Merv. The largest city in the world


In the twelfth century Merv had over a million inhabitants and was considered to be the largest city on earth for some years. It spread over hundreds of acres, on the borders of modern day Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. It was a glittering city, with travellers in awe of its many ornate buildings and its size. Today, although much has been destroyed by both invaders and time, there are still significant remains to be explored.

Located near the modern Turkmenistan city of Mary, you need to get a hire car and preferably a guide, to visit Merv. The city is so large, that even with a car you can only see a small part of it. Although a national treasure, you are able to walk freely through the site, which would be unusual elsewhere, sadly this does lead to more decay as the mud brick and clay walls easily disintegrate. Take real care if you visit.

Merv grew because it was a major trading post on the Silk Road, and acted as a bulwark against tribal forces coming from remote areas of Afghanistan (some things don’t change). Like so many other cities in central Asia it felt the wrath of Genghis Khan, who laid waste to it in 1220, with reports of each Mongol soldier massacring 400 men,women and children each.

The most impressive remains are around the city wall. Gyzgala, pictured above, is one of several fortresses by the main gate. It has high corrugated walls made of clay and no windows and was built in the 7th Century BC. There were many of these buildings, known as Kushk, which roughly translates to pavilion, dotted around the city. They were fortified palaces, where the very rich or important lived. The first story was used for storage of food and weapons. The second story was where the living quarters were located. Parapets on the top of the walls made it distinctive and defendable, and it is possible that more living quarters were based here, using tents.

Merv has many superb remains of forts, city walls, ice stores, and houses of the inhabitants. With the help of a 4WD, and many bottles of water, I spent the whole day uncovering what it was like to live in this abandoned city. By late afternoon I was exhausted by the desert temperatures and the distances travelled, I could easily have spent more days exploring one of the more unknown, but well preserved, Silk Road cities.


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