Human settlements of various sizes have existed at the site of Merv, in what is today Turkmenistan, between the 3rd millennium BCE and the 18th century CE. However, at its peak in the 12th century CE, Merv was one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world with an estimated population of over half a million. The city was the eastern capital of the Seljuk Sultanate (1037-1194 CE) that, at its greatest extent, comprised a vast area stretching from western Anatolia and the Levant to the Hindu Kush mountains in the east, and from Central Asia to the Gulf in the south. Throughout large portions of its history, Merv was prosperously located at the crossroads of transcontinental trade taking place along the Silk Roads, and in the 12th century CE was a renowned metropolis attracting traders, scholars and travellers from distant regions.
A major source of Merv’s prosperity and growth was its geographic location in the inland delta of the Murghab River, which flows from its source in the Hindu Kush mountains northwards through the Karakum desert. This location gave Merv two distinct advantages, first, it provided an easy southeast-northwest route from the highlands of what is today Afghanistan towards the lowlands of Karakum, the Amu Darya valley, and the Khwarazm region. Second, the Murghab delta, being a large well-watered zone in the midst of the otherwise dry Karakum desert, served as a natural stopping-point on the Silk Road routes from the northwest of the Iranian plateau towards Transoxiana. As such, the city was a notable resting place on the Silk Roads from as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) as a refuge where merchants could acquire fresh horses or camels for their onward journeys to China.
Replete with canals and bridges, and full of gardens and orchards, 12th century Merv and its surrounding oasis were green and beautifully cultivated, offering a welcome reprieve from the Karakum desert. The city’s enclosing walls ran in an circuit of five miles, interspursed with towers and four main gates. Its streets were narrow and winding, packed with closely built houses and the occasional larger structure such as mosques, schools, libraries and bathhouses.
Upon reaching Merv, visiting traders could shelter their travelling animals in the open courtyard of its two-storey caravanserai (an inn with a courtyard for travellers). Here merchants would interact with others from various regions along the Silk Roads including the Indian Subcontinent, Iraq and western China. As well as acting as a stopping point, Merv was also a centre for production and trade. Just outside of the gates of the city were large markets, potters’ kilns, and steel making furnaces producing the crucible steel for which the city was also renowned. In the outskirts of the city stood an ‘icehouse’, a tall conical building in which local residents collected and stored snow during the winter months creating a vast mud-brick fridge.
Medieval Merv was famous for its export wares, especially its textiles. As the 12th century Arab geographer al-Idrisi noted; from Merv “is derived much silk as well as cotton of a superior quality under the name of Merv cotton, which is extremely soft”. Indeed, robes and turbans made from Merv cloth were popular around the Islamic world during this period. So too were Merv’s much-loved melons; “The fruits of Merv are finer than those of any other place,” wrote Ibn Hawqal, a 10th-century Arab chronicler, “and in no other city are to be seen such palaces and groves, and gardens and streams.”
During the Seljuk period Merv was also famed as a city of learning and culture, and particularly for science and literature. It produced many notable poets, mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, musicians and physicists. The polymath Omar Khayyam (1048 -1131 CE) is known to have spent several years working at the astronomical observatory in Merv whilst compiling his astronomical tables. As did the polymath Yaqut al-Hamawi (1179 – 1229 CE) who, whilst collecting material for his "Geographies", recorded at least 10 significant libraries in the city, including one attached to a major mosque that contained around 12,000 different volumes.
Thanks to its advantageous location on the Silk Roads, 12th century Merv developed into a large and prosperous city famed as both a stopping point for traders as well as a centre of production in its own right. Not only that but it became a vibrant academic centre that attracted people from across the region looking to partake in learning and exchange within the fields of mathematics, astronomy and literature.