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Nearly a thousand ancient monuments have been marked on an archeological map of the Murgab delta, several sheets of which have just been completed.
Few years after the fateful year 476, commonly regarded as the end of the classical age, Martianus Capella finished his work devoted to the "four liberal arts", the last encyclopedia of Antiquity. What interests us in this work is a small passage in its geographical section: "...The region of Margiana alone in this land has vineyards, mountains 1,500 stadia long all around, hard to reach because of desert sands stretching for 120 miles. Alexander the Great chose this region for its beauties and here he founded his first city, giving it his name. However, the city was soon destroyed, to be rebuilt by Antiochus, the son of Seleucus, who gave it his father's name now. The city was 75 stadia around." That was the last description of the regions which we are exploring within the international (Russian-Turkmenian-Italian) project, the Archeological Map of the Murgab Delta.
We refer to a relatively small area in Turkmenistan, where the river breaks out of its narrow mountain valley confines on to a plain, the great Kara Kum (Black Sands) Desert, only to fork out into numberless streams and be lost in the barren sands without a trace. But life thrives where water has not seeped into the sands. A small patch squeezed between the river valley exit and the sands supports a lush oasis called Merv. Field work was started here by project participants in 1990 to map it and explore its archeological sites.
The region was for millennia considered the westernmost outpost of civilization, at the boundary with a world of barbarians. We are not going to review the thousands of pages devoted to the oasis and its central city, Merv, in medieval Arabian and Persian literature. It is enough to recall that it was, at that time, given a reverential epithet of Merv Shahijan, or Merv the Sovereign. We will only confine ourselves to descriptions of the oasis before its conquest by the Arabs. More dramatic still, the territory was successively incorporated in many an empire, from the Persian kingdom of the Achaemenids, the first world power, succeeded by the empire of Alexander the Great, the Seleucid kingdom of his Greco-Macedonian successors, the Parthian empire of the Arsacids (which was at its peak the main rival of the Roman Empire in Asia), the Sassanid Empire, a rival of the Byzantine Empire, followed by the Arab caliphates, then the Ghaznevide Kingdom, the Seljuk Turks, the Great Khorezm (Khwarazm), the empire of Genghis Khan and his heirs, and so forth.
The earliest mention of this region is made in one of the oldest parts of Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians.(*) Mihr Yasht, a hymn to the deity Mitra, describes, in beautiful poetic lines, a moment when the Sun's first rays illuminate the "Aryan land", and goes on to enumerate its various parts, including Mouru (Merv). In another work, Videvdat (Law against the daevas), the prophet Zoroaster himself asks the Wise Lord Ahura Mazda, what countries the supreme deity has created. Ahura Mazda names them in order of importance and time of creation. First comes Aryanam Vaija (Aryan Expanse), the legendary native land of the Aryans. Next in line is "Gava inhabited by Sogdians", and then, a respectful third, the Mouru land we already know of Merv (Mouru) continued to hold a special place in the Zoroastrian tradition. The poem in verse, Ayatkar-i-Zarenan, relates of Zarer, the first ever fighter for faith, who confronts his enemies at Merv.
Throughout the history of the great Achaemenid Empire (558-330 B.C.), Merv merits mention a single time only, in a document of supreme historic importance. In the famous inscription at Behistun, Darius I, narrating about the suppression of uprisings in various parts of his enormous empire and coming to the Merv oasis, relates that "...the land of Margush(*) turned rebellious. They made a man by the name of Frada, a native of the land of Margush, their chief. Whereupon I sent [word] to a Persian named Dadarshish, a slave of mine and satrap of Bactria, telling him thus, 'Go and defeat the host that does not name itself as mine.' Thence Dadarshish departed with a host and fought the inhabitants of the land of Margush. Ahura Mazda was on my side. By the grace of Ahura Mazda, my host utterly defeated the rebel host. On the 23rd day of the month of Assiyadia, they met in battle. Thus speaks Darius the King: Thereafter the land became mine."
Nor was the oasis passed over by writers of Antiquity. Quintus Curcius Rufus, a Roman historian in the 1st century of the Christian
* For centuries, Zoroastrian religious texts were handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. The appearance of their written version is associated with the Sassanid age (3rd to 7th centuries A.D.).-Ed.
* Margush, the ancient Persian name for Merv.-Ed.
era, recounting the life of Alexander the Great, relates about the great conqueror's campaign against the land of Margiana, the name Greeks and Romans had for the Merv Oasis. The oasis was mentioned by Isidor of Harac, Strabo, Horace, Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy, Ammianus Marcellinus, Plutarch, and Solin. And then Martianus Capella draws the line. All these writers focused mainly on the remoteness and impregnability of the land, sheltered in the safety of mountains and sand, and on the marvelous fertility of its soil. Also, they invariably recalled Alexander the Great who built a city there, soon after destroyed by the "Barbarians", and King Seleucus who admired the city, which he ordered to be rebuilt and fenced off, together with all of the oasis, with a wall for greater protection. And, finally, it was a place of exile for Roman soldiers captured by the Parthians in the battle of Carrhae, in 53 B.C., whom they believed they were banishing to the end of the world. Capella included nearly all he knew about these episodes in his text.
