They appear across the raked-mud fields like mirages; blips on the plains that cause you to rub your eyes and look again to see if they’re still there. But as you draw nearer, the majesty of Merv’s palaces and mighty walls transfix the gaze. Today, they may be crumbling, but for a short while I feel like one of the Silk Road merchants who glimpsed, with elation, the marvel of the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar’s double dome.
Situated on the edge of the Karakum Desert near Mary, in Turkmenistan, Merv is the oldest and most significant of the oasis cities strung along the Silk Road in Central Asia. Settlements have existed here since the Bronze Age and mention of it first cropped up on a cuneiform tablet dictated by Darius the Great in 522 BC. Its position on the original course of the Murghab River — which flows from Afghanistan 125 miles away — allowed inhabitants to grow cotton, melons and grapes. As I watch dust devils whip up the dirt, it’s hard to imagine such abundance.
Briefly named ‘Alexandria’ after a visit from Alexander the Great, by the Middle Ages, Merv had grown to become the largest city in the world, with a library stocked with around 11,000 manuscripts. Then, in 1221, Genghis Khan’s son, Tolui, attacked with his Mongol army, killing 1.3 million inhabitants. Persian historian Juvayni, in a record made a decade later, wrote: ‘To each [Mongol soldier] was allotted the execution of three or four hundred Persians. So many had been killed by nightfall that the hillocks became mountains, and the plain was soaked with the blood of the mighty.’ The city never fully recovered. Now all that remains are the cotton fields and a handful of hardy UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed structures.
We start by exploring the medieval Great Kyz-Kala (‘Girls’ Castle’), whose corrugated walls jut into the sky like sponge fingers. “Legend has it that if a man succeeded in throwing an apple into the compound from the arches of the neighbouring ‘Boy’s Palace’, he could choose any woman he liked. But you should see the distance!” chuckles our guide, Elias. Restorers are racing to splint the eroding fingers of brick with scaffolding. I meet three boys loitering amid the ruins and glance at their hands. No apples.
Traipsing over ground dotted with sheep droppings, camel grass and blushing tamarisk trees, we come to the wind-rounded walls of Sultan Kala. They once stood over 100ft high and 50ft thick. “In 1996, I decided, like a crazy man, to backpack the circumference of the walls — I counted 178 watchtowers!” exclaims Elias.
Oldest of all is Erk-Kala (‘Pagan Fortress’), which dates from the fourth century BC and had Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Jewish and Nestorian communities all living within its walls. We pace to the highest point and survey the still almost-complete defensive line. Shards of azure and malachite pottery, embedded in the time-smoothed mud, glint like emeralds in the sun.
Our last stop is the 12-century Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. Inside, incomplete jigsaw pieces of mosaic cling to the corners. A pigeon rests in the nook where some of the architect’s name — inscribed on the wall — has crumbled away beneath the dome and I’m reminded of lines from Percy Shelley’s Ozymandius poem: ‘Look on my works, Ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.’