THE LOST OASIS OF TURKMENISTAN: ANCIENT MERV & THE SILK TRADE ROUTES – 2007
Relic or Ruin?
The Lonely Planet describes Turkmenistan as “a lunar landscape with craters of cultural activity… resembling an Arab Gulf State without the money”. The city of Merv is detailed as, “a lumpen landscape, scarred with ditches and channels, grazed by camels and dotted every now and then with an earthwork mound or a battered sandy-brick structure.” In contrast. The Bradt travel guide, written by former British Ambassador Paul Brummell, introduces Turkmenistan as “a remarkable place,” and Ancient Merv as “one of the most important oasis cities of the Silk Road… among the major archaeological sites of Central Asia.” But two’s a tie, so who better to turn to than former Merv resident and13th century Islamic geographer Yaqut, who remarked, “verily but for the Mongols I would have stayed and lived and died there [Merv]. Hardly could I tear myself away.” Perhaps there’s credence in both guidebook descriptions; Turkmenistan – and Merv in particular, it would seem – has seen its share of turmoil. Indeed, for a country less than 16 years old, host to this intriguing city with a 2,500-year history, one could expect nothing less.
An old republic under the Soviet regime until the breakup of the USSR in 1991, Turkmen-i-stan – literally, place of the Turkmen – has seen scores of empires, as can be traced through the archaeological record at Merv. At times a fortress citadel-outpost, at others a capital and administrative centre, Merv’s form and function has waxed and waned through the centuries. Military strong post at the frontier of major campaigns, capital to empires, revolutionary staging ground, independent city-state – Merv has seen it all.
A Brief History
With an empire stretching from Turkey to India, and Central Asia to Egypt, Achaemenians – the first royal dynasty of Persia unified under Cyrus the Great in 6th Century B.C. – were also the first to develop a significant military and trading presence at Merv. Alexander the Great swept through the region en route to the Oxus (Amu Dayra) and India, but upon premature death, his short-lived empire’s eastern territories soon became part of the Seleucid Dynasty. A loosely linked Parthian Empire followed next, overthrown by the Sassanians in 226 A.D, who ruled for a period of roughly 400 years until the arrival of Islam in the form of Arab armies circa 651. Rising to prominence as an eastern capital under the Seljuk Empire, Merv grew to be one of the largest cities in the world, encompassing 550 ha. In 1221, rumour holds that Mongol armies circled the outer defenses for six days looking for a weak point before negotiating entrance, only to ransack and burn the entire city while slaughtering it’s citizens – tribute to a gruesome feud-gone-wrong between Khwarizmshah Mohammed and Genghis Khan. Timurid influence saw the city of Abdullah-Khan Kala built south of the ruins in 1409, and in the 16th century, Uzbek Turks ruling from Bukhara took control of the city before it was incorporated into the Persian Empire of the Safavids up until the 1730’s. In the mid-19th century, Merv gained independence from the Qajar rulers of Iran and became an autonomous state, minting it’s own currency, but in 1890, the city, along with much of modern-day Turkmenistan, was conquered by the Russians – a strategic maneuver played out in the “Great Game” of colonial expansion into Central Asia. Russian archaeological interest in the area was maintained after WW II, but collective farms soon encroached on former city suburbs, and parts of Merv were used for military training and artillery firing grounds. Perhaps the Mongols are not the only ones to blame for Merv’s pockmarked appearance. To this day, there is still a small, if not somewhat forlorn, military base maintained by two soldiers and a rather over-zealous dog – remnants of a helicopter base that launched Soviet assaults into Afghanistan throughout the 1980’s.
As Canadian archaeologist Tish Prouse can attest, a surface glance at Merv may seem to fit the Lonely Planet description, but under, and often inside, the lumpen landscape, myriad stories lie waiting to be revealed.
“What appear as lumps, depressions, rubble – under those lie buildings, industrial complexes, mausoleums, minarets, streets, markets, houses, you name it – it’s even rumored one of the first Islamic observatories is out here somewhere.”
While completing a Masters in Archaeology at The University College of London, Prouse became involved with the Ancient Merv Archaeological Project, and for the past three years has excavated on-site at the North gate of Sultan Kala. But even though the British-lead team has worked in conjunction with Turkmen authorities since 1992, the amount of archaeology remaining at Merv is mind-boggling.
“ To get an idea of how cities and urban populations interacted with each other, in and of themselves along the silk roads – you have my team, who have been excavating for three seasons using proper recording methods and accurate documentation of finds – and we’ve done 5mx3mx6m. The site is 11.5 km2 – and that’s just the city proper – it doesn’t include the outer lying subdivisions north and south, or the nearest waypost 5km out. The whole oasis is dotted with little things that survived from the hub of this city. If the funds were available, you could employ 10 000 separate teams, with a core of 20 workers all doing their own section, and they wouldn’t get in each-others way! “
With UNESCO World Heritage status for Merv in 1999 came a push for the preservation and protection of existing mud-brick structures. The conservation efforts also called for proper practices and the cleaning up of numerous trenches left open to erosion. Scars in the landscape, it seems, can also be attributed to hurried excavations, improperly documented with little or no time spent back-filling; in short, find-oriented archaeologists whose vision was caught up in the details, without understanding the bigger picture. Prouse’s current excavation is of the remedial kind, properly recording archaeological data in a trench dug with a bulldozer, then left open to slump with wind and rain.
