Margiana – around 4,000 years ago, this historic landscape in eastern Turkmenistan was the cradle of a fascinating and sophisticated Bronze Age culture. Contemporary with the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, it has nevertheless remained relatively unknown in the West. Now for the first time outside Turkmenistan, a major exhibition at Berlins Neues Museum will make the archaeological remains of this mysterious culture accessible to a wide public. The distinguished German photographer, Herlinde Koelbl, was asked to photograph the archaeological sites, landscapes, people and exhibits. The result is a fascinating symbiosis of unfamiliar archaeological remains and photo art from a largely unknown country.

Turkmenistan is the southernmost state in Central Asia. The country borders on Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and, in the west, the Caspian Sea. Its landscape and natural environment are largely shaped by the Karakum Desert and, in the south, the Kopet Dag mountain range. In the 20th century, the country was seen as the poorest of the Soviet Union’s republics. Now, thanks to the discovery of rich oil and gas reserves, Turkmenistan is undergoing a transition which is most evident in the rapid transformation of its cities and its infrastructure – a little-known country caught between tradition and modernity.

In the past, the Turkmenistan region was a centre of sophisticated cultures, lying on the routes linking China, India, Iran and the Near East, later to become known as the Silk Road. Alexander the Great reached the region in the 4th century BC on his way to India. In the 2nd century AD, the Parthians established their capital city at Alt-Nisa, close to the present capital, Ashkhabad. Further north, another important centre developed at the oasis of Merv, which today, like Nisa, is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. But Turkmenistan’s first cultural flowering occurred over 4,000 years ago, during the magnificent heyday of the Kingdom of Margiana.

The centrepieces of the exhibition are the sensational results of archaeological excavations at the ancient city of Gonur Depe, not far from Merv. Even today, it is clear from the building structures which have been uncovered that this was an impressive achievement of early town planning. Enclosed by a massive circular wall and covering an area of 28 hectares, the city’s street plan was divided into different areas, including a residential area, an artisan area and a number of cemeteries. At its heart was a square palace complex, fortified by walls with defensive towers.

The excavation highlights are, without doubt, the so-called “royal tombs” – burial chambers decorated with exquisite mosaics, affording magnificent final resting places for deceased dignitaries. The grave goods – richly decorated ceremonial carriages, sometimes with their draught animals, jewellery, weapons, ritual objects and magnificent gold and silver vessels – represent unique masterpieces of Bronze Age craftwork and goldsmithing.

But even the finds from the urban areas speak for themselves: exotic objects and materials are evidence of a network of long-distance contacts, stretching as far afield as the Indus Valley in present-day Pakistan, the sophisticated cultures of Mesopotamia, Syria and Oman, and even the steppes of the Ural region, almost 2,000 km to the north.

Margiana is far more than an archaeological exhibition. In January 2018, German photographer Herlinde Koelbl accompanied the curators from the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte on a two-week trip to Turkmenistan, and for the first time in her creative career engaged with archaeological remains. The result is a completely original and fascinating portfolio of photographs of a country and its inhabitants, impressive natural landscapes, and archaeological and historical monuments. In this respect, the exhibition breaks new ground, offering an unusual, exciting sweep from the traces of an early civilisation beyond the Caspian Sea to the creative achievements of modern photography.

After Berlin, the exhibition will go on display at the Archäologisches Museum in Hamburg and the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen in Mannheim.