Two seas—the Aral Sea, now almost non-existent, and the Caspian Sea—encircle the great Turan plain, where constant migrations and ethnogenetic contacts between nomadic and sedentary peoples have taken place over the last few millennia. In the Middle Ages, tribes that roamed from the Western Aral Sea to the South-Eastern Caspian Sea and back settled the civilizations of ancient Khorezm, Hyrcania, Margiana, and Parthia. Modern Turkmens can reasonably be considered their descendants. These historical regions were, at different times, part of several empires of the ancient and medieval world, but even as they gained and lost their independence, they remained small oases surrounded by vast deserts.
What traces have they left within the borders of the contemporary state of Turkmenistan? There are many such traces, but little is known about them outside a narrow circle of specialists. Only three archaeological parks on the territory of modern Turkmenistan have become well known and been included on the World Heritage List in different years. Each of them is undoubtedly unique and deserving of recognition.
Ruslan G . Muradov
Architectural historian, Professor of the International Academy of Architecture (Moscow Branch), Editor-in-Chief of the Bulletin of the International Institute for Central Asian Studies (Ashgabat, Turkmenistan).
The Murghab River, which flows down from the low western slopes of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan and loses its waters in the sands of the Karakums, was much more abundant in ancient times, and from the third millennium BC gave life to oases in its periodically changing delta. At different times, these oases were called by different names, yet all had the same root: Mouru (or Margush) in Old Persian, Margiana in Ancient Greek, Merv in Arabic, and Mary, as it is currently known in Turkmen. A probable center of this small kingdom is referred to in the modern toponymy as Gonur Depe.
Gonur is located deep in the Karakum desert, almost 90 kilometers from the airport at Mary. It is the largest of the more than 300 identified Bronze Age sites in the old Murghab delta. According to archaeological data, it originated in 2,300-2,250 BC and lasted for about 600-800 years. The central part of the monumental structures of the Gonur complex had stretched to about 25 hectares by the time people left it in the middle of the second millennium BC. Another 10 hectares were devoted to the urban necropolis. The funerary objects and jewelry of the people buried here are striking in their elegance. These are high-quality artistic products made of stone, metal, ivory, and, of course, clay, which served as a dough for skillful potters and sculptors, who created the finest ceramic vessels in exquisite forms, as well as figures of deities in the pagan pantheon. The countless artifacts that accompanied the lives of Gonur’s inhabitants are now exhibits in Turkmen museums. Recently, they traveled to German cities as part of a large traveling exhibition dedicated to the art of Margiana.
For almost 40 years (1974-2013), Gonur, Togolok, and some other sites in this oasis were excavated by Professor Victor Sarianidi, who led the Margiana expedition. During his lifetime, thousands of people came to see the ruins of a previously completely unknown ancient oriental kingdom and talk to the legendary academician in his field camp. The river valley, where urban life boomed 4,000 years ago, is now a desert, and the ancient settlements discovered by archaeologists are slowly being swallowed up by the sands or leveled by local farmers—unpunished invaders of protected land who are eager to discover new lands for irrigation. Thus is history disappearing before our eyes, its priceless testimonies often being lost before they have even been catalogued and included in the scientific canon.
Ancient Merv, declared a State Historical and Cultural Reserve back in 1988 and included on the World Heritage List since 1999, is an example of how monument conservation authorities are trying to counteract the greed of entrepreneurs and the ignorance of the local authorities. Neither archaeologists nor ancient orientalists would dare to state exactly when the settlement at the site of Merv emerged. There is indirect evidence that it occurred around the seventh century BC, on the site now known as Erk-Kala, which towers over the entire area. At that time, it was only one of the numerous settlements; it was far from the largest or the most important. Yet it was destined to become an important political center: under the Achaemenids, it became a powerful citadel, and after the campaign of Alexander the Great it became known as Margiana Alexandria. In the Middle Ages, Merv was an important Islamic capital that boasted great architecture and intellectual minds. This lasted until the summer of 1222, when Merv was destroyed by the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan. In the early fifteenth century, Tamerlane’s son Shahrukh tried to revive the uninhabited city by building Abdullakhan-Kala fortress two kilometers south of Sultan-Kala. To this, later in the same century, was attached the Bayramalihan-Kala fortress. But in subsequent centuries Merv’s buildings drifted with the receding water. The remaining ruins are almost intact despite their age, having been subject to no modern intrusion, a reality that now greatly facilitates the work of archaeologists.
