The lost city of Merv

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Essay on Merv as part of the Guardian Cities “Lost Cities” series (published 12 August, 2016)

When George Curzon visited the ruined city of Merv in 1888, the vision of its decay overwhelmed him. “In the midst of an absolute wilderness of crumbling brick and clay,” the future viceroy of India wrote, “the spectacle of walls, towers, ramparts and domes, stretching in bewildering confusion to the horizon, reminds us that we are in the centre of bygone greatness.”

Modern-day visitors to the site of Merv in southern Turkmenistan can still tour its dusty, windswept remains. Like Curzon, they might struggle to imagine the true size, density and lushness of one of the world’s greatest vanished cities.

In its 12th-century pomp, Merv straddled the prosperous trade routes of the Silk Road. It was a capital of the Seljuk sultanate that extended from central Asia to the Mediterranean. According to some estimates, Merv was the biggest city in the world in AD1200, with a population of more than half a million people.

But only decades later, the city was effectively razed by the armies of Genghis Khan in a grisly conquest that resulted – if contemporary accounts are to be believed – in 700,000 deaths.

A trader arriving from Bukhara to the north-east or from Nishapur to the south-west would once have been relieved at the sight of Merv. Crisscrossed by canals and bridges, full of gardens and orchards, medieval Merv and its surrounding oasis were green and richly cultivated, a welcome reprieve from the bleakness of the Karakum desert.

The city’s enclosing walls ran in an oblong circuit of five miles, interrupted by strong towers and four main gates. Its streets were mostly narrow and winding, crowded with closely built houses and occasional larger structures: mosques, schools, libraries and bathhouses.

The citadel of the Seljuk sultans – replete with a palace, gardens and administrative buildings – loomed over the north-eastern part of Merv. Many different polities chose to make Merv the seat from which to rule Khurasan, a region that included eastern Iran and parts of modern-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

“For its cleanliness, its good streets, the divisions of its buildings and quarters among the rivers … their city [Merv] is superior to the rest of the cities of Khurasan,” wrote the 10th-century Persian geographer and traveller al-Istakhri. “Its markets are good.”

Reaching Merv, the visiting trader might lead his pack-animals into the open courtyard of a two-storey caravanserai (an inn with a courtyard for travellers), where he would jostle for space with other merchants from as far as India, Iraq and western China. Or he could go straight to one of Merv’s large markets, convened outside the gates of the town or sometimes near its major mosques. The smoke of potters’ kilns and steel-making furnaces (Merv was famous for its crucible steel) would have hung over the surrounding industrial suburbs.

If the trader was feeling hot, he might step inside the icehouse on the city outskirts; a tall conical building where residents accumulated snow during the winter and which they used like a vast mud-brick fridge. Maybe he paid a visit to a member of the city’s elite who lived in a koshk (a fortress-like home outside the walls removed from the dust and noise of the city).

If he followed the route of the Majan canal, which ran up the middle of the city,past the workshops of embroiderers and weavers, he would reach both Merv’s central mosque and the adjacent monument, the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. Built in AD1157 to honour the long-ruling Seljuk sultan, the mausoleum was a large, square-shaped building rung with fine arches, capped by a dome sheathed in turquoise-glazed tile. The dome was so intensely blue that according to the Arab geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi, who visited Merv in the 13th century, “It could be seen from a day’s journey away.”

The city was known as Marv-i-Shahijan or “Merv the Great”, the largest and most famous of a succession of towns in the Merv oasis. In fact, the city sat alongside an earlier incarnation of Merv just to the east, known as Gyaur-kala (“fortress of the pagans”).

Gyaur-kala flourished under the Sassanid kings of Persia from the third to the seventh centuries AD. Archaeologists have found evidence in this older Merv of a cosmopolitan urban society, boasting communities of Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Manicheans, Christians and Jews. Under Muslim rule from the seventh century onwards, the locus of urban activity shifted west across the Razik canal to what would become Marv-i-Shahijan (also known as Sultan-kala, “fortress of the sultan”). Many of Gyaur-kala’s structures were probably cannibalised for material in the construction of the new Merv, and industrial workshops, kilns and furnaces sprung up amid its ruins.

