Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan
Day 4 -
Tuesday, 25 April 2000
We were up early for breakfast followed by a bus ride to the
ancient city of Merv. In the Greek time, it was called Margiana, then after
Ghengis Khan it was called Merv. When the Russians took over, they built a new
city a distance away from the Asians and called their city Mary.
The Administration building
at Merv. It is one of the better preserved of the ancient buildings on the
In the old ruins, a man sat at the door of the Mausoleum of Sultan
Sanjar, selling booklets. We purchased one, called Ancient Merv, which was
"Printed thanks to a grant given by the Boeing Company" and published in
England in 1997. It was compiled by Georgian Herrman and Andrew Petersen. From
that booklet I have taken the spellings used for the ancient sites, and quote
from it below, choosing only a few interesting items.
The city in the 3rd century had a section for the Nestorian
Christians, a section for Buddhists, and a section for the Zoroastrians. The
great head of Buddha that we saw in the Ashgabat Ethnographic museum on Sunday
was found here, as was a large decorated vase.
"The oasis of Merv formed part of the land of Margush or Margiana,
a name derived from the Old Iranian for 'lowland' or 'grassland'. The oasis was
first colonized in the Early Bronze Age in the early second millennium BC,
probably by tribes from the Kopet Dagh mountains. .... The first historical
reference to Margiana is by the Achaemenian king, Darius the Great (522-486
BC). In his famous trilingual inscription at Bisitun in western Iran, Darius
commented on the crushing of a revolt in the province of Margiana. The
Achaemenian empire was founded by Cyrus the Great (559-530) and was the first
real 'world' empire, stretching from Central Asia to Egypt, and from western
Turkey to northern India. It lasted for over two centuries, during which trade
...."In Merv Christianity flourished in the fourth century, and as
early as the fifth century the Bishops of Merv were made Metropolitans.
Monasteries were established within the Merv oasis; the remains of a building
said to be a church can be seen... Other religions also flourished at Merv,
including Judaism and Buddhism. The first Buddhist community was established in
the fourth century........ The stupa in Gyaur Kala is the westernmost extant
The Sultan Sanjar mausoleum was built in
1140. The dome is 125 feet above the floor. The sultan lies about 14 feet below
Sultan Sanjar (1118-1157 AD), whose mausoleum still dominates this
site, was ruler during the high point of the Seljuk empire. During his reign
Merv flourished, attracting many outstanding medieval scholars - astronomers,
philosophers, historians and poets, including Omar Khayam. Omar Khayam is said
to have compiled his astronomical tables known as the 'Jalal ad-din Calendar'
in the Merv Observatory, in honor of the Seljuk Sultan.
This city played a major role in the stories of Ghengis Khan and
the Mongols, in the time of the Timurids, and in the Great Game between the
Russians and Great Britain. Since Russia won, the Bolsheviks had their impact
here, and the city of Mary is very Russian. The stories are too much to tell in
Our local guide, a Russian Christian, told us stories that span
the centuries. Persian, Greek, Parthian, Sassanian, Arabian, Mongol, Turk - the
conquerors came at different times from different directions. The hulking ruins
of the old city of Merv are silent, but some of the stories are remembered,
written down, and told by guides. There are two buildings, called the great and
little Kiz Kalas. At the time of conquest, the story says, the young women had
taken refuge here, the last bastion of safety in a besieged and falling city.
When they saw that all was lost, and soon they would be captives they leaped
from its heights to their deaths.
This building at Merv is
known as the Great Kiz Kala. It was built in the 6th century, long before
Sultan Sanjar used it as his palace.
When you see the ruins, you just see the mud walls, the dust, the
faint outlines of the city. When you hear the stories, you imagine a little of
the anguish of the people. But it is probably a good thing to only feel a
little of it. The soil of this land has been soaked with the blood of men many
times. Their voices are stilled, silent, resting in their graves. It is only
the recovered artifacts that give us a glimpse of everyday life through the
centuries in Merv.
Our guide took us to the museum. "It is my baby!" she told us. She
also told us the story of how silk was discovered when a long-ago Chinese
princess was sitting under a mulberry tree with a hot cup of tea. A cocoon fell
into the tea, and as it unwound before her eyes, silk was discovered. China
jealously guarded the secret, selling only the fabric on the famous Silk Road.
Today, mulberry trees line the roads. People cut the leafy
branches and bring them to their homes to feed their little captive
caterpillars, who dutifully make the delicate and highly prized silk fibers,
which are spun into threads. The thread is woven into fabric and colorfully
This picture of camels blocking the
road was taken through the windshield of our bus.
Aborted school visit
After lunch we had an aborted visit to a Turkish school. A couple
of local guides had joined us, and Meli asked them some questions, then she
addressed the tour members. The school, she told us, was a horrible school,
because it masquerades as a wonderful opportunity for the brightest and best
young boys to learn math, astronomy, science, many languages and all other
things necessary to succeed (even to dominate?) in the world at large. But they
also are secretly taught Islam fundamentalism. These schools are being spread
out wherever they can get a foothold, with a long-term goal of world
domination. It is a problem in Turkey, and Meli's emotional attitude of anger
toward them shows.
Her anger was still on her face when we got inside. A man met us,
and began to address us in English. But he offered to talk to us in whatever
language we would like, Italian, Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese - I don't
remember which or how many languages he mentioned, but he seemed to be making
it clear that he could speak any language necessary. It gave me a cold chill,
he was entirely too smooth - oily was the word that came to mind. As he
proceeded with his dissertation about the school he mentioned that the boys are
taught at no cost to the family. Meli asked him how the school was funded.
At first he pretended not to understand the question, but two or
three of us chimed in to help him understand. Ah, yes, and he started to speak
of Bashkent. Immediately the KGB types standing behind him cut him off, not
speaking in English, but it was clear that he was not to give any information
to us concerning this. The atmosphere quickly became cold, and to me a little
scary. Make that a lot scary. The last thing I want when I am in a distant land
is to get involved in the politics, or to draw negative attention from powerful
To visit, to observe, to learn are good things. I want to meet the
people, to see the land, to feel the sweep of history and the hope for the
future. I even want to learn about such things as these dangerous schools which
are brainwashing the young men. But I don't want to be caught up in it. I was
ready to leave. Before long we did.
We were soon all back on the bus - except for Al! Where is Al?
Soon he came with long strides. He had "infiltrated" a classroom while we were
caught up in the political posturing. He had a chance to do what we had come to
do, to see the boys and talk to them, to hear their dreams and ambitions for
Do you notice that I keep saying boys? These schools are only for
boys. There are no equivalent schools for girls. Where there are schools for
girls, they are taught how to make the traditional clothes, how to make the
traditional foods, and the principles of Islam. (Make that fundamentalist
Islam.) They are taught to wear the veil, and to be in silence.
I was in a state of shock as we headed for
our next event, a visit to a jewelry maker. Not being a person who can quickly
change my mood, I was having trouble paying attention to the demonstration.
That was when I looked out the window and saw the camels. Out the
other window I saw the bawling calf tied in a stall. The door drew me, and
there I saw the young girl drawing water. I have already written that story
elsewhere, and it was the highlight of my trip. I needed a positive experience,
something to show me the loveliness of the everyday people. The jeweler's
daughter did it!
In the late afternoon, we caught a flight back to Ashgabat, and
slept at the wonderful Hotel Nissa. It was on this flight that we learned a new
thing in Central Asian airline etiquette. We boarded through a door at the back
of the plane, and the pilots were the last to board. When we landed, everyone
sat politely in their seats until the pilots had left the plane.
- Continues with Day 5 -