In later centuries, too, Merv drew the attention of many authors. Apart from official documents of Sassanian kings, dated 234 to 651, it figured frequently in Christian writings. According to tradition. Saint Thomas, one of the twelve apostles, preached his religion there. As early as the 3rd century of the Christian time, Central Asia's first Episcopal See, later transformed into the metropolis of the Great Eastern Church, was founded there. And in the 10th century, the majority of its inhabitants were Christians.
Merv, however, was a seat of yet another religion, Manichaeism, which was widespread from China to Spain between the 3rd and 10th centuries. After its founder, Mani, was executed on orders of Sassanian kings, his followers fled from Persia to the east. The prophet's successor. Mar Abbo, found in
Merv a safe haven for several years. These events are covered in numerous texts in the Parthian, Pahlavi, and Sogdian languages. Chinese Buddhist literature, too, is prolific about Merv, because a Parthian prince (whom the Chinese named An-shi Gao) rose to become a prominent leader of the local community and a first professional translator of Buddhist texts into Chinese. Chinese court historiographers, too, made frequent references to Merv. Numerous references to both the city and the oasis can even be found in medieval Armenian manuscripts.
Naturally enough, a historical place of so much importance could not escape the attention of archeologists. Excavations, in the modern sense, were first undertaken here in the late 1930s by A. Marushchenko, a scholar from Ashkhabad, and Boris Piotrovsky, a young researcher from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), today a RAS member. A comprehensive South Turkmenian archeological expedition under Professor Mikhail Masson worked here soon after
World War II. Field parties from Ashkhabad, Moscow, and Leningrad were busy exploring various sites in the oasis.
The ambitious scientific project, the Archeological Map of the Murgab Delta, was launched to track down dozens of sites referred to in reports on the previous excavations, which were mostly vague about the exact locations. The old reports left no hope for today's explorers not only because of confusing terrain benchmarks. The main handicap, however, was in their low professional level that was too primitive to attempt general historical conclusions about the evolution of the oasis.
Participants in the project, who included researchers from the Russian Academy's Archeology Institute, Mahtumkuli State University of Turkmenistan, and the Italian Institute for African and Oriental Studies, began by defining their tasks and approaches. First, they were to draw up a complete inventory of all sites, from early human settlements in the area to the late Middle Ages. The scientists focused, above all, on plotting the location of the oasis on the map as accurately as possible. To do this, they could avail themselves of the new opportunities provided by the Global Positioning System (GPS) that could establish the location of a feature with an accuracy of a few meters. Another source of mapping information came from aerial and satellite photography. Understandably, as well as putting a feature on the map we determine its size, date of construction (from an analysis of unearthed finds), and its possible relation to any other historical features in the area. Work is carried on, within the framework of the first task, by geomorphologists, paleogeographers, paleobotanists, and other researchers who study the specific geographic and environmental situation in different periods of the region's history. In fact, this is an across-the-board exploration project. We are, of course, far from obtaining a conclusive picture of the oasis put in a historical perspective.
Yet some tentative judgments can be ventured on the basis of the first volume of Preliminary Reports for 1990-1995, which has come out recently. In particular, it lists 956 historical sites dating to various ages, which have been identified and mapped.
Above all, we have established that the Murgab River has changed course four times over recorded history. Since the residents depended on water for livelihood, they diverted it to their fields from the Murgab via irrigation canals; this discovery compels the academic community to revise their ideas about the entire system of regional organization that, reasonably enough, changed with the change of watercourse.
We reached another, more important conclusion only after we had plotted all historical sites and dated them tentatively.
The oasis was first settled in about 2100 B.C., in the heyday of the Bronze Age. Man had certainly visited it before, leaving archeological traces. Most probably, settlers came from the small oases in the foothills of the Kopet-Dag Range, the southernmost part of modem Turkmenistan, hit by a crisis after long centuries of advance. The causes of that crisis are still debated; but be that as it may, a portion of the population moved to new lands. Once in the Murgab delta, they built a society that bore a striking resemblance to the dozens of others on the threshold of civilization. Their community was centered on a "micro-oasis" embracing only a few, from five to ten, settlements gravitating toward a single delta channel, from which they dug small irrigation ditches to divert water to their fields and villages. These had a geometrically regular-square or rectangular-plan and defenses. The "micro-oasis" was built around the largest village, fortified as the rest and had an intricate, fanciful layout. It contained a complex of temples and, probably like its counterparts in Mesopotamia, was the religious as well as business and administrative center of that small, self-focused world. This pattern survived throughout the Bronze Age.