Erk-Kala is the ancient core of Merv. It was later complemented by a Hellenistic square city, Antiochus of Margiana (now Gyaur Kala), which flourished under the Parthians and Sassanids. After the Arab conquest, a new city was built close to Merv, namely Sultan Kala. Merv became the Seljuk capital in the mid-eleventh century. It was a magnificent city center founded by the legendary Abu Muslim, who led Abbasid supporters to Merv in 748 to proclaim a new dynasty, which soon defeated the Umayyads in the struggle for power in the Arab Caliphate. Settling in Merv, he moved the seat of government from the old city, Gyaur-kala, and built a new one where the Sultan-kala later grew. Abu Muslim’s palace, known as Dar-al-Imara and built around 750, was a pretentious building that—according to the Arab geographer al-Istahri, who saw it a century and a half later—featured a domed auditorium, four aivans, and a courtyard. This fusion of Sassanid architectural forms (dome and aivan) defined for centuries Islamic architecture in this part of the world—not only civil, but also iconic.
The first large structures that greet visitors today are the two mud castle ruins (köshks, in local terminology) of Greater Kyz Kala and Lesser Kyz Kala, with their severe, tightly pressed semi-columns forming corrugated facades. There are various speculations about the age of these giant dwellings. The English researcher Hugh Kennedy recently argued that they could well be Tahir’s buildings. And if the peculiarities of their construction and building materials cannot serve as exact indicators, the presence of mihrab in one of the premises of the Greater Kyz Kala clearly indicates that the building was constructed during the Arab period.
Corrugated köshks are typical of Central Asian architecture: they are numerous not only in Merv and its surroundings, but also in Khorezm; they have also been found in Bukhara and Termez, but they are completely absent in Iran. It is clear that they are a purely local architectural type that dates back to pre-Islamic times and was reproduced until at least the twelfth century, not only in mud but also in burnt bricks. A vivid example of the latter is Rabat-i Malik, steppe residence of the Karakhanids in Bukhara oasis.
The tenth and eleventh centuries were an era of an unprecedented cultural boom, when the best minds of the Muslim world—poets, painters, and architects—flocked to Merv, leaving their immortal works to their descendants. Among them were Omar Khayyam and Fakhr ad-Din Gurgani, the author of the romantic epic Vis and Ramin, who lived here for many years.
Exactly 1,000 years ago Merv became the largest city in Central Asia and one of the largest in the whole Muslim world. Merv and its suburbs covered 1,800 hectares and its population numbered 150,000 people. Considering that the bulk of cities at that time had between 2,000 and 5,000 inhabitants, you can imagine the scale of Seljuk Merv.
At the end of the eleventh century, during the reign of Sultan Melik Shah, the wall of rabad, the central square of Sultan-Kala, was built or completely reconstructed. About 200 semicircular towers were placed along the wall’s perimeter. The mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar was built in the mid-twelfth century (not later than 1152), almost on the same site where the palace of Abu Muslim was located. We lack the information that would be necessary to reconstruct the image and determine the place of the mausoleum, but testimonies of contemporaries bear witness to its dominating aspect: “…a dome of blue colour rises above it and is visible at a distance of one day’s travel” (Yaqut al-Hamawi, thirteenth century); it is “the greatest building in the world” (Rashid-ad-Din, fourteenth century); it is “one of the greatest structures of the universe, so strong that damage cannot touch it” (al-Isfizari, fifteenth century).
Even in its current state, the Sanjar Mausoleum is impressive: it is an enormous cube crowned by a dome 17.28 meters in diameter. The original outer dome, covered with tiles, has not survived, but it was rebuilt in 2004. The design of the dome preceded by 150 and 300 years, respectively, the similar designs visible in the Oljeytu-Hodabende mausoleum in Soltanie (northwest Iran) and the well-known Florentine cathedral designed by Filippe Brunelleschi.