“The Soviets had great training as far as history and well-rounded approaches, but unfortunately there was negligence in keeping important parts of the site up to an acceptable standard. There were problems ensuring artifacts were from the right levels, or, for that matter, that they were present after the dig, and a discrepancy in taking care of things valued as prize items, such as gold pieces, versus things that weren’t valued as items of any interest, such as animal bones. Depending on what questions one is answering, all of this information is very important. With archaeology under the old Soviet regime the focus on finding ‘stuff’ outweighed understanding what was there. They weren’t treasure hunters per se, they were finding out lots of things about pottery and stratigraphy, but at the end of the day – if they didn’t find anything of ‘value’ – then they didn’t have a very good archaeological excavation.”
A quick jaunt through the stratigraphy of the North Gate trench reveals some intriguing tales. Five or six packed mud-earth projectiles in the vicinity of a collapsed wall support historical accounts of a Mongol sacking. So does the distinct burn layer that runs beneath the wall, and the skeletal remains of an old woman with two juveniles trapped below. Further down, the sequential interplay of fired and mud brick suggest a city in constant flux; buildings buttressed and adjoined in some sections, only to be knocked down and rebuilt in others. But the most interesting aspect of Prouse’s trench lies in a canal system and series of pipes discovered over the past two field seasons.
“What you’ve got is an amazing system of pipes which twist and lock together, fitted with resin to keep water from seeping out of the seams. Not only that, but the clay itself is ridiculously solid, so even when it’s buried and under pressure, it still functions properly. These locking systems are incredibly similar to what we use with modern pvc tubing, sealed to maintain air pressure – even with a minimal amount of water the same pressure is maintained in these 1000-year-old clay pipes and they won’t cave in.”
What this indicates is a sophisticated system of water management and regulation. Clean water was undoubtedly important to the practice of Islam, but the depth of the canal and certain pipe systems may pre-date Islamic occupation, and challenge currently held beliefs about who lived where, and when.
“Depending on who you talk to, and where you’re standing, this canal could be the main water conduit distributing water to the city, or the main conduit taking all the sludge out of the city,” explains Prouse.
“This is the first time at Merv we’ve uncovered a fully functional water management system, used over a period of time, that includes both fresh-water and sewage elements. It’s known the Romans had an amazing system of aquaducts and hydraulics which used pipes – not only clay pipes, but lead pipes – so a 1000 years before what we’ve uncovered here, it’s clear that in another part of the world there’s water pipes and technology. It’s nothing new, but what is new, is that this explains how the Turkic and Islamic dynasties ran this city – what ideas they had about providing fresh water and removing waste.”
A system of siphoning clean water to local neighborhoods? Sewage disposal networks? Whatever the function, the pipes and their relation to the canal leave many puzzles to be solved.
Prouse elaborates. “The more intensely one excavates and looks at the interaction of canals and architecture, one finds that over time, they in fact change function. At one point this was very clearly a fresh water canal, as evidenced by iron compounds on the side of the banks, indicative of algae growth when cleaning water from basic biological sludge. Later on, it’s a brick lined canal full of waste debris. In a period of 500 years, the canal system has changed, and with that change, one finds a whole series of different architectural components: a change in pipe systems, their size, quality and construction, as well as the construction of the canal – mud bank versus brick lined. “
The True Treasure
Although mainstream media continues to cast-type archaeologists as action adventurers a la Indiana Jones, urban excavations of earth-fired pipe can prove just as alluring as a “Kingdom of Crystal Skulls.” The real treasure lies in understanding how a city was built and functioned, and that’s what Prouse’s ongoing excavations at the North Gate seek to contribute.
“I got into archaeology because of Indiana Jones, because I watched the Last Crusade,” quips Prouse.
“The first year in University when I started seriously studying archaeology my professor said the 3 things one must do to become a good archaeologist were: get a good hat, show an appreciation for scotch, and smoke high quality cigars while excavating! “
“What’s funny is that there are many archaeologists across the world that have views about what is, and what is not, an archaeologist – but Indiana Jones is a great way to bring something which many people find dull and drab into the forefront of an exciting lifestyle. The thing I enjoy about my job is that like Indiana Jones there is a certain amount of adventure. I’m thrown into situations where most normal people don’t go, I interact with locals on a different level, I explore places people haven’t seen in a 1000 years. But unlike Indiana Jones there is a serious aspect of academic research – one spends hours upon hours in the library researching and doing laboratory analysis. It can be a mundane process: teaching, researching, talking to colleagues, documenting evidence – it’s not just walking into a temple and taking out the long lost relic. One has to record as much information as possible so that other scholars can come back to the same place and use your evidence to draw new research insights into how humanities evolved and functioned.”
With an open trench to finish the following season, and an abundance of areas left to record, fill and explore on-site, Prouse hopes to return in future seasons, discovering more about the canal systems at play in Ancient Merv, and spreading light on one of Turkmenistan’s archaeological jewels.