The location of the Merv oasis in the Karakum desert, Turkmenistan, has made it of strategic importance at least from the Bronze Age. Merv was one of the leading ancient and medieval cities of Western Central Asia and served as a vital staging post on the Great Khurasan Road linking Iran with Central Asia and China, as well as forming an important military headquarters. The ruins of Merv occupy more than 1'000 hectares and consist of a series of adjacent walled city-sites: occupation in the ancient city probably began in the Achaemenian period and continued into the Early Islamic period. As early as the eighth century extramural occupation to the west began to form the core of the medieval city, known today as Sultan Kala, while to the south lie the ruins of the post-medieval city, a Timurid foundation, which continued in use until the 19th century.


Location of Merv

G. Herrmann. Location of Merv.

The International Merv Project began work at Merv in 1992 and completed its sixth season in 19971 . The I.M.P. is a collaboration between the Institute of Archaeology, University College London and YuTAKE, the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan, and has recently been joined by the British Museum. The aim of our multi-disciplinary study is to contribute to the understanding of Merv's urban and cultural development and to offer fixed points of reference and contrast with other excavated Sasanian and Islamic sites in Central Asia, Iran and Mesopotamia. The recording of the disintegrating Islamic monuments located throughout the oasis is also a priority. Work in the field consists of mapping, surveys, excavation, recording the monuments and walls, and the collection of data from unpublished Turkmen excavations. In order to overcome the problem of excessive build-up of data, completed sections of the programme are being prepared for publication as separate volumes. This will enable us to justify long-term involvement at a site considered to be one of the most important in Western Central Asia.

I.M.P.'s Islamic Programme

The standard 'history' of medieval Merv was that the eighth century suburbs developed into the Seljuk metropolis of Marv-ash-Shahijan, one of the capitals of the eastern Muslim world. Malik-shah (1072-92) walled the city, while Sultan Sanjar (1118-1157) formed the citadel and enclosed the suburbs. Savage attacks by the Mongols in 1221 and 1222 were said to have ended occupation of the city, and both ibn Battuta and Mustawfi described Merv as still almost entirely a ruin in the early fourteenth century. However, unpublished Turkmen excavations document considerable post-Seljuk occupation both within and outside the city walls.


Aerial view of the northern half

G. Herrmann. Merv : Aerial view of the northern half of the medieval city of Marv-ash-Shahijan (Sultan Kala)

It was with the aim of documenting the archaeology and history of late and post-Seljuk Merv that we began work in the citadel. Its layout consists of a series of 'streets' lined with monumental buildings with spacious outer courtyards. These structures were generally built on low mounds. Two of the best preserved include a long rectangular structure with corrugated walls, the kepter khan, and the remains of a four iwan courtyard building, considered to be the palace of the Seljuk sultans. The small size of the 'palace', its height above present ground level, as well as the form of some of the low balkhi vaults, raised doubts about its traditional dating - and therefore that of the other structures in the citadel.


Carved and painted stucco

G. Herrmann. Merv : Carved and painted stucco from the residence in Shahryar Ark

With the aim of throwing more light on the construction and abandonment of the citadel, we began excavations in a corner of one of the smaller buildings, as well as clearing its surface to reveal the plan. In its final phase this consisted of two parts, a residential area with a four iwan courtyard at the better preserved eastern end, and a domestic area to the west, the whole occupying an area of some 35 x 25 m. Unfortunately, the excavations, in one corner of the domestic area, provided no significant finds from the primary phase of construction and use, which appears to have been followed by the systematic reuse of fittings. A process of increasingly shoddy architectural modifications was made, followed by the use of a partly collapsed shell of a building for temporary cooking fires. A small number of Ilkhanid, Timurid and later sherds suggest that these secondary phases lasted from the 13th-15th centuries, if not later. Excluding residual, earlier medieval sherds and coins, deriving from the disintegration of mudbrick incorporating cultural materials, there remained a significant quantity of glazed wares attributed locally to the late 12th-early 13th centuries ('Khorezmshah period'). This is the date currently suggested for the foundation of this building, which appears to have been built shortly before the Mongol sack of 1220-21 and reused as a refuge thereafter until the Timurid foundation of a new city. Such a late date disagrees with historical evidence suggesting that the citadel was a Seljuk foundation.

The Fortifications

In 1995 a programme recording the well-preserved walls of the medieval city was begun and will result in a measured plan of the defences, with each sector and tower numbered and measured. Two principal periods of construction have been established. During the first, hollow fortifications were in use, with curtains containing galleries and towers with inner chambers. The defence was from inside the wall and the upper platform. During the second period solid curtains and towers with neither corridor nor chamber were introduced: only the upper platform would have been used for defence. Its seems probable that the military architecture of Sultan Kala was initially based on hollow walls and afterwards on solid fortifications. This change is important, expressing a radical move in strategy. The fortifications were probably adapted to counter an enemy using artillery, mobile tower and sap. The corridor and inner chamber would have been more vulnerable to the new military techniques, although a solid wall formed an adequate response. A similar evolution was noticed by Francfort when the Greeks settled in the south of Central Asia. The exceptional state of preservation of the medieval walls of Sultan Kala are making possible the first detailed study of the military architecture of this region. Comparable Islamic cities, such as Nishapur and Rayy, have been destroyed or have a heavy overburden (Samarkand and Bukhara).


Two of the corrugated castles

G. Herrmann. Merv : Two of the corrugated castles or köshks of Merv, the Little and Great Kiz Kalas, the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar in the distance

The Monuments of Merv

The buildings of Merv were first described by the Russian academician, V.A. Zhukovsky in 1894 and were recorded by Soviet expeditions from the 1930s to the 1950s. Today the monuments are under threat from major programmes of irrigation, an increasing population and the pressures of tourism and increasing religious fervour. Since 1992 the monuments have been the focus of an I.M.P. programme of planning and photography to be published in the first of the Merv final reports, The Monuments of Merv. More than 60 buildings, both religious and secular, survive in varying states of repair in and around the cities and throughout the oasis. These include important mausolea, such as those of Sultan Sanjar and Muhammad ibn Zayd, Timurid monuments, the corrugated castles or köshks, characteristic of the oasis, as well as dings and ice-houses.


The cities of Merv

G. Herrmann. The cities of Merv.


1 Preliminary reports of each season have been published in Iran, the journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies (volumes 31-35, 1993-97)