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Merv – Persian name: مرو; formerly Alexandria and Antiochia in Margiana (Greek: Αντιόχεια η Μαργιανή) – in current-day Turkmenistan, was a major oasis-city in Central Asia, on the historical Silk Road, located near today's Mary. Several cities have existed on this site, which is significant for the interchange of culture and politics at a site of major strategic value. In the twelfth century Merv was briefly the largest city in the world [1]. The site of ancient Merv has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Sites.


The Silk Road, extant since prehistoric times, has been a major route for human migrations through Central Asia for all of known history. Though much earlier history must lie under the layers of later city life, archaeological surveys have revealed many survivals of village life as far back as the 3rd millennium BC.

Some say that Merv is the origin of Hindu belief in Mount Meru, which Hinduism declares to be the centre of the world. Others suggest, however, that Mount Meru is another name for Mount Kailas in Tibet.

Under the name of Mouru, Merv is mentioned with Bakhdi (Balkh) in the geography of the Zend-Avesta, which probably dates from the 7th century BC though traditionally given extravagantly earlier dates. Under the name of Margu it occurs as part of one of the satrapies in the Behistun inscriptions (ca 515 BC) of the Persian monarch Darius Hystaspis. The ancient city appears to have been refounded by Cyrus the Great (559 - 530 BC), but the Achaemenid levels are deeply covered by later strata at the site. (See also Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex.)

Alexander the Great's visit to Merv is merely legendary, but the city was named Alexandria for a time. After Alexander's death, Merv became the chief city of a province (Margiana) of the Seleucid, Parthian and Sassanid kingdoms. On the Margus River— called the Epardus by Arrian and now the Murghab— stood the capital of the district, re-named Antiochia Margiana, ("Antioch of the Margiana" or "Antiochia in Margiana") by Antiochus Soter, who rebuilt the city, in a greatly enlarged plan, almost two kilometers across. Little of Seleucid Achiochia Margiana has been recovered, aside from remnants of the fortified outer perimeter.

After Ardashir I (ca 220-240) took Merv, the study of numismatics picks up the thread: a long unbroken direct Sassanian rule of four centuries is documented from the unbroken series of coins originally minted at Merv. Sanjan was another eminent historical city, in the neighbourhood of Merv, claimed by many Zoroastrian Parsees of India as their place of origin. Beside the official Zoroastrianism of the Sassanid dynasty, Merv was home to a range of other religious faiths and some other religious sects, including Buddhists and Manichaeans. During the 5th century CE, Merv was the seat of a Christian archbishopric of the Nestorian Church.

Arab influence

Sassanian rule came to an end when the last Sassanian ruler, Yazdegard III (632-651) was murdered not far from the city and the Sassanian military governor surrendered to the approaching Arab army. The city was occupied by lieutenants of the caliph Uthman ibn Affan, and was constituted the capital of Khorasan. Using this city as their base, the Arabs, led by Kotaiba (Qotaiba) ibn Moslim, brought under subjection Balkh, Bokhara, Fergana and Kashgaria, and penetrated into China as far as the province of Kan-suh early in the 8th century.

Merv achieved some political spotlight in February 748 when Abu Muslim (d. 750) declared a new Abbasid dynasty at Merv, and set out from the city to conquer Iran and Iraq and establish a new capital at Baghdad. Thereafter Merv remained a provincial capital— except for a moment of glory from 813 to 818 when the temporary residency of the caliph al-Ma'mun effectively made Merv the capital of the Muslim world.

In the latter part of the 8th century Merv became obnoxious to Islam as the centre of heretical propaganda preached by al-Muqanna "The Veiled Prophet of Khorasan". In 874 Arab rule in Central Asia came to an end. During their dominion Merv, like Samarkand and Bokhara, was one of the great schools of learning, and the celebrated historian Yaqut studied in its libraries. Merv produced a number of scholars in various branches of knowledge, such as Islamic law, Hadith, history, literature, and the like. Several scholars have the name: Marwazi المروزي designating them as hailing from Merv.

Turkish and Mongolian control

In 1040 the Seljuk Turks crossed the Oxus from the north, and having defeated Masud, sultan of Ghazni, raised Toghrul Beg, grandson of Seljuk, to the throne of Persia, founding the Seljukian dynasty, with its capital at Nishapur. A younger brother of Toghrul, Daud, took possession of Merv and Herat. Toghrul was succeeded by his nephew Alp Arslan (the Great Lion), who was buried at Merv. It was about this time that Merv reached the zenith of her glory. During the reign of Sultan Sanjar or Sinjar of the same house, in the middle of the 11th century, Merv was overrun by the Turkish tribes of the Ghuzz from beyond the Oxus. It eventually passed under the sway of the rulers of Khwarizm (Khiva).

It is believed that Merv was the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153 with a population of 200,000.[2]

In 1221 Merv opened its gates to Tule, son of Genghis Khan, chief of the Mongols, on which occasion most of the inhabitants are said to have been butchered. Excavations revealed drastic rebuilding of the city's fortifications in the aftermath, but the prosperity of the city began to decay. In the early part of the 14th century the town was made the seat of a Christian archbishopric of the Eastern Church. On the death of the grandson of Genghis Khan, Merv was included (1380) in the possessions of Tamerlane, Turco-Persian prince of Samarkand.

