List of Figures

Figure 1: The Silk Roads, showing the strategic location of Merv (Background NASA imagery from Visible Earth at:

Figure 2: Detail of the Central Asian part of the Silk Roads. (Background NASA imagery from Visible Earth at:

Figure 3: Landsat 7 satellite image of the Murghab Delta, showing the position of Merv. Note the relatively narrow and deep cut channel of the Murghab River flowing from the south (present day Afghanistan) and then spreading out in a fan-shaped delta to the north. (Image thanks to the Tokai University Research and Information Centre).

Figure 4: The ancient cities of Merv. The earliest, Erk Kala, was founded c. 500 BC. Around 280 BC it became the citadel for the much larger Hellenistic city of Antiochia Marginana (today known as Gyaur Kala). Around the 8th century AD a new Islamic city of Sultan Kala was built to the west, although Gyaur Kala continued in use alongside this, becoming an industrial suburb. In the 15th century the Timurid city of Abdullah Khan Kala was constructed to the south, to which was added a suburb, Bairam Ali Khan Kala, around the 18th century. (Background IKONOS satellite image).

Figure 5: A mindmap of this article: showing the structure and main sections. Each area is hyperlinked to enable navigation. (Created using FreeMind version 0.8, a free shareware programme available at

Figure 6: A short introductory film about Merv.

Figure 7 [GIS]: The city of Sultan Kala, showing the position of the Madjan Canal (blue: flowing south to north), 11th-century defensive circuit (yellow for the main city, and brown for the northern and southern suburbs), and some of the principal monuments. The earlier city of Gyaur Kala lies to the right. (Background IKONOS satellite image).

Figure 8: The landscape inside the city of Sultan Kala today: an undulating vista. The Madjan canal lies to the left (attracting the lush vegetation), while the low mounds indicate the position of buildings to either side of the canal. The Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar stands in the background.

Figure 9: Quicktime rotating photograph of the urban landscape within Sultan Kala today: a view taken from just south of the Kushmeikhan Gate (see Figure 68 for location). While the defensive walls of the city survive as recognisable features, as do the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar (the large brick monument) and the Great Kyz Kala (seen away in the distance), the interior of the city is otherwise a mass of low mounds and patchy vegetation. On the ground it is difficult for even the specialist to understand this or detect any clear patterns. From the air, it is a different picture (see Fig. 14).

Figure 10: Excavations in 2006 across the Madjan Canal, in the foreground, with side channels. Note the depth of the deposits and the quality of their survival.

Figure 11: The archaeology starts right below the surface at Merv. Here a trench (originally cut for agricultural drainage in the 1960s) exposes a complex sequence of Islamic streets. Intact street surfaces and walls survive only 30-50mm below the modern surface. Most of the area of the abandoned cities was not suitable for modern agriculture, so there is little or no damage, or subsequent reworking, and erosion/collapse deposits seal well-preserved stratigraphy.

Figure 12: One of the Russian 1970s vertical air photographs, covering the north central part of city of Sultan Kala, with the citadel (Shahriyar Ark) clearly visible in the upper right, and the Madjan Canal winding its way northward (top) through the centre of the image. We have only managed to uncover a set of prints for these photographs: Note earlier annotations.

Figure 13: Example of one of the Soviet 1:10,000 maps, published in 1954. Includes the north central part of city of Sultan Kala (towards the bottom right of the map), with the northern suburb and citadel (Shahriyar Ark) clearly visible, as is the Madjan Canal which shows a distinctive earthwork running out into the suburban area, through to the top of the map. (See also GIS layer Russian_map.)

Figure 14: Part of the IKONOS satellite image taken in April 2001, showing broadly the same area as covered by the Soviet vertical aerial photograph (Fig. 12). The 1m resolution of the satellite image does not provide the same level of detail as the AP, but the quality is still excellent and the ability to geo-rectify this image has provided the basis for the AP analysis.

Figure 15: The Lecia Global Positioning System (GPS) set up to establish a control point on one of the modern road bridges near Merv.

Figure 16 [GIS]: A mosaic of the 20 vertical photographs, as created by Dominic Powlesland, showing some evident problems with mis-matching, but retaining the good resolution of the original images.

Figure 17 [GIS]: The vertical aerial photograph tiled image as created by Ceri Rutter. Some problems occurred with 'boxing' due to resolution changes in the transformation process.

