Mary (pop. 95,000) is an oasis and cotton-growing center on the Murghab River. According to tradition, the region around Mary was the original Paradise, though it hardly resembles paradise today. The main (and perhaps only) reason to go to Mary is to see the nearby ruins of ancient Merv. The archaeological site covers a huge area and several different periods. Dating back 4,000 years, it's one of the oldest Silk Road cities and the best historical site in Turkmenistan. Highlights include the impressive 12th-century mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, the Ark (citadel) and several sections of the ancient walls. We recommend you hire a guide when visiting the site.
Before or after you visit Merv, be sure to stop by the Historical Museum in Mary, which has a nice model of Merv and artifacts found there. Mary's Hame-dani Mosque is also interesting, and there's a Sunday market on the edge of town, with lots of carpets. 190 mi/300 km east of Ashgabat.
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