The Ashgabat Gazette Issue 67

--Sunday, 17 October 99--
I was up at 7 AM and washed up in the bathroom. Serdar and Ilia were up shortly thereafter and washed at the faucet in the back yard.

Last night Mekan had insisted that Ilia put his car in the garage which was then secured with a huge padlock. This morning we noticed that Mekan's father's car had been left out all night with the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition. Go figure.

When we got the car from the garage it had a flat tire. Mekan got Ilia a pump and it became apparent that it was only(?) a slow leak. Comfortingly, Ilia took the pump with us.

I had hoped that, since we were in Mary, we would be able go to the outdoor market there and I would then shop for lower-priced carpets for Matt and Dean. No such luck. We found out that the market was closed by the government so that everyone could pick cotton. This is for real, my friend Geldey in Ashgabat, a high school chemistry teacher, had to go and pick cotton for days. I gather that it is not a pleasant experience.

Given the circumstances we decided to drive directly to Merv and visit the ruins. We had our work cut out for us. In the end we drove from one part of archeological site to the next and still spent nearly four hours there.

Merv is a collection of three ruined cities that were continuously occupied from about 600 BC when it was settled by Zoroastrians to 1850 or so when it was abandoned by Turkmen. At the height of its power, roughly from 1000 to 1200 AD, it was the Eastern capital of the Seljuq empire that stretched from Egypt to Afghanistan and was as important a cultural and political center as Damascus or Baghdad. Merv was called the "Queen of the World" by the Seljuqs. It was vastly wealthy and a major cultural center, with libraries and observatories. It was celebrated in prose and poetry and known as one of the greatest cities of the Islamic world.

The sky fell in, however, in 1221 when Tuluy, Jenghiz Khan's most blood thirsty son showed up with a large army. It seems that the city fathers had indelicately refused to pay a tax demanded by the Great Khan in 1218 and had added indecency to indelicacy by executing the tax collectors. This was doubtlessly expressive but definitely not wise.

Tuluy negotiated a surrender with the understanding that lives would be spared. He lied. Once in control of the city he ordered each of his soldiers to murder 300 to 400 residents. They did this with the sword and added the torch to complete the work. Some believe that over one million people died. The Mongol army left only to return one week later to kill all those who had somehow managed to escape execution in the first round.

Merv also served as a Silk Road city and trade between Europe and Asia was an important source of its wealth. Fortunately, unlike Baghdad and Damascus, each time it was destroyed and rebuilt, it was moved, so there are five distinct sets of ruins spread over many kilometers.

Above, the Sultan Sanjar Mausoleum as seen from the Merv Archeological Park entrance. Once the center of one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world, it now stands as one of the very few survivors of it day.

At 9:15 we entered the gates of the archeological site. The view was eerie. In the distance stood the most striking architectural survivor of all the cities: Sultan Sanjar's mausoleum. It is 27 meters on side and soars 37 meters high; so high that ancient commentators state that it could be seen a day's journey from the city.

Here we were inside the ancient walls of the medieval city of Sultan Kala, begun in the eighth century and sacked by the Mongols. All around us was desolation. Yet this city was once bigger than Paris, was known for its architecture, art and intellectual achievements.

Standing alone in the midst of the rubble of great civilizations, the experience seemed mystical. The very absence of many things to look at seemed to add to the sense of greatness lost. I was reminded of a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley called "Ozymandias":

I once met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains, Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The king referred to here was Ramases II of Egypt but it could as well apply to all the monarchs of Merv.

Above, the entrance to the Sultan Sanjar Mausoleum.

Our first visit was to the Sultan Sanjar mausoleum. It grew more and more impressive as we approached. Set in the center of Sultan Sala, it was once part of a large religious complex but today stands alone in the midst of a partially excavated area.

There is some doubt about who is actually buried in the Sultan Sanjar mausoleum. The caretaker told us that the Sultan's remains were removed and hidden to protect them from the Mongols. Maybe, but it seems hard to understand how they were recovered.

From the front entrance to the Sanjar Mausoleum. you can see two structures off in the distance: the Great Kyz Kala and the Little Kyz Kala. These are keshks, large buildings possibly constructed for administrative purposes and categorized by strange vertical corrugations. We drove over to them and walked in and around them. Then Ilia used the pump again on the recalcitrant tire.

We drove through the Gyaur Kala to the Erk Kala, a ring fortress with thick, high walls. A city, the Gyaur Kala was created by constructing additional walls from the middle of the Erk Kala on each side and then extending the new walls south and then merging them. This is the oldest part of the Merv ruins, thought to date from 600 BC.

We visited many of the spots on our map but in most cases they were little more than mounds of tan clay, so complete have the destruction of time and Mongols been.

Above, the "tomb" of Sultan Sanjar. The caretaker told us that the body of the Sultan had been moved during the sacking by the Mongols and was rediscovered with great difficulty. Given that everyone was slaughtered, this is a considerable understatement. The grate at the left has rags tied to it. My guidebook says that people make wishes and tie the rags as a symbol. If you get your wish you are supposed to come back and give thanks.
Above, the Great Kyz Kala. The purpose of these structures is not well understood. It may have been an administrative facility or maybe not. Perhaps we will never know.
Above, the circular Erk Kala or military citadel. From the top center the later city wall extends out from the Erk Kala and then takes a right hand turn to enclose the Gyaur Kala, the second city on the Merv site.

I found the experience of visiting Merv to be both exhilarating and humbling. To stand in the center of a city that had once been the epicenter of wealth, empire, learning and power was inspiring. But when I opened my eyes and looked at the mounds of clay in every direction, I wondered what wealth, empire, learning and power are worth in the long run.

Of course, as Keynes noted, "in the long run we will all be dead."

The trip back to Ashgabat took the remainder of the afternoon. It was good to be back in my apartment.

A Virtual Tour of Turkmenistan
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley