A city drowned in its own blood

We’ve mentioned before the Guardian’s recent series of 50 articles about great cities.  Now the newspaper is following it with a series about lost cities.  So far it’s covered Babylon, Troy, Muziris, Pompeii and Merv.  Here are some excerpts from the latter article to whet your appetite.

In its 12th-century pomp, Merv straddled the prosperous trade routes of the Silk Road. It was a capital of the Seljuk sultanate that extended from central Asia to the Mediterranean. According to some estimates, Merv was the biggest city in the world in AD1200, with a population of more than half a million people.

. . .

Merv was famous for its exports, especially its textiles … Merv had such a strong reputation for commerce and the pursuit of wealth that the 14th-century Egyptian scribe al-Nuwayri described the city’s chief characteristic as “miserliness”.

But Merv under the Seljuks was also a city of learning and culture. It produced notable poets, mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, musicians and physicists. The polymath Umar Khayyam is known to have spent several years working at the astronomical observatory in Merv. “Of all the countries of Iran,” al-Istakhri wrote of Merv, “these people were noted for their talents and education.” Yaqut al-Hamawi counted at least 10 significant libraries in the city, including one attached to a major mosque that contained 12,000 volumes.

In its Seljuk heyday, Merv was a cultural capital, attracting the brightest thinkers and artists from around the Islamic world. It set trends not only in scientific and astronomical investigation, but in architecture, fashion and music. To be marwazi (from Merv) suggested a degree of cultivation and sophistication. Its residents probably possessed a very broad frame of reference. Though secluded in an oasis in the Karakum desert, Merv was a worldly city, an exemplar of the commercial and intellectual culture that flourished along the Silk Road.

Merv was also no stranger to political upheaval and war, having fallen under the sway of competing polities and dynasties throughout its long history. No conquest was as traumatic as its pillage by the Mongols in 1221. Yaqut al-Hamawi was forced to flee the libraries of Merv as the armies of Genghis Khan’s son Tolui advanced upon the city.

“Verily, but for the Mongols I would have stayed and lived and died there, and hardly could I tear myself away,” he wrote sadly. The Mongols laid siege for six days before the city surrendered, prompting one of the worst massacres of the age.

According to the Arab historian Ibn al-Athir, who based his account on the 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.”

There’s much more at the link, including photographs, and at the ‘Lost Cities’ series page.  Fascinating stuff for history buffs, and highly recommended.



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