Merv, Turkmenistan

Photo: David Stanley [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: David Stanley [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Merv was once one of the largest and greatest cities in the world. Like Baghdad and Damascus, it was considered an Islamic masterpiece. Today, little remains here, and few people have even heard of the “Queen of the World.” It’s time to change that.

In the 6th century BC, the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus the Great founded an oasis in the hot, dusty Karakum Desert. The world’s fourth-largest desert seems like an odd place to build an empire, but it was a strategic position along the 4,000-mile Silk Road between China and Istanbul. Palaces, mosques, and an intricate canal system were built. Orchards and cotton plantations flourished. Scientific inquiries were encouraged. And religious beliefs didn’t separate people.

This desert utopia thrived until it was sacked by Genghis Khan and the Mongols in the 13th century. People were slaughtered, the water system was destroyed, and the desert began reclaiming the land. This area in Central Asia changed hands many times in the centuries that followed. By the time the Russians arrived in the 19th century, everyone had forgotten about the great city in the desert.

Merv is now part of present-day Turkmenistan, a country that remained largely closed off from the rest of the world, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, due to its restrictive president for life. He died in 2006. Since then, the country has slowly, ever so slowly, opened its doors to visitors, who are finally getting the chance to explore Merv, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. See mudbrick fortresses, decorative mausoleums, dry but deep moats, and crumbling walls. Pottery shards are hidden in the dirt. Excavation sites are scattered around the extensive grounds. Camels and cattle graze outside of the fortifications. And the vast, surrounding desert, seems to go on forever. Despite the rough conditions, there’s certainly still a queen in the desert.

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