Erk Kala Fortress is located on a natural hill 261.9 m above sea level in the historical and cultural park of ancient Merv, 6.3 km northeast of Bayramali town, 4.1 km southwest of International village, 2.5 km east and slightly north of the Sultan Sinjar Mausoleum in Bayramali etrap of Mary velayat.
The ruins of ancient Merv comprise five sites from different periods and are located on the middle reaches of the Murghab River in Turkmenistan. The oldest of them is the oval Erk-kala (400 x 500 metres – 20 hectares), which is set into the northern wall of the Gyaur-kala fortress walls.
The only access to the Erk Kala fortress was on the south side. The edges of the fortification walls are 23 to 27 metres high, in the centre of the settlement, with a shift to the southwest, there is a citadel (50 x 50 metres) more than 25 metres high, to the south and east it is bordered by mounds of former buildings, to the north of the citadel, in front of the fortifications, there is a low area that was used to house military garrisons and stone throwing guns.
The first excavations in Erk Kala Fortress were carried out in 1890 by V. A. Zhukovski within the framework of the Archaeological Commission. In 1904, exploratory work was carried out by the American expedition led by R. Pampelli. In 2004, Turkmenistan celebrated the 100th anniversary of the American discovery of the Anau culture and the excavations at Merv.
Excavations at the Erk Kala fortress were carried out in 1937 by B.B.Piotrovskiy, A.A.Marushchenko and in 1947 by S.A.Vyazigin, and from 1950 stationary archaeological research began under the direction of Academician M.E.Masson. Masson, which lasted until 1992.
Through the section of the fortress wall brought to the mainland, factual material was obtained for solving questions of ancient urbanisation and methods of urban development. Early mud castles were found at the base of the walls with an elongated mud wall with pottery and a distinctive beak-shaped crown, as well as a wall pillar at the transition to the foundation. These finds from the 1970s suggest that the fortified settlement dates back to the middle of the 1st millennium BC at the earliest.
However, the stratigraphic hole excavated south of the central one of the Erk Kala fortress at a depth of 17 m revealed two early cultural layers at the level of the mainland with materials similar to the pottery of the old walls. Ancient buried marsh soils with pottery fragments indicated earlier occupation in the area – from the second quarter of the 1st millennium BC, which was later confirmed by excavations on the central mound in 1986 – 1992.
Here at excavation 7, the presence of the early cultural layer at the boundary between the Yaz I and Yaz II cultures was confirmed, corresponding to the buried soils in the stratigraphic pits. On this basis, the author of these lines dates the age of the fortress of Erk Kala to 2700 years in the latest publications.
The section of the central motte of the Erk Kala fortress along the northern slope indicates a rectangular raw material platform in the foundation, the protrusions of which formed a recessed niche on the northern side, around the edge of which there was an open fireplace at a height of 15 m, which was in operation at the same time as the early buildings of the settlement.
The blazing fire could be seen outside the city walls, which were much lower than the 10-metre-high citadel itself. The materials obtained during the forty-year investigation of Erk-Kala thus make it possible to reconstruct the historical picture of urban settlement in the area of ancient Merv.
At the turn of the Yaz-I to the Yaz-II culture, a fortified settlement arose here. A mighty, crude citadel platform is erected, with a functioning fire temple and buildings, leaving a cultural layer more than 2 m thick with early ceramics on the eastern slope of the platform.
A fragment of a painted moulded ware of the Yaz I type with an admixture of fireclay and grindstone in the dough was found, covered with thick engobe and showing geometric paintings. The finds of a double-barrelled case, a bronze arrowhead and a biconical stone core, typical of the ancient settlements of Margiana, are also associated with this layer.
On this ancient cultural layer, a building with Achaemenid mud walls was uncovered.
In one of the rooms, on the northern slope, large mounds embedded in the ground were found, their vertical walls ending in a flat crown giving a beak-shaped profile, drawn down and covered with light-coloured engobe up to the slope of the walls at the junction with the floor embedded in the ground.
Several first bronze arrowheads with a protruding sheath have been found, similar to those found in the palace of Darius I at Persepolis. This phase in the history of the fortress of Erk Kala is associated with the time when Margiana was part of the Achaemenid state in the VI-IV century BC.
