Fabled Margiana

Merv, Turkmenistan
August 6, 2019

The Greeks called it Margiana. Some called it Margush. Located squarely on the trade route between Asia and Europe, at the western terminus of Transoxiana, it was once called Marv-i-Shah-Jahan, or Merv, Queen of the World.

transoxiana
Map courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica

The changing course of Amu Darya had over the centuries, caused settlements to shift in and around the same area. Broken earthen work ramparts march across the desolate plain. Some towers are still recognizable, their arrow slits gaping holes in the wall. The total enclosure is an astonishing 6.5 square kilometers!

The oldest structure is Erk Kala, now a misshapen lump atop a wall. It was once a 6th century BCE Achaemenid city. Nearby Giaur Kala, dating from 3rd century BCE had a Buddhist stupa and monastery. A herd of camels graze nearby minded by the herder.

This is reputedly the westernmost point in the spread of Buddhism as evidenced by the head of a Buddha statue found here. A young girl runs up to me from a nearby house. In her hand is the broken head of a statue. It is identical to the statue I saw in the museum in Termez, a relic from a 2nd century monastery. I doubt she or her family understand the significance, nor do I have the words to explain she should not sell it.

The Kyz Kala, built in the 7th century by Persian Sassanians still stands along with its smaller cousin nearby. But I can only see the outside; the gate is locked and there doesn’t seem to be anyone to ask. Maybe it is only opened for those on the exalted tourist visa, not for the lowly transit types.

During the Seljuk era in the 11th and 12th centuries Merv reached its peak. It was then a glittering metropolis and tales of its splendor were wide-spread. The Sultan Sanjar mausoleum built then, stands in solitary splendor in the middle of the vast enclosure of Sultan Kala. It has been recently renovated, a place of pilgrimage for Turkmen. There is an unnamed shrine just inside a break in the outer wall. I smile at the sight of tell-tale bits of fabric and ribbons tied to the trees. I saw them first in Balkh, Afghanistan and again in Termez, Uzbekistan and now here. The borders drawn arbitrarily on a map may separate different countries, but all are still part of the fabric of Transoxiana. The same traditions endure across the borders.

The mausoleums of the two Ashkabs stand near a large area that is home to innumerable tombs. Overgrown with scrubby bushes, this is prime territory for snakes, likely rattlers in this terrain.

I decide not to poke around too much. Nearby is a domed underground cistern. It is full of water and dust motes dance over its green stillness. There is nobody else as far as the eye can see. The vast enclosure shimmers in the heat and small lizards skitter across the ground.

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