Figure 18: Different versions of the aerial photographs, showing the same part of northern Sultan Kala. At the top, the image as taken; at the bottom, the same area digitally manipulated to stretch the contrast and brightness to accentuate features.

Figure 19: The modern day surface of the Sultan Kala, showing the scale and range of material, particularly ceramics but also building material, glass, metalwork, and industrial debris, lying on the surface.

Figure 20 [GIS]: Surface collection survey material from Sultan Kala, on the background of the IKONOS satellite image. 11th and 12th-century material was largely ubiquitous over the whole of the built-up area and was not plotted. Toggle the layers to see the different chronological extents: the 9th/10th century is clustered along the central Madjan Canal and towards the eastern gate (leading back to the old city of Gyaur Kala), while the early 13th-century (pre-Mongol) material shows a focus towards the central area of the city but with noticeable concentrations near the west gate, in the suburban areas, and up towards the citadel area of Shahriyar Ark (NE). By the 15th century activity is restricted to the area around the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar; the Timurid city was by then 3km south-east of the old Islamic city.

Figure 21: Excavated section through the erosion debris surrounding the Kepter Khana (a substantial medieval building within the citadel area of Shahriyar Ark). The section shows horizontal external deposits, overlain by sloping erosion and collapse sequences. (Scale 5 x 0.20m)

Figure 22: A sample area of the vertical APs showing darker areas (courtyards/open spaces) and lighter areas (buildings). Note the almost circular shape of some of the courtyards, caused by the development of additional collapsed building debris towards the wall junctions (see Fig. 23).

Figure 23: Sketch of formation processes within a courtyard space: material accumulates close to the wall lines and thus more material develops in the angles of walls, leading to almost circular or oval erosion patterns within courtyard spaces. The picture is accentuated by the lack of upper storeys/roofs collapsing into the space, and the scale of the open space.

Figure 24: Range of scales of courtyards spaces within communal and domestic buildings. The overall size of the courtyards is compared to their relative scale within the building complex as a whole. (Data primarily based upon measurements derived from illustrations in Hillenbrand 1994; using examples from the region and similar date).

Figure 25: Sketch of decay/erosion and formation processes. At the top, a hypothetical cross-section of buildings, with two-storey structures on either side of a narrow street (centre); below, after erosion/collapse. The debris from the two-storey structures alongside the street creates more substantial mounds of debris, larger than the smaller structures. Despite the collapse of elements in the two-storey structures into the street, the space is still evident as a pronounced linear hollow.

Figure 26: The area of the citadel, Shahriyar Ark, on the IKONOS satellite image (north to top). Note the clear lines of earlier city streets, both a major east-west street but also north-south streets, which are blocked by the construction of the citadel wall c. AD 1080.

Figure 27: A graphical representation of the tiered levels of transcription.

Figure 28: Checking the aerial imagery on the ground using a handheld PDA with GPS. The PDA was running ESRI ArcPad 6.0.2, enabling the GIS, including satellite images and aerial photographs, to be viewed in the field, with a Navman GPS sleeve providing the location of the surveyor to within 2-3m on the image. Sometimes it was easier, due to the strong light, to confirm details of the image on a printout, but the electronic system was invaluable in a landscape of numerous similar ridges and depressions.

Figure 29: Aerial photograph of a densely built-up urban quarter in Sultan Kala, crammed with houses, communal buildings, streets, alleys, courtyards and the Madjan Canal, flowing through the centre of the image from south (bottom) to north (top).

Figure 30: IKONOS image of the south-east area of the city of Sultan Kala (north to top). The mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar is visible in the upper left corner and the eastern wall of the city lies along the right-hand side of the picture. The main east-west road, near the top of the image, is heavily built-up, with properties running back from this major street frontage. But to the north, and especially the south, large areas of unbuilt space suggest possible intra-mural gardens, fields and orchards. Many of these appear to be sharply demarcated from the built-up space, and some boundary walls are evident.

Figure 31: IKONOS image of a quarter in the north-west of the city, with a large number of substantial building complexes, each apparently with extensive courtyards.

