Antique cities of Margiana: Erk Kala (Alexandria) and Gyaur Kala (Antiochia)
The city of Merv is located in the east of central part of the Margiana oasis and lies next to the ancient Razik canal bed. The river Murghab itself flowed much further to the west. Erk Kala was a polygonal citadel of the roughly square lower city of Gyaur Kala which measures two km across. Together they covered an area of some 374 ha. Each was encased within massive fortifications consisting of hollow curtains with external plastered glacises, which were constructed during the Sasanian period above the solid in-filled remains of earlier fortifications. The bulk of the built environment within the city connects the main east and west gates in a rectangular covering an approximate area of 125 ha. Additional residential quarters sprawl towards the south and north gates and add an additional 28 ha or so to the built up area. Each of the unexcavated gates was situated midway along the wall, except on the north side where the central position of the citadel meant that the gate on this side was off-centre, positioned directly to the east and commanded by a bastion of the citadel. It is evident from their morphology that all of the gates possessed a projecting outer wall and were approached by a ramp running parallel to the curtain. The curtain walls had towers at regular intervals and the excavations next to the southwest corner bastion revealed a sequence of redesign, constant use and strengthening of the fortifications.A fifth gate was situated on the western wall but bypassed the residential quarters and lead into an open area on the western side of the citadel. It can not be totally excluded that late nineteenth century attempts to irrigate the lower-lying corners of the city may have led to some smaller mounds being leveled; but the fact that some mounds are still present suggests instead that this corner, in particular, was substantially economy supported by a complex agricultural base and protected by a powerful military presence.
Erk Kala is the first city in the Merv's area, was founded in the 6th century BCE. The foundation may have coincided with arrival of Achaemenian Persians or possibly their predecessors, the Medes. Cyrus II the Great (559-530 BCE) established Achaemenian control of the oasis, known also as Margiana. Later rebellion of Margiana against Achaemenians was historically recorded in the trilingual inscription of Darius the Great at Behistun Rock near Kermanshah in Iran. Where the defeat of Margian rebel Frada was recorded. At that time Margiana was the part of satrapy of Bactria (as the continuation of the Bronze Age links between the areas).
Erk Kala is very massive oval hill, with large mud-brick walls stand some 30 m in height and enclose and area of 20 ha. The highest point on the walls is the look-out tower in its south-eastern part, which originally guarded the probable entrance to the citadel. This may have been via a ramp over the moat, leading to a gate set high in its walls. The southern half of the citadel consists of occupation build up, including a platform to the west, once crowned with administrative building of the early Arab period. This was excavated in 1930 and removed in the 1980s. To the north is one of the lower areas, a trait of Central Asian cities.
From the end of the 4th century BC, Merv is part of Alexander the Great Empire and citadel of Erk Kala become known as Alexandria in Margiana. The latest cultural levels on the occupational platform adjacent to the east wall have been dated by the coins and ceramics to the six-seventh centuries. Arab geographers Istakhri, Ibn Hawkal and Muqaddasi wrote that Erk Kala was still in use in the tenth century. However, it was mainly abandoned after the conquest of Merv by Arabs in the mid-seventh century.
Antiochia in Margiana (Gyaur Kala) – the second city of Merv and metropolis of Margiana oasis. It was founded by Antiochus I (281-261 BCE). Erk Kala become the citadel of the Hellenistic city. The walled city was essentially square, except for the west wall and the north-west corner following the course of the pre-existing Razik canal and the curve of Erk Kala citadel in the north wall, making approximately 2 km across. The walls still survive to a height of some 20 m, with regular hummocks as remains of the towers: defences were reinforced by outer moat. The gates were located in the center of the walls, except for the north gate which was set to the east of Erk Kala and were connected by roads which quartered the city. Occupation was essentially cruciform, concentration on these major arteries and leaving the corners relatively empty. Since Gyaur Kala was a Hellenistic city, the occupied areas would probably have been laid out in a grid plan with regular blocks of housing and a series of public buildings, temples, an agora, gymnasia, bathhouses and others. Gyaur Kala was occupied around a thousand years, through the Parthian and Sasanian periods and into the Islamic period, the Seleucid city plan would have changed organically. However, it may not have changed fundamentally, for traces of regular quarters can be seen from air in the north-west of the site. This regularity confirmed by Du Huan’s description of Merv, providing fascinating details: Within the city there is a saline. There are also two Buddhist temples. The city walls and houses are very thick and high. The urban quarters are very regular. Numerous low white saltpans still exist today where the geo-archeological borings were undertaken to determine the method of formation of this area – whether it was excavated for mud-bricks or whether this was an unoccupied garden or pond.
