Nisa is located in Turkmenistan just under 20km from the centre of the white marble capital of Ashgabat. It’s often overlooked as a tourist destination in Turkmenistan though, due to the fact that Merv is considered to be the main Silk Road attraction in the country.
Nisa was originally built by the Parthian Empire, by Arsaces the First around 200BC. Nisa’s most famous inhabitants were the Parthian Kings that followed. Excavations at Nisa have revealed substantial buildings, mausoleums and shrines, many inscribed documents, and a looted treasury. With that being said, there is very little written about Nisa therefore creating great debate about whether or not it was indeed a royal residence or simply a trading outpost.
Nisa became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007, joining the ranks of Merv and Konye Urgench, rounding out Turkmenistan’s 3 UNESCO sites. The site includes the ruins of old and new Nisa. Old Nisa was also known as Parthaunisa.
The Parthians were a great empire between 247 BC and 224 AD, but unfortunately the city was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1st decade BC. Some of the buildings, including the main temple, were multiple stories, but the ruins are all a single story now. The temple was unusual in that it was circular, prompting debate as to whether they were Zoroastrians or not. The old city had huge walls and towers but fell to the Sasanids. Items found at the site revealed a mix of the Greek and Parthian cultures. Many Hellenistic art works have been uncovered, as well as a large number of ivory drinking devices, coins decorated with Iranian subjects or classical mythological scenes. Unfortunately, all of the famous artefacts found at Nisa are currently in the National Museum in Ashgabat, however that doesn’t detract from this realistic historical experience.
The site of new Nisa, which was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century, can be seen from the observation tower that has since been built. While the main gate to the city of Nisa was in the west, visitors enter this spectacular historical fortress from the east with a new modern staircase and viewing platform having been purposely built for a visit by the former French President.
Interestingly, modern Turkmen are Turkic people, while the Parthians here were ethnically and linguistically Persian, so it’s interesting that such an important emphasis is played on this part of the history of the region despite no direct connection to modern Turkmenistan.
So why am I suggesting that it might be better to visit than the much more famous Merv?
Don’t get me wrong – Merv is great, and the two sites are different in many ways. But Nisa being so close to Ashgabat means that you only need to allocate a small part of the day to visit this site. It can be done in conjunction with several other sites, such as the Turkmenbashy Mosque and Mausoleum, Kow Ata, or just other places inside Ashgabat. So it’s convenient.
But also, everything you need and want to learn about this part of Silk Road and Central Asian history is here at Nisa. There are plenty of people who want to see both sites, or have a specific interest in this period of history, in which case the trip to Merv is worth it, but for those who just want an overview of everything, this is a great way to learn about this period of Turkmenistan’s history, without the need to make a trip to Mary and then an entire day to head out to Merv, which is in much the same condition as Nisa.
For almost 30 years the caretaker, manager, and local guide extraordinaire, Batyr Ashirov, would joke that he was the last Parthian King, as he spent almost his entire life within the walls, taking care of the site, showing locals and foreigners around and also hosting his friends for parties which included large amounts of drinking, much like a Parthian King. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2020.