Historians trace the urban occupation of the area as far back as the sixth century BC. Life in the Merv oasis has always depended on the waters of the Murghab. The river flows northward from the mountains of Afghanistan until it ends in a swampy delta in the middle of the desert. Du Huan, a Chinese soldier who lived in captivity in Merv for a decade in the eighth century AD, described the fertility of the oasis: “A big river … flows into its territory, where it divides into several hundred canals irrigating the whole area. Villages and fences touch each other and everywhere there are trees.”

Over the centuries, Merv’s inhabitants built and maintained a series of dams and dykes on the Murghab river and a network of canals and reservoirs to ensure the supply of water to the city. The position of mir-ab, or water bailiff, was an important post in Merv: according to contemporary medieval accounts, he had a force of 10,000 workmen under his command, including a team of 300 divers who routinely patched up the dykes with timber. Their labour maintained the dam on the Murghab, preventing the accumulation of silt and regulating the flow of water into Merv’s canals in times of drought and plenty.

The second source of Merv’s prosperity and growth was its strategic location perched on the crossroads of transcontinental trade. Merv was famous for its exports, especially its textiles. “From this country is derived much silk as well as cotton of a superior quality under the name of Merv cotton, which is extremely soft,” noted the 12th-century Arab geographer al-Idrisi. Robes and turbans made from Merv cloth were popular around the Islamic world.

So too were Merv’s much-loved melons. “The fruits of Merv are finer than those of any other place,” wrote Ibn Hawqal, a 10th-century Arab chronicler, “and in no other city are to be seen such palaces and groves, and gardens and streams.”

Merv had such a strong reputation for commerce and the pursuit of wealth that the 14th-century Egyptian scribe al-Nuwayri described the city’s chief characteristic as “miserliness”.

But Merv under the Seljuks was also a city of learning and culture. It produced notable poets, mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, musicians and physicists. The polymath Umar Khayyam is known to have spent several years working at the astronomical observatory in Merv. “Of all the countries of Iran,” al-Istakhri wrote of Merv, “these people were noted for their talents and education.” Yaqut al-Hamawi counted at least 10 significant libraries in the city, including one attached to a major mosque that contained 12,000 volumes.

In its Seljuk heyday, Merv was a cultural capital, attracting the brightest thinkers and artists from around the Islamic world. It set trends not only in scientific and astronomical investigation, but in architecture, fashion and music. To be marwazi (from Merv) suggested a degree of cultivation and sophistication. Its residents probably possessed a very broad frame of reference. Though secluded in an oasis in the Karakum desert, Merv was a worldly city, an exemplar of the commercial and intellectual culture that flourished along the Silk Road.

Merv was also no stranger to political upheaval and war, having fallen under the sway of competing polities and dynasties throughout its long history. No conquest was as traumatic as its pillage by the Mongols in 1221. Yaqut al-Hamawi was forced to flee the libraries of Merv as the armies of Genghis Khan’s son Tolui advanced upon the city.

“Verily, but for the Mongols I would have stayed and lived and died there, and hardly could I tear myself away,” he wrote sadly. The Mongols laid siege for six days before the city surrendered, prompting one of the worst massacres of the age.

According to the Arab historian Ibn al-Athir, who based his account on the reports of refugees from Merv: “Genghis Khan sat on a golden throne and ordered the troops who had been seized should be brought before him. When they were in front of him, they were executed and the people looked on and wept. When it came to the common people, they separated men, women, children and possessions. It was a memorable day for shrieking and weeping and wailing. They took the wealthy people and beat them and tortured them with all sorts of cruelties in the search for wealth … Then they set fire to the city and burned the tomb of Sultan Sanjar and dug up his grave looking for money. They said, ‘These people have resisted us’ so they killed them all. Then Genghis Khan ordered that the dead should be counted and there were around 700,000 corpses.”

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The death toll was almost certainly exaggerated, but Merv never fully recovered. The Mongols destroyed the dam on the Murghab river, hacking at the life-blood of the Merv oasis. In subsequent centuries, numerous rulers attempted to rebuild and resettle Merv, but the city never returned to the size and stature it enjoyed in earlier years under the Seljuks.

In 1888, George Curzon saw only desolation: “Very decrepit and sorrowful looked those wasting walls of sun-dried clay, these broken arches and tottering towers; but there is magnificence in their very extent, and a voice in the sorrowful squalor of their ruin.”

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