Persian period to Russian occupation

In 1505 the city was occupied by the Uzbeks, who five years later were expelled by Ismail Khan, the founder of the Safavid dynasty of Persia. It was in this period that a large dam on the river Murghab was restored by a Persian nobleman, and the settlement which grew up in the area thus irrigated became known as Bairam Ali, by which name it is referred to in some 19th century texts. Merv remained in the hands of Persia until 1787, when it was captured by the emir of Bokhara. Seven years later the Bokharians razed the city to the ground, broke down the dams, and converted the district into a waste. When Sir Alexander Burnes traversed the country in 1832, the Khivans were the rulers of Merv. About this time the Tekke Turkomans, then living on the Heri-rud, were forced by the Persians to migrate northward. The Khivans contested the advance of the Tekkes, but ultimately, about 1856, the latter became the sovereign power in the country, and remained so until the Russians occupied the oasis in 1883.


Russian excavations of the ancient site began in 1890. From 1992-2000 a joint team of archaeologists from Turkmenistan and the U.K. have made remarkable discoveries.

The ruins of Old Merv cover an area of over 15 square miles. Merv has one of the finest Seleucid city walls yet discovered. Two Sassanian residential quarters were revealed in the 1990s digs, in the citadel and in the lower city, which offer the first closely dated material from a major Sassanian center. The site also contains a square citadel (Bairam Ali Khan kalah), 11/8 m. in circuit, built by a son of Tamerlane and destroyed by the Bokharians, and another kalah or walled inclosure known as Abdullah Khan. North from these lies the old capital of the Seljuks, known as Sultan Kalah, and destroyed by the Mongols in 1219. Its most conspicuous feature is the burial mosque of Sultan Sanjar, reputedly dating from the 12th century. East of the old Seljuk capital is Giaur Kalah, the Merv of the Nestorian era and the capital of the Arab princes. North of the old Seljuk capital are the ruins of Iskender Kalah, probably to be identified with the ancient Merv of the Seleucid dynasty.


The oasis is situated on the southern edge of the Kara-kum Desert, in 37° 30’ N. and 62°E. It is about 230 miles north from Herat, and 280 mi. SSE from Khiva. Its area is about 1900 square miles. The great chain of mountains which, under the names of Paropamisadae and Hindu Kush, extends from the Caspian Sea to the Pamir Mountains is interrupted some 180 mi. south of Merv. Through or near this gap flow northwards in parallel courses the rivers Heri-rud (Tejend) and Murghab, until they lose themselves in the desert of Kara-kum. Thus they make Merv a sort of watch tower over the entrance into Afghanistan on the north-west and at the same time create a stepping-stone or étape between north-east Persia and the states of Bokhara and Samarkand.


The present inhabitants of the oasis are Turkomans of the Tekke tribe.


The oasis is irrigated by an elaborate system of canals cut from the Murghab. The country has at all times been renowned throughout the East for its fertility. Every kind of cereal and many fruits grow in great abundance, e.g. wheat, millet, barley and melons, also rice and cotton. Cotton seeds from archaeological levels as far back as the 5th century are the first indication that cotton textiles were already an important economic component of the Sassanian city. Silkworms have been bred. The Turkomans possess a famous breed of horses and keep camels, sheep, cattle, asses and mules. Turkomans are excellent workers in silver and noted as armourers. One of the discoveries of the 1990s excavations was a 9th to 10th century workshop where crucible steel was being produced, confirming in detail contemporary Islamic reports: a major achievement in the history of technology. Carpets from the region of Merv are sometimes considered superior to the Persian. They also make felts and a rough cloth of sheep's wool.


Dry; hot in summer and cold in winter. The heat of summer is most oppressive. The least wind raises clouds of fine dust, which fill the air, render it so opaque as to obscure the noonday sun, and make respiration difficult. In winter the climate is very fine. Snow falls rarely, and when it does, it melts at once. The annual rainfall rarely exceeds 5 in., and there is often no rain from June till October. While in summer the thermometer goes up to 97° F., in winter it descends to 19° F. The average yearly temperature is 60°.


Here there was a Russian imperial domain of 436 sq. m., artificially irrigated by works completed in 1895. This was a restoration of the dam and irrigation networks of Bairam Ali. Some late 19th century British journalists and observers of Russian policy, notably Charles Marvin, believed that this Romanov demesne was deliberately sited to provide a granary (food source) on the route to India for a possible Russian military formation aimed at the invasion of British India. It was absorbed in the much larger area irrigated by the gigantic Soviet-built Karakum Canal in the 1960s.


Antiochia ad Cragum
Antiochia Lamotis
Antiochia in Margiana
Antioch on the Orontes
Antiochia Parliou
Antiochia ad Pyramum
Antiochia in Scythia
Antiochia in Sittacene
Antiochia ad Taurum

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