The Karakum Desert occupies 80 percent of Turkmenistan. Covering all but the border regions, it features scrubby sauxal bushes, large crescent-shaped sand dunes and cracked, baked-clay surfaces known as takyr. Kara-Kum means “Black Sand”, name perhaps chosen because of its association with death as it was so difficult and dangerous to cross because its lack of water and shade and high temperatures. The Karakum desertIt and the Kyzyl-Kum (“Red Sand”) desert of Uzbekistan merge, and together form the forth largest desert in the world.

The Kara-kum Desert is home to poisonous snakes such as cobras and vipers, varan (sand crocodile, a kind of monitor lizard), goitered gazelles, Wild Asiatic asses, wild cats, foxes, wolves, various rodents, tortoises, tarantulas, scorpions and other spiders, lizards and insects. There would be few people if it wasn’t for the river Amu-Darya and the Kara-kum Canal. e. Flora includes sand sedge, acacia, saksaul, and in spring, grasses and flowers which cover large swaths of land, but huge areas, except for dunes, and completely dry up by May. Where there’s grass, herders raise sheep and camels.

The Karakum is a sand desert stretching for 350,000 square kilometers from the Caspian Sea to Pamir foothills and from Amu Darya to Kopet Dag ridge. Its name is translated as “black sands” (“kara” - black, “kum” - sand). Landscape-wise, it is a rugged plain with sand ridges and dunes connected with small salt marshes and takyrs. It is divided into the Zaunguz Karakum, located on a plateau, the Central Karakum, spread in the lowlands, and Southeastern Karakum, which gradually develop into the Kugitangtau foothills.

There is virtually no surface water in the form of oases, but large volumes of groundwater, are hidden beneath the sands that can be accessed with wells. The main source of water is the huge Karakum Canal, which takes water from the Amu Darya and delivers it for almost for 1,000 kilometers into the desert. In southern portion of the desert there are several rivers that flow down from the mountains and transpire in the air and sands.

The Karakum climate is very severe. Summer temperature can reach over 50° C (122° F) and the ground can reach as high as 80°C (176°F). In winter temperature can drop to -30°C (-22°F) so it just as possible to freeze to death and it to die of dehydration. Rainfall is minimal, unpredictable and widely scattered with some places receiving heavy downpours next to a place that receives no rain at all. Precipitation falls mainly in November and April. The Kara-kum Desert suffers from severe droughts and the environment problems associated with the disappearance of the Aral Sea. Deep bore wells have salinity levels; 90 percent above what is considered acceptable by the United Nations. The region is a very poor and undeveloped. People complain that there is no work, no money and no food. Some suffer from diseases brought about in part by environmental problems associated with the disappearance of the Aral Sea.

Karakum Canal

Karakum Canal is the world's longest irrigation canal. It stretches 1,350 kilometers (745 miles) from Haun-Khan to Ashkhabad and brings water from the Amu-Darya to the inhabited areas in southern Turkmenistan. Draining the Amu-Darya, it runs most of the length of Turkmenistan and is used to supply water for cotton farms. It has contributed to large cotton harvests and the shrinking of the Aral Sea.

The Karakum Canal, which has a capacity of 500 cubic meters per second, accounts for almost all irrigation in Ahal and Balkan provinces along the northern reaches of the Kopetdag Range. The canal also supplies additional water to the Murgap oasis in southeastern Turkmenistan. The main canal was built in sections between 1959 and 1976, initially providing irrigation for about 500,000 hectares. Plans call for construction to continue until the canal reaches a length of 1,435 kilometers and a carrying capacity of 1,000 cubic meters per second, enabling it to irrigate 1,000,000 hectares. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Karakum Canal leaks a lot of the water it carries and is badly in need of reconstruction. From the air its looks like a thin ribbon fringed by kilometers-wide bands of weeds. The Turkmenistan government admits that 28 percent of the water disappears before it reaches it destination. Scientist think the figure is close to 60 percent. Agricultural run off ends up in Sarykamish Lake or swamps and lakes that have appeared miles from the canal.


Mary (300 kilometers east of Ashgabat) is the second largest industrial center in Turkmenistan and a very hot place in the summer. Located along the Murghab River and near the Kara-kum Canal, it is home to around 120,000 people and lies at the center of a major cotton-growing region. A large natural gas deposit was discovered nearby in the 1960s.

