Merv (Turkmen: Merw, Мерв, مرو; Persian: مرو, Marv), also known as the Merve Oasis, formerly known as Alexandria (Greek: Ἀλεξάνδρεια), Antiochia in Margiana (Greek: Ἀντιόχεια ἡ ἐν τῇ Μαργιανῇ) and Marw al-Shāhijān, was a major Iranian city in Central Asia, on the historical Silk Road, near today's Mary, Turkmenistan. Human settlements on the site of Merv existed from the 3rd millennium BC until the 18th century AD. It changed hands repeatedly throughout history. Under the Achaemenid Empire, it was the centre of the satrapy of Margiana. It was subsequently ruled by the Ancient Macedonians, Parthians, Sasanians, Arabs, Ghazn...Read more
Merv (Turkmen: Merw, Мерв, مرو; Persian: مرو, Marv), also known as the Merve Oasis, formerly known as Alexandria (Greek: Ἀλεξάνδρεια), Antiochia in Margiana (Greek: Ἀντιόχεια ἡ ἐν τῇ Μαργιανῇ) and Marw al-Shāhijān, was a major Iranian city in Central Asia, on the historical Silk Road, near today's Mary, Turkmenistan. Human settlements on the site of Merv existed from the 3rd millennium BC until the 18th century AD. It changed hands repeatedly throughout history. Under the Achaemenid Empire, it was the centre of the satrapy of Margiana. It was subsequently ruled by the Ancient Macedonians, Parthians, Sasanians, Arabs, Ghaznavids, Seljuqs, Khwarazmians and Timurids, among others.
Merv was the capital city of several polities throughout its history. In the beginning of the 9th century, Merv was the seat of the caliph al-Ma'mun and the capital of the entire Islamic caliphate. It served later as the seat of the Tahirid rulers of Khorasan. In the 11th–12th centuries, Merv was the capital of the Great Seljuk Empire and remained so until the latter's ultimate fall. Around this time, Merv turned into a chief centre of Islamic science and culture, attracting as well as producing renowned poets, musicians, physicians, mathematicians and astronomers. Great Persian polymath Omar Khayyam, among others, spent a number of years working at the observatory in Merv. As Persian geographer and traveller al-Istakhri wrote of Merv: "Of all the countries of Iran, these people were noted for their talents and education." Arab geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi counted as many as 10 giant libraries in Merv, including one within a major mosque that contained 12,000 volumes.
Merv was also a popular place for pilgrimage, and several religions considered it holy. In Zoroastrianism, Merv (Mouru) was one of 16 perfect lands created by god Ahura Mazda. Between the 5th and 11th centuries, Merv served as the seat of an East Syrian metropolitan province. The 8th Imam of Twelver Shia Islam Ali ar-Ridha (Imam Reza), moved to Merv from Baghdad and resided there for several years. Al-Muqanna, the "Veiled Prophet", who gained many followers by claiming to be an incarnation of God, was born and started his movement in Merv.
During the 12th–13th centuries, Merv may have been the world's largest city, with a population of up to 500,000. During this period, Merv was known as "Marw al-Shāhijān" (Merv the Great), and frequently referred to as the "capital of the eastern Islamic world". According to geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi, the city and its structures were visible from a day's journey away. In 1221, the city opened its gates to an invading Mongol horde, resulting in massive devastation. Historical accounts contend that the entire population (including refugees) were killed; Tolui Khan is reputed to have slaughtered 700,000 people. Though partly rebuilt after the Mongol destruction, the city never regained its former prosperity. Between 1788 and 1789, the city was razed for the last time, and its population deported. By the 1800s, under pressure from the Russians, Merv was completely deserted.
Today the site is preserved as a state historical and cultural park. It is the oldest and most perfectly preserved of the oasis cities along the historical Silk Road. A few buildings and structures still stand today, especially those constructed in the last two millennia. UNESCO has listed the site of ancient Merv as a World Heritage Site.
Merv has prehistoric roots: archaeological surveys have revealed many traces of village life as far back as the 3rd millennium BC and have associated the area culturally with the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex. The geography of the Zend-Avesta (commentaries on the Avesta) mentions Merv (under the name of Mouru) along with Balkh. In Zoroastrianism, the god Ahura Mazda created Mouru as one of sixteen perfect lands.
