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Article from the World Heritage Review n24

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    Author(s) Tim Williams, Director of the International Merv Project, English Heritage
    Periodical Name World Heritage Review
    Publication Date 2002-02-01 11:00 pm
    Periodical Website

    Full Text


    Queen of Cities
    The ruins of the oasis-city of Merv in Turkmenistan lie on the millenary Silk Route in Central Asia and embody 4,000 years of the history of human settlement in this desert region.

    General view  of the Greater Kiz Kala Once one of Central Asia's greatest cities, Merv is among the oldest and most completely preserved of the oasis cities along the Silk Roads in Central Asia.

    The Merv oasis lies astride one of the main arms of the ancient Silk Roads that traversed half the world, from the Far East to Europe and Africa. The route skirts the southern edge of the Karakum Desert, an inhospitable landscape where summers are brutally hot and winters bitterly cold; only in spring does the desert bloom briefly and the monotonous vista explode in oranges, reds and yellows. The Kopet-Dag mountain chain forms the southern boundaries of modern Turkmenistan, dividing it from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Afghanistan with peaks rising above 3,100 m. Numerous rivers and streams run down from the mountains, fanning out into fertile deltas and oases before disappearing into the desert. One of the most substantial rivers is the Murgab, which flows northward from Afghanistan, to form a broad delta of rich alluvial land: the ancient city of Merv lay at the heart of this oasis, close to the course of the main river channel in antiquity.

    In the fifth century BC the Achaemenian empire, stretching from Turkey to India and from Central Asia to Egypt, stimulated the growth in long-distance trade. A flourishing administrative and trading centre developed in the Murgab delta at Erk Kala, the first of the walled cities of Merv. We know little about this city: it covered about 12 ha, but as the earliest settlement lies some 17 m below the present day surface, buried under a sequence of 1,500 years of buildings and daily life, it is relatively inaccessible to archaeological exploration.

    The region came into the Hellenistic world in the late fourth century BC, as Alexander the Great swept through en route for the Oxus and India. His eastern territories soon became part of the Seleucid empire, and Antiochus 1 (281-61 BC) began massive developments at Merv: the earlier city of Erk Kala was turned into a citadel and a vast new walled city, Antiochia Margiana (today called Gyaur Kala), was laid out. It was nearly 2 km across and covered some 340 ha. Again, we know little of the detail of the early Seleucid city, buried as it is under a deep sequence of later occupation, although recent excavations of the remarkably well-preserved defences have confirmed their construction date as the time of Antiochus.

    The great city of Gyaur Kala was to develop with the ebb and flow of empires and trade over the next 1,000 years. The Parthians (from c. 250 BC), and then the Sasanians (from AD 226), developed Merv as a major administrative, military and trading centre. The defences were repeatedly rebuilt and strengthened and the vitality of the city is reflected in the numerous building programmes and the wealth of objects recovered from the excavations within Gyaur Kala (now on display in the National Museum at Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan, and the excellent Regional Museum at Mary, some 30 km from the site). But there were also periods of decline, particularly when nomad invasions or migrations destabilized the area: during the fifth century AD, for example, Merv was probably the base for the disastrous campaigns against the Hephthalite Huns during which the cream of the Sasanian elite were killed.

    The Aschabs complex exemplifies another typical mausoleum of that period ARAB EXPANSION

    Trade was always central to Merv's role, but besides silk, paper, spices and many other goods, the Silk Roads were an international highway for the spread of many beliefs and ideologies. Christianity spread eastward along the road, and by the fifth century AD Merv was an important bishopric. Judaism and Buddhism travelled along with the traders and merchants: the first Buddhist community in Gyaur Kala dates from the fourth century AD and a Buddhist monastery, whose stupa was excavated in the 1950s, is thought to be the westernmost Buddhist monument yet found.

    With the coming of Islam, in the seventh century AD, the urban landscape and the conduct of daily life began to change, as did Merv's role in the wider world. As the capital of Khurasan ('Eastern Land), Merv became a centre for Arab expansion intended to relieve the overcrowding and religious and political discontent of towns such as Basra and Kufa in southern Iraq. A self-contained walled town, Shaim Kala, outside the eastern gates of Gyaur Kala, was perhaps built to house these colonists (this town has been largely destroyed under a Soviet planned village).

    In the 740s, the commander Abu Muslim took control of Merv, raising black banners to proclaim the start of the Abbasid revolution. Baghdad was soon established as the capital of the new empire, but Merv's status as the capital of Khurasan, from east of the Great Desert to the frontiers of India, had grown.