The walls of Erk-Kala were additionally strengthened, and new palace and temple buildings were erected on its platform. The Greek army found Erk-Kala this way and named it Alexandria of Margiana in honour of their commander.
The fortress of Erk Kala at that time had much in common with the present-day city of Bactra in its construction and history. In Hellenistic times (IV to III c. BC) Erk-Kala lost its status as an independent city and was incorporated as a prefabricated fortified citadel into the northern side of the fortress walls as an integral part of the new rectangular city built by Antiochus I Soter.
Since that time, the history of the fortress of Erk Kala has been inseparable from the development of the ancient city in the area of Gyaur-kala. Walled Erk-Kala was intensively settled mainly to the south and south-east of the former citadel (central hill), while the northern half remained free.
It is still a valley today, where the arsenal and the stone cannons were located in ancient times. The further history of the fortress of Erk Kala is associated with the construction and operation of a palace-temple complex to the east of the city gate from the II century BC onwards, as well as residential quarters for the ruling class adjoining the central hill from the east, where cultural layers from the ancient period are preserved.
The accumulation of Sassanid cultural layers is recorded in the southeast of the central hill, where the total thickness of the cultural layer reaches 17 metres, of which 5 metres fall within the Sassanid period.
There are no later deposits in the fortress of Erk Kala. The period when Margiana was part of the Sasanid state (III-5th century) has left a significant trace in the history of Erk Kala fortress. On the central hill, above the ancient building, an administrative building was erected on a strong platform, which was later used by the Arabs as the residence of Caliph Mamun in Merv.
To the west of the central hill, at the foot of the fortress wall, was an arsenal. At the south gate, on the site of the palace-temple complex, a fortress was built on the north side with a wall with false embrasures, one of which was a terracotta figure of a female warrior with a sword.
Today, the fortress stands at a height of 34 metres from the foot of the fortress wall and offers a wide panoramic view of the surrounding landscape from its uppermost platform, with a circumference of up to 30 kilometres.
The Sassanids attached great importance to reinforcing the borders of their state in the northeast; for this reason, large structures were built in Merv and especially in the fortress of Erk Kala: Proteichisms, double-parallel inner wall corridors, etc. were built.
In order to obtain new data on the historical topography of the hill fort and to identify the nature of the cultural layers, excavations were carried out in 1990-991 100 metres east of the central hill on one of the mounds that border the lowland of the northern part of the hill fort.
On the surface, mainly fragments of pottery known from the Merv pottery scale for the 3rd to 7th centuries were found. The rather fragile surface layer is the result of centuries of destruction of former structures and silting.
The remains of structures were only found at a depth of 1.5 to 2 metres during the excavation. A part of the dwelling consisting of 4 rooms was uncovered and two storey levels associated with two building eras were noted.
The stratigraphy of the layers is complex due to several alterations and renovations. The living quarters consist of a room with pakhs walls and brick hearths with a cluster of whole vessels on the floor: a hum, a humchi and a kitchen kettle.
To the north of the vessels were two millstones and wedged bricks. In the second phase of construction, a new floor level was built on the infill of the room, overlaying the levelled south wall.
The size of the already new room is greatly increased by the extension to the south, while the previous north wall remains. This overlaps with the space to the south of the room.
The walls are built in a size of 38 cm x 42 cm from 10 to 12 cm thick, unhewn stones. In the second room, the level of the first floor was lowered by 15 to 20 centimetres to the south.
There, a collection of whole vessels and their fragments was discovered, which were of particular interest because they were wedged between the floors and could be dated more precisely.
This complex made it possible to clarify the chronological sequence of the different types of vessels found here, while they could be dated separately to different times.
This is especially true for the jars with stems, which generally date from a later period. The characteristic feature of the room is the lack of a south wall, which can be seen in the east wall, which still has a smooth south edge and traces of plaster.
The room is an iwan that was open to the courtyard and had the function of a 4.5 m long and 2.2 m wide antechamber, typical of Parthian-Sanid palace architecture.
Such aivans were also used in residential architecture and served as ceremonial rooms with access to the courtyard. This is a unique discovery for Merv, allowing us to discuss new principles of planning and building techniques in residential architecture from the fortress of Erk Kala, as the city was used as a citadel and fortress during the Parthian and Sassanid periods.
