Cities in Dust: Archaeological Investigations Are Revealing the Extraordinary 4,000-Year Story of the Little-Known Oasis of Merv, Located in a Remote Desert in Central Asia

Article excerpt

Tucked away in a remote corner of Central Asia, surrounded by one of the harshest desert terrains on Earth, is an extraordinary inland river delta that once sustained a spectacular civilisation. While the ancient riverine cultures of the Nile and its delta, of the Tigris/Euphrates and of the Indus are widely known, few people have heard of the Merv oasis civilisation, which first emerged more than 4,000 years ago in the land-locked delta of the Murghab River in what is now Turkmenistan. But way back in the 21st century BC, this remote oasis was home to at least 100,000 people, accommodated in up to 20 walled towns and cities. At the time, it represented the largest urban population outside Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley.

The most impressive of these early Merv oasis cities (a site known today as Gonur) covered an area of 22 hectares--20 hectares of houses, streets and workshops and a vast palace that occupied the remainder. Surrounded by 1.5 kilometres of defensive walls--three metres thick and probably five metres high--the city had a population of up to 7,000. The palace complex, a great citadel located at the city's heart--had its own defensive walls, reinforced with 20 great bastions--while immediately outside the city was a three-hectare walled complex of religious buildings.

Excavations by a joint Greek and Russian team have recently unearthed a high-status burial containing a spectacular four-wheeled bronze chariot and a three-metre-long, 12-centimetre-diameter stone rod, probably some sort of giant staff of office. Other finds include ceramic figurines, alabaster goblets, stone altars, pottery jars for holding cosmetics, bulls' heads made of silver and gold, zoomorphic furniture fittings and decorated ceramics.

But new research is now being carried out into ancient Merv's relationship with the rest of the world--in particular, its possible links with the Indus Valley civilisation, which was located 1,125 kilometres to the southeast. The oasis's ancient architecture, its figurative sculpture and mysterious picture writing (on cylindrical stone seals) are all reminiscent of finds made on ancient urban sites along the Indus River in Pakistan. Analysis of these finds suggests that there was a cultural link between the two regions. Colonists from the Indus may even have been partially responsible for the establishment of the Merv civilisation. Indeed, Bronze Age Merv culture may have outlived its potential Indus parent civilisation by as much as 300 years.

This ancient civilisation gradually declined during the 18th and 17th centuries BC, primarily as a result of climate change. The entire oasis became considerably drier, and 20 per cent of it was eventually lost to the desert. The Murghab River, which flows down from Afghanistan, began to deliver less and less water, which meant an increased drain on groundwater resources.

For around eight centuries, population levels were enormously reduced. But after 800 BC, there was a gradual recovery, with around 20 small semi urban walled settlements becoming established. The subsequent ebb and flow of urban development in the oasis, as major settlements migrated across the landscape, is now being investigated and chronicled by British and Turkman archaeologists from University College London's Institute of Archaeology and Turkmenistan's Institute of Cultural History and Ministry of Culture.

By 550 BC, the oasis had been conquered by the Persian Empire, which rapidly set about building a new city, now known as Erk Kala ('old city'), the first proper urban development since the Bronze Age. This 12-hectare oval complex--surrounded by a 1.2-kilometre wall--became the citadel of Central Asia's first true metropolis.

In 280 BC, Alexander the Great's successor in the East, Antiochus I, picked Persian Merv as the central core around which to build a 337-hectare megacity, now known as Gyaur Kala ('city of the infidels'). …