The Ancient City of Merv

I no sooner got to bed than I was getting up at the God awful hour of 4:15 a.m. for our 6:15 a.m. flight to Mary. Tachmurad and our local driver Murad were waiting for me at 5:00 a.m. and 15 minutes later Tachmurad and I were checking in for our flight to Mary. It was a real treat taking a flight and not worrying about luggage since we were flying down to Mary and back in one day.

On the way to Mary (a bit tired)

Our flight was on Turkmenistan Airways and I have to say it was a fantastic, albeit short, flight. The plane was a Boeing 737-700 and the landing was spot on. Our driver, Medan, met us at the plane and we took off for the 30 minute drive to Merv. We would meet the master camera repairman later.

Now Merv was an incredibly important city on the Silk Road. Over the centuries, Merv was conquered and rebuilt at least five times. And instead of rebuilding where the ruins lay, Merv moved locations at least five times resulting in five different Merv cities. Unfortunately, there is very little that remains of the once great city of Merv so as we approached the site, I needed a lot of imagination to visualize the greatness that was Merv on the expansive plains.

Merv layout of ruins

We walked through the little museum where I was able to get a feel for the site, before we hopped back in the car and drove to the first site (which was actually outside the Merv city walls: two 7th century fortresses known at Kyz Kala and little Kyz Kala. As we approached the main fortress, I was struck by the similarities the site had to one I saw in Iran. The same sandstone type architecture and design, although the fortress in Iran was much older and in far better shape.

Kyz Kala at Merv

Tachmurad and I got out of the car and walked around Kyz Kala while I took pictures with my barely functioning camera, (The camera worked fine if I did not use the zoom, but as soon as I used the zoom beyond a certain point, the camera shut down. I was still trying to figure out the point so the picture taking was painful to say the least.)

Little Kyz Kala

Tachmurad did not think it was necessary to walk the distance to see little Kyz Kala, but I begged to differ (you know I LOVE ruins) so I wandered over to the site through the sand and scrub and reveled in the ancient ruins on my own. The best part … no tourists at little Kyz Kala (although I was racing against a Japanese tour group that just arrived).

Two Askab Mausoleum

After the fortress visit, we wound our way through the site past the massive walls of the old city to the mausoleum of the Two Askab, which is the burial ground of two Askab or individuals who accompanied the prophet Mohammed. Because of the site’s importance in Islam, the site is a bit of a shrine. In fact, while we were there, a woman came over to me and said some blessings and then gave me a hug. Seriously. (The Turkmen people are some of the nicest people you will meet.)

View through one of the windows at the back

Anyway, the mausoleums had been completely refurbished and as a result, did not have any ancient feel whatsoever. However, the view through the portals on the backside, which did have the original tile work, made for some great pictures of the site. (And yes, the camera was still limping along, but without the functioning zoom.)

Inside the water cistern
The water cistern

We left the Two Askab mausoleum and stopped at the nearby cistern and mosque. The cistern dates back to the early days of Merv and is still functioning today. The system allowed water to enter through a hole in the roof where the water built up and allowed people to enter the building go down the stairs and fills their vessels with water. We walked down the very steep and very narrow brick steps to take a look at the hole in the roof.

Ancient wall at Merv (and last pic for camera)

Our next stop was to the Erk Kala, the oldest of the five Merv cities. On the way, Medan stopped the car for me to take a picture of the old wall and this was the end of my camera. I was fiddling with the zoom when the camera simply stopped working. Once back in the car, I kept playin with the lens when the two outer bands came off completely and with them, some bits of sand and dust. Ugh. Medan and Tachmurad assured me we would try to get the camera fixed. In the mean time, I was camera less, but Tachmurad assured me he would take pictures with his phone for the rest of the day and email them to me. I felt like I was missing my right arm, but I did not want the day to be ruined so I tried to put the camera thing out of my mind and enjoy the day.

Climbing to see Erk Kala
Pointing to Erk Kala

So once at the Erk Kala, the oldest original Merv settlement, Tachmurad and I hiked up the sand and rock hillside to take a look down into Erk Kala, which was now a large circular bowl surrounded by an old wall and ramparts where guards would have stood. The views from the top were gorgeous and we stood for a while taking in the entire area encompassing Merv.

Inside Yusuf Hamadani mosque
Shariyar Ark

We then hiked down the hill and drove to the 12th century mosque of Yusuf Hamadani and a tomb containing an unknown person. While the tomb was pretty awesome as the interior had minimal work done and the carvings around the top of the wall were spectacular, the real star was the nearby Shariyar Ark, an ancient citadel, which still had part of the wall in tact as well as drawings of camels. Probably my favourite site at Merv.

