In focus... Merv

| February 18, 2015

Are you keen to get off the beaten path and discover some pivotal Central Asian history? Merv in Turkmenistan is an ideal destination – here’s why.


Fascinating Merv is one of Turkmenistan's most intriguing destinations. Long-deserted and standing in ruins, this ancient city was once among the most important in Central Asia and one of the largest in the world.

While many of its buildings may have crumbled, the site as a whole has been well preserved and even possesses Unesco World Heritage Site status, making it a must-visit on any Turkmenistan itinerary – particularly for avid history lovers and archaeology enthusiasts. Its location, some 400 km from the capital city Ashgabat, means that you'll need to embark on domestic flights to get there. But as with so many destinations and experiences in travel, your effort will be rewarded by what you find. We speak to Cox & Kings' product manager for Europe and the Middle East, Michael Fleetwood to find out exactly what awaits you there.

Merv: From 3000 BC to today

This ancient oasis city possesses a long and, at times, tragic history. From its foundation by Persian King Cyrus the Great to its rise as a centre for Muslim learning in Asia and its fall to the son of Genghis Khan, the crumbled streets encase layer after layer of story.

When asked about its history, Michael offers an excellent and concise overview that acts as a sound introduction. Explaining that its origins go back to approximately 3000 BC, he notes that the city itself was first founded by Persian monarch Cyrus the Great. Over the years, various local rulers governed there, and it began to flourish – particularly thanks to its strategic position of the Silk Road trade route and the banks of the Murghab River, as well as a number of major cities and the Karakorum desert.

When the Muslim religion began to thrive in the area, Merv flourished in kind. It housed the first major Muslim centre in Central Asia and spawned many subsequent learning centres and libraries, the latter of which the metropolis became famous for.

But this heyday was not to last. "It came to a halt in 1221," Michael begins, explaining that in this year Genghis Khan's son invaded Merv. "Out of a city of approximately 200,000, he spared 400 artisans – then put the rest of the city to the sword."

Few people returned after the massacre, and Merv was lost. It wasn't until the arrival of the Soviets in the 1800s that it began to be unearthed. Now, visiting it is one of the major reasons to come to Turkmenistan.

The main sights of Merv

As much of the ancient city stands in ruins, there are just a few key sites for travellers to visit, and Michael particularly enthuses about those associated with military architecture. Indeed, he notes that the progression of military architecture here was a major factor in the city securing Unesco World Heritage status. Cyrus the Great, its founder, began the story of military building here – a tale which runs all the way through to its fall at the hands of the Mongol Empire.

One of the first places you are likely to visit in Merv, Erk Kala is its oldest site. Dating back to the 7th century BC, it is an ancient Persian fortress, and one of the city's most easily recognisable images. Another must-visit is the Sanjar Palace, which is an excellent example of the military architectural heritage that is so important in Merv. Take a close look and you will be able to discern hints of Persian and Seljuk designs.

Michael highlights that you can only see the remnants of the palace, so you can't actually go inside – but it is an excellent photo opportunity and, more importantly, an intriguing thread in the tapestry of Merv's heritage.

One building with more structural integrity, and indeed another must-visit, is the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjay – one of the city's previous rulers. This 38 metre high edifice is a cube-shaped and topped with a dome, and is a testament to the destination's historic power.

Visiting Merv – what to know

There are a few things worth bearing in mind when planning your trip to Merv. First and foremost, remember that it is a ruined city and, as such, won't look exactly as it did in its heyday. That fact fades into insignificance, however, if you have a good guide who can bring it back to life for you – so always select a tour that offers a guided visit.

Similarly, as it is a ruined city, the places you visit will be photo opportunities, rather than places to go into and explore in depth. However few buildings remain intact, it is a large city, and so for the most part you travel by car, which makes it a very accessible destination.

It is also somewhere that is usually visited on a day trip from a nearby city – namely Mary. Situated approximately 30 km from Merv, Mary is home to a number of ethnographical and history museums, where you can view some of the artefacts found in Merv – as well as learn more about its past. Michael particularly enthused about the chance to view some of Merv's coinage, as the city's coin production thrived throughout its lifetime.

Usually, you will stay in Mary for two nights for a trip to Merv, which is best made in the spring or autumn – April, May, September or early October. This way, you avoid the blistering heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter. Whenever you visit, be sure to carry plenty of water and wear comfortable walking boots, as well as be armed with any questions or sightseeing requests for you guide.

Additional tips for visiting Turkmenistan

Michael also has a few suggestions for wider itineraries around Turkmenistan. Hinging around seeing the nation's most distinctive and unique sites, these include a trip to Kunya Urgench and the Darvaza Gas Crater, which bears the dramatic nickname of the Gateway to Hell.

Lying near the Uzbekistan border, Kunya Urgench is somewhat similar to its sister, Urgench in Uzbekistan. It is awash with historic sites, despite the fact it suffered devastating attacks by the Mongols at the hands of Genghis Khan, then by Turkish-Mongol leader Tamerlane.

The Darvaza Gas Crater is a natural rather than historical wonder – and something of a mystery. This chasm in the ground has been burning for the past four decades, with no indication of when it might cease. This sight is immensely unusual and utterly unique and, therefore, a must-see.

Cox & Kings offers a tailor-made holidays to Turkmenistan. Please contact us on 0202 7873 5000 for more information.

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