Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads


Book Review

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 preserved–although 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 governor’s 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 sultan’s government was weak and unpopular, they assumed power with the agreement of Merv’s 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 Khan’s 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 Islamic locales.

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. Herrmann’s 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, Pugachenkova’s (and other’s) 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 Huan’s 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 Merv’s 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 collected texts.

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 monument’s 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 oasis–known in the first millennium BC as Margiana and 2,500 years later as Mary.

Jeannine Davis-Kimball