From Arrows to Bullets: The Fortifications of Abdullah Khan Kala (Merv, Turkmenistan)

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The Merv Oasis, situated in the south-east of Turkmenistan, has always been an important staging post on the commercial route between China and the West since the Early Iron Age. Its main settlement, the ancient Merv, is a series of separate and adjacent walled cities (Figure 1). The earliest city, Erk Kala, was founded in the sixth century BC. During the Seleucid period Erk Kala became the citadel of Gyaur Kala, the city founded by Antiochus I (281-261 BC) (Dani & Bernard 1994: 91). Gyaur Kala was occupied until its abandonment in the eleventh century, but already in the eighth century occupation started to move west, outside the city (Khodzhanijazov & Lunina 2001: 60). The new suburb became the core of the medieval city of Sultan Kala. The Mongol invasion in AD 1221-1222 probably led to its decline and, during the Ilkhanid period in the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries, urban settlement slowly moved south. This process culminated with the creation of the city of Abdullah-Khan Kala in the beginning of the fifteenth century, which was replaced in the nineteenth century by the modern city of Bairam Ali (Obel'chenko 1963: 331).


The city of Abdullah Khan Kala has a rectangular plan (650m by 700m) with a citadel also rectangular in plan at its north-east corner (Figure 2). The city is supplemented by an additional walled suburb, known as Bairam All Khan Kala. The state of preservation of the walls is good for fortifications built principally of pakhsa (pise or rammed earth) and mud bricks. However, being in the vicinity of the modern city, the site is under considerable threat. The defences suffer from the deadly sapping effect of salt erosion and are quickly falling down (Figure 3). The average height of the standing walls varies from 5m to 7m, except for the inner fortifications of the citadel, which are reduced to mounds 2m to 3m high. The defensive walls of Bairam Ali Khan Kala are mostly destroyed apart from a section of the west wall and most of the north wall. The fortifications were surrounded by a moat, 15-30m wide and up to 5-8m deep. They had a total of 54 towers and bastions. Access to the city was through four gates, positioned roughly in the middle of each wall. The walls of the citadel were also defended with towers and were entered via a gate in the south wall.


According to Hafiz-i Abru, the Timurid ruler Shah-Rukh brought back life to the oasis of Merv after AD 1409 (Krawulsky 1982: 46). Shah-Rukh had succeeded his father Timur in AD 1405. After a few years of dispute over the Timurid inheritance, the region was stable for three decades until his death in AD 1447. The development of the oasis certainly took place during this period of stability. The Sultan-bend Dam on the Murghab River was rebuilt, the canals cleared and the irrigation system restored. The city and its fortifications were probably built at the same period along with the mosques, bazaars, rabads and caravanserais mentioned by Hafiz-i Abru (Krawulsky 1982: 47). In any case, the walls were standing when in AD 1510 the Safavid Shah Isma'il marched into Khurasan against the Uzbeks. The Uzbeks took refuge behind the fortifications of the city before being lured and crushed outside the fortress by the Persian forces (Asfizari 1959: 183). The date of the construction of the walled suburb named Bairam All Khan Kala is more uncertain, possibly the eighteenth century (Berdyev 1993: 52). Abdullah Khan Kala was abandoned in the nineteenth century and was already ruined when visited by Zhukovsky in 1890.

Zhukovsky was the first scholar to study Abdullah Khan Kala (Zhukovsky 1894: 62-94). His work was followed in 1950 by Obel'chenko's survey of the city (Obel'chenko 1963: 306-49) and in 1986-1993 by Khodzanijazov and Berdyev who made some soundings within the city (Berdyev 1993: 53). However, the walls had never been studied in detail and there was a need for a proper archaeological study of the fortifications in the face of their rapid degradation. …