Ask The Expert – Paul Wordsworth

Ask The Expert – Paul Wordsworth

17 August 2021

Paul Wordsworth is a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford specialising in the archaeology of the medieval Caucasus and Central Asia, with a particular interest on the northeastern fringes of the early Islamic world. He is currently directing two archaeological projects: one explores the landscape of a provincial Abbasid capital city in Azerbaijan, the other is with the Metropolitan Museum, New York, examining the emergence of a medieval Silk Road town in the desert of Turkmenist. His forthcoming book, Moving in the Margins: Desert Travel and Power in Medieval Central Asia, explores the complex relationship between movement, trade, politics and society that lies behind the development of medieval Islamic networks of travel in the region.
  1. What, in short, does archaeological investigation of the Central Asian trade routes reveal to us about the trade and cultural life of those routes and the people along it that is not otherwise obvious?

Over the past two decades or so, studies have increasingly revealed the complexity of trade routes across Central Asia, moving away from ideas of a single corridor running East-West towards ideas of multiple pathways and connections in different directions and the pivotal role played by this region. Most straightforwardly, an archaeological perspective of these exchange systems provides insights into the materiality of trade—the nature of the objects that were moved across this vast area. For example, the chemical analysis of pottery retrieved from archaeological sites speaks to methods of local production for exchange over a vast area, while there have been increasing studies of how Central Asian silver was traded epic distances to become the core component of metal hoards in medieval northern Europe. Archaeology has also begun shed light on the exchange of knowledge and practice across this zone, such as the spread of different modes of agricultural and livestock raising and the adoption of species native to Central Asia across the Eurasian landmass.

For the period after the arrival of Islam across Central Asia (8th century CE onwards), most archaeological attention in the 20th/21st century has focussed on the major cities of the region, which thrived as hubs of commerce and production but were also major consumers for traded goods. At centres such as Samarkand (Afrasiab), Merv (Marv), and Paykend, excavations uncovered the remains extensive workshops for ceramics which were used locally and traded regionally. Meanwhile the exploration of residential buildings (from humble to palatial), revealed preferences in consumption of both local and more exotic goods, as well as the choices in architectural style and decoration which demonstrate regional continuity but also strong connections with other parts Islamic world. Recent studies refining the archaeological data for these cities have been able to document not only their thriving cosmopolitan nature, but the dramatic ebb and flow in the economic and social life of these places. As such we are gaining an impression of the extent to which urban lives were crucially linked to trade, exchange, and connectivity.

Outside the cities, studies including some of my own research, have attempted to analyse the mechanisms of routes and trade, from suggestions of nomadic origins, to understanding more about the provision of way-stations or “caravanserais”. The archaeology of outposts has revealed that networks of movement were far more dispersed than previously realised and likely integrated into local pastoralist practices and the remote wells of the desert-steppe zone. By contrast the construction of monumental caravanserais was a specific means to promote (and thus control) certain routes, first seen in earnest during the period between 900-1200 CE, but the use of these buildings and their maintenance was often quite short-lived.

Some further readings on the topic:

  • Gruszczynski, Jacek, Marek Jankowiak, and Jonathan Shepard, eds. Viking-Age Trade: Silver, Slaves and Gotland. London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2021.
  • Holakooei, Parviz, Jean-François de Lapérouse, Federico Carò, Stefan Röhrs, Ute Franke, Martina Müller-Wiener, and Ina Reiche. ‘Non-Invasive Scientific Studies on the Provenance and Technology of Early Islamic Ceramics from Afrasiyab and Nishapur’. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 24 (April 2019): 759–72.
  • Karev, Yury. ‘Qarakhanid Wall Paintings in the Citadel of Samarqand: First Report and Preliminary Observations’. Muqarnas 22 (2005): 45–84.
  • Rante, Rocco, Abdisabur Raimkulov, and Shukrat Adilov. Mission Archéologique Dans l’Oasis de Boukhara: Rapport Préliminaire, Campagne 2012. Paris: Musée du Louvre-LA3M (UMR7298), 2013.
  • Spengler, Robert N. Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Food You Eat. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019.
  • Wordsworth, Paul. ‘Sustaining Travel – the Economy of Medieval Stopping-Places across the Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan’. In Landscapes of the Islamic World: Archaeology, History, and Ethnography, edited by Stephen McPhillips and Paul Wordsworth, 219–36. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.


  1. What did your study of urban neighborhoods in Merv reveal about the way people lived? Were there significant differences between different neighbourhoods?


The city of Merv is unique among urban archaeological sites of Central Asia, in that each re-founding of the settlement shifted to occupy adjacent areas, resulting in a palimpsest of remains across an area of around 40 km2, dating from the Achaemenid period (6th century BCE) onwards. This particular practice means that the modern settlement, known as Bayram Ali, lies some way from the ruins of the earlier phases of the city, each of which is exceptionally well-preserved owing this process of abandonment. Unlike most cities, where the modern occupation overlies the ancient remains (Bukhara, for example), the urban layout of early Islamic Merv is visible from above in satellite and aerial imagery, allowing us to gain an overall impression of the city’s structure in a manner that is impossible elsewhere. Several attempts have been made to map the city from aerial photographs, and with increasing technological advances (for example in the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) we are able to examine the site in ever higher resolution. Although studies are ongoing, some important aspects have already emerged concerning the neighbourhoods of the Abbasid city (from the mid-8th century) which thrived until the 13th century, referred to locally as Sultan Kala.

