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.

Administration building at MervThe Administration building at Merv. It is one of the better preserved of the ancient buildings on the site.

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 The first historical reference to Margiana is by the Achaemenian king, Darius the Great (522-486 BC).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 flourished."

...."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 Buddhist monument."

Mausoleum at MervThe Sultan Sanjar mausoleum was built in 1140. The dome is 125 feet above the floor. The sultan lies about 14 feet below the floor.

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 this journal.

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.

The Great Kiz Kala at MervThis 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 dyed.

Camels blocking road
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 people.

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 the future.

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.

A proud camelI 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 -