In 1950, M.E Masson excavated one of the Buddhist temples, in the south-east corner of the city. The stupa and associated monastery (sangharama) had been variously dated to the 1st century BC, first- second century AD, or recently after the reanalysis of the coins, to a much later date in the fourth century – a time of close contacts between Sasanian Merv and Bactria. The stupa was reconstructed a number of times and the sangharama considerably enlarged. The latest coin identified in the bricks of the staircase was one of Khusrau I (Khosrow I 531-579). The remains of one or two more stupas outside the eastern wall of Gyaur Kala and dated 6-7th AD were recorded by YuTAKE of 1963 but have subsequently been demolished.
An unusual building in the north-east quarter of Gyaur Kala, the monumental structure known as Oval Building was constructed on a platform, accessed by a ramp, and consisted of rooms built round a courtyard. M.E. Masson originally suggested that it was a Christian monastery, but this idea was dismissed, both because of a lack of archeological evidence and because most Nestorian monasteries are built some distance away from cities. Other suggestion is that it was a storehouse (Simpson).
Even if the Oval Building was secular, literary sources provide evidence for a flourishing Christian community in Merv. The bishops of Merv attended a number of Ecumenical Councils of the eastern and after 485 the Nestorian Church. The position of the Christian community in Merv was sufficiently established to ensure that the local bronze coins of Yazdigird I (399-420) carried the sign of the cross on their reverses. A cross was employed on a jar handle reused as a mould for casting small pendants and found in the Erk Kala excavations, rare archeological evidence of a Christian presence.
Merv also hosted a Jewish community, as has been shown by Jewish headstones. The variety of religions in the city, which would of course have included Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, is reaffirmed by the range of burial practices discovered at an extramural necropolis, located 3 km to the west of Gyaur Kala. This consisted of the remains of seven built structures excavated in the 1950s with burials in ossuaries, built graves, ceramic coffins or jars, and bodies either on floor or in mass burials. The structures continued in use for some time.
A large low mound in the north-east quarter, not far from the Oval Building, revealed a number of private houses separated by irregular, narrow alleys, a plan more typical of a medieval Islamic city than the Hellenistic grid suggested for the main city. Du Huan's description of the houses of Merv – The wooden parts of the buildings are elaborately carved and the mud parts are painted with pictures. The number of vessels found in the area, were made locally and range from open lamps to tall elegant jars with long handles and curious rippled decorations on the shoulders. Many shards from Erk Kala excavations belong to jars with knobbed handles, as the one concealed near Buddhist stupa and known as Merv Vase. Analyses made on the vessels confirm the dating of the Buddhist stupa to the Late Sasanian period.
The large industrial area on the central platform of Gyaur Kala reveled in 1992, based on the presence of numerous highly vitrified, crucible fragments. It was the discovery of steel droplets in the glassy slags remaining inside of crucibles. The further excavations led to the discovery of four furnaces in the area. Analyses showed that the crucibles were used for the production of steel by the co-fusion method, where wrought iron and cast iron are heated to some 1,200 degrees centigrade. This process is distinctly different from the Wootz steel method known from India and Sri Lanka, where wrought iron is packed with carbon to produce steel. According to the 12th century writer al-Biruni, the co-fusion method produces excellent steel with attractive Damascus or watered patterning. He refers for its production at another city, nearby Herat. The furnaces at Merv have been dated to the ninth to tenth centuries AD by ceramic and numismatic evidence and are the first metallurgical remains to document the co-fusion process.
The steel production at Merv occurred in the city lacking all the relevant resources. There are not metal deposits in the oasis. The kaolin for the crucibles probably came from the only known source around, near Kara Bogaz Gol on the east shore of the Caspian Sea. The wood for firing the furnaces has been identified as pistachio and juniper, used in twig form. This could be imported the Kopet Dagh or Badghiz areas, despite of excellent timber such as saxaul in the surrounding desert. Further research around the furnaces did not identified any other steel furnaces.It may be that only a few workshops at Merv produced such high-technology steel. In China, cast iron extensively used since early 3rd century BCE and since 6th century the co-fusion process is described in Chinese texts. Merv was always an important point on the Great Trade Routes, sharing the ideas, knowledge and technologies and import of the necessary resources for production of these technologies was relevant to the common process and development of Merv. These steel furnaces also represent an accomplished, not a developing, technology.