    Abu Muslim commissioned a mosque to be built alongside the Majan Canal, which flowed about a kilometre to the west of Gyaur Kala. There had been earlier occupations in the area; for example, by the seventh century, kshks defended houses with their massive corrugated walls and the most striking buildings surviving at Merv were being constructed. By the eleventh century, Abu Muslim's mosque lay at the centre of a thriving city, Marv al-Sha hijan (Merv the Great, today known as Sultan Kala). It is possible to see the mosque as part of the planning for the heart of the new city, which was clearly organized, with a street system and a carefully managed water supply (with numerous canals and reservoirs in each district). it seems likely that the new status of Merv, coupled with new ideas and beliefs that identified the need for public spaces, buildings, infrastructure - and perhaps most importantly, access to clean water, not only for domestic purposes but also for the practice of Islam led to the deliberate and planned development of a new town.

    As Sultan Kala rose to prominence, the old city of Gyaur Kala began a gradual process of change and decline. Surface artefact studies suggest that the area of settlement contracted, and excavations show that the defences had fallen out of use by the ninth century. Along the main streets of the old city new industrial activities developed, turning it into the industrial suburb of the new city of Sultan Kala.

    Sultan Kala continued to expand and develop through the Seljuk period (eleventh to early thirteenth centuries). its walls enclosed some 340 ha (a circuit of nearly 9 km), with walled suburbs to the north and south encompassing an additional 210 ha: at this time Merv was one of the largest cities in the world. Aerial photographs reveal a landscape of dense urban occupation on either side of the Majan Canal, with numerous streets forming a slightly irregular grid. Numerous large rectangular structures, interspersed within the tightly packed houses, mark the location of some of the more substantial buildings. Markets, mosques and madaris (Islamic theological schools) proliferated, minarets punctuated the skyline, while substantial caravanserais were built within the city and along the main roads leading out, especially to the west. There was a large industrial quarter in the western suburbs, mainly producing pottery, including highly decorated moulded wares, which were in great demand along the trade routes. in the twelfth century a walled citadel (Shahriyar Ark) was constructed in the northeastern corner of the town, enclosing a palace complex, administrative buildings and high quality residences.

    Interior of the Greater Kiz Kala A DOME OF TURQUOISE TILES

    In the Centre of Sultan Kala the spectacular Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar was erected in the fourth decade of the twelfth century. This building, which now stands in splendid isolation, was originally added to an existing complex of buildings, the ruins of which now surround it in a confusing mass of walls from a variety of different periods. However, while some aspects of the building were never meant to be seen, it was designed to impress, not least the famous dome covered in turquoise tiles: it was said that you were a day's camel ride from Merv when you could see the sunlight glinting on the dome.

    Merv became one of the most important cultural centres in the eastern Muslim world, home to several major libraries and a number of outstanding scholars. One of the most famous, the poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam (eleventh to twelfth centuries), worked on his renowned astronomical tables at the now longlost observatory. The geographer Yakut al-Khamavi also lived in Merv for three years, in the early thirteenth century, and it was here that he is reputed to have first had the idea of compiling a detailed geographical dictionary of countries.

    Merv, the Queen of Cities, had already started to wane by the early thirteenth century as trade became disrupted by the movement of nomadic peoples to the east: the growing pains of the rising Mongol empire. In 1221, a Mongol force arrived at the gates of Merv. They spent six days riding around the defences, looking for the weak points, before the town negotiated a surrender. Unfortunately, whatever the basis of the surrender was to have been, it failed. According to historical accounts, the townspeople were massacred and the town burnt to the ground and abandoned. Various estimates have been given for the number of people put to death, ranging up to a million however inflated the account became in the telling, there can be little doubt that the scale of destruction and loss of life was horrific. The archaeological record suggests that the subsequent events were complex: there is evidence for buildings continuing in use well into the Mongol period, and substantial quantities of Mongol ceramics and industrial activity have been found within Sultan Kala and its suburbs. At present we do not understand the extent of the sack and subsequent reoccupation, the organization of the Mongol settlement (possibly industrial zones surrounding a settlement in the citadel of the old Seljuk town), or indeed how quickly life began again in Merv after the sack.

    Fortified walls of the Lesser Kiz Kala MERV ABANDONED

    By the fifteen century the old town was largely abandoned in favour of a new planned town, later called Abdullah Khan Kala, which was built some 2 km to the south. This Timurid city was carefully laid out, covering some 46 ha, with axial streets, a citadel area, baths, mosques and madaris, all enclosed by a defensive circuit. In many places this would have seemed a substantial town, and it was, but in the shadow of the vast Sultan Kala it has suffered from the comparison, both in terms of its study and its preservation.