Under the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550–330 BC), the historical record mentions Merv as a place of some importance: under the name of Margu, it occurs as part of one satrapy in the Behistun inscriptions (ca. 515 BC) of the Persian monarch Darius the Great. The first city of Merv was founded in the 6th century BC as part of the Achaemenid expansion into the region of Cyrus the Great (559–530 BC), but later strata deeply cover the Achaemenid levels at the site.Hellenistic era
Alexander the Great's visit to Merv is merely legendary, but the city was named Alexandria (Ἀλεξάνδρεια) after him for a time. After his death in 323 BC, it became the capital of the Province of Margiana of the Seleucid, Greco-Bactrian (256–125 BC), Parthian, and Sassanid states.
The Seleucid ruler, Antiochus Soter (reigned 281–261 BC), renamed it to Antiochia Margiana; he rebuilt and expanded the city at the site presently known as Gyaur Gala fortress. Isidore of Charax wrote Antiochia was called the "unwatered" (Ἄνυδρος).Parthian era
After the fall of the Seleucid dynasty (63 BC), Bactria, Parthia, and the Kushans took control in succession. In 53 BC, some 10,000 Roman prisoners of war from the Battle of Carrhae appear to have been deported to Merv.
Merv was a major city of Buddhist learning, with Buddhist monastery temples for many centuries until its Islamisation. At the site of Gyaur Kala and Baýramaly, Buddhism was followed and practised often at the local Buddhist stupas.Sasanian era
After the Sassanid Ardashir I (220–240 AD) took Merv, the study of numismatics picks up the thread: the unbroken series of coins originally minted at Merv document a long unbroken direct Sassanian rule of almost four centuries. During this period Merv was home to practitioners of various religions beside the official Sassanid Zoroastrianism, including Buddhists, Manichaeans, and Christians of the Church of the East. Between the 5th and 11th centuries, Merv served as the seat of an East Syrian metropolitan province. The first bishop was Barshabba (c.360/424). The Hephthalite occupation from the end of the 5th century to 565 AD briefly interrupted Sassanid rule.Arab conquest and influence
Sassanian rule ended when the last Sassanian ruler, Yazdegerd III (632–651) was killed near the city and the Sassanian military governor surrendered to the approaching Arab army. Representatives of the caliph, Umar occupied the city, which became the capital of the Umayyad province of Khorasan. In 671, Ziyad ibn Abi Sufyan sent 50,000 Arab troops to Merv as a colony. This colony retained its native Kufan sympathies and became the nucleus of Khurasan. Using the city as their base, the Arabs, led by Qutayba ibn Muslim from 705 to 715, brought large parts of Central Asia, including Balkh, Bokhara, and Fergana under subjection. Merv, and Khorasan, in general, became one of the first parts of the Persian-speaking world to become majority-Muslim. Arab immigration to the area was substantial. A Chinese man captured at Talas, Du Huan, was brought to Baghdad and toured the caliphate. He observed that in Merv, Khurasan, Arabs and Persians lived in mixed concentrations.
Merv gained renewed importance in February 748 when the Iranian general Abu Muslim (d. 755) declared a new Abbasid dynasty at Merv, expanding and re-founding the city, and, in the name of the Abbasid line, used the city as a base of rebellion against the Umayyad caliphate. After the Abbasids established themselves in Baghdad, Abu Muslim continued to rule Merv as a semi-independent prince until his eventual assassination. Indeed, Merv operated as the centre of Abbasid partisanship for the duration of the Abbasid Revolution of 746–750, and became a consistent source of political support for the Abbasid rulers in Baghdad later on; the governorship of Khurasan at Merv was one of the most important political figures of the Caliphate. The influential Barmakid family, based in Merv, played an important part in transferring Greek knowledge (established in Merv since the days of the Seleucids and Greco-Bactrians) into the Arab world.
Throughout the Abbasid era, Merv remained the capital and most important city of Khurasan. During this time, the Arab historian Al-Muqaddasi (c. 945/946–991) called Merv "delightful, fine, elegant, brilliant, extensive, and pleasant". Merv's architecture inspired the Abbasid re-planning of Baghdad. A 10th-century Arab historian, Ibn Hawqal, wrote of Merv: "and in no other city are to be seen such palaces and groves, and gardens and streams".
Merv was also known for its high-quality textiles. A 12th-century Arab geographer al-Idrisi noted: "From this country is derived much silk as well as cotton of a superior quality under the name of Merv cotton, which is extremely soft." The Islamic world admired the elegant robes and silk turbans produced in Merv. The city was notable as a home for immigrants from the Arab lands and those from Sogdia and elsewhere in Central Asia.
