Parthian Fortresses of Ancient Nisa

Ancient Nisa is one of the cradles of human culture located in the territory of modern Turkmenistan. It is a source of fascination for historians, archeologists, and numerous travelers alike. In 2007, the fortresses of the Nisa State Historical and Cultural Reserve were included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

At the foot of the Kopet-Dag mountains, 18 km west of Ashgabat, in the territory of Bagir village, the ruins of ancient fortresses are looming. They are all that is left of the city of Nisa, the capital of the ancient Parthian Empire, mentioned by ancient and medieval authors. Nisa had a vast suburb surrounded by a berm. And just like modern-day Bagir, Nisa was an oasis of greenery: it was dotted by homes of the nobility surrounded by gardens and vineyards.

Scientific evidence shows that the city of Nisa existed from the first millennium BC to the first millennium AD. The ruins of the ancient city consist of two fortresses: New Nisa, a Parthian city in the valley, and Old Nisa, an imperial fortress on the hill.

Old Nisa was home to palaces and temples, as well as to a treasure-house, a huge wine depositary, and warehouses crammed with various supplies. The city walls were 8–9 m thick at the base and were equipped with 43 rectangular towers.

The Heart of the Parthian Empire

During the first millennium BC, the area surrounding modern-day Ashgabat, was part of Parthia, the land of Parthians. Parthia is first mentioned in the Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrianism. Parthia is also mentioned in the Behistun Inscription made by Darius I Hystaspes, King of Persia (6th century BC); at the time, it was one of the tax-paying provinces — satrapies of the powerful Achaemenid Empire.

In the 4th century BC, Parthia became part of Alexander the Great’s Empire, and, shortly after his death, was overtaken by the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire. The middle of the 3d century BC was marked by uprisings of various peoples of Central Asia against Greek rule, which resulted in their separation from the Seleucid Empire. Parthia was at the heart of one of such uprisings led by Arsaces and his brother Tiridates. The leaders of the uprising built a coalition of local tribes and ethnic groups and founded an independent Parthian kingdom. For about four and a half centuries, it was ruled by a dynasty which called itself the Arsacid dynasty after its founder. According to historical sources, Arsaces, the founder of the dynasty, was idolized by his descendants.

Under Arsacid rule, Nisa flourished and grew rapidly. It was no longer a settlement but the main city of Parthia, the family seat of the reigning dynasty. In the 2nd−1st centuries BC, the Parthian Empire enjoyed brilliant military victories and huge political influence. Under Mithridates II, the Parthian Empire stretched all the way to Siria in the west and India in the east. Parthia was a powerful and worthy adversary of Rome.

The cradle of the Parthian kings’ might, Parthia and Nisa remained special to them. Members of the dynasty were buried there; under Mithridates I (171–138 BC), an imperial fortress, the remnants of which are known as Old Nisa today, was erected just outside the city (but not within its limits). One of the documents discovered during excavations mentions the ancient name of the fortress — Mithridatokert.

The imperial fortress was built on a natural hill; its walls were made of rammed earth (pise), and the most advanced technologies of the time were used in its construction. At its height, Mithridatokert was unapproachable, protecting the Parthian kings both against assaults of external enemies and uprisals of their own subjects. The fortress housed numerous buildings, so the reigning dynasty lived a life of luxury and comfort even in turbulent times.

The Arsacid dynasty cultivated Greek habits and fashions at their court; they even had coins engraved with the title “philhellene” (an admirer of Hellenic). Archeological finds in the northern complex of Old Nisa include items which were evidently brought from afar, such as splendid marble statues representing the Eastern Hellenistic school of the 2nd century BC.

Although the Parthian rulers eventually moved the capital to Asia Minor, Old Nisa continued to enjoy its special status: it was the resting place of the members of the reigning Arsacid dynasty, and during big holidays the kings came to Nisa to offer a sacrifice.

The Parthian Empire came to an end in 226 AD. Ardashir, the Arsacid dynasty’s governor, founded a new state ruled by the Sasanian dynasty. In an attempt to erase any memories about the Parthian rulers, he ordered the destruction of Old Nisa. The family seat of the Arsacid dynasty was ransacked and virtually turned into a ruin. Yet, some items were left behind, lost or dumped by the looters, and these meager remnants bear witness to the diversity and value of tangible heritage.

The Breadbasket of Khorasan

Ruined Nisa came back to life centuries later, in 651, after it had become part of the Islamic Caliphate. Yet, the fortress city never reclaimed its former glory.

In the 10th century, the city was seized by the Samanid dynasty. In 992 Samanid ruler Nuh II gave Nisa to the emir of Gurganj as a gift. In 996 the city was overtaken by Mamun, the ruler of Khoresm.

Medieval Nisa was the main city of a region of the same name, which was described by 10th-century Arab geographers as the breadbasket of Khorasan. It was particularly rich in cereal crops. In the Middle Ages, the city and villages were surrounded by kitchen gardens; Nisa was known for its aubergines. Apart from cereals and vegetables, Nisa was also famous for crafts. Most of the craft workshops were located in the suburb (raba), which was surrounded by a wall. Mass-produced creations of Nisa artisans demonstrate their formidable craftsmanship. They made beautiful pottery: bowls, serving platters, and jugs painted in bright colors and decorated with various motifs, often featuring birds. Colorful glass containers, which were mostly used to hold perfumes and medicines, are very thin and gracefully shaped. Items made from bronze were decorated with engravings. Nisa also produced cotton and silk fabrics, which were exported to faraway lands.

In 1017 the Ghaznavid dynasty took possession of Nisa. In 1035 the city became part of the Seljuk Sultanate. During the reign of the Seljuks, there was a vast cemetery with a suburban mosque (namazgâh) in the Kopet-Dag foothills. The city itself was fortified. Powerful ramparts crowned by numerous towers were built on the crests of the former Parthian earthen walls. According to historian Nesevi, a native of Nisa (early 13th century), “Nisa was one of the most remarkable fortresses built on a hill. One of the things that made it special was its sheer size; it could accommodate many people: every resident of the city, whether rich or poor, had a house in it. At its heart, there was another fortress for the rulers, overlooking the first one, and water flew from it down to the lower fortress…”.

In the 12th century, Nisa was overtaken by Anushteginids, a new Khoresmshah dynasty, who controlled the city until its conquest by the Mongols in 1220.

Legacy of the Past

Today only archeological finds bear witness to the former glory of Mithridatokert: steel armor, large shields (one of them is decorated with an eagle motif), arrows; posh, gilded fabrics; remains of the imperial throne parts of which were carved from ivory. Some of the most fascinating finds include documents dating back to the 2nd–1st centuries BC, written on potshards using a brush.

Archeologists also find various utensils: clay jugs and vases, glass goblets, flasks, and phials. Rhytons, conical containers, are one-of-a-kind. Carved from an elephant’s tusks, they have the curved shape of a large horn crowned by a fictious creature: a winged bull-man, a winged centaur or a griffin. The upper, wider, part of the rhyton is decorated with a sculpted frieze. Motifs are diverse. Artists depicted parthianized Greek gods: Zeus, Hera, Athena, Poseidon; muses — patronesses of learning holding folding plaques; bacchanals featuring dances and offerings of sacrificial animals. These large rhytons (some can hold up to 2−3 L) were not intended for everyday use: they were used in the libation ceremony to honor Parthian and Greek gods. Hence the remarkable thinness and intricate ornaments of rhytons — beautiful creations of Parthian craftsmen.

Materials provided by the National Commission of Turkmenistan for UNESCO