Figure 32 [GIS]: Extra-mural area to the west of Sultan Kala. It appears that there was spatial zonation of this landscape, with areas devoted to industrial activity (primarily the so-called Potters Quarter in the north), trade/storage (caravanserais – some are very clear in the imagery, others are more conjectural), areas of other suburban building (possible domestic), elite residences (with surrounding gardens), agriculture and pasture, and mausolea/religious complexes. (Background IKONOS satellite image: the aerial photographs only cover some of this area, but reveals more detail, especially in areas which have been subsequently damaged by modern agriculture).

Figure 33: The suburban area focused upon in this study. A large double enclosure caravanserai is visible in the north, just to the north of the Kyz Bibi complex. Further south the two substantial Köshks, the Greater and Lesser Kyz Kalas, are evident. (Background IKONOS image.)

Figure 34 [GIS]: A pre-11th century AD western boundary to the city? The line of the possible early city boundary, running at a slight diagonal (NNW-SSE) to the street pattern. To the south of the main east-west street, diagonal streets suggest a possible southern gateway into the early city. (Background IKONOS image).

Figure 35: Byash Barmak Köshk (also known as the 'Organ Köshk' or 'Five Finger Köshk').

Figure 36 [GIS]: The densely built-up core of Sultan Kala follows the Madjan Canal, extending c. 3,500m north-south, with closely packed buildings extending to a maximum of about 450-550m either side of the canal. The exceptions to this are where major east-west streets lead to areas of dense urban building spreading further east or west, most obviously along the east-west main road.

Figure 37 [GIS]: A detail of the north-western part of the city, with some basic conjectured street lines. Positions are based on a combination of interpreting the satellite image (GIS layer IKONOS) and primarily the aerial photograph (using GIS layer AP_Ceri_Joined). These plots are not comprehensive (there are still further streets to add to this plot), and need further refinement, but the broad pattern of streets in this area is evident: there are a number of roughly straight streets, but few of these extend over any great distance, and many are staggered or show changes of alignment, especially at junctions.

Figure 38 [GIS]: The IKONOS satellite image showing the south-eastern quarter of the city. Low-lying areas, covered with vegetation today, show as dark areas in the image. There areas have clear boundaries with the surrounding areas of building (showing as light areas). There are also indications of internal organisation within the dark areas, perhaps suggesting distinct land holdings. The situation is somewhat confused by Soviet period agricultural use for the area (for example, see GIS layer AP_Ceri_Joined, where distinct 1970s fields are visible, before the creation of the archaeological park in 1989): this has perhaps sharpened the contrast between the areas. Despite this, it seems likely that this area was clearly demarcated and organised, perhaps for fields, orchards and/or gardens.

Figure 39: Broad abstractions of the urban landscape of Sultan Kala (north to the top).
39a) A version that is based on rapid abstraction of space from the IKONOS satellite image and the aerial photographs: orange indicates major building complexes (often with large courtyards), yellow represents domestic housing and other smaller buildings (often with smaller courtyards), and green represents unbuilt space, such as gardens and orchards. The large orange area in the north-east is the citadel of Shahriyar Ark – although not all of this area was built-up. This version is quite detailed, with ideas of street pattern. In some senses this image is misleading, still needing much work to define street patterns and to tackle courtyard sizes and thus building complex definition more systematically. The area to the north-east of the large administrative complex in the centre, for example, probably had more substantial structures but the images are harder to interpret here because of modern roads.
39b) Here the image is a much broader abstraction (with apologies to Paul Klee) trying simply to convey the broad rhythm of the organisation of the urban space, and the spread of large buildings (orange) and open spaces (green).

Figure 40: Quicktime rotating photograph of the suburban landscape today. Image taken from beyond the western walls of the city west and to the north of the Great Kyz Kala (see Fig. 68 for location). If you rotate the image to the left, you will see two substantial earthen structures, the Greater and Lesser Kyz Kalas. Further left, the small brick monument is Kyz Bibi, and then the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. Between this and Kyz Bibi, the low mounds in the foreground, to the right of the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, are part of the impressive double courtyard caravanserai. Continuing left, note the nearby village and the flat modern agricultural land (in which cropmarks are visible) where the surface archaeology has been badly damaged by modern agriculture.

Figure 41: The south wall of the Greater Kyz Kala. This is the best-preserved face, away from the prevailing northerly winds and rain, showing the distinctive corrugated walling and small apertures that let restricted light into the lower storey.