Room 3 is to the east of Room 2 and the entrance was from the courtyard. The walls consisted of 40 x 42 by 10 x 11 centimetres of rough stone, with half-walls as facing.
The west wall joined the east wall of the second room and formed an additional support for the vaulted ceiling of the Ivan. Above the south portal, traces of the transition to the vault can be seen.
One metre away from the west wall in IV-V is a pit that was lowered from above, in the loose filling of which 32 fragments of ostracones were found. The inscriptions are in black ink on the walls of the grey clay vessels; some have inscriptions on both sides.
Based on the script and shorthand typical of Middle Persian handwriting (Pahlavi based on Aramaic), the ostraka can be assigned to the 6th-7th century. The first examination of the finds by A.B. Nikitin allowed him to place them in the same category as the ostraka from the Buddhist monument in Merv and to date them to the 6th-7th century.
To the north of room 3 was room 4, which marked the level of the floor with fireplaces. Nearby were wedged bricks and an inverted humming top used as a tandoor. The floor covered the infill of rooms 1 and 2 and was connected to the collapsed upper cultural layer.
The copper coins found during the excavations were identified by A. B. Nikitin as Sassanid coins of national and local coinage. The pottery from the first floor of buildings 1 and 2 includes the following forms: bumblebees, khumcha, pots, jars of various types, pots, bowls and a large kelch-like cup with a handle.
All the vessels are made on the potter’s wheel and the pottery is of good quality, pink, grey and yellowish in colour with light, pink and grey engobe. Some vessels show traces of vertical fluting, decorations in the form of wavy lines.
Sand and grit were added to the paste of the kitchen utensils, the surface is smoothed, the engobe is well preserved. Fragments of glassware, bronze arrowheads, the bronze casing of a knife handle, a stone mould and a ceramic vessel were found in the backfill of Room 3.
The stratigraphy of the excavation shows that the south-eastern part of the settlement was intensively inhabited in the 3rd to 5th century AD. The identified storeys indicate several phases of construction and renovation on the same site, suggesting that the citadel area was densely built up and there was no room for scattered living within the strong city walls.
This is what determines such a powerful accumulation of cultural layers here.
The dwelling in excavation site 9 was built on the ruins of a building from the middle of the 3rd century AD, when Merv became part of the Sasanian state. From the IVth century onwards, there was a real military threat from the northern nomadic tribes, and Merv was constantly under the observation of the Sasanian kings.
Shapur II concluded a treaty with the Chionites and Galans. The crisis greatly weakened Merv, especially under Chormizd (302-309). Some decline was felt in the economic life of the country. In Gyaur Qala, a whole sector of craftsmen’s quarters emptied with coppersmiths, flour makers, potters and glass blowers.
In Erk Kala, the building of excavation site 3 and the site of the future arsenal are falling into disrepair. There is no 3rd or 4th century material on these hills. The economic decline was exacerbated by the struggle with the Ephtalites in the first half of the 5th century.
Varahran V (420-438) defeated the Ephtalites near Merv, while Ezdigerd II supported his army on the northern border and established his military station at the Merv oasis for this purpose. However, Yezdigerd II’s military operations against the Hephthalites and Chionites ended in defeat.
This battle weakened the Sasanian state and had a severe impact on Merv, which was a theatre of military conflict. At the beginning of the Vth century, the oasis was still in economic decline. At that time, not only the Christian community lived peacefully in the empty Giauk Kala (fourth and early fifth centuries), but also a Buddhist community in the south-eastern part of the settlement, where a stupa and a sangarama were built.
During this difficult period for Merv, there was a functioning dwelling house in the fortress of Erk Kala, which is being investigated in excavation 9. In the second half of the V century, Merv overcame the crisis, a new way of economic life was consolidated and the castles began to play an important role in the economic and cultural life of the city and its surroundings.
The last stage in the history of Erk-Kala is associated with the Arabs, when during the Caliph’s stay here, the city gates and the wall crowns of the fortress were fortified with baked bricks. According to written sources, the fortress of Erk Kala has been in ruins since the X. Century in ruins.