The Ancient Cities of Turkmenistan

Trip Start Dec 12, 2010
Trip End Dec 16, 2012

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Friday, April 26, 2013

If one were to travel in a time machine, back to the land that is now Turkmenistan, you may wonder what you would find. You would probably find dusty plains, camels grazing, and caravans of travellers taking the massive journey along the great Silk Road. This land was not a country, but a landscape of nomadic tribes and cities founded during great empires. Journey back to the present day and the dusty plains still remain, but the caravans are long gone, and all that remains of the empires are the Ancient cities of Turkmenistan.

As travellers, we came to Turkmenistan to actually see it. Turkmenistan is one of those countries that make it difficult for globe trekkers to explore on their own. For tourists to obtain a tourist visa, you must have a guide and therefore need to book through a local company. If this sounds too difficult, which it often is for budget travellers, the government allows travellers to obtain a five day transit visa attached with a strict direct route. This was not an option for us, as we had the opinion that if we were to travel to Turkmenistan, we had to actually explore the country, and in particular the ancient cities of Turkmenistan.

So there we were, in Turkmenistan with a tourist visa, and therefore a guide. It was time to explore the remains of the ancient cities of Turkmenistan. First stop, the ancient city of Nissa. Not far from the capital city of Ashgabat is the ancient Parthian city of Nissa. Dating back to the third century BC, this fortress city was a place where three branches of the silk road crossed through. Now, a UNESCO world heritage site, it is under excavations. Up until now, only 30% of the great Parthian city has been excavated. Nissa was only rediscovered in 1925 as it was relatively still unknown and covered in sand, and still so much more is there to be excavated; however there is no money for that now. Nissa still remains known as one of the mysterious ancient cities of Turkmenistan.

Nissa was just a bit of a taster for us in relation to ancient cities. We then headed to Ancient Merv to get a real feel of ancient times. This massive region covering almost 1200 hectares in area is actually four different cities that were developed over different periods of time. Everyone was here. First it was the Achaemenians, then Alexander the Great and his crew, followed by the Parthians, Sassanians, the Seljuks, and then the infamous Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan brought massive death and destruction in the 13th century, then later it was conquered by Tamarlane. Today, all that remains now in this great ancient city is parts of the wall, a couple of old fortresses and a couple of mausoleums. Due to the mausoleums, ancient Merv has become a pilgrim site for local muslims. And yes, they come in hundreds, ready to bombard the foreign tourists at any opportunity, which we found out for ourselves. Overall, Merv was a dusty area full of amazing history, and a great example of a great ancient city of Turkmenistan.

In recent times, we had travelled to many historical sites, in particular, history that relates to the Islamic and Zoroastrian religions. When we travelled to the excavated ancient city of Margush in eastern Turkmenistan, we did not expect to find more Zoroastrian history. This ancient city dated back to 15BC, and has been continually excavated since 1972. When we arrived, we were lucky enough to meet the professor who has dedicated his life to uncovering the mystery of this ancient city. As we strolled around the dusty mud brick ruins, glimpses of life were found through walls of ancient houses, kilns (ovens), and pottery. We then came face to face with the Zoroastrian necropolises (burial chambers) where human and animal remains had been uncovered. This place was really interesting, and just to think, if we opted for a transit visa through Turkmenistan, we would never have heard of this great ancient city of Turkmenistan.

Heading north, our adventure through Turkmenistan was nearly over, but we still had one last ancient city to explore. Kunya Urgench was the centre for muslims during the Khorezm times. Another great ancient city devasted by the clutches of the Mongols, lead by Genghis Khan. This city has been left with a few buildings, including mausoleums, a mosque and the tallest minaret in Central Asia. Most of the remaining buildings have been reconstructed, however, we were pleased to see that the mausoleum of Turabek Hanym is still standing without reconstruction. Let's just say, it is nice to see a bit of authenticity in this ancient city of Turkmenistan.

Before we travelled through Turkmenistan, we knew it would be dusty, and we knew it was part of the old Silk Road. What we didn’t realise is that it is a country full of old cities of the past. There are cities in Turkmenistan that were built by different empires, and rampaged by ancient conquers. Little is still standing, but the history will go on forever, and for us we didn’t even though they existed until now. All that is left are the interesting remains of the great ancient cities of Turkmenistan.
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