Known as Merv until 1937, Mary is the administrative center of an extensive cotton growing region. Its location on the Kara-Kum Canal and on a rail line have made the city an important transport center. Mary is reportedly the place in Turkmenistan that Niyazov liked the least, supposedly because of a dispute between Niyazov’s father and a resident of Mary that occurred when Niyazov was a small child.

Mary is more like a big village than a city. Many people live in traditional courtyard compounds and have orchards and keep cows and goats with the compound walls. Flowering trees are punctuated by the odd Niyazov statue and billboard but there seem to be fewer of them than in other cities. Mary also has a bit of a drug problem. It lies on a major drug smuggling route between Afghanistan and Europe.

Mary’s main attraction is its nearness to the ruins of Merv, its fine regional museum, its modern glass-domed bazaar and busy Sunday market. The Mary Regional Museum contains a fine collection of artifacts from ancient Merv and Margiana, including a replica of a skeleton of a Margiana priestess (the original was taken back to her grave after a series of mysterious accidents and deaths among staff at the museum), a furnished yurt, a collection of Turkmen carpets, and a collection of Turkmen traditional clothes, wedding outfits and household items.

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: Mary “was half boomtown, half slum: filled with the requisite gold statues and portraits, white marble government buildings, prestige projects (an opera house, luxury hotels, a pointless flyover), and boulevards almost empty of traffic. Off the big thoroughfares, on backstreets, were low decaying houses and Soviet tenements. Some Russians remained, but not many. The Germans whom Stalin had relocated here from the Volga region during the Second World War had all departed. I stayed in an inexpensive government hotel, where the other guests were all Turkmen officials. Most people came to Mary to see the ruins at Merv, or the ones at Gonur Depe, also nearby. Either that or the cotton fields.[Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]


Merv (near the village of Bairam Ali, not far from Mary, 315 kilometers east of Ashgabat) was an important city along the Silk Road and was one of the greatest urban complexes of the medieval world. Founded in 6th century B.C. when a fortified settlement was built here, it was an outpost of the Parthian Empire, one of ancient Rome’s greatest rivals (Roman prisoners were sent here). Merv reached its height in 12th century when it was the capital of the Seljuk Turk empire. At that time it was a major source of "watered" or "Damascus" steel and was the equivalent of a medieval industrial complex. Shortly after that it was sacked in brutal fashion by the Mongols.

Merv was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. According to UNESCO: “Ancient Merv” is the oldest and most completely preserved of the oasis cities along the Silk Roads in Central Asia. It is located in the territory of Mary velayat of Turkmenistan. It has supported a series of urban centres since the 3rd millennium B.C. and played an important role in the history of the East connected with the unparalleled existence of cultural landscape and exceptional variety of cultures which existed within the Murgab river oasis being in continually interactions and successive development. It reached its apogee during the Muslim epoch and became a capital of the Arabic Caliphate at the beginning of 9th century and as a capital of the Great Seljuks Empire at the 11th-12th centuries. “

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “In ancient times, the area...had been called Khorasan; Merv was its noble capital. In one extravagant conceit, it was “the Soul of Kings.” It is almost axiomatic that such a marvel would eventually turn into a dust bowl, and Merv had. But for centuries it had been an imperial metropolis, a center of learning, a place of citadels, a walled city, or several of them....One of the pearls of the Silk Road, Merv had been overrun by Alexander the Great’s men and Tamerlane and the Persians, sacked by Tolui Khan, son of Genghis Khan, in 1221, and later visited by Omar Khayyám. It had been Buddhist and Nestorian Christian; it had been Zoroastrian, mentioned in the Avesta as a place of strength and holiness, one of the “good lands.”[Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

“What was left of it lay in the hard glitter of the Asian desert, about an hour up the railway line, near a town and a station called Bairam Ali, which dated from 1887, not long after the Russian empire took control of the region. A substantial villa had been built for the tsar in Bairam Ali, but in the end His Highness hadn’t shown up, and the villa was eventually turned into a sanatorium, which it still is now, for people with heart and kidney ailments.”

