1902 Encyclopedia > Merv

Oasis city in Central Asia
(located in modern day Turkmenistan)

MERV, MERU, or MAOUR, a district of Central Asia, situated on the border-land of Iran and Turan.

The oasis of Merv lies in the midst of a desert, in about 37° 30' N. lat. and 62° E. long. It is about 250 miles from Herat, 170 from Charjui on the Oxus, 360 from Khiva, and 175 from Gawars, the nearest point in the newly acquired (1881) Russian territory of Akhal.

The great chain of mountains which, under the name of Paropamisus and Hindu-Kush, extends across the Asiatic continent from the Caspian to China, and forms the line of ethnic demarcation between the Turanian and Indo-Germanic races, is interrupted at a single point ; that point is on the same longitude with Merv. Through or near the trouée or gap which nature has created flow northward in parallel courses the rivers Heri-rud (Tejend) and Murghab, until they lose themselves in the desert of Kara-kum — that large expanse of waste, known also as Turcomania, which spreads at the northern foot of the mountains, and stretches from the lower Oxus to the Caspian.

== IMAGE ==
Neighbourhood of Merv.

Whether as a satrapy of Darius and subsequently as a province of Alexander, whether as the home of the Parthian race, whether as a bulwark against the destructive waves of Mongol invasion, or later as the glacis of Persian Khorasan, the valleys of those rivers—the district of Merv —have ever been important outposts on the borders of Iran. In bye-gone epochs their banks have, under powerful rulers, been studded with populous and flourishing cities, which bore the name of " Sovereign of the Universe " (Merv Shah-i-jehan), and vied for fame with " Balkh, the Mother of cities"; of late times, with weakness or absence of govern-ment, those same banks have become choked with fallen battlements and ruins, the home of the snake and the jackal.

Merv has soared to prosperity or fallen to decay accord-ing to her political status at the moment, and history, which repeats itself, may yet have to sing her praises in the future as it has done in the past. All that human life in the desert requires is there,—water in abundance, and a soil unsurpassed for fertility. Good government is alone wanting to turn those natural gifts to full account.

The present inhabitants of the district are Turcomans of the Tekke tribe, who, like the other tribes inhabiting Turcomania, enjoyed until the approach of the Russians virtual independence, and acknowledged allegiance to no one,—a pastoral people who eked out a miserable existence by the trade of passing caravans, and in bad times pillaged the neighbouring and equally barbarous states, to whose reprisals they were in turn subjected.
From the year 1869, the date of the establishment of the Russian military settlement at Krasnovodsk on the east shore of the Caspian, the wave of Russian conquest has gradually swept eastwards along the northern frontier of Persia until it has for the moment stopped at the outer-most border of the Akhal Turcoman country, which was incorporated in 1881 by Russia as the result of the defeat of that tribe at Geok Tepe, Among the districts still farther east, to which the Russians give the name of Eastern Turcomania, is that of the Merv Tekke Turcomans, kinsmen of the Akhal Tekkes, the most recent of Russia's subjects. The district of the Merv Tekkes may be taken to be that included between the lower Murghab below Yulutan, where the river enters the plain, and the Persian frontier from Sarakhs to Gawars.

A reference to the map will show the strategical importance of this district, situated at the point of meeting of two lines, of which one is the strategic line of Russian advance on Herat from Krasnovodsk to Sarakhs, and the other the strategic line of advance on the same place from Tashkend through Bokhara. The capital of the district is, moreover, the crossing-point of the Herat-Khiva and Meshed-Bokhara trade routes.

Consequently this district, a solitary oasis in a vast desert, guarantees to its possessor the command of an important avenue between north and south, and, in the event of its falling into Russian hands, will give that power in addition a valuable link in the chain of connexion between her recent acquisitions on the Persian frontier and those in Turkestan, the forging of which has been persistently advocated by Russian writers for years past. One of these, Colonel Veniukoff, frankly admits that it is the political results—" the consolidation of friendly relations with the Turcomans"—and not commercial interests merely, that are primarily looked to, and openly states that the forward movement in Central Asia " cannot end otherwise than by the annexation to Russia of the whole of Turan."

