About 30 minutes away from Ashgabat is the ancient Parthian citadel in Old Nisa dating back to 250 BCE at the time of Arsaces I, founder of the empire. A man so manly that all Parthian emperors hence were officially named after him. The root word of his name meant, obviously, manly.
The remains of Nisa, called Parthaunisa or Nisae depending on which old historian you read, traverses the modern-day villages of Old and New Nisa, separated by Bagir village. Ancient fortresses and various ruins dating back to the Parthians can still be found reasonably preserved in these two villages.
However, the majority of the archaeological sites are concentrated in Old Nisa. Most of the sites in New Nisa have been disturbed by the agricultural activities of local villagers.
Located at the foot of the Kopet-Dag mountains, the Parthian fortresses are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage site for its historical significance as the capital of the Parthian Empire and its strategic location as a communication and trading center between East and West during ancient times.
Digging in Old Nisa started around 1920s-30s by Russian and Italian archaeologists. These were briefly suspended during World War 2 and resumed thereafter until today. The artifacts found in the site are now displayed in the National Museum of Turkmenistan in Ashgabat.
Today, excavations are still ongoing and some part of the citadel is being restored and reinforced against further degradation by wind and rain erosion as well as (the seldom but devastating) earthquakes.
This side trip is already included in the tour fees I paid to Sergey, my local tour guide. Travelers who want to visit Old Nisa can either book a tour with local travel agencies or hire a taxi from Ashgabat to Old Nisa. You can finish going around the site in a couple of hours. Sergey also arranged for the resident archaeologist to give me a tour.
The Parthian Citadel in Old Nisa
The Arsacid Dynasty built its royal citadel in Old Nisa. Based on evidence found on the site, this citadel was called Mithradātkert, meaning the fortress of Mithradates.
The remains of artworks found in Old Nisa were of Hellenistic style, including shards of statues of Artemis (only the feet remained), Dionysus leaning on a satyr (head and forearm found), and three Aphrodites. These are now displayed in Ashgabat.
The teams of archaeologists interpret the remains in Old Nisa differently. My local archaeologist, who holds forth in the citadel as its new king (jokingly, obviously), showed me a book with various renderings by the teams on how they envision the buildings in Old Nisa looked like in ancient times.
One rendition was of heavy Hellenistic/Greek influence and another was more Persian. At this time, though, it is hard to say how Old Nisa looked like in the past, but it was definitely not as brown and muddy-looking as it today. There are a few remains that show traces of paint used in ancient times.
The Parthian Empire – A Brief History
Prior to the rise of the Arsacid dynasts, Parthia was a satrapy of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. After the defeat of the Achaemenids by the forces of Alexander the Great, Parthia became part of Macedonia’s empire.
Alexander’s short-lived rule was replaced by the Seleucids, the descendants of one of Alexander’s three successors who took over the area located in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Central Asia.
It was from the Seleucids that the founder of the Parthian Empire, Arsaces I, seized power. The Parthians further consolidated their power under Mithradates, aka, Arsaces VI.
The territory of the Parthian Empire was right smack in the middle of the Silk Road between Rome and China and developed a unique culture blending Hellenic and Persian influences.
Trivia: the phrase parting shot (a final, usually cutting/annoying remark made by someone before abruptly leaving) was coined after the Parthians. The Parthians were famous in the ancient world for their skills as archers and horsemen, and more importantly, by being able to fire accurately while pretending to flee astride their galloping horses.