Merv Archaeological Sites

The ruins of Ancient Merv are adjacent to the northeastern outskirts of Bairamali town, located 25 kilometers to the east of Mary. The State Historical and Cultural Park “Ancient Merv” is the oldest and most completely preserved oasis city along the Silk Roads in Central Asia. The fertile valley that supported it was nourished by water from mountains of Afghanistan but today is largely hidden under the sands of Kara-Kum desert.

Merv is actually a site of five walled cities that were spread out over an area of 100 square kilometers. The cities were built one after another, each set next to its predecessor. Today these cities are clusters of mounds, mud-brick ruins, ditches and excavation pits scattered among arid plains, where camels graze, here and there. During the summer it can be very hot and there are snakes and scorpions around. It is possible to walk around the vast site, but due to heat it is probably a better idea to hire a taxi and drive around.

The five cities — called Kalas — are 1) Erk Kala, a Persian citadel dating to the 6th century B.C.; 2) Gyaur Kala, inhabited after the death of Alexander the Great, by Hellenistic Zoroastrians, Parthians and Sassanids from the 3rd century B.C. to the A.D. 6th century; 3) Sultan Kala, of the Seljuk Turks from the 9th to 12th centuries; 4) Abdullakhan Kala, the post medieval Timurid period beginning in the 14th century and 5) Bayramalykhan Kala, beginning in the 17th century.

According to UNESCO: “ Merv is the oldest and best-preserved of the oasis-cities along the Silk Route in Central Asia. The remains in this vast oasis span 4,000 years of human history. A number of monuments are still visible, particularly from the last two millennia. Today “Ancient Merv” is a large archaeological park which includes remains of Bronze Age centres (2500-1200 B.C.) such as Kelleli, Adji Kui, Taip, Gonur, and Togoluk; Iron Age centres (1200-300 B.C.) such as Yaz/Gobekli Depes and Takhirbaj Depe; the historic urban centre and the post-medieval city, Abdullah Khan Kala. The walls of the post medieval city are of exceptional interest, since they continue the remarkable continuous record of the evolution of military architecture from the 5th century B.C. to the 15th-16th centuries AD. The inscribed property covers the area of 353 hectares with a buffer zone of 883 hectares....There are also major monuments from different historical periods in the oasis. Among them it can be mentioned the köshks, one of the most characteristic architectural features of the oasis, fortresses and many fine mosques and mausolea.”

At the beginning of the 19th century the new city moved to the modern location of Merv city. The system of sites was built at different times following the changing course of riverbed of the Murgab river and its gradual shifts from the east to the west. New sites were constructed after old ones were abandoned and never again occupied, thus becoming unique “memory keepers”.

History of Merv

The oldest human artifacts unearthed at Murgab oasis near Merv date to 6,000 B.C. Merv was known as Margiana in Alexander the Great’s time. Under the Persian Sassanians it became a major trading center with large numbers of Christians, Buddhists and Zoroastrians. Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: Importantly, Merv had been targeted by Muhammad as a staging post for Islamic conversion. The Prophet himself had sent two of his closest disciples here to evangelize...He called them “my eyes in the East.” They were buried here, their graves marked by a marble slab with a long inscription, which she translated: “Oh, traveller, you visit this place and you are lucky, because the people who are buried here are holy and close to God. If you have a problem, walk three times around the tomb and it will be solved.” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

Under the Seljuk Turks in 11th and 12th centuries Merv was the greatest city in the Islamic world and was known as “Merv, Queen of the World.” It also believed to have been the inspiration for a number of tales in “Thousand and One Nights.” Under the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan, the Seljuk empire stretched from Afghanistan to Egypt and Merv became a city full of palaces, libraries, observatories, and canals that nourished parks and lush gardens. All this came to an end when messengers of Genghis Khan in 1218 appeared, demanding tribute and the pick of the city’s most beautiful women. The Seljuks refused and killed the messengers. The Mongol arrived three years later and demanded that city surrender. The Seljuks complied and the Mongols responded by massacring all the city’s inhabitants. According to some accounts each Mongol soldiers was ordered to decapitate 300 to 400 civilians and set the city aflame.

After the Mongols left, Merv remained uninhabited for more than a century. It became an outpost on the Khivan and Bukharan empires. In the 18th century it became a prosperous trading center once again under the Persian ruler Bairam Ali Khan, who had rebuilt the city’s irrigation system. In the 19th century it was frequently raided by Turkmen brigands, who hated the people of Merv. According to an old saying: “If you meet a Mervian and viper, kill the Mervian first. In 1884, Merv was claimed by the Russians. When Mary was established. Merv went into decline.

