Painting of the 12th century mausoleum оf Sultan Sanjar, located in Merv.

Merv: In Ruins Today, How Does the Eternal City of the East Live on?

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The city of Rome has long been nicknamed the eternal city because of its association with the Roman Catholic Church and the belief among ancient Roman pagans that the city would last forever - provided the fire in the temple to Vesta did not go out. In the east, there is another city which could be called an eternal city, not necessarily because of its religious associations, but because it was inhabited and influential for so long. That city is ancient Merv in modern-day Turkmenistan.

Merv is no longer inhabited, though the descendants of the original inhabitants are still alive. Merv is not the oldest permanent human settlement either, but it is one of the oldest. This city remained culturally and politically important for some 2,000 years. Additionally, it was inhabited for at least a thousand years before that - giving it a history as long as the Western civilization.

1913 photo of Merv.

1913 photo of Merv. ( Public Domain )

Merv’s Early History

The city of Merv probably began as a small village associated with the Bactria-Margiana archaeological complex, a Neolithic and Chalcolithic culture which first appeared in west central Asia around 6,000 BC. In the beginning, it was primarily composed of farmers who also raised sheep and goats as pastoralists. Towards the end of the Neolithic, proto-urban settlements had begun to appear - a few of which became full-fledged state level societies in later periods, such as the ancient city of Gonur.

Camels grazing before the Great Kyz Kala, Merv, Turkmenistan.

Camels grazing before the Great Kyz Kala, Merv, Turkmenistan. (David Stanley/ CC BY 2.0 )

It is debated among archaeologists whether the Bactria-Margiana culture was Indo-European or associated with the Neolithic culture of the ancient Near East. The emerging view among many scholars is that Indo-European nomads from the steppes mingled with proto-urban central Asian farmers and then adopted and spread their culture.

Seated Female Figure, chlorite and limestone, Bactria, 2500–1500 BC LACMA.

Seated Female Figure, chlorite and limestone, Bactria, 2500–1500 BC LACMA. ( Public Domain )

The earliest historical mention of Merv is in Zoroastrian texts, where it is referred to as Mouru. During the 6th century BC, Merv came under the control of the Achaemenid Persian dynasty. This was the first of many Persian dynasties which would rule the city. During this time, it appears to have been a city of some significance and it was associated with Margu. The city continued to be ruled by the Persians until it was conquered in the late 4th century BC by the armies of Alexander the Great. After the city was captured by the Macedonians, it was named (or renamed) Alexandria - as were many cities across the region that was conquered by the famous general.

Ruins of the Great Kyz Kala - “Maiden’s Fortress” in Merv.

Ruins of the Great Kyz Kala - “Maiden’s Fortress” in Merv. ( MY EPIC ADVENTURE )

Merv Under Other Rulers

Alexander the Great died in 323 BC and the rule of the city went to the Seleucids, one of the Hellenistic successor dynasties to Alexander the Great, or the Diadochi. Under the Seleucids, the city was renamed as Antiochia Margiana by the Hellenistic king Antiochus I Soter (281-261 BC). Over the next couple of centuries, the city passed from the Seleucids to the Hellenistic Bactrian rulers, then the Parthians, and finally the Sassanians - who occupied the city in the 3rd century AD. This was when the city became very important as a center of Buddhist learning due to its numerous monastery temples. Buddhism was only the first religion for which Merv would be an important city and center of scholarship.

Stacked rocks reveal that Buddhists have visited the place and left prayer rocks.

Stacked rocks reveal that Buddhists have visited the place and left prayer rocks. ( Traveling Epic! )

The Sassanid Persian dynasty took the city during the reign of Ardashir I (220-240 AD). It remained an important urban center as well as a place of religious diversity with Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Christians, and Buddhists living together in peace. It already had a reputation as one of the most important cities of the east, but its golden days were still ahead of it.

After four centuries of Sassanian rule, the city came under Muslim rule when Caliph Umar (634-644 AD) occupied the city and made it an important urban center in the province of Khorasan. The Muslim political empire used Merv as a base of operations to gain control of much of west Central Asia and to begin their infiltration of India.

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