Monuments of Merv: Traditional Buildings of the Karakum. Georgina Herrmann
with a contribution by Hugh Kennedy. 1999. The Society of Antiquaries of London,
the British Institute of Persian Studies, The National Institute of the History
of Turkmenistan of the Cabinet of Ministers, Mobil, Monument. Hard cover with
dust jacket; 243 pp. + xiii, 316 illustrations in black and white and color,
including four maps. 30 x 25 cm. ISBN 0 85431 275 7.
This large format book, the first in a series of three, consists of six chapters
plus an introduction, gazetteer, glossary of architectural terms, a table
of brick sizes, an appendix of ancient and medieval texts that mention Merv,
and a synopsis in Russian.
Chapter one introduces the large Merv oasis watered by the frequently damed
Murghab River in southern Turkmenistan, and places the city and oasis into
historical context as a prominent governmental seat on the Silk Road or a
semi-deserted backwater locale. Each of these conditions was the result of
conquering forces, whose powers waxed and waned over the millennia. Unlike
the city-states of Mesopotamia where buildings were rebuilt upon the ruins
of their predecessors, those of Merv were abandoned and new one constructed
on virgin soil by each succeeding regime. Thus, many of the ancient mud brick
traditional buildings have been partially preservedalthough they are
rapidly melting into the well-watered oasis terrain. Moreover, none has been
reconstructed, as was the case under the Soviets in Samarkand and Bukhara.
Hugh Kennedy, in Chapter two, has provided a fascinating historical overview
extracted from texts, beginning with the last years of the Sasanian kings
(ca. 650-51) to the sixteenth century when Merv was no longer a viable player
on the historical scene. The first Muslim Arabs seem to have taken the oasis
by treaty, receiving tribute from the local population. Becoming a separate
governorate rather than a dependency of Iraq, for the next 75 years Merv was
the governors seat and the capital of the vast Umayyad Khurasan. Life
continued uneventful though out the Abbasid rule and, subsequently, the city
remained the capital of the Tahirid dynasty until 828 when the seat was moved
to Nishapur. The Iranian Samanids came to power in 900; however, little is
known of Merv during their reign. The city became a regional capital during
is second fluorescence under the Seljuks (1037-1157), who were the leading
family of the nomadic Ghuzz or Oghuzz Turks. Poor and in wretched condition,
they had begged for grazing lands but soon, aware that the sultans government
was weak and unpopular, they assumed power with the agreement of Mervs
leading citizens. Expanding their territory, the Seljuks divided forces, one
branch conquering westward and taking Baghdad, while the other remained at
Merv, which became their regional capital. The most catastrophic epoch of
the oasis began with the Mongol conquest led by Tolui (Genghis Khans
youngest son) who approached along the Murghab Valley arriving at Merv on
25 February 1221, "the last day of most of the inhabitants of Merv"
(Juvayni). After being besieged for six days, the governor asked the Mongols
for terms, which were granted, but Tolui demanded that the inhabitants first
be driven from the city, upon which he then ordered them all to be killed
(except for a few artisans). The dead were estimated between 700,000 and 1,300,000.
Shortly after, another 100,000 or so refugees and squatters, who had moved
into the oasis, were wiped out by another Mongol force.
Little is heard of Merv after the Mongol conquest
except that the Il-Khanid courts were attracted, because of the comparatively
mild climate, to the winter pastures in its environs. After the death of Timur
in 1405, his only son, Shah Ru|kh, established Merv as capital of Khurasan,
revived the urban life, and rebuilt the all-important dam that brought irrigation
waters to the oasis. The Timurids came to an end in 1506 and the emerging
powers, the Safavid ruler from Iran and the Uzbeks who had conquered Samarkand,
clashed in Merv in 1510. The Uzbeks were defeated and the Safavids held the
city but were continually subjected to Uzbek raids. The final blow occurred
when the amirs of Bukhara sacked Merv, again destroying the dam and all agricultural
life. Only after the Russian occupation of the oasis in 1884 was a sustained
attempt made to revive urbanization and cultivation.
