British magazine narrates about city evolution of Merv

Largest specialized scientific magazine World Archaeology published in United Kingdom placed the picture of Big Gyzgala (known in foreign literature as Kyz Kala) on the front page. This is a monument of mediaeval architecture located in the State Historical and Cultural Reserve “Ancient Merv” and included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

This is exactly this unique facility built from sun-dried bricks around one thousand years ago and generally well preserved until our days where archaeological and restoration works are carried out for the last five years. This is carried out by the specialists of National Department of Turkmenistan for Protection, Study and Restoration of Historical and Cultural Monuments in cooperation with British, French and Polish colleagues. This is the most significant project implemented under international programme of the USA State Department “Protection of Cultural Heritage”.

Earlier, according to this programme, conservation projects of such important monuments of the past like Gonur-Depe in Mary Velayat, Anau, Old Nissa, Meana Baba in Ahal Velayat, Mashad-Ata in Balkan Velayat, Aksaray-ding, Ismamut-Ata, Kunyaurgench mausoleums of Najmeddin Kubra and Tekesh in Dashoguz Velayat, caravansary Dayahatyn in Lebap and other were successfully completed.

The restoration of Big Gyzgala exceeds other facilities of our heritage both by volumes of works and by scientific and research results. British magazine explains on its pages why this monument was chosen for such big project.

With its prime position on the Silk Route, Merv was one of the greatest cities in the world, - Tim Williams, the author and one of the greatest archaeologists of the world from London Institute of Architecture states in his article. - It holds the traces of many great civilisations - Achaemenids, Seleucids, Parthians, Sassanians, Umayyads, Abbasids, Seljuks. It is also home to one of the greatest cities the world has ever known: Antiochia Margiana, City of the Infidels, Sultan Kala, Marv al-Shahijan, Queen of Cities, Marv, Mary, Merv. It may have had many names, most now forgotten by the world, but for nearly 2,000 years, Merv was famed far and wide. Lying in eastern Turkmenistan, at the fertile delta fed by the great Murghab River that flows down from the mountains of Afghanistan, Merv was on the political junction between Central Asia and the Iranian plateau. Straddling a central point on the Silk Route, it was occupied and fought over by a series of peoples, becoming the eastern capital and garrison city of many empires. By the 10th century AD, it was said to be the third or fourth greatest city in the world, matching Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus in fame and importance, with well-stocked libraries that nurtured exceptional scholars including the poet-astronomer Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) and the 10th-century geographer al-Muqaddasi, who described Merv as ‘delightful, fine, elegant, brilliant, extensive, and pleasant’.

However, as a town on the edge of empires, Merv was vulnerable. In AD 1221 the Mongols arrived, and Tolui, a son of Genghis Khan, sacked the city. Though the Mongols may have wiped Merv from history, they unwittingly preserved it for archaeology. Largely as a result of their incursion, Merv was left in an extraordinary state of preservation, with metres upon metres of exceptional buried deposits that cover over l,000ha inside the walled cities. Merv is often described as an archaeologist’s dream, and since 2001 I have been fortunate to be the director of the long-term Ancient Merv Project. Each year our project discovers more and more about this once great and complex city.

The World Archaeology speaks of the city evolution of Merv as well as of some latest discoveries and findings. As Williams says, the archaeologists wanted to discover what it was like to live in this great city - not just for the famous or elite but for its wider range of citizens. To this end, they conducted a small excavation across one of the streets, some 500m away from the central canal. This revealed a well-maintained street, frequently repaired, about 4m wide, with a central culvert running down it to provide water. Indeed, one of the modest buildings fronting this street, with beaten earth floors, had water pipes beneath the floor, suggesting that even humble homes may have had piped water.

Tim Williams writes that their work indicates that even Merv’s ordinary citizens had a relatively high quality of life. This was a well-organised city, with a central administrative and palatial complex, known as the dar al-imarah. Along with the main markets and the Friday (congregational) mosque, the city-centre complex contained a palatial residential complex for the governor, including administrative buildings, reception spaces, a treasury, libraries, baths, gardens, and more.

An important aspect of the suburban area to the north-west of the town was a zone of craft and industrial production. Early excavations by YuTAKE, and more recently our own extensive survey and sampling work, have revealed a landscape of pottery, glass, and metalworking workshops.

Another topical scientific and practical problem reflected at the pages of the magazine is related to further protection of numerous clay monuments of Merv, in other words, those, which were built in mediaeval times from sun-dried bricks and thus more vulnerable. The rising water table in the delta, largely caused by the Soviet-era Karakum irrigation canal, has led to the undermining of structures. Foreign experts work closely with the Park staff to develop approaches to the sustainable management of these hugely important earth buildings.

There are, for example, more than 13km of city wall around the Islamic city: the Archaeological Park simply will never have the resources to stop erosion on this scale. However, the specialists developed an 'at risk' strategy, which allows us to focus our limited resources on those areas most at need. The desire to preserve as much of this unique archaeology as possible laid at the heart of the project.

Wherever possible, the scientists have been focusing on non-invasive methods, such as an extensive use of 3D laser-scanning. This enabled them to create a detailed record of many of the buildings, available on the internet via CyArk for anyone to access. This is a website of international non-commercial organization performing digital storage of the facilities of the world cultural heritage by gathering, archiving and open access to the data made by laser scanning, digital modelling and other modern technologies.

Few days ago, Tim Williams again visited Turkmenistan with the group of experts to participate in the session of the Scientific Methodological Assembly of National Department of Turkmenistan for Protection, Study and Restoration of historical and cultural monuments where the strategy for further activities on protection of Big Gyzgala was agreed. Having highly appreciated the efforts taken by Turkmen colleagues in implementation of this project, foreign specialists discussed certain proposals and recommendations for the works over the monument as well as expressed the confidence in future fruitful cooperation.