In the period from 813 to 818, the temporary residency of the caliph, al-Ma'mun effectively made Merv the capital of the Muslim world and highlighted Merv's importance to the Abbasids. A descendant of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, 8th Imam of Twelver Shia Islam, Ali ar-Ridha moved to Merv and lived there for several years. Merv also became the centre of a major 8th-century Neo-Mazdakite movement led by al-Muqanna, the "Veiled Prophet", who gained many followers by claiming to be an incarnation of God and heir to Abu Muslim; the Khurramiyya inspired by him, persisted in Merv until the 12th century.
During this period Merv, like Samarqand and Bukhara, functioned as one of the great cities of Muslim scholarship; the celebrated historian Yaqut (1179–1229) studied in its libraries. Merv produced a number of scholars in various branches of knowledge, such as Islamic law, hadith, history, and literature. Several scholars have the name "Marwazi" (المروزي) designating them as hailing from Merv. The city continued to have a substantial Christian community. In 1009, the Archbishop of Merv sent a letter to the Patriarch at Baghdad asking that the Keraites be allowed to fast less than other Nestorian Christians. Great Persian polymath Omar Khayyam, among others, spent several years working at the observatory in Merv. As Persian geographer and traveller al-Istakhri wrote of Merv: "Of all the countries of Iran, these people were noted for their talents and education." Yaqut al-Hamawi counted as many as 10 giant libraries in Merv, including one within a major mosque that contained 12,000 volumes.
As the caliphate weakened, Persian general Tahir b. al -Husayn and his Tahirid dynasty replaced Arab rule in Merv 821. The Tahirids ruled Merv from 821 to 873, followed by the Saffarids, then the Samanids and later the Ghaznavids.Turkmens in Merv
In 1037, the Seljuq Turkmens, a clan of Oghuz Turks moving from the steppes east of the Aral Sea, peacefully took over Merv under the leadership of Tughril—the Ghaznavid sultan Mas'ud I was extremely unpopular in the city. Tugril's brother Chaghri stayed in Merv as the Seljuq domains grew to include the rest of Khurasan and Iran, and it subsequently became a favourite city of the Seljuq sultans. Chaghri, his son Alp Arslan (sultan from 1063 to 1072) and great-grandson Ahmad Sanjar (sultan from 1118 to 1157) were buried at Merv, the latter at the Tomb of Ahmad Sanjar.
Nearing the end of the 11th century, Merv became the eastern capital of the split Seljuq state. However, starting from 1118, it served as the capital of the whole empire. During this period, Merv expanded to its greatest size—Arab and Persian geographers termed it "the mother of the world", the "rendezvous of great and small", the "chief city of Khurasan" and the "capital of the eastern Islamic world". Written sources also attest to a large library and madrasa founded by Nizam al-Mulk, vizier of the Seljuq empire, as well as many other major cultural institutions. Perhaps most importantly, Merv had a market described as "the best of the major cities of Iran and Khurasan".
Sanjar's rule, marked by conflict with the Kara-Khitai and Khwarazmians, ended in 1153 when Turkmen nomads from beyond the Amu Darya pillaged the city. Subsequently, Merv changed hands between the Khwarazmians of Khiva, Turkmen nomads, and the Ghurids. According to Tertius Chandler, by 1150 Merv was the world's largest city, with a population of 200,000. By 1210, it may have had as many as 500,000 residents, preceding such medieval metropolises as Constantinople and Baghdad.Mongols in Merv
In 1221, Merv opened its gates to Tolui, son of Genghis Khan, chief of the Mongols. Most of the inhabitants are said to have been butchered. Arab historian Ibn al-Athir described the event basing his report on the narrative of Merv refugees:
Genghis Khan sat on a golden throne and ordered the troops who had been seized should be brought before him. When they were in front of him, they were executed and the people looked on and wept. When it came to the common people, they separated men, women, children and possessions. It was a memorable day for shrieking and weeping and wailing. They took the wealthy people and beat them and tortured them with all sorts of cruelties in the search for wealth ... Then they set fire to the city and burned the tomb of Sultan Sanjar and dug up his grave looking for money. They said, 'These people have resisted us' so they killed them all. Then Genghis Khan ordered that the dead should be counted and there were around 700,000 corpses.