Whether by design or by the force of circumstances, the recommendations of those writers have been translated into facts, and Russia with her advanced post at Askabad is now within 400 miles of Herat, which Sir Henry Rawlinson designates as the key of India. The occupation of the Merv Tekke country would bring Russia to within 250 miles of Herat. From Askabad she is in connexion with the Caspian by a good line of communication, part of which from the sea to Kizil Arvat) is by rail; and hence facilities are offered for bringing up not only the resources of trie Caucasus but of the whole of European Russia. While Russian troops are within 400 miles of Herat, the British troops at Quetta are more than 500 miles from Herat.

These remarks serve to explain the very natural suspicion with which Great Britain has regarded the occupation one after another of important strategical points along that route by which alone Russia can strike at India, — the same line by which Napoleon meditated a Russo-French invasion in the early part of this century.

In the matter of Merv and the neighbouring Turcoman districts diplomacy has not been idle. As early as 1869, when an inter-change of opinions was taking place between the Russian and British Governments with respect to the demarcation of a neutral zone between the two empires, Great Britain objected to the Russian proposal that this zone should be Afghanistan, " because of the near approach to India that would be thereby afforded to Russian troops from the direction of the Kara-kum, the home of the Turcomans, of which Merv is the central point." In the following year a Russian diplomatist remarked to the British ambassador at St Petersburg, wdien discussing the Afghan frontier, that great care would be required in tracing a line from Ehoja Saleh on the Oxus to the south, as Merv and the country of the Turcomans were be-coming " commercially important." About the same time Russia intimated that, if the amir of Afghanistan claimed to exercise sovereignty over the Tekkes, his pretensions could not be recognized. After the Russian campaign against Khiva in 1873, and the sub-sequent operations against the Turcomans, the English foreign secretary early in 1874 called attention " to the fears expressed by the amir of Afghanistan as to the complications in which he might become involved with Russia were the result of a Russian expe-dition against Merv to be to drive the Turcomans to take refuge in the province of Badghoes in Herat." In reply to this communi-cation Prince Gortschakoff repeated the assurance that the imperial Government '' had no intention of sending any expedition against the Turcomans, or of occupying Merv." In 1875 the operations of General Lomakin on the northern frontier of Persia led to represen-tations being made by the British ambassador at the court of St Petersburg. To these Russia replied that the czar had no inten-tion of extending his frontiers on the side of Bokhara or on the side of Krasnovodsk. Notwithstanding the oft-repeated assurances to the contrary, large annexations have been since made in Turco-mania by the Russians, and these proceedings, clearly indicating the persistent prosecution of a concerted plan, have naturally tended to disturb the harmonious relations which should subsist between the two great civilizing powers of the East.

Settlements and Inhabited Centres.—Of towns or even villages, fixed centres of habitation, there are none, ac-cording to Mr O'Donovan, the latest European traveller to Merv. The present political and military capital of Merv is Koushid Khan Kala, a fort which serves rather as a place of refuge against sudden attacks than as a habita-tion. It is situated on the east bank of the most westerly branch of the Murghab, about 25 miles below the dam at Porsa Kala. In form it is oblong, measuring 1 3/4 miles long by 3/4 mile broad, is constructed entirely of earth, revetted on the exterior slope with sun-dried brick; the ramparts are 40 feet high, and are 60 feet at the base. The fort is built in a loop of the river, which protects it on two sides; between it and the river is an " obah," or nomad village of huts and tents, some thousand in number, disposed in rows, but there is no town or settlement.

Twenty-five miles east of Koushid Khan Kala lie the ruins of the Greek city of Antiochia Margiana, showing traces of a high civilization. According to Strabo (xi. 2) the Merv oasis at this period was surrounded with a wall measuring 1500 stadia (185 miles). Mr O'Donovan found the trace of the fort of Iskander to have been quadrangular, with a length of side of 900 yards. This was probably the fort built by Alexander, about 328 B.C., on his return from Sogdiana after the capture of Bessus. The city was destroyed in 666 A.D. by the Arabs, who built a new one, afterwards known as Sultan Sanjar, about 1000 yards away, and occupying an area, according to Mr O'Donovan, of about 600 yards square. The towers are still extant, and inside can be seen the ruins of a most elaborate tomb, in which the supposed bones of Sultan Sanjar are enshrined. It has always been a place of pilgrimage for the faithful. Not far to the south-west lies the site of the last city of Merv, that which existed up to a hundred years ago, when it was laid waste by the Bokharians. It bears the name of its gallant defender Bairam Ali.