Chapter three treats the building materials and techniques used by the various
dynastic builders at Merv. Mud used to manufacture sun dried brick and rammed
earth (pakhsa) walls was the ubiquitous building material; equally important
the thick walls, an engineering requirement for stability, provides the insulation
needed for comfortable living in the continental climate. As none of the buildings
have inscriptions, the incorporation and evolution of construction elements
provide clues, which formulate the dating of the traditional buildings in
the oasis. Timbers incorporated as ceiling beams for reinforcement and decorative
fired bricks were innovations. Corbeled domes and vaults, first supported
by crudely designed squinches, which became more sophisticated over time,
are the principal forms of roofing. Massive exterior corrugations create a
variation from recessed wall panels or plain surfaces. Remnants of carved
and painted stucco, and cut bricks relate the Merv buildings to those of other
Chapter four discusses two types of traditional buildings: the köshks
(mansions of dignitaries who lived near the center of power and which only
occur at Merv) and dings (multi-storied fortified towers). Herrmann has arranged
these buildings into five groups, according to changes in building techniques,
taking into consideration the works of previous Soviet scholars, particularly
that of G.A. Pugachenkova, the first to study many of these buildings. Herrmanns
Groups I and II buildings use larger formatted mud bricks; these constructions
were decorated on the upper story with long, heavy corrugations. Group III
uses a slightly smaller mud brick; fired brick and timber reinforcing are
introduced, and shorter corrugations now decorate the exterior. In Group IV
and V, recessed panels replace corrugations, or the walls remain undecorated
while the floor plans become more standardized with an emphasis on the iwan.
Although many of the buildings have significantly deteriorated in the last
half-century, Pugachenkovas (and others) archival photographs
illustrate many of the diagnostic architectural elements.
Palaces, pavilions, kepter khanas (possibly treasuries), the kharoba koshuk
(possibly an early church), ice houses, and buildings of the modern era are
discussed in chapter five. Of particular interest are two building types:
the kepter khanas, long narrow buildings with hooded niches on the interior
walls, and ice houses, tall, conical structures that are thought to have preserved
ice throughout the long hot summers.
Herrmann places the building in their historical and regional contexts in
chapter six, drawing from decorative architectural elements, such as carved
stucco, cut brick, and architectural styles divided into three phases. Many
comparative parallels are quoted from sources previously presented, which
tends to be redundant.
The Appendix, "Some Ancient and Medieval Texts About Merv," is a
nice collection beginning with Darius inscription at Bisitun where he
speaks of the rebellious provinces, including Margiana (Merv). Pliny, the
Elder writes that Alexander founded a namesake city in Margiana, and Strabo
notes that Margiana was one of two powerful districts in this part of Asia.
Most revealing is a little known Chinese text, Du Huans Record of Experiences
and Travels. Du Huan was a high-ranking officer in the Tang Dynasty military
who, after being captured during the battle of the Talas River (southern Kazakstan)
in 751, was taken westward via Merv to Kufa. He writes of Mervs residents
(tall and strong), the bazaar (level and neat), naming the wide variety of
fruits and vegetables, and comments on some customs practiced at the time.
Later, a number of geographers visited Merv, now known as Marw al-Shahijan,
describing the extent of their Islamic world. In addition to Juvayni, one
other account documents the horrors of the Mongol conquest, completing the
The "Glossary of Architectural Terms" assists in understanding specialized
architectural features, and supplies names and descriptions of certain building
techniques particular to the massive mud brick construction. Drawings are
helpful in understanding the peculiarities of vaults (barrel, corbeled) and
especially the variety and evolution of squinches.
"Gazetteer: The Monuments" discusses each of the thirty-two traditional
buildings, using information assembled from recent observations and archival
photographs, and identifies the location of the monuments within the oasis.
Each monuments surviving remains and technical details are noted. Plans
for each building are included, the first generally after Pugachenkova that
she prepared in the 1950. This is followed by a more recent plan by Rejeb
Akhmedov of the International Merv Project; these correct some errors of the
previous plans. Following the reports, 139 additional photographs, some in
color, others drawn from archival sources and dating to the nineteenth and
earlier twentieth centuries, document the state of these magnificent structures
in by-gone years as well as at the end of the twentieth century. One error
in publishing is noted: the description of building 18 was omitted with the
exception of the final half-dozen lines and a plan.
The volume, compiling with textual descriptions, drawings, and photographs
both contemporary and archival, of the traditional monumental buildings throughout
the Merv oasis is arguably the most extensive study of Central Asian historical
architecture published to date. The subsequently planned two volumes detailing
mausolea and mosques will provide a tremendous amount of valuable information
about secular and religious life in this enduring oasisknown in the
first millennium BC as Margiana and 2,500 years later as Mary.