At the Mausoleum of Mohammad ibin Zeid

We then moved on to the 12th century Mausoleum of Mohammad ibin Zeid. While this is apparently an important shrine, the mausoleum had been completely refurbished and had lost all of its character. However, the biggest bonus of the trip to this site was I found a Christmas ornament at a little stall (and the only stall) outside the site (a little Turkmen yurt).

At the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjay
Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjay

The last site we visited was the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjay. The mausoleum has been partially rebuilt,  but still retains some of the ancient character. The inside has much of the old, original domed ceiling and some of the original brickwork.

By now we had been at the site three hours. We decided to stop for a bit of early lunch just outside Merv (it was not even 11 and then drop off my camera to the “master” who lived nearby and who told us to come by around 11:30. So once lunch was done, we drove around trying to find his place (again no signs) and finally had him come out to the street to show us his workspace in the back of his home. I gave him the camera and proceeded to watch him take apart the entire camera. I figured at this point, the camera was either going to be fixed or it was done so I did not say a thing as piece after piece was removed.

While the “master” did his thing, we sat and watched Russian T.V. (seriously). After about an hour, we were told it was going to take most of the day to see if it could be repaired. There was a lot of sand to clean out and he needed some time to resodder the parts back in place. Even then, he could not be sure he could fix the camera. Since our flight back wasn’t until 7:00 p.m. we agreed to come back later in the day.

So we set off for Mary (about 20 minutes away) and made a stop at the local bazaar. Unfortunately, this was not a bazaar in the classic sense of the word. Sure there was food stalls, but the majority of the space was taken up by women selling cloth, dollar store items and cheap knockoffs. It was not the best bazaar I had seen that’s for sure.

Driving to the museum in Mary

After the trip to the bazaar, we went to the Mary Museum that houses a number of artifacts from the Merv site, including coins, pottery, jewelry and remnants from buildings. In addition, there was a historical section on Turkmenistan that included native dress, jewelry and local art. However, the most entertaining portion of the museum was the part of the first floor that was dedicated to the accomplishments of the President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Now let me just say that you cannot go anywhere without seeing a picture of this guy. In fact, on the airplane, there were four pictures of him at the front of the plane. There is even pictures of him in the lobby of my hotel.

Anyway, the museum included numerous portraits of this man showing him as a statesman at the UN and with leaders of the world, as a pilot of a plane, as a pilot of a yacht, as a race car driver, as a military man, as a man giving back to the community, as a man cheered by the children, as a man riding a racehorse, and … wait for it … a man in surgical garb and in dentist’s attire. (I later learned he is a dentist by trade.). Anyway, this man was super human and before coming to Turkmenistan, I had never heard of him. How can this be??? The world needs to pay attention and realize that most of us are missing out on the great feats of this man who leads a totalitarian regime! (And Tachmurad thought I wouldn’t be interested in that wing of the museum … Come on!)

Russian Orthodox Church

So we left the museum and returned to the incredible heat outside. We made a quick stop at the only church in town, a leftover from the Soviet regime (and this church looked just like a Russian church complete with the blue and white interior, religious icons and the Russian dome). By now we were hungry again so we stopped for a late lunch. While we were eating, the “master” called to tell us he had FIXED MY CAMERA. Seriously??? I almost cried I was so happy. My beloved little camera was back in one piece and all was right with the world.

We finished up our lunch and drove the 20 minutes back towards Merv. The “master” (I never did learn his name because everyone just kept calling him the master) came out with the camera and low and behold the little dynamo was back. In fact, I think the camera soon worked better than it ever had before. I could not thank the man enough. And to top it off, he only wanted to charge me the equivalent of $40 for the repair work despite the fact he had worked about 5 hours on the camera. I would have none of it and doubled the amount. He refused to take the money so we compromised and I gave him the equivalent of $60. Crazy cheap.

With our driver Merdan in Mary

So with my camera in hand, Medan drove Tachmurad and I back to the airport for a short flight to Ashgabat. I thanked Medan over and over for helping me with the camera issue and arranging for the master to fix my camera. I made sure to tip in well and he seemed genuinely pleased not only with the tip, but with my sheer joy in having my camera fixed. Again, these folks are incredibly hospitable and genuinely want to help.

We said our goodbyes and Tachmurad and I checked in and got ready for our flight back to Ashgabat. It had been a very long three days, but fortunately we would be back in Ashgabat by 8:00 and with nothing planned until 9:00 a.m., we were each going to be able to get a very good night’s sleep.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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