These three ruins are all that remain of that which flourished of yore as " sovereign of the universe."

At the time of the visit of Burnes, Abbott, Shakespear, and Taylour Thomson, about the fourth decade of the century, Merv was under the jurisdiction of Khiva, and the administrative centre was at Porsa Kala, where the dam is situated. This place is now also a waste of mud ruins, uninhabited.

Rivers.—The Heri-rud (or Tejend, as the river is named below Sarakhs) runs a course of some 280 miles within Afghan borders. On reaching the Persian fron-tier it turns north and forces a channel through the mountain chain near Sarakhs. Beyond Sarakhs the river is Turcoman on both banks, runs close to the Khelat mountains, and in the latitude of Askabad loses itself in the marshes formed by the spring floods. It is probably the Ochus of ancient geography, which watered Nissa, once the capital of Parthia, and joined the Oxus just before the latter river disembogued into the Caspian (Rennell's Herodotus). The Tejend is fordable at all points below Sarakhs except in the early spring after the melting of the snows. On the road from Meneh to Merv the river is sluggish, 50 yards wide and 4 feet deep in February. The river-bed is sunk 12 to 15 feet below the level of the surrounding country, and has immense quantities of drift wood on its banks; trees and luxuriant herbage clothe the immediate borders. At midsummer the river runs nearly dry, and does not reach Sarakhs. The Kashaf-rud, which flows near Meshed, is one of its chief affluents.

The Murghab takes its rise in the northern slopes of the Paropamisus, and runs parallel to the Heri-rud at a distance of 70 miles from it. On this river lies the plain or oasis of Merv, irrigated by means of an elaborate system of dams and canals cut from the main river. Beyond the limits of the oasis the Murghab "hides its streams in the sand," like the Tejend. The river at Porsa Kala (near the principal dam) is 80 yards wide, at Koushid Khan Kala 30 to 40 yards wide. In summer it is much swollen by the melting of the snows, and its stream is then barely fordable. The water is yellow in colour from suspended matter.

Formerly a great deal of the country, now a waste, between the two rivers was also cultivated by the agency of water derived from canals cut from the Tejend. These canals extended to Kucha Kum in the desert, rendering the journey between the two rivers much easier than in the present day. From the Murghab was also cut, among others, the Kara-i-ab canal, which ran for a distance of 40 miles towards the Tejend. Recent explorers affirm that there is no reason why these canals should not be again filled from those rivers, when the intervening country, "an argil-laceous expanse " (O'Donovan), would become culturable.

Communication.—Merv is surrounded on all sides by desert. On the north, west, and east this desert is sandy and arid ; water is exceedingly scarce, the wells being sometimes 60 or 70 miles apart, and easily choked. To the south of Merv, between the rivers Murghab and Tejend, there are traces of past cultivation, of irrigating canals, and of considerable settlements. Between the Tejend and Askabad the road lies through a populous well-cultivated country (Persian territory) by way of Kahka and Lutfabad.

There are no roads in Merv,—nothing but mere tracks. Many wide and deep irrigating canals have to be crossed ; bridges are few -and bad. The inhabitants cross by inflated skins.
The following tracks lead to the Persian frontier from Merv:—(1) via Mahmur or Clmngul to Lutfabad—eight days on camels; (2) via, Shahidli to Mehna—120 miles ; (3) via Shahidli to Fort Cherkeshli and Meshed,—for 85 miles between the Murghab and Tejend there is scarcely any water; (4) via Sarakhs to Meshed, 9 or 10 marches for camels, and, according to Petrusevitch, without water between Merv and Sarakhs—120 miles.

To the Afghan frontier lead (1) the track via Sarakhs and up the Heri-rud to Herat—fit for a coach, according to Sir Charles MacGregor and Mr Lessar ; and (2) a practicable track, used by Abbott and Shakespear, up the Murghab and Kushk rivers.

