The official closing ceremony for the Turkmen-American project for restoration and conservation of the Greater Gyz Gala took place in Ancient Merv State Historical and Cultural Park on 16th May. The Greater Gyz Gala is a striking monument that has become a signature site of the largest archaeological park in the country. Its architecture is mostly known for the massive corrugated walls, ridges tightly pinned against each other to form straight lines on each of four facades. Despite being made of fragile mud bricks, the walls remained well preserved, and are now conservated.
The project ran for five years and was funded by the major grant awarded for the first time in Turkmenistan under the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, the International Program administered by the U.S. Department of State. The National Department for Protection, Research and Restoration of Historical and Cultural Monuments filed the application in 2011 and won the grant surpassing similar government structures of Vietnam, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Mexico, Paraguay, Tanzania, Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Ecuador.
Since 2001, restoration works were completed at such renowned monuments as the Seyit Jemaletdin Mosque in Anau; the Meana Baba Mausoleum in Kaka district of Ahal province; the Sultan Tekesh and Najmeddin Kubra Mausoleums in Kone Urgench; the Ak saray ding and Ismamut Ata complex in Gorogly district of Dashoguz province; Gonur Depe, the grouping of palaces and temples, in Mary province; famous monuments of Mashad Ata and Juma Mosque of Khorezmshakh Muhammed II in Dehistan, Balkan province. Restoration works continue at the Dayahatyn Caravanserai in Lebap province. All these sites had fallen into disrepair and were supported by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund that actually opened up a new contemporary avenue for them in the beginning of the 21st century.
Given the fact that the Greater Gyz Gala is inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List, turkmen specialists worked here in close collaboration with foreign colleagues, namely representatives of the Insitute of Archaeology of the University College London (UK), the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw (Poland) and experts from the International Center on Earthen Architecture (CRAterre) of the Grenoble School of Architecture (France).
In the first phase, archives and project documentation related to restoration of this monument in the past were collected and assembled. Detailed fixation of the invaluable original was achieved thanks to modern technology; project estimates and design documentation for conservation and restoration works were developed.
In the second phase, melted areas of mud walls inside and around the monument were removed, allowing the specialists to conduct a better study of its structure. Archaeological excavations were carried out, and vital information was obtained about the layout of the ground floor of the castle that remained concealed for centuries beneath the collapsed floors. The most unexpected for the researchers was the discovery of the outer fortress wall with corner towers. It occupied a plot of several hectares with the building itself located in the center. That is to say the castle was well-protected which highlights its special status.
Finally, in the third phase of the project, the restorers began the reinforcement and restoration of damaged sections of the remaining walls, foundation to top, 15 meters in height along the whole perimeter of the monument. At the same time, with 3D technology, a computer model of the possible original appearance of the fortress was created based on the vast practical materials obtained. The grounds for this hypothesis are created by a single historical source, the famous Anikov dish conserved at the State Hermitage in Saint-Petersburg, and its less renowned twin, the so-called Nildin dish molded from silver and covered with gilt, both pieces made in Central Asian craft shops in the 8th or early 9th century. This magnificent example of ancient toreutics depicts a corrugated castle under attack that looks much like Gyz Gala.
In the final phase of the work that will be conducted outside the project, tourist infrastructure will be improved primarily to alleviate the negative effects of visitor flows on fragile adobe walls.
Thanks to this project, it became possible to specify the age of the Greater Gyz Gala. The fortress was built over a thousand years ago, in the late 8th or early 9th century when Merv, then part of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate, was considered one of the most enlightened cities of the Islamic world. In that period Abdullah al-Mamun, the son of the famous caliph, Harun al-Rashid, was the governor of Khorasan. In 813 Al-Mamun, who rose to fame as an astronomer, became a calip but resided in Merv long after that. Historians point out that back in that period the city, in fact, played the role of the caliphate’s capital, as orders and appointments affecting the whole Arab Empire were made there until the new caliph moved to Baghdad.
The dimensions of the Greater Gyz Gala, its careful architectural design and reliable fortification allow us to assume that this was more than a wealthy local aristocrat’s estate, rather a government residence of a caliph or sultans who reigned afterwards.
It is possible to assert only that these gray walls witnessed the events of a whole millennium. They saw Arab cavalry when Turkmens converted to a new religion, Islam. They saw armies of Great Seljuks, from Togrulbek to Sultan Sanjar as they set off on their journey to conquer the world from here. They survived the Mongol invasion when nearly all of Merv was destroyed. And they continued to silently witness the blossom and decay of kingdom and flow of trade caravans along the Great Silk Road.
Vast archaeological materias obtained in the course of the current excavations offer evidence that the castle was used for quite a long time, for several generations, was renovated and rebuilt repeatedly. Along with numerous ceramic materials, bronze ware was discovered in the cultural layer of the Greater Gyz Gala. Arabic coins decorated with calligraphic, angular Kufic handwriting, the Abbaside dirhams of 8-9th century, signet rings, jewelry and fine sculptures are among items of special interest.
One of the rarest findings is a cosmetic spatula or earwig almost 8 cm in length, made in the form of a relief image of the goddess of water and fertility. This item is certainly a rarest example of early medieval toreutics, the art of processing relief images on metal. In Margiana, such iconographic type is known for numerous terracotta statues and has deep local roots. It traces back to the first millennium BC and to the early Middle Ages. However it is for the first time in Turkmenistan’s archaeology that the bronze version of the iconic canonical plastic of such type is discovered.
The samples of expensive glazed tableware with Kufic inscriptions and terracotta statues found during archaeologic excavations at Gyz Gala are of undoubted museum value. The newly discovered evidence provides an incentive for the further study of this and other unique buildings of Ancient Merv.
The closing ceremony for the project that took place by the Greater Gyz Gala was attended by the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to Turkmenistan, Allan Mustard, and staff of the U.S. Embassy, representatives of the Ministry of Culture and administration of Mary province, scientists and journalists.
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