The small memorial mosque to Muhammad ibn Zaid, built in the suburbs near the ceramicist quarter between 1112 and 1113, also speaks to Merv’s high standard of architecture. It is stylistically similar to another monument from the first quarter of the twelfth century, known later as Hudainazar-öwliya. The latter became in 2022 the subject of a restoration project funded by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFSP). Another mosque, the Talkhatan Baba, built around 1095 in a small village 30 kilometers west of Merv, is a classic expression of the architectural and artistic achievements of the Seljuk era. It is a whole building made of burnt brick. Every facade and interior has virtuoso ornamental masonry made of paired bricks with “bows” and other figurative inserts. Such uniformity of internal and external decoration creates an impression of the building’s exceptional integrity.
The Parthian Fortresses of Nisa
Nisa, which emerged some 22 centuries ago as a royal sanctuary for a dynasty of descendants of Arsak the Great, the founders of the mighty Parthian empire, is located on the western outskirts of Ashgabat. It consists of two impressive fortresses: Könenusay (Old Nisa) and Täzenusay (New Nisa). The entire area between them was once occupied by a medieval town, but this was completely buried in the twentieth century by a modern housing development. Both fortresses are now steep hills near a small river, almost at the foot of the Kopetdag Mountain. A fertile plain stretches from the natural elevation on which they were founded all the way to the Karakum desert. The beautiful landscape that can be observed from the high fortress walls of Old Nisa is marred by the high-rise buildings of Ashgabat, despite the fact that the Nisa forts are included on the World Heritage List not only as historical monuments, but also as “cultural landscapes” thanks to many years of work by the first State Historical and Cultural Preserve of Turkmenistan, established in 1980.
In the fourth century BC, the Achaemenid Empire collapsed under the blows of the Greek-Macedonian forces. Under Seleucus, the successor of Alexander the Great, and his descendants, the independent states of Bactria, Parthia, and Khorezm were founded. Parthia, which existed for nearly 600 years (from the third century BC to the third century AD), had a particularly brilliant history and had become a formidable rival of Rome by the first century AD. This was a vast empire that, at its zenith, stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to north-west India. Its cradle and original core was Partava, a historical area inhabited by the Parthians and bisected by the Kopetdag mountain range. It roughly corresponds to the territory of the modern Akhal velayat in Turkmenistan and the northern regions of the Iranian province of Khorasan. The aparn (or parn) tribe, led by their leader, Arsak, united the nomads in the Karakum desert and invaded Partava (Northern Parthia) before 247 BC. The Greek governor of this Seleucid satrapy was assassinated and Arsak declared himself king of independent Parthia. He then occupied Hyrcania, on the southeastern shore of the Caspian Sea. Around the same time, Parthavnisa was founded as the administrative and economic center of the Arsacid dynasty’s possessions in their ancestral lands. The latter corresponds to the New Nisa site, which included a citadel encircled by a fortified wall. To the south, on the edge of the suburb, a royal fortress, now called Old Nisa, was built. Thanks to written documents found during excavations, the exact name of the fortress has been established: Mitridatkirt.
A look inside the castle reveals the ruins of the buildings that stood there. This is the so-called central complex, the core of which is the “Tower Building.” It was the dominant part of the whole complex, and it stood at least 15 meters tall. Its facades were decorated with both pilasters made of burnt brick and wall paintings that, judging by the surviving fragments, featured battle scenes. During excavations, many remains of decorations were found here, including broken clay statues of full-body, much-larger-than-life human figures in Parthian clothing or military armor.
Based on a thorough analysis of all archaeological materials obtained, as well as by comparing Nisa buildings with other architectural monuments from the Parthian era in Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria, most researchers have concluded that the main buildings of Old Nisa were associated with Zoroastrian cults. There was a tradition here of venerating deified kings and heroes who became famous in battles; this developed not so much as the result of borrowing from the Greeks as due to the development of local ideological systems based on Avesta.
The life of Nisa was not confined to the Parthian era. Unlike Mitridatkirt, where the ruins of the ancient period were hardly covered by later strata, Nisa existed as an urban citadel for many centuries after the fall of the Arsacid Empire. In 651, Nisa became part of the Arab Caliphate. In the ninth and tenth centuries it was prosperous, as many travelers and geographers of that time testify. Development of the city continued until 1220, when Nisa, like other large cities of Central Asia, suffered a catastrophe: a multi-day siege and destruction by Genghis Khan’s troops.