Ancient Merv

The oldest city at Merv, Erik Kala, dates back to the 6th century B.C. and was built by the Achaemenids (Persians). The ruins consist of a large earthen doughnut with a 600-meter-in-diameter trenches left by archaeologists. From the top of the 50-meter-high ramparts there are some good views.

Giaur Kala was built during the 3rd century B.C. by the Sassanians. The walls are eroded but still standing. Gaps marks the places the gates where the gates were. Worth a look are the 7th century mosque, an eight-meter-deep cistern and a large mound that was once a Buddhist monastery and stupa that continued to function into the Islamic period. At Kyz Kala, you can see the remains of 7th century fortress-places built from “clay logs” lines up side by side by the Sassanians and used six centuries later by the Seljuk sultans.

According to UNESCO: “Erk Kala (20 hectares) is a walled and moated polygonal site with walls surviving to some 30 meters and an internal citadel. Gyaur Kala, is roughly square in plan, with walls about 2 kilometers long. In the interior are the remains of a number of important structures: the central Beni Makhan mosque and its cistern; the Buddhist stupa and monastery; and the “Oval Building” consisting in a series of rooms around a courtyard on an elevated platform.”

Silk Road Merv Under Seljuk Turks

The Seljuk Turks gained power in Central Asia by out maneuvering, both diplomatically and militarily, the feuding Karakhanids and Ghaznavids. In the 11th century, Sultan Sanjar made Merv in present-day Turkmenistan the capital of the Seljuk Empire and used it as a base for its conquests of Afghanistan and Persia. By 1040 the Seljuks had taken western Iran from the Ghazanids.

Under the Seljuk Turks in 11th and 12th centuries Merv was the greatest city in the Islamic world and was known as “Merv, Queen of the World." It also believed to have been the inspiration for a number of tales in “Thousand and One Nights.” Under the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan, the Seljuk empire stretched from Afghanistan to Egypt and Merv became a city full of palaces, libraries, observatories, and canals that nourished parks and lush gardens.All this came to an end when messengers of Genghis Khan in 1218 appeared, demanding tribute and the pick of the city’s most beautiful women. The Seljuks refused and killed the messengers.

The Seljuk army stayed close to its nomadic roots. They were a Mongol-like cavalry horde that “were a law unto themselves” and traveled with their animals wherever they wished But they made Merv into a major oasis-city on the Silk Road. The city center was in Sultan Kala with its citadel Shahriyar Arcs. Merv stretched along the river from north to south and embraced both residential areas and camps. At the intersection of the roads, in the heart of Sultan Kala was a large square with a citadel, grand mosque and mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. [Source: State Committee for Tourism of Turkmenistan]

The beauty, richness and culture of Merv and its bazaars attracted merchants, travelers, Sufi holymen, politicians, famous medieval scientists from all around the world. Its famous libraries attracted scholars from all over the Islamic world. After the death of Sultan Sanjar, the last Seluk ruler, the Great Seljuk empire broke apart and Merv become a part of Khorezm, but during this time trade and culture in Merv remained strong.

According to UNESCO: “ Medieval Sultan Kala was walled in the 11th century, with its Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar (1118-57) which originally formed part of a large religious complex; the fine details of the Mausoleum such as the elegant brickwork, the carved stucco, and the surviving mural paintings, make it one of the most outstanding architectural achievements of the Seljuk period. The walls (12 kilometers) of the medieval city and of the citadel (Shahriyar Ark) are unique and represent two consecutive periods of 11th-13th centuries military architecture, including towers, posterns, stairways, galleries, and in places, crenellation. In addition to these main urban features, there are a number of important medieval monuments in their immediate vicinity such as the Mausoleum of Muhammad ibn Zayd.

Sultan Kala

Sultan Kala is the name of the Merv city founded by the Seljuks. Hardly anything remains. The Shahriyar Ark is a citadel with a well-preserved fort with corrugated walls The Mosque of Yusuf Hamadani is built around the tomb of a famous dervish. It has ben rebuilt in recent years and is now a pilgrimage site.

