--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
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
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
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.