Sultan Palace Merv

Gyz Kala Koshk (Keshk) Castles in Merv oasis. The detailed outlook

The most distinctive buildings in the Merv oasis are the corrugated castles (keshks). They are of varying sizes, fulfilled different functions and continued to be built over a considerable period. Keshks can be found both in and around the walls of the Seljuk city – Sultan Kala and elsewhere in the oasis. One of the largest and certainly the best known is the Great Kyz Kala. Nearby is a second, smaller, corrugated building.

The 8th – 9th century's earthen buildings in Central Asia architectural tradition. The unique view of these buildings attract the attention of a traveler. Usually constructed outside of the city, on the raised platforms, with vertical engaged columns forming the corrugations on the exterior walls. The semi-fortified constructions with a second floor entrance. Adding the well-appointed set of rooms on the second storey, including a large hall. The functional rooms, storage spaces around a courtyard on the lower floor. Within the enclosure of the complex, contained the possibly ancillary buildings and gardens, creating the palatial atmosphere around the complexes. Two different types of location can be stated: those in groups, clustered close to the urban centers – the city of Merv or those singly, in isolated rural settings as medieval manor houses, their remains can be seen in different parts of the oasis.

The enclosure with interval towers constructed in 778 CE outside of Merv city encompassed a large area with several substantial vaulted building complexes. The action is connected to the governor of Sultan Kala – Tahir b. al-Husayn (3rd city of Merv) appointed in 821 CE, who constructed a large number of buildings along Khormuzfarra canal coming from Murghab river. The suggestion is that Great Kyz Kala was one of these buildings and his suburban residence. The recent archeological works supports the supposed date of construction 9th century and the location of the complex to the east from the canal. Perhaps there have been plans also to move the administrative centre from the bustling center of Sultan Kala but textual sources or archeological works do not prove it so far. However, the previous movement of Merv in this direction, from Erk Kala, Gyaur Kala to Sultan Kala (and extension of the Sultan Kala) makes it logical to suggest the urbanization in the area as further development of the city.

The Great Kyz Kala is lying about 450 m to the west of the Sultan Kala. The solid rectangular platform 2 m high, with exterior dimensions 46.52 X 36.20 m, supporting two-storey building ranges around an off-centre courtyard in the north of the colplex. The ground floor had a complex of interconnecting vaulted rooms, acting as a crypto-portico to support the second storey. The height of the building with platform is 12 m in total (what survived till 2017). The interior measurement of 38.55 X 32.10 m.

The interior of the platform appear to have been largely composed of rammed earth. The external platform face was constructed of mud-brick. It is tiered near the top and then sloped with a fair faced brickwork, to form a glacis, extending some 2 m from the base of the exterior wall. The platform protected the raised ground floor from damp, and supported both the ground and external walls. The raised height of the platform enabled the structure to stand above the surrounding plain, increasing its visual impact and enhancing the defensive aspects of the complex.

The exterior walls are impressive by its massive engaged columns forming the distinctive corrugations. The north and west walls are the most eroded, although enough remained to indicate the original position of the corrugation. The east and south sides, being protected from the prevailing winds, survive in remarkably good condition. There were 22 corrugations on the longest east and west facades and 18 corrugations on the shorter north and south sides of the complex. Each corrugation is half octagonal in plan with a diameter of circa 1.30 m. They rise from a tapered base, set in the platform. The tops of the walls are more conjectural, as the uppermost levels have disappeared. Some form of the crenellated parapet is likely but the precise form of these is unknown. Archeological evidence on the upper corners suggests that there may have been wooden tower at the corners of the complex.

The lower storey had a courtyard, surrounded by vaulted spaces. A staircase descending from the second floor level in the northwest corner connects the courtyard. The base of these steps gives a good indication of the original courtyard level, although these have been modified during later use of the courtyard. A central well or cistern would have provided an important central rainwater catchment, drainage feature. The courtyard clearly has a complex history. A sequence of surfaces, drains… in the courtyard area were probably part of later reuse of the complex. The courtyard appears to have been in-filled with collapse and erosion deposits, presumably after the abandonment of the structure. Some much later, once the building complex was ruined, was also evident and is post medieval in date.

The courtyard surrounded by an extensive network of mudbrick barrel-vaulted spaces, which created a platform for the second storey. These effectively functioned as a crypto-portico, well known in Late Antique and Islamic contexts, designed to provide a stable platform for the main building level without requiring massive retaining walls and huge volumes of earthen platform. These vaulted spaces need not have functioned as rooms, as they are primarily designed to create voided spaces to support the upper storey. However, the downward angled window slits in the exterior walls would have brought some light and ventilation into the spaces closest to the exterior, perhaps suggesting that the spaces were indended to be used. Those towards the perimeter would be quite dark and cool – perhaps for storage- while those around the courtyard would have had light from the arched doorways in to the courtyard and could have served a range of domestic functions.