Sultan Sanjar Mausoleum (at the center of Sultan Kala) honors a Seljuk sultan who died in 1157, they say, from a broken heart after the Mongols destroyed his beloved Merv. Standing 38 meters high, it is a fine example of Seljuk architecture. It is a simple cube with four iwans arranged around a court, with arches, dome and complex surface patterns. The brilliant blue outer dome is long gone. Inside is a simple stone tomb and red-and-blue frieze. It has three-meter-thick walls and six-meter-deep foundations, which explains why it survived and virtually nothing else in Sultan Kala did.

Mohamed Ibn Zeid Mausoleum (one kilometer from the Sultan Sanjar Mausoleum) honors another 12th century Seljuk sultan. It is a single earth-brick structure, restored early in the 20th century, with a black marble cenotaph. It is set among saxual trees with rags tied on them by women who want to conceive a child. It is not known who is buried here. It was built four centuries after Ibn Zeid died.

Mongol Sacking of Merv and Its Fate Afterwards

This brilliant flowering of Merv during the Seljuk period came to a violent end in 1221-22, when it was sacked by the Mongols after the Mongol attacked Samarkand. Messengers of Genghis Khan appeared in Mer in 1218, demanding tribute and the pick of the city’s most beautiful women. The Seljuks refused and killed the messengers. The Mongol arrived three years later and demanded that city surrender. The Seljuks complied and the Mongols responded by massacring all the city’s inhabitants. According to some accounts each Mongol soldiers was ordered to decapitate 300 to 400 civilians and set the city aflame.

Around this time, Genghis Khan's armies destroyed other great Silk Road trading centers such as Urgench (Uzbekistan), Balkh (Afghanistan), Nishapur (Iran), Ghazni (Afghanistan), and Herat (Afghanistan). In Merv in present-day Turkmenistan, a Muslim holy men and his helpers spent 13 days counting 1.3 million victims "taking into account only those that were explain to see. “ The city’s complex water system was also destroyed. But that is not to say the Mongols were not impressed by what they saw in Merv. According to to medieval sources, when the 80,000-strong Mongol army arrived in Merv in 1221, Tuli Khan, the son of Genghiz Khan “for six days he looked on the shaft walls, moat and city minarets, wondered at strongholds of Merv and had doubt about success”.

Most historians believe the huge casualties figures ascribed to the Mongols were greatly exaggerated. These cities as important as they were didn't have that many people and there was little incentive to slaughter that many people. "I can't believe they would have wasted time doing that," historian Larry Moses said. "The Mongols pretty much annihilated the armies they came against and a lot of civilians were marched in front of the army as cannon fodder, but I don't think a lot of citizens were wiped out. The Mongols needed people to move their packtrains and siege weapons."

After the Mongols left, Merv remained uninhabited for more than a century. It became an outpost on the Khivan and Bukharan empires. In the 18th century it became a prosperous trading center once again under the Persian ruler Bairam Ali Khan, who had rebuilt the city’s irrigation system. In the 19th century it was frequently raided by Turkmen brigands, who hated the people of Merv. According to an old saying: “If you meet a Mervian and viper, kill the Mervian first. In 1884, Merv was claimed by the Russians. When Mary was established. Merv went into decline,

Tourists and Modern Inhabitants of Merv

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “Ancient Merv, to my fascinated and amateur eye, resembled many fabled desert cities in decline that I’d seen. It looked like a string of sandcastles after the tide had brimmed and washed over them, simplifying and smoothing their walls, until there was only the faintest suggestion of symmetry in their slopes. But, as I kept thinking, this was a vivid metaphor for what inevitably happened to the hubristic world of wealth and power, to the world of gold statues and marble palaces, of vain slogans and planted forests. The world of armies and conquest. The world of generals and windbags. Ha! It all turned to sand and was overrun with rodents and lizards. Hawks flew above it, searching for vermin. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

“What I liked about Merv was its innocence—there were no fences, no postcards for sale, no pests, not even much respect. In this shattered and somewhat forgotten place, some visitors scrambled up and down the steep walls, kicking them apart, picking up pieces of broken pottery; others picnicked among the crenellations. Young boys genially pissed on the ruins. In the distance, some men were grazing a herd of camels. Three boys on donkeys approached us, yelling and galloping across an ancient wall, leaving hoofprints. They had no saddles; they held on to rope bridles and kicked their skinny gray mounts. “They are Beluchis, from Persia,” Evgenia said. “They settled here many years ago.”