Figure 42: A short narrated slide show about the Kyz Kalas.

Figure 43: Quicktime rotating photographs of the interior on the Greater Kyz Kala. The images were taken from the southern side of the interior.

Figure 44: Plans and elevations of the Greater Kyz Kala. Plans by Pugachenkova (left) and Akhmedov (right); east-west section by Kononenko (Herrmann 1999, 143).

Figure 45: Photograph of the eastern façade of the Greater Kyz Kala, taken in 1890 by V. Zhukovsky, showing an arched aperture. Chronos Archive, St Petersburg.

Figure 46: Example of internal features along the west wall of the Greater Kyz Kala. (Scale 2m.)

Figure 47: Quicktime rotating photographs of the interior on the Lesser Kyz Kala. Image taken from a north central position.

Figure 48: The Lesser Kyz Kala.

Figure 49: Plans of the Lesser Kyz Kala by Pugachenkova (left) and Akhmedov (IMP) (right). (See Herrmann 1999, 148-9).

Figure 50: Lesser Kyz Kala, showing detail of roof vaulting at the turn of a stairway. (S. Chmelnizkij, Berlin, 1961).

Figure 51: Lesser Kyz Kala, the same staircase as Figure 50, in 2002.

Figure 52: Quicktime rotating photographs of the Kyz Bibi complex. Image taken from north-west of the monument.

Figure 53: Short narrated slide show about the Kyz Bibi complex.

Figure 54: Kyz Bibi (to the right) photographed in 1890 by Zhukovsky. Note the intact dome.

Figure 55: Kyz Bibi photographed in 1926 by Rtveladze. The upper part of the dome had collapsed or been dismantled and part of the external fired brick facing had collapsed/been removed.

Figure 56: Kyz Bibi in 1974, photographed by Atagaryev and Pilyavsky in a very ruinous state.

Figure 57: Kyz Bibi in 1992, during restoration.

Figure 58: The mosque to the east of Kyz Bibi, excavated and 'conserved' with inappropriate concrete capping in 1992; now in a very poor condition.

Figure 59: Caravanserais to the south of the main road leading from the west gate of Sultan Kala (detail from IKONOS satellite image). To the north, a well-preserved double courtyard example; to the south, a less well-preserved example.

Figure 60: Two substantial structures are clearly visible as earthworks to the east of the Greater Kyz Kala on the 1970s APs.

Figure 61: The 2001 IKONOS satellite image, covering the same area as in the Figure 60 AP, showing the scale of agricultural damage (and new roads) that has taken place. The structures clearly visible on the APs are not easily recognised today.

Figure 62: A stretch of the city wall, with interval towers, originally constructed c. 1080 AD and modified on a number of occasions until the Mongol sack of 1221 AD.

Figure 63: Archaeological recording in progress on a bastion of the Sultan Kala city wall: the cleaned portion shows the early wall face, after removal of part of the later additions which had substantially thickened the wall (traces of which can be seen to the left).

Figure 64 [GIS]: Comparison of possible routes to the Kyz Kalas from the city, before and after the construction of the 11th-century defences.

Figure 65 [GIS]: IKONOS Satellite image of the area around the Greater Kyz Kala: soil marks in the ploughed fields to the south and east, and variable vegetation within some areas of scrub, suggest a variety of features within the landscape surrounding the Kyz Kalas. They also show in the 1970s aerial photography (see GIS layer AP_Dom_Joined and enhanced – although this is poorly rectified in this area). They are less substantial than the traces of building complexes seen elsewhere in this landscape. The picture is confused by Soviet period agriculture (see GIS layer AP_Ceri_joined), and the long chronology of use of the area. Nevertheless, these might tentatively suggest formal landscape/garden features, such as water channels, pavilions or boundary walls, surrounding the elite buildings.

Figure 66: Tentative reconstruction drawing of the suburban area in the mid/late 12th century AD, looking north-east from a position approximately above the Lesser Kyz Kala. Hotspots lead to brief descriptions of the various elements of the landscape. (Drawing by Claire Venables).

Figure 67: Questions and answers about the urban and suburban landscapes (with links to the audio files of the responses).

Figure 68: The location of the rotating images. (Background IKONOS satellite image).


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Last updated: Mon Sept 29 2008