Gonur Depe (Gray Hill), a huge city and temple complex in the Mary region of Turkmenistan, was discovered in 1972 by an archaeological expedition led by Viktor Ivanovich Sarianidi. Since that time, Sarianidi’s monumental discovery has revolutionized our understanding of the region’s ancient civilizations and their global influence in the realms of craftsmanship, trade and philosophical beliefs.
The largest settlement in ancient Margiana, Gonur Depe belongs to the Bronze Age (3rd millennium BC) and appears to have been a major center of the Zoroastrian religion. Located on a low hill near the bed of the Murghab River, Gonur Depe was far more than a sprawling settlement covering 20-50 hectares of land - it was a full-blown metropolitan city complete with a royal palace, burial grounds, a complex aqueduct system and temples with fire altars that could easily compete with the constructions of Assyria and Babylon.
In the city center stood a large palace protected by robust walls and several square towers that ran along its perimeter. Circular temple buildings were situated on each side of the palace and linked together by a singular adjoining wall, while palace quarters themselves contained multiple ceremonial rooms. It’s purported that the head priest, who likely served as both political ruler and spiritual leader, resided in this citadel.
Just outside the palace quarters was a huge rectangular pool measuring 180x80x2 meters, the largest of three such pools near the palace. Along its edge, researchers discovered what appears to be a temple whose location and inner design indicate that it was used for water worship.
In 2004, during ongoing archaeological work at Gonur Depe, five royal tombs were found on the eastern shore of the pool, which in size and shape were similar to full-fledged underground houses. Buried in this necropolis alongside royalty were servants and animals who, according to ancient custom, had to accompany their masters into the afterlife.
In each of the tombs, robbed more than once in antiquity, jewelry, toys and stunning examples of art have been unearthed. Yet even these pale in comparison to the preserved fragments of figurative mosaic panels on the front facades of the tombs, currently regarded as the earliest mosaic paintings in the world. These mosaics were fashioned using a rare technique that combined painting on stucco with stone inlays. The high quality of these and numerous other objects discovered at Gonur Depe suggest that the city was home to highly skilled craftsmen and metallurgists.
In 2009, archaeologists uncovered another royal tomb just a short distance away, measuring 5 meters in length and 2.5 meters in depth. A cart had been deposited squarely in the center with the apparent intention of helping the deceased ride into the next life. It’s noteworthy that the wagon was deliberately dropped into the pit from above, since the Gonurts believed that in the inverted world of death, what’s broken will become new. In addition to the wagon, archaeologists discovered the remains of donkeys, camels, dogs and daily household items that were buried with as much pomp as the nobleman himself.
To this day Gonur Depe continues to fascinate historians, archaeologists and tourists, who marvel at the secrets already uncovered and wonder at the untold stories still awaiting discovery in this city of the dead.