“She told me that the local people, superstitious about the aura of slaughter and conquest at Merv, tended to avoid it; they used it only to pasture their animals or to pilfer bricks. Goatherds huddled by the remaining part of the exposed wall of the complex known as Gyaur Kala. The sun was setting. The shepherds’ fire scorched the ancient bricks as they cooked their evening meal.”


Margiana (75 kilometers miles north of Merv) is the site of a Bronze Age civilization that thrived around the 2nd millennium B.C. on the Murgab River and some say ranks with ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley as one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Its inhabitants built mud-wall fortresses and crafted bronze seals, lovely ceramics, jewelry and ceremonial items and drank a potion made with opium, cannabis and ephedra plants. Some historians believe that Zoroaster may have lived here. [Source: New York Times] The Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (or BMAC, also known as the Oxus civilization) is the name given to a Central Asian Bronze Age culture. Dated to ca. 2300–1700 B.C., and centered on the upper Amu Darya (Oxus River), it is located in present-day northern Afghanistan, eastern Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan. Bactria is the old Greek name for northern Afghanistan and the northeast corner of Iran, while Margiana is further north, in what is today Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Through the region runs the Amu Dar'ya River, which was known in Greek history as the Oxus River. Much of archeological work was done in Soviet era by Soviet scientists.

The Bactria-Margiana civilisation occupied the region from the Neolithic until around 1700 B.C.; archaeological evidence indicates that their civilisation was at its peak at around 2300 – 1700 B.C., boasting significant urban complexes with impressive walls and gates, monumental architecture, wheel-turned pottery, viticulture, and complex ceramics, tools and jewellery.

The Bactria Margiana Archeology Complex, began in the foothills around Ashgabat in 2300 B.C.—about three centuries after the pyramids were finished and at the time power in Mesopotamia was shifting from Sumner to Babylon and China had yet to develop writing—and spread to much of modern Turkmenistan and parts of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan around 2200 B.C. and then disappeared a few centuries later.

Bactria Margiana was a resourceful agricultural society that thrived around oases in the harsh Kara-kum Desert. It; 1) established large urban centers; 2) built mud-brick fortifications, large buildings and monumental arches; 3) established extensive irrigation systems to grow wheat and barley; 4) raised goats and sheep; 5) produced fine ceramics, bronze goods, alabaster and bone carvings and jewelry made with gold and semiprecious stones; 6) buried luxury goods with the dead; and 7) may have developed writing or proto-writing.

Gonur Depe: an Important Margiana Archaeological Site

Gonur Depe (60 kilometers north of Mary) is an archaeological site consisting of a large early Bronze Age settlement. It is the "capital" or major settlement of the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) dated from 2200-1700 B.C.. Andrew Lawler wrote in Discover magazine, “This barren place... was once the heart of a vast archipelago of settlements that stretched across 1,000 square miles of Central Asian plains. Although unknown to most Western scholars, this ancient civilization dates back 4,000 years—to the time when the first great societies along the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow rivers were flourishing. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Discover magazine, November 30, 2006 ^|^]

“Thousands of people lived in towns like Gonur with carefully designed streets, drains, temples, and homes. To water their orchards and fields, they dug lengthy canals to channel glacier-fed rivers that were impervious to drought. They traded with distant cities for ivory, gold, and silver, creating what may have been the first commercial link between the East and the West. They buried their dead in elaborate graves filled with fine jewelry, wheeled carts, and animal sacrifices. Then, within a few centuries, they vanished.” ^|^

With Gonur “is a central citadel—nearly 350 by 600 feet—surrounded by a high wall and towers, set within another vast wall with square bastions, which in turn is surrounded by an oval wall enclosing large water basins and many buildings. Canals from the Murgab River, which once flowed nearby, provided water for drinking and irrigation. The scale and organization of this construction was unmatched in Central Asia until the Persians' arrival in the sixth century B.C. ^|^

“Sarianidi's team has also turned up intricate jewelry incorporating gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and carnelian. The prowess of the Oxus metalworkers—who used tin alloys and delicate combinations of gold and silver—were on par with the skills of their more famous contemporaries in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley, Lamberg-Karlovsky says. Their creations display a rich repertoire of geometric designs, mythic monsters, and other creatures. Among them are striking humanoid statues with small heads and wide skirts, as well as horses, lions, snakes, and scorpions. ^|^