To the Oxus in Bokharian territory lead several tracks, the chief of which is that to Charjui—nine marches for camels. Water is scarce.

To Khiva by the direct track is 360 miles. Water is scarce.

Population.—The Turcomans, according to Sir Henry Rawlinson and others, are descendants of the Ghiiz or Komani, a race of Turks who migrated westward from their homes in the Altai before the Christian era, and penetrated even to the Danube. From sub-sequent intermixture with Persian and Caucasian peoples, they exhibit variations from the true Tartar type. According to Baron de Bode the Turcoman closely resembles both in appearance and in speech the Nogai Tartar and the Tartar of Kasan on the Volga.

They are an independent race, as wild and free as their native desert, brave and very impatient of control—"Wild warriors in stormy freedom bred " (Moore). They have a very evil reputation for brigandage and murder, so much so that the Bokharians and Khivans have a proverb—"If you meet a viper and a Mervi, com-mence by killing the Mervi and then despatch the viper." Of late years a change for the better has taken place, and recent travellers among them state that the Mervis show an inclination to lead a more settled life and to establish an elementary form of government (Medjliss), and that it is no longer accounted an honour among them to kill their neighbours. Opium smoking and arrack drink-ing are apparently widespread vices (O'Donovan); at the same time they are described as clever and intelligent.

The Merv Tekkes (like the Akhal Tekkes) arc classed in two great divisions—the Toktamish and the Otamish. Each of these divisions consists of two elans, and each clan is subdivided into families. The two clans of the Toktamish are called Beg and Wakil; those of the Otamish, Suchmuz and Bukshi. The clans of Beg find Wakil are the most powerful, and occupy that part of the oasis which lies on the right or east bank of the Murghab. The Suchmuz and Bukshi have their tents on the left or west bank.

There is no machinery of government, and no taxes are levied. Whatever government there be is of a patriarchal nature. Each family has a ketlchoda (patriarch), who represents the family in matters of policy, but can only act in accordance with the wishes of the clan. The aksakals, or grey beards, are also useful in settling intertribal disputes, but they are tolerated only so long as they do not act in opposition to the tribesmen. For external affairs and in time of war the ketlchodas exercise a certain amount of power. The authority of ketkhodas and aksakals is, however, overriden by the laws of custom or usage (deb) and the less respected laws of religion. The injunctions of deb are paramount. It sanctions the alaman, or plundering raid, and in general regulates the Turcoman's daily life ; its prescriptions are more binding than those of the Koran.

The Tekkes marry young. The father purchases for his twelve-year-old son a child-wife for 500 to 2000 krans (£20 to £80). A young widow cf twenty-five is much more valuable, but a woman over forty is not worth the price of a camel. On the conclusion of the bargain, the priest reads a prayer from the Koran, and the marriage becomes valid.

The dress of the men consists of a long tunic of coarse crimson silk reaching below the knees, with a white sash through which is stuck a dagger ; an outer robe of brown camel-hair cloth, a huge sheepskin hat, trousers and slippers or amber-coloured knee-boots, complete the costume. The women are exceedingly fond of trinkets, rings, and amulets, which accompany their movements with a sound as it were of bells. Their dress consists of the same red silk robe as the men wear, with a sash round the waist, and high-heeled boots, red or yellow.

The religion is Suni Mohammedan; their language Jagatai or Oriental Turk.

The numbers of Merv Tekkes on the Murghab and Tejend are variously estimated, but may be stated approximately at 40,000 tents, including 5000 tents of the Salor tribe. These 40,000 tents represent a population of 200,000 to 250,000 souls. The Salors and Sariks at Yulutan and Panjdeh, higher up the Murghab, are given at 11,000 tents, or some 60,000 souls.

Products, Arts, and Manufactures. —The country in all times has been renowned throughout the East for its fertility. Strabo tells us "that it was not uncommon to meet with a vine whose stock could hardly be clasped by two men with outstretched arms, wdiile clusters of grapes might be gathered two cubits in length." The Arab traveller Ibn Haukal, writing in the 10th century, remarks that " the fruits of Merv are finer than those of any other place, and one cannot see in any other city such palaces with groves and streams and gardens." A local proverb says, "Sow a grain to reap a hundred." All cereals and many fruits grow in great abundance.

