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At the height of its glory, Merv was the city all other cities in the world aspired to be. It was perched on an oasis and one of the world’s largest trade routes of the time, it was rich and prosperous, and all over the civilized world to be “marwazi” — from Merv — was to be cultured and sophisticated. At the height of its power in the 12th century, Merv was the largest city in the world.
Located in modern-day Turkmenistan, this Central Asian city was built on an oasis; prominently located on the Silk Road, putting it on one of the biggest trade routes of historic times. But at the peak of its influence, it learned a painful lesson from which it never recovered: you don’t say no to Genghis Khan.
At the height of its power in the 12th century, Merv was the largest city in the world. Located in modern-day Turkmenistan, this Central Asian city was built on an oasis; prominently located on the Silk Road — putting it on one of the biggest trade routes of historic times.
The origins of the city go back into the prehistoric ages, with some traces of habitation as far back as 3000 BC. While control of the city switched between the various empires of the region over its long history (it was even renamed Alexandria for a time after Alexander’s armies went through), it remained a jewel in the crown of Central Asia until its downward slide began.
Archaeological evidence in the northern part of the oasis shows extensive remains of village and urban life going back into the prehistoric ages, with some traces of habitation as far back as 3000 BC, but the actual city of Merv appears to have been founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th Century.
While control of the city switched between the various empires of the region over its long history (it was even renamed Alexandria for a time after Alexander’s armies went through), it remained a jewel in the crown of Central Asia until its downward slide began.
In the 12th Century, Merv was ruled by an Islamic empire but was home to people of all kinds. Known as the “Queen of Cities,” it is estimated that in 1150 Merv was the largest city in the world, with a population of over half a million people.
Merv was an advanced metropolis known for crucible steel, libraries, markets, and architectural wonders.
The city’s walls ran in an oblong circuit of eight kilometers (five miles), interrupted by strong towers and four main gates and enclosing the entire city. Inside, the streets were mostly narrow and winding, crowded with closely built houses and occasional larger structures like mosques, schools, libraries and bathhouses. They even had “ice houses” where they stored ice and snow from the winter to use as a year-round mud-brick refrigerator.
“For its cleanliness, its good streets, the divisions of its buildings and quarters among the rivers …
“[Merv] is superior to the rest of the cities,” wrote the 10th-century Persian geographer and traveler al-Istakhri. “Its markets are good.” Merchants from as far as India, Iraq and western China came here to trade.”
The Majan canal ran up the middle of the city to Merv’s central mosque and the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, a large, square-shaped building rung with fine arches, capped by a dome sheathed in turquoise-glazed tile. The dome was so intensely blue that it is said it could be seen from a day’s journey away.
A series of dams and dikes fed a network of canals and reservoirs to ensure the supply of water to the city, which was after all in the middle of the desert. “The fruits of Merv are finer than those of any other place,” wrote a 10th-century Arab chronicler, “and in no other city are to be seen such palaces and groves, and gardens and streams.”
Over its lifetime, Merv was a noted center of learning for Buddhists and Muslims, and it welcomed a mixed population of immigrants from all over Central Asia.
It produced notable poets, mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, musicians and physicists, and attracting the brightest thinkers and artists from around the Islamic world. It set trends not only in scientific and astronomical investigations, but in architecture, fashion and music.
In Zoroastrianism, the god Ahura Mazda is said to have created Merv (referred to as Mouru) as one of sixteen perfect lands.
It seemed like nothing could possibly go wrong for Merv the Great. But in 1221 a Mongol army led by one of Genghis Khan’s sons — who was considered to be, by proxy, the great leader himself — showed up looking for blood.
At the time, Merv was part of the Seljuk Empire, ruled by Sultan Mohammed. Buoyed by their success in China, the Mongols turned their attention westward.
Diplomacy failed, badly, and a number of Mongol emissaries and traders were killed. This was a fatal error, for the Mongols didn’t just look to the west, they began to ride over there.
They wanted Sultan Mohammed’s blood. Naturally, the Sultan ran away. He was eventually caught, but not until the Mongols rode through every city along the way, including Merv.
On February 25, 1221, the Mongols arrived outside Merv’s gates. Lead by Genghis Khan’s son Tolui, they inspected the city’s fortifications for six days before deciding that a siege would take too long, and they attacked.
Although the Mongols were known to use a sort of biological warfare by catapulting diseased corpses over the walls of besieged cities, that was not necessary at Merv.
The town willingly opened its gates after a day of tepid resistance. They had been promised leniency by the Mongols.
The Mongols lied.
The Arab historian Ibn al-Athir based an account of the event on reports of refugees from Merv:
“Genghis Khan sat on a golden throne and ordered the troops who had been seized should be brought before him. When they were in front of him, they were executed and the people looked on and wept. When it came to the common people, they separated men, women, children and possessions.
It was a memorable day for shrieking and weeping and wailing. They took the wealthy people and beat them and tortured them with all sorts of cruelties in the search for wealth … Then they set fire to the city and burned the tomb of Sultan Sanjar and dug up his grave looking for money. They said, ‘These people have resisted us’ so they killed them all.
Then Genghis Khan ordered that the dead should be counted and there were around 700,000 corpses.”
Now, you’ll remember that at the time the population of Merv was “only” around half a million, so where did all those other people come from? Historians figure they were refugees fleeing before Mongol advance in the vain hope of finding safety at Merv. That’s how the Mongols found 700,000 people there to kill.
But how, in an era when the most effective tool for killing was a sword, do you kill that many people? Division of labor. The citizens of Merv were divided up, and each Mongol soldier was given somewhere between 300 and 400 men, women, and children to execute. Now that is a hard day’s work.
When the Mongols rode away, all the people who’d stayed hidden in Merv came out of their hidey holes. Around 5,000 people were all that was left of the world’s largest city. Unfortunately for them, the stragglers of the Mongol army arrived and dispatched them without mercy. Now nothing was left of what was once the world’s largest city. The Mongols even destroyed the dam on the Murghab River, which amounts to slitting Merv’s throat and draining away the life-blood of the Merv oasis.
While Merv was rebuilt and re-populated after being pillaged by the Mongol army, it never again reached the same prominence as it had before 1221.
It was finally abandoned in 1785. Due to its long and rich history, Merv was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. The sacking of Merv involved about 0.33% of the world’s population dying (it is estimated that the world population was about 360 million at the time). Although unquestionably a horrific massacre, it was not a unique story. The Mongol’s success was in no small part based on their “surrender or die” policy, and after a short while people learned they’d better take the first option.
Of course, Merv learned the hard way that if the Mongols had a grudge against you, surrender just made dying faster.
During the Mongol conquests of the 13th Century, it is estimated that between 5 and 10% of the whole world’s population were killed.
That’s so many people dead, that according to a study by the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Energy, the destruction under Genghis Khan may have scrubbed as much as 700 million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere by allowing forests to regrow on previously populated and cultivated land.
As we face some pretty brutal climate changes, let’s hope we find a better way to reduce CO2 emissions.