Home Page   •   Blog   •   Site Contents   •   Contact

Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee




Turkmenistan Region

Turkmenistan Region & Zoroastrianism


Turkmenistan and Zoroastrianism

Silk Roads

Kopet Dag Mountains

Kara Kum Desert

Nisa, Anau, Kopet Dag Foothills

Nisaya, Nisa

Raphael Pumpelly - Champion of a Central Asian Cradle of Civilization


Fredrik Hiebert

Why Pumpelly Remains Unknown

Resumption of Anau Excavations

Ancient Kopet Dag Foothill Townships

Mouru - Gonur 1

Mouru & Murgab River Delta

Region & Zoroastrianism

Tepe or Depe


The Archaeological Site

Description of Ancient Gonur

Water Management

Mouru - Gonur 2


Speculation About the Use of Haoma

Claims Regarding Gonur/Margush/Turkmenistan as the Birthplace of Zoroaster or Zoroastrianism

Necropolis & Burial Customs

Gonur Artefacts

Abandonment of Gonur

Age, People & Culture

Mouru - Gonur 3


Toguluk / Togulok

Adji Kui


Very Poor Archaeological Practices

Viktor Sarianidi

BMAC & Andronovo Archaeological Complexes

Mouru - Merv


Endangered Site

History & Cities of Merv

Erk Kala

Gyaur Kala

Sultan Kala

Abdullah Khan Kala

Bairam Ali Khan Kala

Mouru - Merv

Turkmenistan Region Page 4

Turkmenistan Region Pages:

» Page 1: Turkmenistan Region Introduction

» Page 2: Nisaya - Anau & Ancient Kopet Dag Foothill Townships

» Page 3: Mouru - Gonur

South Turkmenistan Mugrab delta and oasis
Murgab delta and oasis (circled) in the south of Turkmenistan
The Murgab river spreads out and disappears into the Kara Kum desert to the north


As with Gonur, Merv lies in the Murgab river delta, the area generally considered to be the ancient land of Mouru, the third Vendidad nation.

The ancient city of Merv (Persian Marv), lies 30 km east of the city of Mary (a corrupted form of Merv) capital of the province, or vilayet / welayatlar, of the same name located in south-eastern Turkmenistan bordering Afghanistan. The province has an area of 87,000 square kilometres and a population of 1,146,800 (1995 figures). It is claimed that in medieval times, Merv was the largest city in the world.

Merv landscape
Merv landscape. The site extends past the faint building in the background

Merv lies on one of the main arms of the ancient Silk Roads that carried trade between Europe and Africa and the Far East. Historically, Merv was also an important departure point for the 180 km journey across desert northwest to ancient Amul (today Turkmenabad) located on the banks of the Amu Darya river. The ruins of ancient Merv are located near the small town of Bairam Ali, a Russian garrison town established in the early twentieth century.

The broad delta of rich alluvial land created by the Murgab river, which flows northwards from Afghanistan, forms an oasis at the southern edge of the Kara Kum Desert.

Endangered Site

In 1987 the Government of Turkmenistan established an archaeological park to protect the sites of the old walled cities, some extra-mural areas, and outlying buildings, thereby protecting the site from agricultural encroachment and improving access to the monuments. In 1999, the United Nations declared Merv a World Heritage Site. Despite these actions, in 2000 the World Monuments Watch placed Merv on its list of the world's 100 most endangered sites.

History & Cities of Merv

The ruins of Merv contain a succession of ancient cities developed over a period of 2500 years at the heart of the oasis formed by Murgab river delta, and close to the course of where the main river channel flowed in ancient times. Together, the cities of Merv once encompassed over 1200 hectares.

Predating the earliest ruins uncovered so far, Merv was part of the third Avestan nation of Mouru. Unless earlier ruins are discovered, it would appear that Mouru was centered at Gonur, an older city and one that appears to have been abandoned as the residents moved south to the sites of Merv.

ancient cities of Merv
Layout of the Ancient Cities of Merv
From: UCL Institute of Archaeology (Home1) (Home2)

Erk Kala

The oldest of Merv's ruins, Erk Kala (a modern name meaning citadel castle), date from the 5th century BCE. Constructed by the Persian Achaemenians, Erk Kala appears to have been the central city of Margush as it was known to the Achaemenians serving as an important administrative and trading centre. It lay at the hub of the spectacular Silk Roads along which trade between the furthest reaches of the Persian empire flourished.

The site is some 12 hectares in size and lies 17 metres below today's surface. Buried under more than 1,500 years of buildings old and new, it is virtually inaccessible to archaeological exploration. Little is therefore known about this enclosure. It is possible that the ruins of an earlier city lie beneath Erk Kala's ruins.