The Turcomans possess a famous breed of horses, — not prepossessing in appearance, being somewhat leggy and long in the back and neck, but capable of accomplishing long distances — 50 or 60 miles — for several days in succession, and with very little food. Their great peculiarity appears to be their hairlessness ; the coat is very fine, the mane and tail very scanty. This breed of horses, as well as the wealth of the Merv Tekkes in camels and flocks, is fast disappearing.

The Turcomans are noted as excellent workers in silver and as armourers, and their carpets are superior to Persian. They also make felts and a rough cloth of sheep's wool.

One of the chief occupations of the male sex is the repair of the dams and the clearing of the canals, upon the efficiency of which their existence is dependent. The services of a large number of workmen are always held in readiness for the purpose. In 1878 the-unusual mass of water in the Murghab carried away the dam, and the drying up of some of the canals nearly led to a failure ot' the crops.

Climate.—The position of Merv, in the midst of sandy deserts in the heart of Asia, makes the climate in the heat of summer most oppressive. The least wind raises clouds of fine sand and dust, which fill the air, render it so opaque as to obscure the noonday sun, and make respiration difficult. In winter the climate is very fine. Snow falls rarely, and melts at once.

History.—The name Merv, or some similar form, occurs at a very early period in the history of the Aryan race. Under Mourn we find it mentioned with Bakhdi (Balkh) in the geography of the Zend A vesta (Vendidad, fargandi., ed. Spiegel), which dates probably from a period anterior to the conquest of Bactria by the Assyrians, and therefore at least one thousand two hundred years before the Christian era. Under the name of Margu it occurs in the cuneiform inscriptions of Darius Hystaspis, where it is referred to as forming part of one of the satrapies of the ancient Persian empire (Inscriptiones Behistani, ed. Kossowicz). It afterwards became a province (Margiane [Gk.]) of the Groeco-Syrian, Parthian, and Persian kingdoms. On the Margus — the Epardus of Arrian and now the Murghab — stood the capital of the district, Antiochia Margiana, so called after Antiochus Soter, who rebuilt the city founded by Alexander the Great. About the 5th century, during the dynasty of the Sasanids, Merv was the seat of a Christian archbishopric of the Nestorian Church. In the middle of the 7th century the flood of Arab conquest swept over the mountains of Persia to the deserts of Central Asia. Merv was occupied 666 A.D. by the lieutenants of the caliph Othman, and was constituted the capital of Khorasan. From this city as their base the Arabs, under Kuteibe bin Muslim, early in the 8th century brought under subjection Balkh, Bokhara, Ferghana, and Kashgaria, and penetrated into China as far as the province of Kan-su. In the latter part of the 8th century Merv became obnoxious to Islam as the centre of heretical propaganda preached by Mokannah (Haschem ben Hakem), the "veiled prophet of Khorasan," who claimed to be the incarnation of the Deity. In 874 Arab rule in Central Asia came to an end. Dur-ing their dominion Merv, like Samarkand and Bokhara, became one of the great schools of science, and the celebrated historian Yakut studied in its libraries. About 1037 the Seijukian Turks crossed the Oxus from the north and raised Toghral Beg, grandson of Seljuk, to the throne of Persia, founding the Seijukian dynasty, with its capital at Nishapur. A younger brother of Toghrul, Daoud, took possession of Merv and Herat. Toghrul was succeeded by the renowned Alp Arslan (the groat lion), whose sway was so vast that, according to tradition, no fewer than twelve hundred kings, princes, and sons of kings and princes did homage before his throne. Alp Arslan was buried at Merv. It was about this time that Merv reached the zenith of her glory. During the reign of Sultan Sanjar of the same house, towards the middle of the 11th century, Merv was overrun by the Turcomans of Glmz, and the country was reduced to a state of misery and desolation. These Turcomans, the ancestors of the present tribes of Turcomania, were probably introduced into the country by the Seijukian Turks as military colonists. They formed the van of their armies, and rendered efficient service so long as the dynasty lasted, and after-wards took part in the wars of Tamerlane.