Perhaps the most significant finding concerns the planning of the Abbasid urban space, along the central spine of the Majan Canal, which is fed by the Murghab River. We know from 10th century texts that an elaborate system of water management and distribution existed on the canal, but from the aerial view we can demonstrate the fact that the city was planned around this system with perpendicular offshoot canals watering each quarter of the city from the main artery at regular intervals along its length. This degree of urban planning lends yet more evidence to the arguments against “organic” or unplanned development in Islamic cities of Central Asia, in favour of formal municipal design and management.

Another aspect clearly evident is the different uses of space in discrete urban zones. The courtyard is a prominent architectural feature throughout the city, and by differentiating the sizes of courtyards it is possible to postulate areas of predominantly administrative and commercial activities, versus those of a domestic nature. At the same time, the visible lines of streets indicate where early neighbourhoods were disrupted in later periods by the re-delineation of city walls and the insertion of administrative buildings.

In spite of the clarity with which some features are evident in the city, what we are seeing is nonetheless a palimpsest of remains from different periods, and we must be careful to avoid assuming our perspective on the city relates to one particular period. Unpicking the chronology of development presents real challenges, some of which will only be resolved through future archaeological excavation at the site.

Some further readings on the topic:

  • Kennedy, Hugh. ‘From Shahristan to Medina’. Studia Islamica 102/103 (2006): 5–34.
  • Williams, Tim. ‘The Landscapes of Islamic Merv, Turkmenistan: Where to Draw the Line?’ Internet Archaeology 25 (2008).
  • Williams, Tim. ‘The City of Sultan Kala, Merv, Turkmenistan: Communities, Neighbourhoods and Urban Planning from the Eighth to the Thirteenth Century’. In Cities in the Pre-Modern Islamic World: The Urban Impact of Religion, State and Society, edited by Amira K. Bennison and Alison L. Gascoigne, 1st ed., 42–62. Oxford: Routledge, 2007.


  1. One tends to think of the architecture of Islamic Central Asia as being very similar to that of Iran – what are the most significant differences, and in what ways do you think that it reflects the culture (or cultures) of Central Asia?


There are certainly strong parallels between the development of architecture in Islamic Iran and Central Asia. To consider the Abbasid period, for example, there are examples in the use of decorative carved and moulded stucco which share stylistic aspects from Isfahan and Nishapur, to Balkh and Samarkand. Likewise, certain aspects of architectural layout are adopted in a significant way around the same time, the most obvious being the model of a mosque with four cardinal eywans (open portals onto a courtyard). Some of these similarities owe much to shared responses to similar landscapes and materials across this zone, while others speak to common cultural and social ideas.

There are, however, many differences, and for the sake of brevity I will just mention two examples here.

Some of the starkest contrasts are seen in the continuity of practice from early- or pre-Islamic traditions. One example of a very recognisable decorative motif, which is incorporated as an aspect of architectural design is the use of “corrugations” or continuous walls of engaged columns of the exterior of buildings. This style is seen from at least the 7th century CE until the 12th century CE and is generally restricted to the regions of the Murghab River delta, Khorezm, and the Bukhara Oasis. Some scholars particularly associate this style with the monumental residences of pre-Islamic local authorities or dehqans, who in some cases continued to retain some importance after the coming of Islam.

On a broader level, another example of a significant Central Asian development is that of funerary architecture, which appears in a varied and elaborate expression earlier in Central Asia than it does to the east in what is now Iran. The Samanid Mausoleum of Bukhara is the most famous example, executed entirely in fired brick without glaze or colour, instead using texture and shadow to create a unique example of a dynastic monumental tomb. The use of cut and carved bricks continued in earnest through the 11th and 12th centuries in Central Asia, and while this technique was also adopted in some Iranian architecture, its expression in the East is arguable a category in its own right. Meanwhile each subsequent stage of the proliferation and innovation seen in mausolea, from the tomb of Sultan Sanjar at Merv, to the tiled extravagance of the many monuments of the Shahi-Zinda (Shah-e Zende), arguably speaks to particular resonance for these structures in Central Asia. It is likely that a strong part of this development is a differing approach to the cultural importance of funerary architecture, which also came to be expressed in other ways across the Islamic world.

Some further readings on the topic:

  • Herrmann, Georgina. Monuments of Merv: Traditional Buildings of the Karakum. London: Society of Antiquaries of London, 1999.
  • Michailidis, Melanie. ‘Dynastic Politics and the Samanid Mausoleum’, Ars Orientalis 44, 2014: 20-39.
  • Soustiel, Jean, and Yves Porter. Tombs of Paradise: The Shah-e Zende in Samarkand and Architectural Ceramics of Central Asia. Saint-Rémy-en-l’Eau: Monelle Hayot, 2003.
  • Wordsworth, Paul D. ‘Traditions of Monumental Decoration in the Earthen Architecture of Early Islamic Central Asia’. In Earthen Architecture in Muslim Cultures, edited by Stéphane Pradines, 233–48. Leiden: Brill, 2018.