Our studies did not, however, extend to this side of the problem. As we found, contrary to all expectations, this land was a migrating, not a settled, society. Three phases of migration are distinctly recognized through the Bronze Age, each implying a settled area moving farther south. This southward drift was caused, according to our findings, by the Murgab watercourse deflecting slowly toward the southeast.
Another southward retreat occurred in the Early Iron Age, the next long historical period extending from the early 1st millennium B.C. to Alexander the Great, in the 330s B.C.
The most momentous events, however, occurred here in the Hellenistic Age, covering a period after the death of Alexander the Great to the late 2nd century B.C., when the oasis continued to slip southward and to contract. At no time in the past, or in the centuries to come, was it so small. While the settled areas kept dwindling, a clear sign of decline, a large city, Alexandria in Margiana, arose in the vicinity. It was really vast for Antiquity, measuring 2 by 2 kilometers. A truly paradoxical situation: a very small settled territory supporting an enormous city. Besides, it was surrounded by a wall, as related by the Greek geographer Strabo (64/63 B.C. to A.D. 23/24): "Amazed by the fertility of the plain, Antiochus Soter ordered a wall 1,500 stadia in circumference to be built around it..." The "outer" wall of the city, running all around its farmlands, is mentioned in the so-called Guidi Chronicle, a Christian work written soon after 680. The chronicle gives a prominent place to the story of the Mervian Metropolitan Elijah, who was called the Turkic Apostle. This biographical summary, too, gave a description of Elijah's city.
And yet there was another snag. Early archeological studies uncovered a wall on the northern fringe of the Merv oasis. It was believed to have been built on King Antiochus' orders, and mentioned by Strabo. This view had persisted until we finished the map of that part of the oasis. Now everything has fallen in its place: several dozen kilometers of wasteland lay between the wall and the territory settled during the
Hellenistic Age. A wide gap appeared between the written evidence and archeological finds. We suddenly remembered that another wall running much closer to the city than the northern wall was discovered in the 1940s, when the South Turkmenistan expedition was only making its first steps there. Its local name is Giliakin Chilbuij. Virtually nothing remains of it today as a result of human activity over many ages. Old Russian cartographers did a very fine job, however, having depicted it in full splendor on their maps. This evidence confirms that a relatively small farmed area around the city was, indeed, surrounded in the Hellenistic Age with a wall that must be the real Wall of Antiochus.
The next historical period is associated with the Parthians, who
seized the oasis in the 2nd century B.C. and ruled it until the 320s A.D. In this new age, the aborigines started resettling the northern territories they had abandoned in the early Hellenistic Age. Most probably, they were greatly assisted in this by society's advanced engineering capabilities, and so they could dig new canals from the Murgab, after a chain of dams had been built on the river. That "reoccupation" spawned a large number of new settlements, typically protected by strong defense works.
Finally, the last, Sassanian period, which ended with the Arab conquest of Merv in the mid-7th century. Again, the oasis territory shrank, but, more important, farming practices significantly intensified, many new settlements sprang up, and the old ones grew in size. The northern wall detected by us found its place in the picture. In the waning decades of the Sassanian kingdom, its rulers were hectically building walls around large areas to make their borders impregnable. Structures of this kind have been found at Derbent in Daghestan, south of the Caspian Sea in northern Iran, and elsewhere.
Today, on the basis of our findings within the framework of the Archeological Map Project, we can shed some light on key aspects of life in the oasis through many centuries. We certainly cannot offer a conclusive explanation for the causes of all changes we have recorded. Each of the stages we have identified was influenced by interacting environmental, political, social, and, probably, other factors. For all that, we have marshaled enough facts for further research.
Back to where we began, our objective was to put exact dates on the features we have found. Therefore, we searched the area for more remnants of the past and plotted them on our maps, and simultaneously
dug up several sites which appeared to be important enough to yield archeological materials we could use as reference points. Our predecessors had applied themselves to this problem as well, but, in our view, their chronology had quite a few dubious dates.