    Merv's magnificence was all but forgotten to the Western world for 600 years. In the nineteenth century the correspondent Edmund O'Donovan produced the first sketch plan of the cities seen in the West and in 1882 published a vivid account of his travels in the oasis. Since the first Russian excavations in 1890, there have been numerous archaeological expeditions, mainly by Soviet and Turkmen scholars. The ten-year International Merv Project, directed by Georgina Herrmann (Institute of Archaeology, University College London), St John Simpson (British Museum), and Kakamurad Kurbansakhatov (National Institute for the History of Turkmenistan of the Cabinet of Ministers), has substantially changed our understanding of the cities and the standing architecture in the oasis (Herrmann, Monuments of Merv: Traditional Buildings of the Karakum, Society of Antiquaries of London, 1999).

    In 1990, the Turkmenistan Ministry of Culture made the farsighted decision to establish an archaeological park to protect the walled cities and the principal outlying monuments within the oasis. This has already done much to improve the basic condition of the cities, removing modern agriculture from within the walled areas, and generally improving access to the monuments.

    However, there are daunting conservation issues facing the Turkmens. In 1999 the State Historical and Cultural Park 'Ancient Merv' was declared a World Heritage site and in 2000 Merv was placed on the list of the world's 100 most endangered sites by the World Monuments Watch - it remains on that list today.

    A new project began in 2001, under the direction of Gaetano Palumbo and myself (Institute of Archaeology, UCL) and Kakamurad Kurbansakhatov (State Institute of Cultural History of the Peoples of Turkmenistan, Central Asia and the East), in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture (M. Mamedov and Ruslan Muradov) and the Ancient Merv State Park for Historical and Cultural Monuments (Rejeb Dzaparov). The Max van Berchem Foundation (Geneva), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the British Institute of Persian Studies, and the University of London have generously supported the project, and thanks must also go to the Turkmen Ambassador to the United Kingdom, C. M. Babaev, who has done much to facilitate the work.

    The twelfth-century Mausoleum of Mohammed ibn ZaydTHREATS TO CONSERVATION

    The challenge for Merv are manifold. There are a number of standing mud-brick buildings, many of them examples of a unique architectural tradition, which are under considerable threat from rising groundwater, rain, and especially from wind. -The prevailing northerly wind, seeping in during the cold winter months, has removed the face of exposed north walls: the rising damp has undermined many More.

    The defensive circuits of Sultan Kala, its suburbs, and Abdullah Khan Kala, face the same problems. The northern face of the defences has been eroded back to its core in the south the interior face has suffered the same fate. Only limited sections of the defensive complex survive. One of the unique aspects of Merv is the possibility of appreciating the scale of the urban process: a largely uninterrupted landscape is laid out before the visitor. This is greatly enhanced by the continuous nature of the defensive walls, giving a focus to the eye when gazing across the vast expanse of these once-great cities. The loss of large stretches of the circuit, all too possible at the moment, would severely detract from this.

    Remedial work has begun. The Archaeological Park has started to tackle the situation with a programme of cleaning and repair, along with the targeted construction of buttresses to temporarily support the most vulnerable structures. With a small annual operating budget, however, there are limits to what can be achieved, especially given the scale of the problem. A team from CRATerre-EAG, the International Centre for Earth

    Construction at the Grenoble School of Architecture, under the direction of Sebastien Moriset and with UNESCO World Heritage Committee support, have started to construct a laboratory for the park, to explore the chemical properties of the soils and the best methods for developing sustainable new mud-brick and earth materials with which to repair and consolidate the structures. The World Monument Fund (WMF) has generously provided the UCL and Turkmen team with resources to start a programme of mud-brick consolidation, coordinated with CRATerre-EAG and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. This year we also undertook a survey of the canal and irrigation systems, which will be used to develop a programme of targeted cleaning and repair, again with WMF support, working with the local community to avoid some of the worst of the seasonal flood damage.

