Lost City of the Silk Road

Travel Stories: To know the heart of Turkmenistan John W. Kropf thought he had to know the ancient city of Merv. That was just the beginning of his search.

Margush had only been discovered in the early 1980’s, a recent find in archeological terms. Excavation had been slow, but initial artifacts had created an extraordinary debate among archeologists and historians. Before Margush, the four oldest centers of the world’s civilizations known were Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China. Due to the research at this site, it was suggested that there was a possible fifth center—Margush. Many of the finds here date as far back as 3rd millennium B.C.

This set of ruins is located in the same delta of the Murgap River as Merv but predates it by at least some six-hundred years, or 1,200 years before Christ. The settlement had been a combination fortress, palace and a miniature city described by Soviet archeologists as a “gala.” 

We walked the revealed foundation, tracing where the walls of interconnected palace rooms would have been. Broken segments of pipes protruded from the floor showing advanced indoor plumbing, and there was even a series of slots used as an air conditioning system. Rooms for cooking were located near the outside walls the palace.

The religion of the pre-Islamic inhabitants had emphasized burial rituals. There were special rooms for washing bodies to be prepared for burial. Shards of pottery lay all over the ground. Some had been left where they had been uncovered. The saddest items were shards of small pots interspersed with small bones—I recognized femurs and tibias. These were the remains of children. Parents would put the body of a dead child out in the desert to be consumed by scavengers down to the bone. From ancient times, people of central Asia had passed on their dead through “sky burials.” Pre-Islamic Turkmen worshiped the heavens and prayed to the sky god Tengri. Afterwards, the bones would be placed in small clay pots and preserved. Other collections of pottery had been placed in orderly heaps around the outside of the excavation. 

“When Merv died so did Margush,” Kurbam explained.

His sparse comments translated through Dovelet left more questions than answers. 

“This place was destroyed by fire and abandoned,” Kurbam said as if it had happened last week. He pointed to what looked like charred sections of foundation. “Peasants and shepherds later lived here.”

I examined some of the pottery. Almost none of it was decorated. I saw one rim section with the raised emblem of a bird but kept hoping I might find a fully intact water jug with a picture of Alexander the Great driving a chariot into battle or a bearded Greek throwing a discus.

That night we were invited to Dovelet’s father-in-law’s for the feast of Kurban Bairam. Men and women sat on the floor in separate rooms. The conversation was conducted in Turkmen, so I could not make use of my meager Russian skills. More food was brought out than a hungry adult could have possibly consumed. Large bowls of soup were filled with potatoes and every part of a sheep imaginable. I carefully spooned out my soup, taking care not to mistake a potato for an eyeball. I had heard stories that the foreigner was considered the guest of honor and should be offered the sheep’s head. This did not happen. Young boys brought out heaping plates of plov dripping with sheep fat. 

“Plov is best eaten with the hands,” Dovelet advised me. “If you want to be a real Turkmen you must do this.”

According to Dovelet, there was something about the natural human oils in the fingers that enhanced the plov. Still, my hosts were familiar with Western practices, and a fork was placed before me. During the parade of courses, I began to feel like a bloated sheep myself. Perhaps the spirit of the animal was to be transferred to its human consumers. I eased back on the pillow that was provided for post-meal coma.

The evening’s entertainment came from someone Dovelet called “grandfather” even though he was more like a great uncle. He wore his white beard in the distinctive Turkmen style, without a mustache, and his face was the color and texture of a walnut shell.

Grandfather played the dutar, a two-stringed traditional folk instrument. It had a plaintive, almost unmelodic sound but was evocative and lonely in the way an American cowboy might sound strumming a weather-beaten guitar around a campfire. He played for our group that included Dovelet’s three-year-old son. The old man’s playing entranced the boy, who normally had the energy of the herd of wild Tekke horses.  At one moment, Dovelet told his young son to gently clamp down on the neck of the dutar with his teeth while the grandfather strummed. 

“It is Turkmen folklore that this will put Turkmen music in his brain forever,” said Dovelet. 

Grandfather then handed Yousef the instrument. Given his level of energy, I thought he would wildly flail at it, but instead the three-year-old strummed it in a controlled, skillful way.

At midnight, Dovelet gathered his family to return home. Grandfather insisted we stay, pointing to me in particular. This was the other side of the Turkmen Clan.  While initially suspicious of outsiders, once they got to know you, Turkmen press their hospitality almost to the point that you felt they wanted you to join the clan. In 1881, Edmund O’Donovan, a special correspondent to the London Daily News, was taken as a prisoner by the Merv Tekkes. At first, the tribe debated whether to cut his throat. His life was spared, but he continued to be held against his will. All his actions were the subject of great curiosity, especially when he wrote in his journal. After several months of this, he was offered an honorary position of leadership of the tribe. Babies were even named after him because it was the custom among the Merv Tekkes to give new-borns the name of any distinguished visitor who happened to be traveling through at the time of their birth. (Once when our Ambassador was visiting the nearby town of Bairam Aly, a man of the village informed us that he had just named his newborn, “Ambassador.”) Despite the “honor,” O’Donovan found his host’s “power to inflict annoyance and their obtuseness to any sense of delicacy, [made] them a most undesirable race to live among.” He eventually gained his freedom but never wanted to return. 

That night I slept easily on the futon-like mats of Dovelet’s family home. My stomach was full of plov and mutton and my head with Turkmen music.

As I left Merv the next morning, I could sense no connection between the modern tribal descendants and Merv’s inhabitants of a thousand years ago. They were, I had come to understand, part of an ever-changing kaleidoscope of tribal groups migrating and warring over the expanse of central Asia. 

Then, while packing the Jeep, Dovelet gave me a Turkmen carpet, hand-woven by his sister-in-law with the design of the traditional Tekke gul. Woven into the intricate border of crimson hues were our two family names followed by the words “Friendship Carpet.” 

For an instant, I sensed a connection to the Turkmen past through this carpet. The Turkmen had been a rug-weaving people who had taken their craft with them from the cold steppes of central Asia to the fabled city of Merv. Their skill had survived the Mongols and the Russians, and their carpets had been exported over the Silk Road from China to Europe and the Middle East. The wool came from the same hearty breed of sheep that lived in the open spaces, and the knots had been tied with the same technique to form the same patterns. Now, in those same knots, used centuries ago, our names were literally tied together with the symbol of the Tekke tribe.

This story is adapted from "Unknown Sands: Travels Around the World's Most Isolated Country" by John W. Kropf. Kropf served at the American Embassy in Turkmenistan as the Country Director for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). His stories have appeared in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Marco Polo Magazine, among others. He currently lives outside Washington D.C.

No comments for Lost City of the Silk Road.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.