the biggest city that died

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Today was my only day off in Turkmenistan. But it was going to be packed. The ruins of Merv to be looked at. Shoes to be bought. And we needed to stock up on food for the remainder of the trip.

First we went to see the ruins. There was a gate with a ticket office that looked a lot like something that could have been in China:

gate to old Merv

We tried to avoid walking as much as possible, so we basically drove everywhere, which was good because the area was fairly large. Like I said before, Merv is said to have been the biggest city in the world in the 12th century. Before it was flattened by the Mongols.

Anyway, it was all in ruins now. We saw the Greater Kyz Kala, a structure that was thought by some to have been a madrasah for girls once:

Greater Kyz Kala

Right next to it was the Lesser Kyz Kala, which might have been a madrasah for boys. It was in much worse shape than the Greater Kyz Kala:

Lesser Kyz Kala

Some of the old decorations were still visible:

old decorations

And some of the stairs:

walled stairway

But bees had come to take over the place:

beehive in the ruins

So I quickly left.

Remember how I told you about the pieces of cloth that people hung up in trees for good luck? Well, they had more of them here:

more pieces of cloth in trees

If you look at the ruins of Merv on my Google Earth file, you will see that it is basically two large walled areas. They belonged to different times, with the Eastern one being much older than its Western counterpart. Here is the wall of the Western part that was called Sultan Kala:

ancient wall

We could see a large, relatively intact mausoleum in the center of it:

mausoleum vertical

It was the 12th century Sultan Sanjar mausoleum that had somehow survived the centuries. I longed to go there, but we were first going to look at some other things.

Like this obviously Timurid (and therefore post-Mongol) structure:

mosaic patterns

It was the Askhab Mausoleum, a place where two of Muhammad’s disciples were thought to have been buried.

two pilgrims at the Askhab Mausoleum

This reminded me of Jiayuguan, Hami and Tuyu Gorge in the Northwest of China, where I had visited similar mausoleums. I started wondering how many disciples of Muhammad there had been altogether.

Pilgrims came here from all over Turkmenistan to pray at the mausoleum:

second sarcophagus

But also to take group pictures:

group photo of pilgrims

They came in their own pilgrim bus, by the way:

pilgrim bus

Then we checked out something that I found fascinating from a practical point of view – the ancient ice house:

ice house

This was basically a huge fridge:

ice house from inside

The structure went deep underground inside, and the walls were thick and high:

looking up the ice house

Also, the walls were double, so as to isolate from the summer heat:

double walls in the ice house

People would gather ice here in the winter, and then the building would serve as a cool storage in the hot summers. Isn’t that awesome?

We then went to the Erk Kala, the Eastern part, which was a lot older than the rest:

ruin moundErk Kala

Still, the mausoleum was calling me from the distance:

mausoleum with pink plants

But we didn’t go just yet.

We went to a fully renovated mosque first, the Yusuf Hamadani Mosque:

Yusuf Hamadani Mosque

There was a sarcophagus here as well:

sarcophagus on display

And more pilgrims:

more pilgrims

And a minaret:


And then we finally went and looked at the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, the big one in the middle of the Sultan Kala:

mausoleum from up close

The pilgrims were there, too. They had come to pray:

praying in the mausoleum

And to take selfies:


I liked the mausoleum a lot, especially the elaborately decorated ceiling:

mausoleum ceiling

And there was something special about this particular mausoleum:

behind the mausoleum

If you look at the foreground you can see that there used to be structures there, and the newly added staircase leads to a door that comes out of the mausoleum mid air.

It had been one of the first mausoleums to feature additional structures outside, possibly a mosque. There was something strange though:

bath houses?

This opening indicated that there might have been a bathhouse here. A ritual cleansing facility of the mosque?

We said good-bye to old Merv after that and went back to the city. On our way we passed a row of identical houses that also reminded me of something I had seen in China many years earlier:

identical houses near Mary

Oh, and I have yet to tell you how Merv died, given that there were Timurid structures, which could have only been erected after the conquest by the Mongols. Well, Merv sort of came back to life after the Mongol catastrophe, but then the river changed its course to a location about 30km west of it (where Mary is located today), and the city of Merv was done for. A sad story.

We had lunch in a small restaurant:

lunch in Mary

Actually it was probably more mid-sized than small:

mid-sized restaurant in Mary

And like every restaurant I had been to in Turkmenistan, it had little booths where people could eat in private:

restaurant with tv

Of course there were selfies again, this time with the cooks:

photo with cooks

This was behind the restaurant:

behind the restaurant

Again, I am sorry about the sheer amount of pictures I am sharing here, but it all seemed very interesting to me. So bear with me, for I have not yet shown you the hotel reception hall:

Hotel Mary reception hall

We then went to the bazaar. There was a strict no-photo policy in all bazaars in Turkmenistan, but they looked exactly the same as the bazaars in Uzbekistan anyway.

Remember I wanted to get new shoes? Well, we went to a few places, but their shoes were all made in China (even the ones that said “Made in Turkey” had the same feel), and I am sad to say they were all crap. I tried out a whole bunch, and I hated them all. What I liked, though, was this rather chubby mannequin:

shoe store in Mary

Fat dudes need shoes, too!

I went back to my hotel after that and did some lounging, then I went back to the bazaar (again, no pictures), and I hung out there for a while. I like doing that sometimes when I’m traveling – just sit in a place until the people around me find me boring.

And then, at around eight at night, the opening ceremony of the Asian Games happened, and it was massive:

opening ceremony of the Asian Games

People in my hotel had been glued to the TV since five in afternoon, and they seemed very excited about it all:

watching the opening ceremony of the Asian Games

I stayed for a while, but when the President started giving a long speech in Turkmen, I drifted back to my room. I had bought a can of Turkmen cola that I wanted to try.

Here it is:


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  • HelenC

    Very interesting! Buildings are massive and magnificent!

    It seems that the the big city has very high standard of living…

    Thank you for sharing.


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