Central Asia in the Early Middle Ages,
Introduction to the history of the regions

1. Northern Khorasan

(p. 16, 18, 26-27, 29 of Chapter 1, "Severnyj Khorasan", G. Koshelenko, V. Gaibov,  A. Gubaev)

During the early Middle Ages the territory of souther Turkmenistan was part of the Sassanian state, which also included Iran and Mesopotamia. Only towards the end of that period did southern Turkmenistan fall under the Arabs. The Arab invasion here hapenned in the mid-VII c., much earlier than in the other parts of Central Asia, and this region with its largest town - Merv, became the spring-board for the further Arab conquests.


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At the time of the Sassanians the whole state was divided in four principal regions. One of them was called Khorasan. It incorporated the modern north-eastern Iran and southern Turkmenistan. The position of its eastern frintier was dependent on the Sassanian military fortunes: at its highest extent it included the towns of Balkh and Bukhara [Kolesnikov, 1970. p. 95]. Khorasan was governed by a Sassanian deputy called spakhbed and the Khorasanian provinces within modern southern Turkmenistan were: Merv, Merverud, Badgis, and Serakhs. It is difficult to determine whether the western part of the northern fore-mountains of the Kopetdag chain were part of Khorasan. It is certain that the westernmost parts - the district of Gurgan, was within the "northern possession" and was part of the province of Gurgan [Gyselen, 1989. p. 84]. The districts to the east (starting from Ashkhabad up to the modern town of Kaakhka) were parts of the provinces of Abavard and Shakhr-Ram-Peroz [Gyselen, 1989, p. 84] and were somehow connected to Abarshakr (the region of Nishapur). Thus they could have been within the "eastern possession", that is - of Khorasan. In any case, at the time of the Arab invasion the town of Nissa (the modern ruins of Novaja Nissa near the village of Bagir) was within Khorasan [Bartol'd, 1965. p. 127]. Abavard (Abiverd) was a centre of a province bearing the same name, which corresponded to the Parthian Apavarktikene.

Merv, as a rule, was the capital of whole of Khorasan, although under extreme circumstances the ruler moved to other towns.

Main political events

During the first centuries AD the oasis of Merv and the belt below the Kopetdag mountains were part of the Parthian state, but enjoyed a wide autonomy. Merv and the eastern part of the belt were included in the vassal kingdom of Merv which was ruled by its own dynasty (the dynasty was it seems one of the side branches of the house of the Arsacides) [Koshelenko, 1966. p. 67 etc; Pilipko, 1980] The western part of the belt below Kopetdag was, apparently, within another vassal kingdom – that of Hyrcania. After the demise of the Arsacides and the rise of the Persian dynasty of the Sassanides, Merv and the belt came under their authority. This happened during the reign of Ardashir I, at the time of his big campaign to the east [Frye, 1984]. Some researchers think that immediately after the end of the Parthians Merv was captured by the Kushans and that this was exactly the reason for the Ardashir’s I campaign [Bivar, 1991. pp. 7-8]. The rock inscription at Naksh-Rustam lists one Ardashir, a king of Merv [Frye, 1984. p. 372]. However, Merv lost its autonomy at the time of Shapur I and became an ordinary administrative unit within the Sassanian state. It is quite possible that for some period of time Merv had a Kushan deputy. It is known that some Kushano-Sassanian coins have been struck at the mint of Merv [Carter, 1990]. There is no reliable data about the status within the Sassanian state of the belt below the mountains.

Map 1. Northern Khorasan.

a - large town; b - small towns; c - middle-sized towns; d - cult sites; e - depes; f - castles and fortresses; g - mounds; h - wall around the oasis, i - the ancient river bed of the tiver Murghab.

1. Gajurkala/Erkkala, 2. Chilburdzh, 3. Kharoba-Koshuk, 4. Due-Choken, 5. Topdepe, 6. Munondepe, 7. Atlidepe, 8. Gebeklidepe, 9. Chaglidepe, 10. Durnali, 11. Kojne Kishman, 12. Uli Kishman. 13. Kurtli, 14. Gechigran, 15. Abajdzhosh. 16. odinchidepe, 17. Akchadepe, 18. Bajramalnecropolis;

Merv became one of the pillars of the Sassanian rule in the East and its ruler acquired the title of marzban [Kolesnikov, 1970. p. 95 etc.]. However, from time to time Merv felt the pressure of the invaders from the east. These periods are marked by the absence of coinage there. Merv played a special part in the destiny of the last Sassanian Shakh Yazdigerd II. The oasis of Merv was his last refuge at the time of the Arabs invasions and he met his death there in 651 AD [Kolesnikov, 1982. pp. 131-146]. The tale of his murder is unclear, there were many participants in the political struggles (the Shakh himself with his entourage, the Merv marzban Makhuje, the inhabitants of the city, the Tjurks from beyond Amu Darja who were called by either Yazdigerd or by Makhuje, the Arabs). The historical sources differ very much in the details.

Little changed in the public life and culture of the local population during the first decades after the coming of the Arabs. Only in the IX c. did serious changes take place. The Old Town (the ruins of Gjaurkala) was abandoned and the now residences moved to the west (the modern ruin of Sultankala).


The religious situation in Merv during the Sassanian period was quite complicated. Initially, there was dominant some form of Zoroastianism. It is attested by the burials in ossuaries from the Parthian period [Koshelenko, Orazov, 1965]. The custom was quite widely spread in the following period as well [Ershov, 1959; Koshelenko, Desjatchikov, 1966; Obel'chenko, 1972; Susenkova, 1972; Dresvjanskaja, 1989] and this confirms the presence of the Sassanian state religion. At the end of the Sassanian period the last "king of the kings" transferred to Merv one of the "great fires" of the Zoroastrianism, which was taken from Rayy (the ancient town of Ragi) [Kolesnikov, 1982. p. 132].

