The history of Turkmenistan is deeply intertwined with ancient exchange routes and dynamic imperial boundaries. The shifting desert sands saw cities rise and erode back into sand, they witnessed the advance of armies from Alexander to the Soviets, and they watched the ebb and flow of camel caravans stretching into the rippling horizon. The vast Kyzylkum Desert represented the most formidable obstacle for caravan merchants as they crossed the routes of the ancient Silk Road. The rich oases and river valleys that cut up the Kopet Dag Mountains provided the grain and fodder that the cities of the Namazga people relied on, they fueled the construction of the Bactrian Empire, and fed the camels that connected Asia through commerce. The archaeologist Philip Kohl referred to the region of southern Turkmenistan as the little Central Asian Mesopotamia, because some of the earliest farming villages outside the Fertile Crescent existed in this region. Likewise, some of the earliest urban centers and empires in the world developed in the oases along the northern boundaries of the Iranian Plateau. Archaeological sites, such as Djeitun and Anau, have provided archaeologists with the clues necessary to trace farming communities into the mountains of Central Asia and further east.
The ruins of many of the greatest cities of the ancient world still stand in the deserts of Central Asia, a vast museum unlike anything you will ever encounter in Europe or the Americas. The desiccated ruins of Gonur Depe represent one of the earliest cities in Central Asia. The city was occupied between 2400-1600B.C. by people in the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex. The BMAC represents a vast empire of people that archaeologist know little about; they constructed impressive irrigation systems to water fields of crops on the edges of expansive deserts and produced art and engaged in long-distance commerce. At the same time that northern Europeans were living in small villages and living a largely subsistence life, people in ancient Turkmenistan were building empires. These cities were eventually lost to the desert and abandoned, where they stood largely undisturbed until today.
About 60 km south of Gonur Depe, the medieval ruins of Merv also rest undisturbed in the desert. Merv is sometimes referred to as the Queen of Cities and, by some estimates, was the largest city in the world for a brief moment in time. It was the last entrepôt as camel caravans set out to cross the parched Kara Kum and the southern hub of the Silk Road. The caravanserai of the Silk Road still sit out in the deserts of Turkmenistan and the routes of these ancient traders can be traced today. The Silk Road was the greatest exchange route of the ancient world and it directly shaped the course of human history. It brought technology, including agricultural crops from East Asian into southwest Asia and eventually to Europe, and vice versa. In doing so, it formed the cuisines of Eurasia, allowed for more elaborate crop-rotation cycles, and provided the grain surplus that all the empires of the ancient world were built on. As I note in my book, Fruit from the Sands, the greatest legacies of the ancient Silk Road rest in your kitchens today. When you visit Turkmenistan, make sure to taste the fresh melons and grapes, as well as the dried apricots, raisins, and nuts. Many of these fruits and nuts represent ancient legacy varieties. The sands of Turkmenistan have preserved six millennia of human history and you can still travel through a living museum today.
For more information on the ways that the Silk Road shaped the world around you, read Fruits from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat or visit my website at robertnspengler.com. I hope you enjoy your journey along the ancient Silk Road.
Author Bio: Robert N. Spengler III, PhD, Paleoethnobotany Laboratories Director – Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Kahlaische Str. 10, 07745 Jena, Germany. Primary Investigator on the European Research Counsel funded project FEDD (Fruits of Eurasia: Domestication and Dispersal).
Current Research Focus: My research feeds into a broad understanding of human/environmental interactions and links between the intensification of agriculture and the emergence of complex social traits. Additionally, I am investigating the role of gene flow through seed dispersal as a driving force in plant domestication; specifically, how the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna effected seed dispersal in crops. Methodologically, I rely heavily on macrobotanical remains, but also have experience with pollen and phytoliths. I have directed paleoethnobotanical studies across Asia, from Mongolia in the northeast to Turkmenistan in the southwest, as well as East Asia, Europe, and North America.