Ancient Merv Archaeological Site

Completed Project
World Monuments Watch
Bairam Ali, Turkmenistan

The oasis of Merv is strategically sited in the Karakum desert and formed an essential military headquarters and staging post on major east-west trade routes. Founded in the sixth century BC, Merv grew to become the largest city-state in southwest Central Asia, serving as a regional capital and the capital of the Seljuk Empire (11th-12th centuries). Its unusual urban development and cosmopolitan population makes it of exceptional archaeological interest. An outstanding series of monuments, both religious and secular, has also survived, including the 12th-century Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, one of the most important buildings of its age, and other Seljuk and Timurid mausolea. Even more remarkable are the vernacular buildings constructed of fragile mudbricks. These include uniquely Central Asian buildings, fortresses, palaces, pavilions, and icehouses. The site is threatened by development pressures and from the high water table which in the past 30 years has accelerated the rate of decay of the earthen structures.

2000 and 2002 World Monuments Watch

University College London’s Institute of Archaeology had a research project in Merv going back several years. WMF joined the project to assist in a comprehensive program of documentation, condition assessment, site management planning, conservation, and training that began in 2002 and concluded in 2008. With grants from WMF, UCL conserved and stabilized several monuments, backfilled some archaeological areas to protect historic elements, created a management plan for the site, and conducted an intensive training course in site management planning for the directors of all major archaeological parks in the country.

The monuments of Merv were neglected during Soviet years and are in a dangerously weakened state. Neglect has been exacerbated by building the Karakum canal in the 1950s, changing the traditional environmental patterns, and raising the water table, which has put these unique monuments, previously preserved in the desert-type environment, at risk. This is one of the largest and most important archaeological complexes in Central Asia and represents an important era in world history.

Collaborators & Contributors

University College London

Last updated: February 2019.

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