Nisa, Turkmenistan

Photo: flydime ( [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: flydime ( [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Obsessed with the past? If so, you’ve probably traveled the world to see ancient sites and learn about earlier civilizations. Petra and the Giza pyramids in the Middle East. Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal farther east. Machu Picchu and Easter Island in South America. Plus, almost anywhere in Greece or Turkey. So what country is next for a person who could probably write their own history book? It’s time to explore Turkmenistan.

This Central Asian country has been at the intersection of Eastern and Western civilizations almost forever. Most recently, it was part of the Soviet Union. But before that, it was a stop along the Silk Road, the heart of Islamic world, and the center of the Parthian Empire. Despite all of this history and a few UNESCO World Heritages Sites though, Turkmenistan remains largely unexplored. Which means you’d have Nisa practically to yourself.

Nisa sits just 18 kilometers from Ashgabat, the country’s sparkling capital, though it feels worlds away from everything. The ancient complex was founded by Arsaces I around 250 BC, making it one of the oldest—and, eventually, most important—Parthian cities. The fortress overlooks a flat valley. The Kopet Dag mountains are in the distance. It’s location, east of the Caspian Sea, once stood as an obstacle to Roman expansion. Today, it’s just north of the Iranian border.

The Old Nisa fortress, which is where the Parthian kings probably lived, has thick walls and more than 40 rectangular towers. Mausoleums, the royal treasury, and a wine vault were inside the fort. Marble statues, ivory rhythons (drinking vessels) and ceramics have been found. Fragments of the royal throne were even unearthed. New Nisa, a densely populated settlement about a kilometer to the northwest, had lush gardens, a large cemetery, and a huge market.

Nisa was renamed Mithradatkirt when Mithridates I of Parthia took control of the empire. An earthquake in the 1st century BC eventually destroyed the city. It’s been covered by the desert’s dust ever since. Who knows what archaeologists will uncover as they begin to unearth the ancient city. You should certainly go to find out.

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