MARY, TURKMENISTAN – Over four millenniums ago, the fortress town of Gonur-Tepe might have been a rare advanced civilization before it was buried for centuries under the dust of the Kara Kum Desert in remote western Turkmenistan.
After being uncovered by Soviet archaeologists in the last century, Gonur-Tepe, once home to thousands of people and the center of a thriving region, is gradually revealing its mysteries, with new artifacts being uncovered during every summer dig.
The scale of the huge complex, which spans some 30 hectares, can only be properly appreciated from the air, from where the former buildings look like a maze in the desert surrounded by vast walls.
Just 50 km from the celebrated ancient city of Merv, outside the modern city of Mary, the ruins of Gonur-Tepe are an indication of the archaeological riches of Turkmenistan, one of the most isolated countries in the world.
Around 2000 B.C., Gonur-Tepe was the main settlement of the Margush or Margiana region, which was home to one of the most sophisticated, but little-known, Bronze Age civilizations.
The site — which until the last century was covered by desert and scrub — was uncovered in Soviet times by the celebrated archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi who, at age 84, is about to spend another summer working on the site.
“I remember so well my joy when I first encountered this archaeological Klondike — a sensation right under your feet,” the Russian professor said.
Every digging season at Gonur-Tepe yields new discoveries showing the quality of the craftsmanship of the Bronze Age artisans in the town, which at the time would likely have been home to thousands of residents. Its craftsmen could mold metal, make silver and gold trinkets, create materials for cult worship and carve bone and stone.
“It’s amazing to what extent the people possessed advanced techniques. The craftsmen learned how to change the form of natural stone at a high temperature and then glazed it so that it was preserved,” said archaeologist Nadezhda Dubova.
“This year, Gonur has given us another surprise — a fantastic mosaic,” she said, noting that such an object predated the standard era of mosaic-making in Greek and Roman antiquity.
The ruins of Gonur-Tepe are the centerpiece of a network of towns and settlements in the delta region of the Morghab River that flows through Turkmenistan from its source in Afghanistan.
Gonur-Tepe is a three-hour drive from the provincial center of Mary — two hours along a bumpy asphalt road that passes former collective farms that have fallen into disuse, and then another hourlong slog through the desert scrub.
Mary, 380 km from the country’s capital, Ashgabat, is a typical Turkmen provincial city, home to 200,000 people and largely built in the Soviet style with a railway connection and low-rise apartment buildings.
Some 30 km outside Mary lies the other great glory of the region: the great ruined city of Merv, whose importance stretches back to the time of the Achaemenid Persians and reached a peak under Turkic rule in the 12th century.
Merv went into terminal decline after it was sacked by the Mongols in 1221 in a deadly conquest that left tens of thousands dead. Its ruins are as deserted as those of Gonur-Tepe. Its greatest treasure is the still preserved mausoleum of the Seljuk Sultan Sanjar, under whose rule Merv was a thriving city of 200,000 people and briefly one of the most heavily populated settlements in the world.
The mausoleum, crowned by a cupola with a diameter of more than 17 meters, was revolutionary in its design, according to Turkmen architectural historian Ruslan Muradov.
The design of the dome “anticipates by 300 years the ideas of the great Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi” who designed the celebrated dome of the cathedral in Florence, Italy, he said.
Unlike the ruins of Gonur-Tepe, ancient Merv was excavated as far back as Czarist times, when today’s Turkmenistan was a far-flung outpost of the Russian Empire. It has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1999.
Archaeologists have only just begun to scratch the surface of the huge riches of the area around Mary, said Viktor Turik, a historian who works at the city’s history museum.
“In the region there are 354 archaeological monuments, 95 percent of which have, until now, not been studied by experts,” he said.
Turkmenistan remains one of the most isolated countries in the world but still sees a trickle of foreign tourists every year, mostly on organized special-interest tours.
Mary has just three hotels, although Turkmen President Gurbanguli Berdymukhammedov has recently ordered the construction of a new 350-bed hotel in the city in an apparent bid to boost tourism.
Meanwhile, the question remains about what to do with the extraordinary silver and gold artifacts that are being unearthed in the region, but which need painstaking restoration and conservation.
An employee of Turkmenistan’s national heritage department, who asked not to be named, said a joint project had been mooted with the antiquities department of the Louvre in Paris, but had fallen through.
“Many unique discoveries which are like nothing in the world are waiting their moments in the storage departments of Turkmen museums,” said the employee.