The end of the Parthian period witnessed the spread of Buddhism in Merv [Koshelenko, 1966]. A stupa with a sangrama was found at the south-eastern corner of the ruins of Gjaurkala. One more stupa - to the east, outside the town walls [Pugachenkova, Usmanova, 1994; Pugachenkova, Usmanova, 1995; Rtveladze, 1974]. Although the Buddhist artefacts discovered in Merv are not older than the IV c. AD, the Chinese Buddhist traditions attest that as early as the II c. AD the Buddhism played a significant part in the people's life and that the Buddhist commune included representatives of various classes (tradesmen, members of the ruling elite) [Koshelenko, Gaibov, Bader A., 1994]. We can assume that Buddhism kept its influence until the end of the Sassanian period.

Christianity began to spread in Merv in the III c. AD [Bader A., Gaibov, Koshelenko, 1996; Bader A., Gaibov, Koshelenko, 1995]. Very soon the Christian church there played a significant role in the region. Merv became the starting point for the Christian missionaries going to the east, all the way to China. The bishop of Merv acquired the rank of Metropolitan and participated in the Synods of the Nestorian (Eastern) Church, taking sometimes decisive part in the complicated debates on the church policy [Drevnij Merv ..., 1994, p. 76-80]. The written sources speak about the existence of a number of churches within the oasis, and of monasteries - at its outskirts. Archeologically is attested only one of them - Kharoba-Koshuk, and it is identified as a church [Pugachenkova, 1954]. A significant part of the buried in the Merv necropolis were Christians [Drsvjanskaja, 1968; Usmanova, 1993. p. 30-31]. Artefacts pertaining to the Christian cult have been repeatedly found in Gjaurkala. The most important evidence about the special role of Christianity in Merv are the locally minted coins bearing the sign of the cross on the reverse [Loginov, Nikitin, 1993c. p. 271-272]. The last Sassanian shakh was also buried in a special construction within the garden of the Metropolian [Kolesnikov, 1982. p. 139-141]. At the time of the Arab invasions the Merv Metropolian was Iliah - one of the greatest figures of the Eastern Church, who was called "The Apostle of the Tjurks" [Drevnij Merv..., 1994, p. 95-96].

In the second half of the III c. AD Merv became one of the main centres of a new religion - the Manichaeanism [Drevnij Merv..., 1994, p. 46- ]. After the execution of its creator Mani and the start of massive persecutions against it, many of its followers and church leaders fled to the east. For a certain period of time Merv was the residence of the Mani's successor. However, this religion is mentioned only in the written sources and it is not be attested archaeologically.

In the fore-mountains the religious situation was much simpler. The presence of two Zoroastrian temples and the lack of any hints to other religions makes us believe that this region remain Zoroastrian through the whole period. We have no data about the religious situation in the oasis of Serakhs.

Burial customs

Only one necropolis near Merv has been investigated until now. It appeared during the Parthian period. There were several buildings (burial vaults) where the deceased were put in graves surrounded by unbaked or baked bricks. A little bit later the deceased started to be put directly on the floor. This practice continued till the early Sassanian times (probably till the IV c. AD inclusive). Later, probably starting from the V c. AD, there was a shift to burial in ossuaries. The cleaned from the flesh bones of the deceased were placed in specially prepared ossuaries, made of baked clay, or in common big clay vessels. These were either stored in the still preserved buildings or buried in the ground. At the very end of the period in question the custom of inhumation was also introduced, with the deceased buried in the ruins of the former buildings, which had already become hillocks.

Usually, the burials in ossuarias are assumed to be Zoroastrian. One of the three ossuarias, discovered by S.A. Ershov, however, contain Jewish inscriptions [Dresvjanskaja, 1989, p. 157].


Two manuscripts have been found in the Buddhist monuments of Merv. One of them comes from the destructed stupa outside of Gjaurkala and consists of two parts, composed and written in different styles. It contains three Buddhist texts in Brahmi. The second manuscript (from the stupa in the ruins) is also in Brahmi and has not been restored and investigated until now. Their proposed dates are V-VI c. AD.

Various ostracons have been found in the early Sassanian (III-IV cc.) layers. Most of them contain personal names. They were written in Parthian script and Parthian language, which indicated that the population of the oasis spoke Parthian until at least the IV c. AD [Livshic, Nikitin, 1989].

The Parthian language was used in Merv also at the beginning of the Sassanian period. A vessel from Erkkale, dated to the II-III cc. bears the inscription: "Property of Pakur, son of Isa". V.A. Livshic pointed out that the father has the typical Jewish name of Isa (i.e. Joseph) [Livshic, 1990. p. 37]. An ostracon from the IV or the V c. AD also bears an inscription in Parthian [Livshic, 1990. p. 37-38]. Later, however, the things changed and towards the end of the Sassanian period the population switched to middle-Persian language. The Buddhist complex at Gjaurkala yielded 18 ostracons in middle-Persian dated to the VI-VII cc. AD. All names are Iranian and could belong to Zoroastrians [Nikitin, 1992; 1993. p. 191-192]. The same place also yielded a fragment of a clay vessel with the image of a man and a short inscription in Aramaic script [Pugachenkova, Usmanova, 1995. p. 72], but Livshic thinks the text is in Sogdian [Livshic, 1990. p. 38].

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