The drive from Ashgabat had been long, and after a quick lunch in Mary we continued to the ancient city of Merv. We had been prepared: Merv is still largely left to the elements, and not restored to its former brilliance. Instead, the ruins of Merv just tell the story of its history. Merv is called a wandering city, meaning that each new version of the city was built next to the previous ones, and not on top of them. This means that it is possible to walk, or drive, from one period of Merv to the next in a matter of minutes. But altogether, Merv is a great city, and according to some, it was the biggest city in the 12th century world.
We started our visit with the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, a great dome-covered square building rising 36 metres above the ground. Once upon a time, Silk Road travellers could see the mausoleum from a distance, as it was covered in blue tiles. These are no more: the exterior of the mausoleum is brownish with five arched vaults just below the dome. While the outside is quite stark, the inside has more decorative elements. The high ceiling and cupola are decorated with geometric designs, the cenotaph on the floor has fine calligraphy on its top, but it does not contain the remains of the Sultan: afraid of grave robbers, he had himself buried elsewhere. The small hole in the cupola is supposed to have been built to allow the beautiful woman loved by the Sultan to fly into his mausoleum; a touching tale of love and desire. From the Mausoleum, we continued to explore other parts of this ancient city. A short stop at the Mausoleum of Hodja Yusup Hamadani allowed us a great view over Merv, and once again realized the enormity of it. After that, some off-road driving took us past the old walls of Sultan Kala to reach the entrance of Gyaur Kala, drove through it, to reach Erk Kala.
Erk Kala is the oldest, and smallest, city of Merv, and not much is left besides the clearly marked city walls. After crossing the remains of the moat and climbing the rather steep walls, we reached the top, which looked more like the crater of an extinct volcano. Barren earth all around, with a roughly circular wall surrounding it, it takes a lot of imagination to see the capital of the Achaemenid period of Merv. It also allows for a perfect view of the surrounding area, Gyaur Kala, and beyond. After walking down, we saw the faintly recognizable remains of an old mosque with a cistern, after which we convinced the driver to take us to the south-eastern part of the old city from where we walked to the remains of what is thought to be the remains of the westernmost Buddhist stupa. Even though it was as vaguely discernible as the rest of the ruins of Gyaur Kala, it was still exciting. From here, we continued to the mausolea of two Ashkab, a twin building with an ancient water cistern where we found two women taking water to heal their bodies. On our way, we saw old icehouses which the Seljuks appeared to have used to keep foods cold. Probably the most special ruins were still to come: the Greater and Lesser Kyz Kalas. The Greater Kyz Kala was build for girls. According to one legend, they jumped off the corrugated walls after they saw what the Mongols did after they conquered the city in the early 13th century, another, that the boys, in the Lesser Kyz Kala, had to fire a projectile (according to our guide: throw an apple) into the Greater Kyz Kala in order to be able to marry one of the girls which, according to the distance, seems impossible. The sun was setting, the light was fantastic, and it was time to leave the ancient city of Merv after a quick last visit of the Mausoleum of Mohammed Ibn Zayd.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Merv (). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Merv.
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