The upper storey comprised substantial building ranges on all four sides of the complex, around the void created by the lower storey courtyard. The largest range lay to the south, with a smaller northern range and roughly equally sized west and east ranges. Along three of the ranges a galleried access space overlooked the light well.

Floor surfaces survive in the south of the complex, where collapse of the large room (18) produced sufficient material to protect them from later erosion. In the central and northern areas, erosion washed debris into the lower courtyard, and through the collapse in the northern and eastern exterior walls, destroying most of the second storey floor surfaces.

The west range of rooms (1-5), had rooms that were internally circa 5.5 m wide (east-west), while different in size south- north. First room in the row has traces of a barrel-vaulted roof and an area of square mud-brick flooring survived, with a doorway in the north wall leading to the second room. Next two rooms were domed, with squinches supporting a series of concentric arches. Following two rooms (4-5) were roofed with tall vaults, rising from brick stringcourses. The large and rectangular fourth room supposed had around 5.6 m in height and had a decoration panel of a series of blind arches, with a niche bellow.

The north range of rooms (6-8) is relatively narrow 3.5 m wide, with internal staircases at the western end, led down to the lower storey courtyard, while the other end led up presumably to the roof access. Little survived of other part of the range due to erosion.

The east range of rooms (9-13) is around 5.5 m wide. First two rooms were both barrel vaulted, aligned east west. All rooms (except the last one of the range) are roughly equal in size. The last room is the largest in this range has been extensively damaged by erosion. No interior decoration survived in this range due to erosion.

The south range of rooms (14-18) is the most substantial on second storey level . A very large hall (18) ran all the width of the building, around 32 m internally. The hall had thicker walls, suggesting a larger superstructure – an arched/ vaulted space given its scale. A well-made mud-brick floor survived over a large area. Doorways existed to the 3 rooms to the north (14-16) and the corridor (17). Eroded apertures at the west and east ends may suggest the windows at each end of the hall. There is evidence of later reuse of this space, with new walls inserted to divide the space and an area of raised flooring, doorways to the rooms 14-16 were blocked.

The well-made mudbrick floors of rooms 14-17 were on the same level with western range of rooms. Room 16 had an entrance onto the gallery in the center, between the west-south-east ranges. Room 15 perhaps formed an iwan with the gallery. Room 14 badly eroded as to suggest the existence of doorway onto the gallery to the north. Room 17 was a corridor connecting gallery and the large hall 18.

The gallery in the center between the ranges overlooked the light well created by the ground floor courtyard. All area is too eroded to suggest whether this space was roofed or open. However, this provided vital circulation space within the complex, creating access between the rooms and from the second storey to the ground floor or roof via staircases in the north range, room 6.

The entrance into the building – there are different suggestions where was the entrance, through the western wall, north side or east entrance. The most popular is that entrance was directly up to the second storey, what require access ramp at least 5 m or more (platform is 2 m and lower storey 3 m high), that makes it is less plausible. Given the recent archeological data the entrance could be in the east fa?ade above the skirt of the platform or lower part of the corrugations. This based on the discovery of four mudbrick pillars along the northern part of the eastern fa?ade and mudbrick wall some 2 m to the east of the base of the skirt, running parallel the fa?ade. Perhaps the wall and the pillars supported a timber ramp running along the wall from the north. Some 18 m to the east of the fa?ade, at the same point as suggested entrance, lies a substantial mound, perhaps suggesting an outbuilding aligned with the entrance. A fired brick step has been inserted into the skirt suggestive of an entrance at this point. Entrance at this location would have entered the complex through the largest room 13 on the second storey, which had ample space to accommodate an internal stairs and may also have acted as an antechamber to the great hall (18) at its left.

It is worth to mention that Great Kyz Kala lay within a walled enclosure. The wall, 2 m thick, with interval towers around 3.2 m in diameter, has been uncovered some 6 m from the complex along north west side. A substantial mound 18 m to the east indicate other structures in close proximity and perhaps associated with the complex, and Lesser Kyz Kala koshk lies some 140 m to the south. The ancient canal Khormuzfarra ran immediately to the west of the Great Gyz kala complex, enabling good access to clean water and providing a verdant surrounding to the complex.

Koshks castles were not fully-fledged fortresses, lacking arrow slits and with walls weakened by windows in the upper storey. They were not meant to withstand a full-scale siege, but much like medieval fortified manor houses in the west, they provided a strong degree of security from raids, with an impenetrable lower storey, raised access, probable corner towers and an outer compound wall.

While the lower storey of the complex was clearly a functional space, with the well in the courtyard and the vaulted rooms perhaps used for storage and domestic functions. The upper storey was a more palatial space, with a series of impressive rooms providing reception spaces, bed chambers and other rooms around the galleried central light well.

The external appearance of the monument would have been impressive. The largest koshk in the region, would have stood at least 12 m above the flat alluvial landscape, with its massive corrugated fa?ade, sitting on the raised platform, dominating it with an air of monumentality.