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 to visit this World Heritage Site.

How to Visit

Because Merv's main attractions are spread across a large distance, a full day is recommended to visit them all. Mary is the biggest city near the site (30km from Merv), so it is recommended as a base. It 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, tracing more than four thousand years of history. As the site consists of many different structures spread over a wide area, you'll need transportation to get between them all.

Erk Kala's massive fortress © imeduard / Shutterstock
Erk Kala's massive fortress © imeduard / Shutterstock

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

Ancient Merv State Historical and Cultural Park

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