“Wares in this distinctive style had long been found in regions as distant as Mesopotamia to the west, the shores of the Persian Gulf to the south, the Russian steppes to the north, and the great cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, which once flourished to the east—on the banks of the Indus River of today's Pakistan. Archaeologists had puzzled over their origin. Sarianidi's excavations seem to solve the puzzle: These items originated in the region around Gonur. ^|^

“The archaeological record shows that the site was inhabited for only a few centuries. The people of Gonur may simply have followed the shifting course of the Murgab River to found new towns located to the south and west. Their descendants may have built the fabled city of Merv to the south, for millennia a key stop along the Silk Road. Warfare among the Oxus people could have undermined the fragile system of oasis farming, or nomads from the steppes may have attacked the rich settlements. Sarianidi has found evidence that extensive fires destroyed some of Gonur's central buildings and that they were never rebuilt. Whatever the cause, within a short period Oxus settlements declined in number and size, and the Oxus pottery and jewelry styles vanished from the archaeological record. The large and square mud-brick architecture of the Gonur people may live on, however, in the clan compounds of Afghanistan and in the old caravansaries—rest stops for caravans—that dot the landscape from Syria to China. ^|^

“The find dovetails with Sarianidi's work at Gonur, where he has found a Mesopotamian cuneiform seal not far from an Indus Valley stamp bearing symbols above an etched elephant. Both lay near small stone boxes similar to those manufactured in southeastern Iran. These items provide tantalizing hints of commercial traffic on a Silk Road predating by two millennia the trading route that eventually linked China to Europe in the early centuries A.D. Hiebert likens the Oxus civilization to Polynesia—a scattered but common culture held together by camels rather than canoes.” ^|^

Places in Southeast Turkmenistan Near the Afghanistan Border

Tagtabazar (240 kilometers miles south of Mary) contains a 7th century, five-story-high cave city with some caves that are large enough to accommodate a camel cart and floors tiled with bricks that came from a bridge built by Alexander the Great’s army. Special permission is needed to visit it because of its nearness to the Afghanistan border. .

Gushgi (at the Afghanistan border) was the southernmost town in the Soviet Union. There isn’t much here. It is known primarily as the border crossing between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. It is possible to enter the restricted area here and cross the border if you have an Afghanistan visa and have Gushgi listed as you exit point on your Turkmenistan visa. Most people who cross the border here, take a shared taxi to the border, cross the border, and catch another shared taxi.

Altyn-Depe (near the Iranian Border) is sometimes called the "Turkmen Stonehenge". The ancient city has been dated by historians back to the Bronze Age (2300 - 1900 B.C.). Here, you can see pictograms of ancient peoples, which resemble proto-Elamite and Proto-Sumerian "writing". Altyn Depe was extensively excavated during the Soviet period. The settlement has specialised potter's quarters, evidence of a differentiation of the living quarters according to the wealth of their inhabitants and a monumental cult complex. During excavations a small golden head of a wolf and a bull were found. According to the Russian archaeologist V.M.Masson, the cult complex was dedicated to the Moon Good as in Mesopotamia. The site was abandonned in the middle of the second millenium BC. [Source: Wikivoyage]

Badkhyz Nature Reserve

Badkhyz Nature Reserve(near where Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Iran meet) embraces a rolling savannah-covered hills and plains with herds of goitered gazelles and rare wild Asiatic asses. It embraces large groves of pistachio trees and is carpeted by wild tulips in the spring. A permit is necessary to visit.

Badkhyz Nature Reserve was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Badhyz is one of the most spectacular nature reserves in Central Asia. It encompasses three main types of landscape: 1) The north and west consists of the plateau and hilly ridges of the Gezgyadyk range in the foothills of the Eastern Kopetdag mountains, and is deeply dissected especially to the west where there are deep stony gorges. 2) To the east the mountains fall away to a rolling hilly plateau with desert steppe. 3) In the south the Eroylanduz basin and salt lake and the Kyzyljar depression form the limits of the plateau. Soils are sandy with loess-lime loams. [Source: Ministry of Nature Protection of Turkmenistan, UNESCO]

The site holds large populations of extremely rare wild mammals such as the Asiatic Wild Ass or Kulan Equus hemionus kulan, Persian Leopard Panthera pardus saxicolor, Goitered Gazelle Gazella subgutturosa, Turkmen Wild Goat Capra aegagrus turkmenica and Afghan Urial Ovis orientalis cycloceros. Moreover, the landscape is spectacular, with broadly rolling land (up to 200 meters) giving way to the Duzenkyr and Ellibir heights in the north; in the west it is mountainous (800-1000 meters above sea level); at the other extreme in the south lies the "lunar landscape" of the closed saline Eroylanduz depression (10 6 square kilometers, lying up to 500 meters below sea level) in the south.

