Merv was a city on the Silk Road whose heyday was in the eleventh and twelfth centuries during the Seljuk empire. It was destroyed by the armies of Ghenghis Khan.
On arrival in Merv our first call was at the Mausoleum of Seljuk Sultan Sanjar (a grandson of Alp Arslan). Normally, the next part of the tour would have been to climb up on the ramparts to see the layout of the Sassanian city of Giaur Kala, including the Zoroastrian fire temple and Buddhist stupa, but we visited on a snowy day in December and it was too slippery for us to go up.
Instead we went next to the Mosque of Yusuf Hamdani, built around the tomb of a 12th century dervish. The buildings on this site are modern and include a hostel for pilgrims and an area for sacrifices and cooking. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, this is not open to non-Moslems, but we were able to visit.
After that, we stopped to look at the city walls and also saw a water tower and cisterns.
The next stop was to visit the fifteenth century mausolea of two Ashkabs (standard-bearers of the prophet). The tombs belonged to al-Hakim ibn Amr al-Jifar and Buraida ibn al-Huseib al Aslam who lived in the 7th century, but the buildings are from the Timurid period in the 15th century and are decorated with coloured brickwork.
From there we visited the house of the 40 women (supposedly so-named because the eponymous women leapt from the windows to escape a fate worse than death at the hands of the Mongol hordes.)
Our final stop was at the Mausoleum of Mohammed ibn Zeid, a Sufi shrine. According to the Lonely Planet guide it is definitely not ibn Zeid who is buried there. In the courtyard is a tree with strips of fabric wound round it for wishes.
The Museum is situated in a new building, finished in 2010.
The first hall – as in the Ashgabat museum– is the hall of the President, filled with pictures of the current President. He appears in his academic robes as a Professor of Ashgabat and Baku Universities; in traditional dress outside a yurt; playing football and tennis, riding a horse etc. There is also a large map of Turkmenistan made from carpet.
The next hall is about the natural history of Turkmenistan, with various stuffed fauna including eagles, owls, foxes, snakes, lizards, flamingos (both pink and black – they migrate to Turkmenistan).
This is followed by a temporary hall containing artwork by local artists from Mary. After that is a permanent exhibition of national art.
Upstairs are the archaeological and ethnographic exhibits. The first hall concerns Margush, a Bronze Age site first discovered in the 1970s. There are fascinating artefacts from this site, but so far no written documents have been discovered. We saw ceramics, cosmetic implements, a newly-excavated tiny model of a monkey only discovered this year (monkeys are not native to Turkmenistan so this object shows there was contact with India). They found a Zoroastrian fire temple on the site, and it is possible that the Zoroastrian religion originated here rather than in Iran. The main city to have been discovered was excavated at Gok Depe (Grey Hill) – about 70 km from Merv. We saw a model of the palace complex and one of the fire temples.
In the next hall were exhibits from Merv, which was settled later after Gok Depe had been abandoned. The heyday of Merv was under the Seljuks in the 12th and 13th century. There life-size figures of a Seljuk guard and archer against a backdrop of a modern artistic interpretation of the city.
The Ethnographic hall contains exhibits showing typical Turkmen traditional artefacts and activities: bread-making; a yurt; felt-making; carpet-making; hunting; a wedding etc. There are also exhibits of traditional clothes. .
As well as a shiny new Mosque, Mary also has a traditional Russian Orthodox Church.
We visited in late December, and found a very large Christmas tree set up inside.