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Ancient City, Perilous Times

Merv's mausoleum and other structures have been damaged by modern man. Soviet-era restoration made matters worse.

September 28, 2003|Burt Herman | Associated Press Writer

MERV, Turkmenistan — Genghis Khan's hordes couldn't wipe the great city of Merv from the earth when they killed thousands here in their bloody wave of conquest. Centuries later, though, modern man's meddling with Mother Nature threatens to obliterate the remains of the metropolis.

Merv enjoyed a golden age during the 11th and 12th centuries, when the Sultan Kala fortress was the eastern capital of the Turkish Seljuk Empire and one of the world's biggest cities. Legend says the blue dome of the Sultan Sanjar mausoleum was visible a day's journey away. Even when Mongolian warriors led by Genghis Khan's son sacked the city in 1221, killing what a 13th century historian claimed were 1.3 million people, the city still stood.

Today, the mausoleum is still Merv's crowning landmark, but the dome's blue tiles disappeared long ago. Soviet efforts in the 1980s to preserve the structure by capping the dome with concrete did more harm than good, trapping water inside and weighing it down.

Soviet-era irrigation projects also are having ill effects on Merv. They brought new life to the desert country of Turkmenistan, but now water is seeping from the ground into corrugated mud-brick castles and putting them on the verge of collapse. Preservationist organizations, including the New York-based World Monuments Fund and the U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, warn that Merv is in desperate need of protection.

"The situation is pretty critical," said Tim Williams, head of the International Merv Project at University College London. He said structures that have stood for hundreds, even thousands, of years "won't last more than another decade" without urgent conservation work.

Merv is unique because ruins of five settlements dating from the 6th century B.C. to the 18th century A.D. are located side by side, scattered across 3,700 acres, rather than stacked atop each other.

The Turkish government has given $1.5 million for a two-year project to restore the mausoleum. Some 20 other buildings at the site haven't received much attention, however, and Williams said they are threatened with irreversible damage.

Merv was designated a park in 1990, but it's still open territory for camel herders and irrigation canals that crisscross the landscape. Power lines stretch along newly built roads, and part of the park is closed off by a military installation.

Next door is the Merv collective farm, where cotton and wheat are grown year-round. Farmers irrigate their crops with water from the Karakum Canal, built in the 1950s, which diverts water from the Amu-Darya River to the Karakum desert.

The water seeps into the ground and is absorbed into the mud-brick structures. When the water dries, the salt it has picked up from the ground crystallizes, expanding inside the bricks and making them susceptible to wind erosion and collapse, foreign experts say.

In at least two of the site's key remaining buildings, the Great Kyz Kala and Little Kyz Kala, or Maiden Fortresses -- square structures dating from around the 6th or 7th centuries A.D. -- walls are beginning to lean and are at risk of toppling.

Williams said it would take about $2 million to start work on many of the endangered buildings. Preserving the mausoleum's wall paintings alone could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

The government of tightly controlled Turkmenistan has allowed international experts to work at the site, but park director Rejepmurat Jepbarov said he doesn't get much financial support from the government.

The capital, Ashgabat, has seen a spate of construction since Turkmenistan's 1991 independence -- with white marble buildings and a gold-colored statue of the president crowning a new government center. However, local workers at Merv sometimes go months without receiving their salaries, said Mahmoud Bendakir, an architect from Grenoble, France, who is working at the site.

Under Bendakir's direction, UNESCO-funded preservationists have dug pits across Merv, looking for the right earth to build new bricks to help shore up the walls. Bendakir said residents had forgotten traditional methods for making high-quality bricks, so the preservationists experiment with different proportions of mud and water, sometimes adding straw or lime.

Once Merv's preservation is secure, experts hope to refocus on uncovering artifacts from the past -- which could take still more centuries because of the vastness of the site, said David Gandreau, a doctoral student in archeology from Grenoble.

"Merv keeps a lot of secrets for the moment," he said.

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