The site is situated between the Tedzhen and Kushka rivers. Other small valleys are located in the southwest. The Gyzylzhar gorge, a deep wide, gully (18 kilometers long), has steep, abrupt cliffs, 40-60 meters high, with ledges and large terraces of rubble/loess. Water sources are very scarce, with only two freshwater springs - Akarcheshme and Nerdevanly - and the Tedzhen, Kushka and Egrigek rivers which flow outside the site.

The climate is arid but more humid than in the typical desert, with up to 280 mm annual precipitation. The average temperature in July is 28.9°C, that for January is 2.6°C and the annual average temperature is 16.3°C. It is frequently windy, with prevailing winds from the north and northeast. Soils are "serozyems" with light, typical and dark subtypes. The flora contains about 900 species and is of Iranian-Afghan and montane Central Asian origin. The main vegetation communities are formed by desert sedges and various grasses, wormwood shrubs, saltwort, pistachio trees (including the 76 000-ha Pulikhatum grove), and scattered saxaul Haloxylon groves.

The reserve and associated protected areas include: 1) 1. Badhyz State Nature Reserve (876.8 square kilometers); 2) Pulikhatumskiy State Sanctuary (150 square kilometers, coordinates: N35 56 30 - 36 09 47, E61 06 36 - 61 18 55)’ 3) Kyzyljarskiy State Sanctuary (300 square kilometers, coordinates: N35 44 40 - 35 53 51, E61 50 39 - 62 09 18); and 4) Chemenabitskiy State Sanctuary (120 square kilometers, coordinates: N35 28 00 - 35 42 10, E62 23 29 - 62 33 48) The total area of the nominated site is 1446.8 square kilometers.

The site is an Important Bird Area (IBA) and supports a unique complex of bird species and is especially important for such IUCN threatened species as Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus (NT), Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus (EN), Saker Falcon Falco cherrug (EN), Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni (VU) and Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulate (VU). Other key breeding species are Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus, Short-toed Snake-eagle Circaetus gallicus, Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus, Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos, Barbary Falcon Falco pelegrinoides, Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus, Eurasian Thick-knee Burhinus oedicnemus, Cream-coloured Courser Cursorius cursor and Red-wattled Lapwing Vanellus indicus.

Wintering species include Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis and Eastern Imperial Eagle A. heliaca (VU). Many birds of prey nest in the pistachio groves and on the steep cliffs. The pistachio groves also provide breeding habitat for many warblers (Sylvidae), Black-billed Magpie Pica pica, Eastern Rock-nuthatch Sitta tephronota and four species of shrike (Lanidae), including Bay-backed Shrike Lanius vittatus, for which this is the only site in the countries of Central Asia. In general, the avifauna is formed by 47 resident species, 68 breeding migrants, 43 migratory and wintering species and 97 passage migrants.

In addition there is a unique geological/geomorphological feature: an inland depression basin called "Eroylanduz" (Turkmen for "Land of salt springs") in the Southern part of the Badhyz Reserve. In the Jurassic period the area was a plain with tropical mesophilous conditions. During the Cretaceous period it was flooded by the sea. In the Palaeogene period dry land was formed once again. Therefore marine sediments from the Oligocene period are not known here.

The complex of savannah landscapes and rolling hills is extremely beautiful. The Eroylanduz depression is a spectacular and surreal "moonscape" with jet black volcanic intrusions contrasting starkly with brilliant white salt flats. An ancient rock bridge (Pulikhatum) can be found as well as artificial caverns with multi-story dwellings of ancient man, partly destroyed as a result of erosion. The scenery has been likened to an Asian version of the Serengeti/Ngorongoro ecosystem.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Turkmenistan tourism sites, Turkmenistan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Wikitravel, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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