Therefore, the Russian group of the expedition went to excavate Gebekly Depe, an intriguing site in the northwestern part of the oasis. The excavation results showed it to have gone through three evolutionary stages. Gebekly Depe arose in the early Iron Age, approximately in the 7th century B.C. as a small fortified estate in the environs of Yaz Depe, the largest settlement in the oasis at the time. When the residents of the parent settlement migrated south, the estate was abandoned as well. Life returned to it under Parthian rule. At that time, the settlement acquired the shape it retained till its end. A square approximately 100 by 100 m large was surrounded by a raw brick wall with corner towers and an entrance in the middle of the southern wall. A big building stood in the center of the square, on what remained of the Yaz Depe estate. All the defenses were rebuilt under the Sassanids, and the old central building was packed to form a platform, on which a new one of a unique plan was put up. It was arranged around a core consisting of a solid hexagonal platform surrounded by a narrow passageway. Living quarters and auxiliary rooms were all around. The building was destroyed by an enormous fire in the late 4th century A.D.
Gebekly Depe proved a very fortunate place for elucidating the time of local archeological sites. We could determine two periods with a fairly high accuracy (the third period, Yaz Depe, yielded but little material): the late Parthian (1st and 2nd centuries A.D.) and the early Sassanian (3rd and 4th centuries A.D.). The dating of either one is supported by a large quantity of coins discovered in the dig. Besides, the site contained various classes of evidence that enabled us to revise many previous dates.
By far the most gratifying evidence was unearthed in the Parthian-age building, which was remarkable in itself. Its center was occupied by living quarters, five rooms in all, divided in two by a corridor and separated from other rooms by an encircling passageway. The second set of rooms served as stores and servants' living quarters.
As anywhere else, earthenware shards were predominant, with frequent terra cotta figurines, arrowheads, shards with inscriptions in the Parthian language, cut-bone trinkets, and many small artifacts. One class of finds, however, was a real sensation: for several field seasons in a row, we recovered more than 3,000 undamaged and fragmented bullae from under the floorboards of the encircling corridors. Each bulla was a clay clot bearing impressions of several seals. Bullae played a role not unlike that of modern-age seals people normally put on boxes or containers. In Gebekly Depe, they were used to prevent unauthorized access to bundles wrapped around with ropes and cords and wooden boxes, and, not least, served as plugs for all manner of vessels, from very large pitchers to small vials, most likely for toiletries. Our conjectures are supported by both the shape of the bullae and the impressions of strings, ropes, fabric, and wood left on their back sides.
The bullae helped us gain an insight into some aspects of Margiana's economy in the Parthian Age. Apparently, the Parthians ran an efficient system of delivering and distributing provisions needed by their outlying fortresses, and the official seals they bore testified to the quality and quantity of provisions. Judging by the poor-quality clay from which the seals were made, they were carried on short runs, otherwise the seals would not endure frequent handling on long hauls. Most probably, they were shipped to Gebekly Depe from Merv, the central city.
The bullae have a no less, if not more, importance in facilitating an understanding of Margiana's culture. Regrettably, very little, if at all, was known of the art of this area in the Parthian times. Actually, we only had terra cotta figurines. Now, we are in possession of several scores of subjects impressed on the Mervian seals. This is just enough to understand, in particular, what images were most in vogue, which ideas they were associated with, and so on.
A large group of impressions can be described as geometric designs, such as complex crosses or rosettes. At first sight, they carry little information. But only at first sight. Indeed, seals bearing exactly the same impressions have been found on Bronze Age artifacts in the Merv oasis, which fact suggests cultural traditions passed down for about 2,000 years. The latest digging season lent more credence to this suggestion- some bullae found in the dig showed monsters attacking herbivores, a scene surprisingly reminiscent of those on Bronze Age seals.
The bullae display an animal and bird kingdom-horses, bulls, goats, deer, and eagles. Respective icons show a variety of images, like a lone horse figure, a horse confronting an altar, sometimes with a moon crescent above it, or just an eagle, an eagle with a broom or ribbons in the beak, as a symbol of royal power.
A prominent place was undoubtedly held by religious themes or those where religion merged with politics. The most frequently recurring subject is a goddess with a palm branch in her hand, sitting on a stool or throne. In one bulla, she faces a king across an altar with fire burning in it. The scene can only be interpreted as investiture, the goddess conferring the authority and symbols of royal power. There was another way for the king to be invested with power-he sits majestically on horseback in front of an altar, with an eagle soaring over his head and holding a wreath, a symbol of greatness, in its beak.
The archeological explorations in the territory of ancient Merv have helped illumine some aspects of the region's history and culture. Yet many things still remain obscure. We hope that cooperation among archeologists of different countries will continue, and their joint efforts will help solve many riddles of antiquity.
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by Vassif GAIBOV, Cand. Se. (Hist.), and Gennady KOSHELENKO, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), RAS Archeology Institute, MARGIANA, A LAND OH THE FRINGE OF THE WORLD // London: Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.COM). Updated: 07.09.2018. URL: https://libmonster.com/m/articles/view/MARGIANA-A-LAND-OH-THE-FRINGE-OF-THE-WORLD (date of access: 06.10.2022).
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