Scientific study of Nisa was begun in 1930 by the pioneer of Turkmen archaeology, Alexander Marushchenko. It was he who managed to establish the true age of Nisa and determine the places where Parthian temples had once stood. In 1946, the South-Turkmenistan Archaeological Complex Expedition (YuTAKE), headed by the academician Mikhail Masson, was established. Over the years, it made a succession of major scientific discoveries, some of them sensational. It was here, in the autumn of 1948, that archaeologists discovered a whole collection of the now-famous rhytons: large horn-shaped vessels made from elephant tusks and decorated with sculpture, gilding, and an inlay of precious stones. YuTAKE excavated almost all presently known buildings of New and Old Nisa and reconstructed the cultural history of Northern Parthia. The research into Parthian fortresses at Nisa was continued by Dr. Victor Pilipko from the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor Antonio Invernizzi from the Turin Centre of Archaeological Excavations, and Dr. Carlo Lippolis, who also carried out work on the study and preservation of Parthian monuments in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.
Kunya Urgench: Town of Masters
Like many ancient cities whose origins are lost in the darkness of a too-distant past, the chronology of Kunya Urgench can be reconstructed only on the basis of archaeological finds. Arabs arrived here at the beginning of the eighth century, bringing with them a new religion: Islam. And if essentially nothing is known about ancient and early medieval Gurgandja, the Muslim period of its history has largely been reconstructed, thanks to the priceless testimony of contemporaries, collected first in Arab sources and then in Persian and Khivan ones. The political history of the rise of Gurganj, which from the beginning of the eleventh century began to overshadow the city of Kät (the capital of the southern part of Khorezm) and became the center of the united dominions, is covered in many historical works.
In the history of the city, two most glorious periods—immortalized in architectural monuments—stand out. The period between 1097 and 1231 marked the rule of the Khorezm Anushtegin dynasty, during which Khorezm, with its capital at Gurganj, emerged as the largest empire in the Middle East. The defeat of this state by Mongol invaders—accompanied by the death of the last Khorezmshakh, Jalal-ad-Din, who led the struggle against Mongols for 10 years—ended the dynasty. The second period is associated with the incorporation of Khorezm into the Golden Horde under Jochi Khan, the eldest son of Genghis Khan, and his dynasty. A century after the defeat of the city, in the early fourteenth century, there was a new flowering under Emir Kutlug-Timur, the Golden Horde viceroy of Urgench. Soon thereafter, an independent local dynasty of Sufids gained power in the city: they let its creativity continue until 1388, when its development was interrupted and it faced new destruction at the hands of Timur, the ruler of Samarqand. After that, the city lost its former importance and steadily degraded. In the seventeenth century, a water shortage forced its inhabitants to leave the city and move on to New Urgench (on the territory of modern Uzbekistan). Since then, the ruins of the former Gurgandj have become known as Old Urgench (Kunya Urgench). In 1831, after a canal was dug, the Khorezm Turkmens re-settled to the north of the ruins of the medieval city.
The eleventh-century minaret, which is the highest in Central Asia, and four mausoleums are the main attractions of Kunya Urgench. The oldest is the tomb of Khorezmshakh Il Arslan (second half of the twelfth century). This miniature monument has no pronounced portal, as other Muslim mausoleums do, but the main entrance is accentuated. It is divided into three deep arched niches and decorated with carved terracotta tiles with a floral pattern and an epigraphic band. The twelve-sided tent above this mausoleum is decorated with glazed sky-blue bricks, which make a simple geometric ornament. The mausoleum of Khorezm Shah Tekesh has almost the same components, but on a more monumental scale. Of particular value are rectangular plates in Arabic lettering entirely covered with blue glaze. Some of these plates have long since been lost, and several copies are in the collection of the Oriental Department of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Another unusual building is the khanaka of the famous Sufi sheikh Najm ad-Din al-Kubra. The well-proportioned portal of the main façade was once completely covered with majolica tiles with epigraphy and floral ornamentation, typical of Khorezmian architectural ceramics. But the main attraction is inside the building, in the gurkhan. There, the monumental cenotaph—the tombstone above the imaginary grave of the sheikh—has survived, though in a badly damaged state. It, as well as the portal, was entirely faced with majolica tiles with intricate ornaments in the blue-and-white palette traditional to Khorezm. This shrine dates from the fourteenth century. Since then, it has been the epicenter of the city’s religious complex and the object of constant pilgrimage by the faithful.