A Persian historian, Juvayni, put the figure at more than 1,300,000. Each individual soldier of the conquering army "was allotted the execution of three to four hundred persons," many of those soldiers being levies from Sarakhs who, because of their town's enmity toward Merv, "exceeded the ferocity of the heathen Mongols in the slaughter of their fellow-Muslims." Almost the entire population of Merv, and refugees arriving from the other parts of the Khwarazmian Empire, were slaughtered, making it one of the bloodiest captures of a city in world history.
Excavations revealed the drastic rebuilding of the city's fortifications in the aftermath of their destruction, but the city's prosperity had passed. The Mongol invasion spelled the eclipse of Merv and other major centres for more than a century. After the Mongol conquest, Merv became part of the Ilkhanate, and it was consistently looted by Chagatai Khanate. In the early part of the 14th century, the town became the seat of a Christian archbishopric of the Eastern Church under the rule of the Kartids, vassals of the Ilkhanids. By 1380 Merv belonged to the empire of Timur (Tamerlane).Uzbeks in Merv and its final destruction
In 1505, the Uzbeks occupied Merv; five years later, Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty of Iran, expelled them. In this period, a Persian nobleman restored a large dam (the "Soltanbent") on the river Murghab, and the settlement which grew up in the irrigated area became known as Baýramaly, as referenced in some 19th-century texts.
After Shah Ismail's death, the region became a dependency of Khiva, but in 1593 Merv was conquered by AbdUllah Khan II of Bukhara. The city was soon captured by Shah Abbas, and a Safavid governor (Biktash Khan Ustajlu) was appointed to the governorship in 1600. In 1608, Mihrab Khan Qajar became governor, beginning two centuries of Qajar governorship over Merv. From 1715, the Qajar elite began to assert Merv's independence from the Safavid government, but within a decade the oasis became insecure due to raids by Tatars and Turkmens. Nader Shah launched military campaigns that cowed the Turkmens and Tatars and restored Merv's irrigation system. After Nader Shah's death, the local Qajars in the region declared independence and formed the Qajar Principality of Merv. In 1785, the Manghit amir of Bukhara, Shah Murad, attacked the city and killed the ruler, Bayram 'Ali Khan Qajar. A few years later, in 1788 and 1789, Shah Murad razed the city to the ground, and broke down the dams, leaving the area a waste land.[why?]
The entire population of the city and the surrounding oasis of about 100,000 were then deported in several stages to the Bukharan oasis and the Samarkand region in the Zarafshan Valley. Being the last remaining Persian-speaking Shias, the deportees resisted assimilation into the Sunni population of Bukhara and Samarkand, despite the common Persian language they spoke with most natives. These Marvis survive as of 2016[update]—Soviet censuses listed them as "Iranis/Iranians" through the 1980s. They live in Samarkand and Bukhara and the area in between on the Zarafshan river. They are listed as Persian speaking but counted separately from the local Tajiks because of their Shia religion and the maintaining their ancient Mervi identity.Nineteenth century
Merv passed to the Khanate of Khiva in 1823. Sir Alexander Burnes traversed the country in 1832. About this time, the Persians forced the Tekke Turkmens, then living on the Tejen River, to migrate northward. Khiva contested the Tekkes' advance, but in about 1856, the latter became the sovereign power in the country, and remained so until the Russians occupied the oasis in 1884. By 1868, the Russians had taken most of Russian Central Asia except Turkmenistan. The Russians approached this area from the Caspian, and in 1881, they captured Geok Tepe. An officer named Alikhanov took Merv bloodlessly. A Muslim from the Caucasus, he had risen to the rank of major in the Russian service. After fighting a duel with a superior officer, he was demoted to the ranks and by 1882 had risen to lieutenant. In 1882, he entered Merv, claiming to be a Russian merchant, and negotiated a trade agreement. Meanwhile, Russian agents had used a mixture of bribes and threats to develop a pro-Russian party in the area. The Russians occupied the oasis of Tejen, eighty miles to the west. In 1884, Alikhanov entered Merv in a Russian officer's uniform, along with several Turkmen notables who had already submitted. He claimed the troops at Tejen were the spearhead of a larger force and that local autonomy would be respected. Seeing no hope of support from Persia or Britain, the elders submitted. The next Russian move was south toward Herat. By 1888, the city was entirely abandoned.
A future viceroy of British India, George Curzon visited the remains of Merv in 1888. He later wrote: "In the midst of an absolute wilderness of crumbling brick and clay, the spectacle of walls, towers, ramparts and domes, stretching in bewildering confusion to the horizon, reminds us that we are in the centre of bygone greatness."