Erk Kala
Erk Kala
Gyaur Kala with Erk Kala (circular walled structure)
Gyaur Kala with Erk Kala (circular walled structure). Image credit: Wikimedia

Gyaur Kala

With the defeat of the Achaemenians by Alexander in the 4th century BCE, Merv came under Macedonian rule. After Alexander's death, the lands he had conquered became the Seleucid Empire ruled, one of his generals Seleucus I (312-280 BCE). Selecus' successor, Antiochus I (280-261 BCE), began a massive expansion of the city at Merv, constructing a walled city nearly two kilometres across called Antiochia Margiana (today called Gyaur Kala) and covering some 340 hectares. He converted the earlier city of Erk Kala into a citadel that lay within the new walled city. Gyaur Kala was to remain occupied for a thousand years.

The Seleucid dynasty succumbed to the Parthians in c 250 BCE, and the Parthian rule gave way to Sassanian rule in 226 CE. The Parthians and Sassanian continued to maintain Merv's Gyaur Kala as a major administrative, military and trading centre. The defences were repeatedly rebuilt and strengthened. The vitality of the city during these times is reflected in the wealth of archaeological objects recovered from the excavations within Gyaur Kala. The city did suffer harsh times and destruction during destabilizing migrations and invasions from nomadic tribes. During the 5th century CE, Merv was probably the base for a disastrous Sassanian campaign against the Hephthalite Huns, when many of the Sassanian elite were killed.

Gyaur Kala in the Sassanian period. Reconstruction drawing by Claire Venables
Gyaur Kala in the Sassanian period. Reconstruction drawing by Claire Venables
From: UCL Institute of Archaeology

The Persian Sassanians were defeated by the Arabs in 649 CE. During the rule of the second Arab caliphate, the Umayyads (660 - 750 CE), Merv became the capital of Khorasan (the 'eastern land') and a centre of further Arab expansion. By the seventh century CE, koshks such as the Kiz Kala or Kyz Kala (see photograph on the page banner at the top of this page), stand alone buildings defended by striking, massive, corrugated walls had been constructed west the city walls.

Persian geographer, traveller and writer, Al-Istakhri (c 951 CE), a wrote that, "For its cleanliness, its good streets, the divisions of its buildings and quarters among the rivers and gardens..., their city (Merv) is superior to the rest of the cities of Khorasan."

Like Erk Kala, Gyaur Kala also lies buried under a millennium and a half of construction on top of its ruins.

[To the east of Gyaur Kala, the Arabs built a separate walled town, Shaim Kala, to house colonists from over-crowed Basra. Sadly, Shaim Kala has been largely destroyed by a Soviet-planned village. Shaim Kala is not outlined in the satellite image plan above.]

Sultan Kala

By the beginning of the eighth century CE, suburbs had risen near the Majan canal which flowed a kilometre west of Gyaur Kala city wall. When Abbasid Abu Muslim established dynastic power in February 748 CE, he relocated the government buildings and major bazaars from the ancient city to a location near the suburb. Merv prospered at this site under the Abbasids and Tahirids, but went through a period of decline when political power moved to Nishapur and Bukhara.

The Seljuks arrived in the eleventh century CE and revived the city, establishing Merv as their eastern capital and calling it Marv al-Shahijan (today called Sultan Kala). In the process, they built fortification walls around the suburbs, a task that was completed at the end of the eleventh century during the reign of Sultan Malikshah (1072-92 CE).

Sultan Sanjar (1118-57 CE) is credited with construction of a fortified citadel, the Shahriyar Ark, in the northeast corner, and two additional walled suburbs that extended the city to the north and south. The Shahriyar Ark citadel enclosed a palace complex, administrative buildings and residences for the elite.

In 1221 CE, a Mongol army advanced on Merv and its cavalry rode around the walls for spent six days looking for the weak points. The terrified residents negotiated a surrender which only served to open the gates and allow the Mongols to enter, after which they proceeded to massacre the townspeople and burn the town.

The city remained occupied, an impoverished shadow of its former self, until the Timurids integrated the area into their empire in the late 14th century CE.

Abdullah Khan Kala

In the 15th century CE, in preparation for establishing Merv as his capital, Timurid king Shahrukh (1405-47 CE) founded a new planned settlement, now known as the Abdullah Khan Kala, a kilometre south of Sultan Kala. The new town covered some 46 hectares. Shahrukh instituted a major building program, rebuilt the irrigation system, and is credited with construction of the dam at Merv. Construction came to a halt when Shahrukh decided to establish his capital in Samarkand instead. Resumption of development of Merv had to wait until Shaybanis' reign (1500-98 CE) who built the fortification walls.

In the post-medieval period Merv remained a provincial center, a small town of less than a square kilometre that notwithstanding its diminutive size, boasted, one of the strongest fortification of its time. A mosque, madrasa and reservoir were situated in the center of the northern section, with a citadel in the north corner.

Bairam Ali Khan Kala

A rectangular extension known as Bairam Ali Khan Kala was constructed to the west of Abdullah Khan Kala in the eighteenth century. These two sites were probably in use until the early nineteenth century. By the time the Russians arrived in 1885 CE, the site had been abandoned and many of its buildings had been dismantled to provide bricks for new construction.

Additional reading: UNESCO document no. 886

» Top

» Page 1 - Turkmenistan Region Introduction
» Page 2 - Nisaya & Anau
» Page 3 - Mouru & Gonur

» Site Contents

Search Our Site: