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Merv: Was the Largest City in the World in the 12th century

Petar Djajkovski

The beginnings of this settlement date back to 3,000 BC. It was only natural for people to make villages in an oasis as big as this one.

The climate is not ideal but it is much better than the surrounding desert; winds raise dust clouds and it is very hot under the midday sun, with summer temperatures reaching in excess of 45C. Many big cities today still have summer temperatures that high. Sometimes in winter snow falls in the oasis, but it never lasts more than a day.

Port of Merv, an ancient city in central Asia, today in Turkmenistan.Author: Mark and Delwen CC BY 2.0

Port of Merv, an ancient city in central Asia, today in Turkmenistan.Author: Mark and Delwen CC BY 2.0

 

Hunting Turkish party in the Oasis.

Hunting Turkish party in the Oasis.

The known history of Merv starts around 500 BC. Records describe Merv as a part of the Achaemenid Empire under the name of Margu. After the visit of Alexander the Great, the city was renamed to Alexandria.

Not long after Alexander’s death and the collapse of his empire, the city was claimed by Antiochus Soter, ruler of the Seleucids. He expanded and rebuilt the city, giving it yet another new name, Antiochia Margiana. When he fell, Merv became a Buddhist center with many monasteries and monks. This Buddhist way of life ended after many centuries with the Islamization of the region.

The city of Alexandria in the 4th century as shown on the Peutinger Map

The city of Alexandria in the 4th century as shown on the Peutinger Map

 

Sultan Sanjar Mausoleum.Author: Hergit CC BY-SA 3.0 

Sultan Sanjar Mausoleum.Author: Hergit CC BY-SA 3.0 

The longevity of this city is a result of its prime positioning. During its long lifespan, it has been governed by a lot of different empires and rulers. As a result, the buildings and their architecture come from different cultures following different religions at different times.

Merv was also a city on the Silk Road, an important stop to trade fresh horses or camels, to spend a couple of days resting or to see what other traders had to offer on the market.

Great Kyz Qala.Author: Hergit CC BY-SA 3.0 

Great Kyz Qala.Author: Hergit CC BY-SA 3.0 

 

Little Kyz Qala.Author: Hergit CC BY-SA 3.0 

Little Kyz Qala.Author: Hergit CC BY-SA 3.0 

During the 12th century, it is believed that Merv was the largest city in the world with a population of 200,000 people.

Remains of a temple and Great Kyz Qala in the background. Author: Kalpak Travel CC BY 2.0

Remains of a temple and Great Kyz Qala in the background. Author: Kalpak Travel CC BY 2.0

 

Camels and Merv ruin in the background.Author: Kalpak Travel CC BY 2.0

Camels and Merv ruin in the background.Author: Kalpak Travel CC BY 2.0

The story of Merv losing its title as the most populated city in the world is a sad one. Even though they opened their gates to the son of Genghis Khan and surrendered, his orders were to kill every single resident of Merv apart from three or four hundred artisans.Today, the ancient city of Merv is proclaimed as UNESCO World Heritage Site.