The history of the emergence of the first city on the site of ancient Merv dates back to the VII century BC. The city was surrounded by a strong fortress wall about 25 metres high, the present site of Erk Kala.
Very quickly, the city grew to become the capital of the entire oasis. In the city there were temples, barracks, the governor’s house and other buildings. When the great army commander Alexander the Great arrived in this city in the IV century BC, he was impressed by the originality and beauty of the area and ordered six forts to be built near the city and the area to be surrounded with a strong fortification.
After that, the first city in the history of Merv Alexandria was called Margiana. The Macedonians had a brief rule in the territory of present-day Turkmenistan. After Alexander’s death in 332 BC, his vast empire collapsed and Merv became part of the new state of Seleucus.
The Seleucid king Antiochus Soter (280 – 261 BC) built a new city – Antiochus Margiana, today’s Gyaur Kala. In the middle of the III century BC, the Central Asian peoples revolted against the Seleucid Empire, resulting in the loss of large historical regions such as Parthenna and Bactria to the Seleucid Empire.
In the II century BC, the Parthian king Mithridates conquered the city of Merv. The modern traveller knows the story of these buildings in the area of the historical park of “Ancient Merv” under the name Kyz Kala. In the VII century, the Arabs took the place of the Sasanids.
Fleeing persecution, the last Sasanian king Yezdigerd of Merv arrived in Merv. The ruler decided to compromise with the invaders, and in 651 the Arabs conquered Merv without a fight, making it a springboard for the conquest of all Central Asia.
Ancient Merv played an important role in the history of the Islamic Caliphate. In the IX century, Merv was ruled by the local Tahirid dynasty. In the following two centuries, Merv was part of the Tahirid, Samanid and Ghaznavid states and then of the Great Seljuks.
In 1040, the Seljuks defeated the Ghaznavids at Dandanakan near Merv and began building the eastern capital of their young empire, now Sultan Qala, in Merv.
It is located next to Gyaur Kala, but is not inferior to it in size. In 1092, the ruler of Merv and North Khorosan became the son of Melik Shah, the great and legendary Seljuk Sanjar, who had conquered the vast territory of Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan and Asia Minor.
Seljuk Merv, with its numerous libraries, attracted famous scholars of the time like a magnet. The city of Sultan Kala was mercilessly destroyed by the hordes of Tuloyi Khan, the son of Genghis Khan.
Juweini wrote: “… the Mongol army entered the city. The entire population without distinction of tenure was taken out of the country with the exception of 400 artisans and a part of the children of both sexes who were taken captive, the entire population of Merv together with women and children were killed…”.
According to Juweini, up to 700 thousand people were killed in Merv. Two kilometres from medieval Merv lie the ruins of late medieval Merv, known to modern travellers as Abdulahan Qala and Bairam Ali Khan Qala.
Abdulahan Qala was built in the 15th century by the descendants of Amir Temur. Bairam Ali Khan was the last ruler of Merv in the 18th century. In 1999, the monuments of ancient Merv were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The ancient city of Merv is the most important reserve in Turkmenistan as far as spiritual monuments are concerned. Here you can find the traces of such ancient religions as Zoroastrianism, associated with the cult of fire, and Manichaeism – a religious-philosophical doctrine, a variety of Zoroastrianism, which was established in Iran at the end of the first half of the III century.
Christianity and Buddhism were also widespread in ancient Merv. The Arabs brought with them a new religion, Islam, and in turn the customs of the local population were also reflected in some Muslim rituals.
The Arabs, who retained the traditions of nomadic life, settled mainly outside the city, near the western gate of Gyaur-kala, along the Razik Canal, where a residential area, rabat, began to form. After the adoption of Islam, several permanent mosques were built in Merv.
At the end of the X. Century, Merv became one of the fortified centres of the Seljuk state. Later, under Alp Arslan (1063-1072) – the successor of the first Seljuk ruler Tagrul-Bek – Merv became the capital.
After the death of Sultan Sanjar in 1157, the Seljuk dynasty fell into decline, and the mausoleum built over his tomb became the most magnificent religious structure in Turkmenistan.
The short decades of rule by the Khorezmshakhs, who took over Merv soon after the death of Sultan Sanjar, were good for the city. The construction of religious buildings was intense, as the great geographer Yakut al-Hamawi (who lived in Merv from 1216 to 1219) attests: “Merv-Shahijan (Persian for ‘soul of the king’) is the famous Merv, the most famous of the cities of Khorasan and its capital….
Sultan Sanjar ibn Malikshah as-Seljuqi lived there until his death. His tomb is in a large mausoleum with a lattice window facing the mosque of the cathedral.
Its blue dome can be seen a day’s journey away…. If it had not been for the destruction caused by the Tartar invasion, I would not have left Merv before I died because the people there are so polite, friendly and obliging and there are so many books on the basics of science.
At the time I left there were ten book depots – waqf…”. The best and most prosperous city of Khorasan ceased to exist in 1221 when it was completely defeated by the Mongol hordes and its entire population wiped out.
In the 1450s, Mirza Sanjar, a great-grandson of Amir Temur, ruled over Merv. He built a new city, the ruins of which are now known as Bairam-Ali Khan-Kala – after the Turkmen ruler who briefly owned Merv.
The history of the Temurid period in Merv can be seen not only in the fortress wall of Abdullah Khan-Kala, but also in a monumental structure in the southern part of Iskander-Kala in the form of two vaulted aivans and venerated tombs of companions of the Prophet, Ashab’s Bureyda ibn al-Husseib al-Aslami and al-Hakam ibn Amr al-Gifari.
The eighteenth century is marked in Merv by the mosque of Khoja Yusuf of Hamadan, which is located behind the northern wall of Iskander-Kala. On the streets between Mary and Bairam-Ali there are a number of monuments from different periods, of which the Talhatan-Babad Mosque and, closer to Merv, the old and very dilapidated mausoleum of Khudoy-Nazar Auliye are the most significant.
In the northern outskirts of old Merv are several ancient structures, including a large mosque with the remains of a minaret. Many valuable monuments have been preserved in the surroundings of old Merv.