But the most fascinating structure of Kunya Urgench is Turabek-khanym mausoleum. Behind a high and deep portal is a small domed foyer, followed by a hexagonal hall with an area of about one hundred square meters, the walls of which are richly decorated with a carved mosaic. An inverted spherical bowl seems to be floating above the hall, on which a mosaic panel of the finest brightly colored girih appears—a geometrical pattern of stars and polyhedrons filled with flowers and vegetation. The outer sides of the mausoleum are decorated with four deep and slender arched niches with large arched windows between them. The building is crowned by a blue glazed tent of conic shape, of which only a small piece remains. There are no exact data regarding the time of erection of this remarkable monument, but it is closely connected with the name of Turabek-khanym, the wife of emir Kutlug-Timur, who died in 1335.
The monuments of Kunya Urgench, included on the World Heritage List since 2005, show a striking variety of techniques and decoration of Islamic architecture in Central Asia. There are constructions made of raw and burnt bricks, simple single-chamber domed buildings dating back to the ancient chartaq, and buildings that are complex in their composition, sometimes with a long history of development, repairs, and alterations. There are also early types of courtyard mosque, which had the form of a hypostyle hall, but have long been buried underground. The monuments represent various types of construction, with distinct forms of domes and roofs, as well as the evolution of building decoration to include key Islamic architectural styles like the muqarna—a decorative vaulting system composed of tiers of small niche-like elements resembling stalactites of honeycombs. Local artists mastered this technique to perfection. Finally, the best monuments of this town are highly decorative. They provide brilliant examples of classical arabesques in monochrome terracotta and bright, colorful enamels. The unrestrained play of colour precedes the total polychromy of the much later monuments of Samarqand, Shakhrisyabz, Herat, Isfahan, Khiva, and a number of other Asian cities.
Dehistan, or Mashad-i-Misrian
From ancient times to the thirteenth century, the vast Misrian plateau, now a desert zone between the Caspian Sea and the western spurs of the Kopetdag, was a blooming, populous oasis with many fortified towns and villages built in the midst of wheat fields. Their impact on the terrain can still be seen today when viewed from above using Google Earth. The inhabitants of what the Greeks and Parthians called Hyrcania and the Persians called Dehistan, which literally means “country of villages,” created an extensive irrigation system. As long as it functioned, farming flourished here. The main waterway was the Atrek River, the natural boundary between Turkmenistan and Iran, which has now grown shallow.
The largest center of Dehistan was the eponymous town, often also called Mashad-e-Misrian or simply Misrian. Its central part, encircled by a double fortification wall with semi-circular towers and a moat, occupied an area of about 200 hectares. It was adjoined by a vast rabad, or suburban area, consisting of artisan quarters, where one can still see many remains of pottery workshops and the foundations of several mosques and caravanserais. The southern rabad was home to parks and gardens and a market square, while the western rabad shows traces of dense residential development. The high level of urban culture in Dehistan is evidenced by its landscaping: water supply and sewage systems, bathhouses, and brick pavements were all present there. The ruins of only a few buildings remain, but these show considerable artistic value and Islamic culture. They include the portal of the recently reconstructed mosque of Mohammed II, and two minarets next to it, as well as several medieval mausoleums in the ancient cemetery seven kilometers from the settlement. Among these, the memorial mosque of Mashad Ata, which is positioned on a high platform and features a magnificent mihrab of very fine workmanship dating from the 9th century, stands out.
The Dehistan monuments are not yet included on the World Heritage List, but that is only a matter of time. In terms of their architectural merit, historical uniqueness, and state of preservation, they meet the basic criteria for sites of this kind. Indeed, they have perhaps the most important thing: each building is authentic and has been carefully restored in a way that avoids turning medieval structures into contrived decorations imitating antiquity.