In 1221 Merv opened its gates to Toulai, son of Jenghiz, khan of the Mongols, on which occasion the inhabitants, to the number of 700,000, are said to have been butchered. From this time forward Merv, which had been the chief city of Khorasan, and was popularly supposed to contain a million inhabitants, com-menced to languish in obscurity. In the early part of the 14th century Merv was again the seat of a Christian archbishopric of the Eastern Church. On the death of the grandson of Jenghiz Khan Merv became included in the possessions of Toghluk Timur Khan (Tamerlane), in 1380. In 1505 the decayed city was occupied by the Uzbeks, who five years later were expelled by Ismail'Khan, the founder of the Suffavean dynasty of Persia. Merv thenceforward remained in the hands of Persia until 1787, when it was attacked and captured by the emir of Bokhara. Seven years later the Bokharians razed the city to the ground, broke down the dams, and converted the district into a waste. About 1790 the Sarik Turcomans pitched their tents there. When Sir Alexander Burnes traversed the country in 1832, the Khivans were the rulers of Merv, the nomad population being subject to them. About this time the Tekke Turcomans, then living at Orazkala on the Heri-rud, were forced to migrate northward in consequence of the pressure from behind of the Persians. The Khivans contested the advance of the Tekkes, but ultimately, about the year 1856, the latter be-came the sovereign power in the country, and have ever since resisted all attempts at reeonquest.

Authorities.—Besides the standard travels of Wolff, Ferrier, Vambery, Burnes, Abbott, Mouravieff, and others, the following works and papers of more recent date may be consulted with advantage :—Sir H. Rawlinson's England and Russia in the East; O'Donovan's correspondence with the Daily News, 1880-81; O'Donovan's ''Merv," Proc. Roy. Geog. Soc.; Col. Stewart's "Country of the Tekke Turcomans," Proc. Roy. Geog. Soc., with excellent map ; "The New Russo-Persian Frontier, 1881," Proc. Roy. Geog. Soc.; Girard de Rialle, Memoire sur l'Asie Centrale; Sir H. Rawlinson, "Road to Merv," Proc. Roy. Geog. Soc.; Col. Baker's Clouds in the East; Captain Napier's "Reports," Jour. Roy. Geog. Soc.; Hutton's Central Asia; Marvin's Merv; Col. Potto's Steppe Campaigns; Sir Charles MacGregor's Journey through Khorassan; Boulger's England and Russia in Central Asia; Captain Butler's Communications to the Public Press; Lessar's " Journeys," Proc. Roy. Geog. Soc.; O'Donovan's Merv Oasis; Papers on the Turcomans, &c, by Col. Petrusevitch, Proc. Imp. Russ. Geog. Soc., Caucasus section; Col. Grodekoff's Journey from Tashkend to Persia, 1880; Captain Kuropatkin's Turcomania, 1880 ; Col. Veniukoff's Progress of Russia in Central Asia, 1877, and other papers by the same author; Col. Kostenko's "Turkestan," Jour. R. U. S. Instn.; Schuyler's Turkistan; correspondence on Central Asia presented to parliament, &c. (F. C. H. C.)


41-1 Merv is the modern Persian name. The river Margus, now the Murghab, on which was built the ancient city, is derived from Margu, the name of the province as recorded in the Behistan inscriptions of Darius. Spiegel connects the name Margu with old Bactrian meregho, bird, in allusion to the numerous swarms of birds that gather there. So, too, the river name Murghab means bird-water. The district ap-pears to have been known in the 5th century as Marv-i-rud, so that the river was then the Marv. The name Merum for the district occurs in the Armenian geography ascribed to Moses of Khorene, written probably in the 7th century (ed. Patkanoff). Maour is the Uzbek name, and of comparatively recent date.

42-1 Concurrently with the consolidation of her position in Turcomania, Russia has of late been showing less military activity on the side of her Turkestan district. It is probable that her recent explorations at the sources of the Oxus have demonstrated the impracticability of directing any offensive movement against India from that side. Hence the line of strategical advance has been shifted from Tashkend to Tiflis.

The above article was written by: Major F. C. H. Clarke, C.M.G., R.A.

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