Last weekend we embarked on a three day / two night camping trip to the ruins of Merv. A short 30 km away from the present city of Mary, Turkmenistan; Merv has been declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightfully so. The 5 – 5 1/2 hour drive from Ashgabat to Mary and Merv trailing along the Kopet Dag Mountains was littered with ancient ruined walls and fortresses. We stopped and one, which was not even in our guide book, “Warved Galaky” or something that we immediately started calling Warped Galaxy – a fitting term for most things in Turkmenistan, and climbed up the walls. The ancient fort had been inhabited by the Greeks, we found out later, and was scattered with pottery shards recently exposed from an unlikely rain in the desert. The fortress had a dried up mote bed still visible after centuries, and it has been said that you can still find Greek coins in the ruins here as the people of Warped Galaxy crafted coins into the C.E. after Christ.
After we went through the city of Mary, we arrived at Merv. The whole area, about 80 ha was all fortress and ancient city on top of ancient city. Merv has been referred to as a drifting or wandering city. This means that over time, water supply and changed course and therefore, you have one ruin from 300 BC and another ruin from the 1st to 3rd century C.E. overlapping with opposing and expanded fortress walls. What makes Merv so unique is that you have several distinct historical periods in different garden patches, if you will, waiting to be excavated and discovered. Luckily our friends had a 4 x 4 and we were able to drive right into the old compounds. After an hour or so scoping out the best camp area, we stopped by an ancient Buddhist stupa for camp. The stupa had been created on an opposing wall of the oldest fortress – proving social strife between the diverse compound ethnicity and religions. There were Greeks, after Alexander the Great, Nestorian Christians, Tar Tars, Buddhists, and Sassanians all grouped together. There were mounds of earth surrounding us of what once used to be mud huts or buildings. The stuppa had noticeably melted significantly after each rain that brought new artifacts up to the surface. We found a nice soft secluded area to pitch our tents, had a few beers, talked about how amazing it was that were were sleeping on the ruins which dated back as far as 3000 B.C.E. and that Alexander the Great could have been standing or setting up camp right where we were. It was invigorating and made it difficult to sleep because of all the excitement.
The next morning we climbed up Erk Kala, the olded fortress, which Alexander had concured and renamed Alexanderia Margiana. As we climbed over the rain and errosion melted fortress wall we were in awe of the spectacular preservation of the central portion of the compound, as well as two towers, dating back over 2000 years. The ground crunched as we walked as it was completly littered with pottery shards. It was really disturbing to even be walking around on the ground with thousands of years of history below your feet. It is beyond me why universities do not have professors and student volunteers out here excavating and preserving theses sites. Then again, Turkmenistan is not exactly an easy country to come in and get these types of permissions with. Little did we know that this was a the beginning of a long day of exploration of the entire Merv Complex, which is host to a variety of antiquities.