    A number of fired-brick monuments are also at risk in the Archaeological Park area. The most obvious is the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. A Russian team undertook some structural repairs during the 1980s, but a long-term solution to both the structural problems and the interior painted wall plaster, is urgently needed. Again, there are signs of progress and in autumn 2001 the Turkish Government announced a collaboration to assist the Turkmenistan Ministry of Culture in rescuing this nationally important monument. It will be a substantial task. Other monuments, such as the Timurid icehouses and pavilions, and the Seljuk Mausoleum of Mohammed ibn Zayd, have severe structural and erosion problems. A prioritized programme is being developed, and the WMF have generously provided resources to allow a complementary structural engineering assessment to be carried out. The scale of the archaeological recording needed in advance of the consolidation projects is in itself substantial, and currently unresourced.

    Over the course of the last century, numerous archaeological interventions have been made into the cities of Merv. We have located some 230 Separate trenches, ranging from small-scale exploratory holes to substantial excavations; details of some of these have been published, many have not. The archives of some reside with the Turkmen authorities, others do not, and some have been lost forever. These old excavations offer problems and opportunities. Few have ever been backfilled, which creates conservation problems: plants are growing in the relatively well-watered hollows, destroying the underlying deposits; exposed walls of mud-brick are eroding; exposed walls of fired brick are being robbed for modern uses; the sides of the excavations are collapsing, destroying yet more of the resource. We are planning a campaign to consolidate and backfill these excavations. We plan to record the exposed archaeology and, where appropriate, resample those where crucial research questions about the development and character of the cities can be cost-effectively explored. There are some cases where the exposed structures are potentially a valuable cultural asset to the park, especially in presenting the site to visitors. We hope to secure the resources to allow these monuments, such as the Friday Mosque at the centre of Gyaur Kala, or the Firuz Gate in Sultan Kala, to be properly understood, conserved and displayed. In the short-term, however, some monuments will be reburied to avoid further damage and erosion, while resources are sought.

    Ongoing research is a vital component of successfully managing and sustaining the archaeological resource, and enhancing its display and value. Consideration needs to be given to the sustainability of new archaeological excavations: there are numerous questions, such as the nature of the earlier settlements in Gyaur Kala, or the transition between the end of Gyaur Kala and the new city of Sultan Kala but these can be addressed without compromising unique aspects of the archaeological record, such as where a single example of a structure or sequence remains.

    During the course of fieldwork in 2001 we began to develop a Geographic Information System (GIS) to manage the vast amount of information on modern land use, irrigation systems, areas of flooding, below-ground archaeological resource, standing buildings, and the interpretations of past landscapes integrating these data with historical maps, aerial photography and the imagery acquired earlier this year from the IKONOS satellite. The latter has provided a geo-referenced base map, through the hard work of Marek Zeibart and Cordelia Hall (at UCL), and Peter Dare (University of New Brunswick, Canada), creating a platform for integrating the other spatial data.

    View from inside the dome of the Mausoleum of Sultan SanjarECOLOGICAL RESOURCES

    Outside the walled areas, the archaeological resource is not confined to individual standing monuments: these are nothing without a landscape. Aerial photographs and fieldwork show the intervening buildings, gardens, orchards and cemeteries, but at present the protection for these is limited. A caravanserai to the west of Sultan Kala and the 'Potters' quarter' are being destroyed by agriculture, stealing of pottery for the antiquities trade, and other modern actions such as trackways. Analysis of aerial photographs taken over the past twenty-five years shows the scale of the loss, but also allows us to plan with the park for the future management of the areas most at risk.

    The park also provides an important ecological resource, sustaining a number of rare habitats, plants and wildlife. The sight of a pair of eagle owls, vast wings outstretched, circling the massive defences of Erk Kala at dawn, only reinforces our need to develop a sustainable management plan for the World Heritage site that encompasses all aspects of this phenomenal site. The Archaeological Park is an appreciated local resource: Park staff have started educational programmes with local schools, although resources are needed to develop access and awareness. At present foreign tourism is not a major factor, although what there is makes an important contribution to the local and regional economy.

    Merv is a unique and exhilarating archaeological landscape. It differs from cities such as Bukhara and Samarkand (Uzbekistan) in that it has fewer standing buildings (although those it has are spectacular and unique), but the scale and complexity of entire urban landscapes are laid out before the visitor. It takes imagination, but Merv is a place to capture the imagination of anyone who sees it. Without visiting the site it is difficult to appreciate the scope of what was achieved in this oasis. Helping to research and conserve this resource, and to develop sustainable tourism with an emphasis on allowing the visitor to explore both the scale of the urban achievement, and the fluctuations of a series of vibrant cities at one of the most important cultural crossroads the world has seen, will be a challenge. This is a challenge that the Turkmenistan Ministry of Culture, the staff of the Archaeological Park, and all of us associated with the project, are keen to take up.