Merv: Background

The cities that developed at Merv span the last 2,500 years, and together they form one of the most complex and well-preserved urban centres on the Silk Roads of Central Asia. The series of major cities were home over 2,000 years to hundreds of thousands of administrators, politicians, soldiers, scholars, tradespeople, mothers, fathers and children. At times Merv has been capital of vast empires, at times a trading, military and administrative base. Eventually its importance declined, by-passed on the east-west trade routes by the growing importance of sea trade, and then sacked by the armies of Genghis Khan.

Of these great cities, the massive town walls and a number of important religious and secular buildings remain, including a remarkable range of traditional mud-brick buildings. But below the surface of what now appears a largely deserted landscape, lies one of the great archaeological sites of the world. Archaeological deposits ranging between 3 and 17m in depth represent one of the most important opportunities to explore long-term changes in the nature of urban life in the world.

Monuments of Merv

In 1987 Turkmenistan established an archaeological park to protect the walled cities, some of the immediate extra-mural areas, and selected outlying buildings. This has already done much to improve the basic condition of the site, removing modern agriculture from within the walled areas and generally improving access to the monuments. In 1999 the site was declared a World Heritage Site. However, there are daunting conservation issues and in 2000 Merv was placed on the World Monuments Watch’s list of the world’s 100 most endangered sites.

Conservation activities

Since its establishment in 2001, the Ancient Merv Project is concerned with the complex conservation and management issues posed by this remarkable site, furthering our understanding of the site through archaeological research, and disseminating the results of the work to the widest possible audience. The Ancient Merv Project is generously supported by the World Monuments Fund, the J.M. Kaplan Fund and American Express (both with the support and administration of the WMF), the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Max van Berchem Foundation and the British Embassy in Ashgabat. An overview of our sponsors is located here.

Ancient Merv archaeological team on the field