3. A short introduction to the city of Sultan Kala

Figure 6: A short introductory film about Merv (English/Turkmen)

With the coming of Islam, in the 7th century AD, Merv became the capital of Khurasan (the 'eastern land') (for an overview of the history see Kennedy 1999; Williams forthcoming). In the 740s the 'Abbasid revolution began here, and while Baghdad was established as the capital of the new empire, Merv's status grew, as the capital of Khurasan, from east of the Great Desert to the frontiers of India. In the same decade, the governor, Abu Muslim, commissioned a mosque to be built alongside the Madjan Canal, which flowed about a kilometre to the west of the old city of Gyaur Kala. Thus began the new city of Marv al-Shahijan (Merv the great: today Sultan Kala) (Fig. 7 - opens GIS). It is tempting to see the mosque as part of the planning for the heart of the new city, and by the 9th century it lay at the centre of a thriving metropolis. The city was planned, with a street system and a carefully managed water supply with numerous canals and reservoirs in each district (Williams forthcoming). It seems likely that the new status of Merv, coupled with new ideas and beliefs that identified the need for public spaces, buildings, infrastructure and – perhaps most importantly – access to clean water (not only for domestic purposes but also for the practice of Islam), led to the deliberate and planned development of a new town. Sultan Kala represents an outstanding opportunity to explore the urban form of an important city, started afresh at a formative period in the development of Islamic urbanism.

Sultan Kala continued to expand and develop through the Seljuk period (11th to early 13th centuries). Its walls enclosed some 340ha (a circuit of nearly 9km), with walled suburbs to the north and south encompassing an additional 210 hectares: at this time Merv was one of the largest cities in the world. Aerial photographs reveal a landscape of dense urban occupation on either side of the Madjan Canal, with numerous streets forming a slightly irregular grid. Numerous large rectangular structures, interspersed within the tightly packed houses, mark the locations of some of the more substantial buildings. Markets, mosques and madrasas proliferated, minarets punctuated the skyline, while substantial caravanserais were built within the city and along the main roads leading out from it, especially to the west. There was a large industrial quarter in the western suburbs, mainly producing pottery, including highly decorated moulded wares, which were in great demand along the trade routes. In the 12th century a walled citadel (Shahriyar Ark) was constructed in the north-eastern corner of the town, enclosing a palace complex, administrative buildings and high-quality residences.


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Last updated: Mon Sept 29 2008