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Discovery Central Asia

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by  Pavel Voronov

After passing   through   the  fertile  and hospitable lands of the densely populated valley between the rivers Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya, travelers along the Great Silk Road are faced with the wild and arid flats of the Karakuma Desert. Trade caravans would never have been able to survive the thousand-kilometer trek over loose sand dunes and powerful hills stretching as far as the Caspian Sea, if not for oases such as ancient Merv, a cradle of one of the most ancient civilizations on Earth.

Long before the arrival of Christianity, this name was famous as the capital of a wealthy state along the River Murgab, on the territory of present-day Turkmenistan. From her former glory, all that remains are ancient crumbling walls, fortresses and tombs, covering an area of almost 100 square kilometers, 30 km from the modern-day city of Marv. Erk-Kala, the most ancient of Merv's fortresses, has been seriously eroded by time, but its high and mighty walls still remain standing among the fortress. In ancient times, the area around Merv was a fertile oasis, about which numerous legends have been written. The ancient Greek Historian Strabo wrote that he had seen grapevines so immense, their stalks were as wide as two men put together. In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great conquered the region, and the
city became known as Alexander Margian. After the death of this great general, his heir, Caesar Antioch I, ordered that the oasis be surrounded by a defensive wall, the length of which would be  over  250  kilometers.   Later,   Iranian  pagans  further strengthened these walls with the aid of 10,000 captive Roman legionnaires, exiled here during the reign of Caesar Orod, after the armies of Mark Krass defeated Orod in Asia.
Plutarch wrote: «The Romans were frightened by a loud noise, when suddenly their enemy attacked them, and were able to pierce the steel mail and armor of the Romans». The famous «Damascus steel», able to cut through a silk scarf when dropped over it, was first invented in Merv, according to the opinion of many scientists, as a smelting oven was unearthed here among the remains.
In the middle ages, Merv was again seized, this time by Arab Hordes, and in the 12th century, it became the capital of the Empire of the Great Selidzhuks, a militant nomadic tribe of Turks who arrived form the Northern Steppes, ancestors of present-day Turkmen. The most majestic monument of that time was the mausoleum of the Sultan Sandzhara, whose architecture best reflects the achievements of the
Muslim epoch. Omar Hayam, the remarkable poet of the Orient, lived and worked among the gardens of the Sandzhara.

In 1221, Merv fell victim to the invasions of the Mongol Hordes of Ghengis Khan. Legend has it that more than a million inhabitants perished, and the city was completely destroyed. After this disaster, she never again returned to her former glory.  In the 18th century, Merv became a part of the Russian Empire.
In modern-day Marv, there are comfortable hotels,   markets,   an  airport,   and  factories producing the world-famous Turkmen rugs. But, experts from around the world can spot the truly best rugs at a glance, hand-made rugs decorated with inimitable exotic patterns. There is a saying: «Water is the life of the Turkmen; A horse is his wing; the rug, his soul». Well-suited for easy transport, the rug has satisfied the domestic needs of the nomadic lifestyle. Some were used to winterize their homes, others were used to change the furniture. It was possible to use them as cribs for their infants, to decorate camels during wedding ceremonies, or to carry their dead during funerals. The primary decorative designs of Turkmen rugs include plants, elements of an ancient tribal sign, the «Tamga», and scenes of birds-of-prey, which the tribes considered as their protector. Each color on the rug has its meaning. Red personifies
fire and happiness; black - water and life; white - metal and wealth. A rug's value is determined by its density. In some samples, there are over a million threads per square meter.
The life of Turkmen today has in many ways remained as it always has been. They are no longer a nomadic people, but they generally lead the same lifestyle they have been accustomed to for millennia. You can see this written in the sand of the Karakum desert during a visit to a yurt of any shepherd, who guides his flock of thousands of sheep among the endless soil and sand dunes.
A desert still surrounds the Merv oasis from all sides, expressing its great severity. Sometimes, incredibly powerful winds blow strong enough to knock a man off his feet, lifting tons of sand into the air, which blocks the light of the sun. At these times, a traveler feels as if he has suddenly been carried back to prehistoric times.
Not far away from Merv on the Badkhyz plateau, wild prickly pistachio trees grow, and wild herds of asses graze. Along the banks of the Karakum canal, thick reeds sway in which thousands of birds nest - white herons, storks, pelicans. And, of course, around the walls of ancient Merv, you can trek among the sands on the back of a camel, the unflinching companion of man on the caravan route of the Great Silk Road

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