Parthian Fortresses of Nisa
As the Roman Empire rose, it seemed as though little could stand in its way as its great armies expanded its territory in every direction. But to the east, there was a civilisation powerful enough to be unconquerable by mighty Rome. It was the Parthian Empire, which emerged in the middle of the 3rd century BC and would rule much of the region until 224 AD. While resisting the Romans, it expanded its domain to cover all of modern Iran and Iraq, and parts of Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
One of the most important capitals of the Parthian Empire was Nisa, in the south of today's Turkmenistan. Situated at the crossroads of important commercial and strategic axes, Nisa was a major trading hub that dominated this region of central Asia. It also served as an important communication and cultural centre between east and west, north and south. It grew into a lavish city, full of religious and political monuments. While the residents of Nisa lived in dwellings around the city, a great citadel was built for the rulers.
Today, the Parthian Fortresses of Nisa consist of two large artificial hills covering ancient ruins, known as Old and New Nisa, indicating the sites of two different stages of the city's development. They conserve the remains of the ancient civilization, much of which is still to be excavated. We do know that Old Nisa once contained a fortress with 43 towers, a royal palace and some temples. Today there are the mounds, broken up by excavation pits, and the mud-brick remains of two Zoroastrian temples, kitchens, and a treasury, a courtyard house with a wine cellar and circular chamber believed to have been a ritual area of a Zoroastrian temple. Artifacts unearthed at the site are now in the Turkmenistan National Museum.
History & Today
Visiting the site gives you a fascinating insight into the powerful history of Nisa and the Parthian Empire more broadly. The city is an outstanding symbol of the significance of this imperial power and the archaeological remains illustrate the significant interaction of cultural influences from central Asia and from the Mediterranean world.
The architecture of Parthian Nisa is comparable to other complexes of the same period, with square buildings surrounded by corridors, courtyard buildings, and a round hall. However, a detailed study of the remains reveals specific combinations of architectural styles, with the wide use of Hellenistic elements, such as the ancient Greek order system, and the inclusion of classic sculptural compositions into the architecture. The royal fortress-city of Old Nisa comprised palaces, temples and tombs.
Objects found in Old Nisa also depict the exposure of this empire to other Oriental and Western cultures. The antique art of Turkmenistan, which reached a high degree of sophistication during the period of existence of the Parthian empire, reveals the complex interpenetration of the different world cultures on this land. At the crossroads of history, this art merged the best features of ancient local traditions and influences of Hellenism with Roman styles.
With its tell surrounded by high defensive earthen ramparts, and its impressive palace complex, the ancient Parthian city of Old Nisa is one of Turkmenistan’s most significant cultural sites. Very little development or occupation over the years has disturbed the global comprehension of the site. The two impressive historical hills enclosed by defensive ramparts are still visible independently, and the antique cultural landscape marked by the massive piedmont of the Kopet-dag has not changed fundamentally since the Parthian period.
How to get there
If you are on a tourist visa, you will most likely be traveling in a 4×4 with your tour guide while visiting Turkmenistan. Nisa is situated 12 km to the south-west of Ashgabat (actual capital of Turkmenistan) and is approximately 20-30 min drive. The site is open daily from 7:00 am till 7:00 pm.
Ashgabat is the only city with international flights in and out of Turkmenistan. Online booking does not work yet for Turkmenistan Airlines, so if you are flying with them, you have to buy your tickets through an agent.
For independent travelers without their own means of transport, this leaves the train or the (shared) taxi. Some buses also exist. All 3 are inexpensive and relatively comfortable ways of getting around Turkmenistan. Minibuses and taxis leave when full, while large buses leave according to a timetable.
In cities, cabs or buses will take you around. Winter has little effect on the transport system in Turkmenistan.
Entrance fee – 6$
Excursion – 6$
Allowance for photo – 3$
Allowance for video – 6$
Manager’s name: Ashirow Enishmyrat
Tel phone: +993 61534185
Archaeological work in the two main parts of Nisa has revealed richly decorated architecture, illustrative of domestic, state and religious functions. As you explore the site, you'll be able to see the foundations of the buildings that have been excavated and walk in the same rooms as the rulers of the Parthian Empire two millennia ago. Much of this ancient city is still underground, waiting to reveal its mysteries, but we have already discovered so much. Many of the items found here show the influences from Ancient Rome and Greece, demonstrating the significant cultural exchange that took place here from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.