History so tangible you can put it in your pocket. (October 2014)


As we drove out of Ashgabat, heading towards Mary and Merv, the sun and the people came out.

It had been a public holiday for the two days we were there, however I still got the feeling that the new Ashgabat has been built for show, not for people.

About 100 km from Ashgabat the road changed, from a smooth multi lane highway, to the usual Luna landscape of potholes.

Oleg our guide, had a love of archeology and a precious collection of artifacts, that he stored in a plastic lunch box.

Our first stop, the 15th century ruins of Abiverd, was interesting to explore as it contained countless fragments of 600 year old ceramics, just lying around.

We did pocket a couple.

Abiverd was a major trading town on the Silk Road, producing cotton, fruit and  specialising in fine ceramics. It’s position was eroded with the demise of the Silk Road and the drying up of the local rivers.

From Abiverd we had a long, slow and bumpy ride to Merv, an ancient city that was believed to have been first inhabited by the Greeks and Romans who survived the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. However there is evidence to suggest that there had been people living in the region since the 3rd millennium BC.

During it’s long history many races and religions have lived in harmony in Merv, which is now classified as a UNESCO World Heriate Site. Unlike most cities, where one civilization builds on top of the other, here they developed in different parts. This has resulted in the preservation of each area.

In the 12th century Merv was thought to be the largest city in the world and a major trading centre on the Silk Road.

Merv is like a huge time capsule with the ruins of civilizations spanning 2,000 years.

This was best viewed at a part of the city wall, that was common to all parts of the city and had recently been excavated. It was like pealing back layers of paint on an old door, with each coat revealing something new about the history.

The size of the bricks used is apparently a good indicator of its age – the larger the bricks, the older the construction.

Oleg was determined to show us all his favourite places. We raced around the vast complex, in fading light, trying to absorb thousands of years of history in three hours.

Lonely Planet suggested the best way to see Merv was in a 4X4 with a knowledgable guide.

We had struck pay dirt with Oleg.

We spent the night in Mary and the next day drove to Gonur Depe, along a narrow strip of ragged bitumen. I couldn’t help thinking that the billions that have been spent on the white mausoleum that is Ashgabat, could have been better invested in infrastructure.

Oleg had hired a local driver for the day and he drove us for nearly two hours until we were suddenly in the desert. He then navigated us through the sandunes, for yet another hour, until we finally reached Gonur Depe.

Both Oleg and the driver were ‘big men’ and there wasn’t much legroom left in the back of the Toyota, once they slid their seats back.

Gonur Depe is a Bronze Age site dating back to the first half of the second millennium BC. It is believed that the history of the area goes back 7,000 years. It was the capital of Margiana and built as a rectangular fortress, with powerful defensive walls, semicircular bastions and adobe buildings.

As with Abiverd and Merv, Gonur Depe is literally littered with fragments of ceramics. There is even a ‘pottery graveyard’ that the archeologists intend to bury for future reference.

The Russians did a huge amount of archeological excavation throughout Central Europe. Another legacy of their domination of the region.

Much of it was a search for treasure, undertaken during the Soviet era, intentionally done to build the Party coffers.

In many instances the best of the artifacts were repatriated to Moscow or St Petersburg.

Gonur Depe, like Merv, didn’t escape their attention. It was unearthed by the Margiana Archaeological Expedition in 1970 and directed by the Russian archaeologist Victor Sarianidi. He only died in 2013, having spent forty years working on the site.

He believed that the area around Gonur Depe was home to a civilization to match that of Mesopotamia in sophistication and culture. He also believes that this area could have been one of the main centres, if not the birthplace, of Zoroastrianism.

On our last night in Turkmenistan we had dinner with Oleg. He took us to his favourite ‘Kafe’ in Mary, Gyzylgum.

It was only then that I realised that he hadn’t taken us anywhere where we were expected to buy souvenirs.

This was a pleasant change.

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