Old Nisa – A Parthian Capital near Ashgabat in Turkmenistan

Ruins of the Red Building in Old Nisa

At the turn-off to the archaeological site of Old Nisa in Turkmenistan, there is a small hut. The caretaker comes out, a friendly old man with only one tooth as far as we can see, and sells us the admission tickets. It seems individual tourists are rare – he invites us for a cup of green tea and from one of the desk drawers he even produces some chocolate. In summer – the temperature was around 36° C! From the hut it is still a 1.5 km walk to the ruins.

Ancient town of the Parthians

Ruins of Old Nisa with mountains in the background 20150611 Aschgabad Nisa Tower like Building Iwan P1170918

Nisa was a town since the Parthian era (3rd c. BC) and abandoned in the middle ages. The famous trade routes of the Silk Road ran through Parthian territory, and the Parthians earned good money from taxes on the merchandise, as well as from the infrastructure they provided for the traders, such as restaurants, caravanserais, stables and guides.

The Parthians were also famous and brave warriors who clashed with the Roman army several times. Their speciality was the so-called „Parthian Shot“ – a trick involving a feigned flight. When the pursuing enemies least expected it, the “fleeing” mounted archers would suddenly twist back in full gallop and shoot their arrows backwards.

corridor between the crumbling ruins of Old Nisa

Archaeologists are still debating for what purposes Nisa was actually built. It might have been an early capital town of the Parthians or a ritual mourning place for the dead Parthian kings.

Walking around Old Nisa as an individual traveller

Woman in unbaked bric courtyard, Nisa

There is a suggested course marked by arrows you can (and should) follow, but no further explanation. Obviously, the majority of visitors arrive in groups and not as individual travellers. Since 2007, the two archaeological hills of Old and New Nisa have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. The town walls are still impressive (albeit ramparts rather than brick walls these days), and some of the excavated buildings have been partly restored.

Otherwise, you mostly see crumbling adobe walls and corridors, some pillars. To see temples, audience halls, a domed round hall and pillared square buildings, you need quite a bit of imagination (and a guidebook, perhaps).

Do you think you would enjoy a visit to Old Nisa? Or have you been there? On our trips to Turkmenistan we also visited the UNESCO sites of ancient Merv and Kunya Urgench.

Is Old Nisa worth visiting?

view over the archaeological site of Old and New Nisa

In our opinion, yes. But then we love everything remotely connected with the historical Silk Road and Central Asian historical sites in general. If you go without a guide, you will need a good description to get the grip of the layout. Try to find Mr. Batia, who can open a small “museum“, actually just a room with a useful model of Old Nisa. He can also explain about the site (only in Russian).

How to get to Old Nisa

Ruins of Old Nisa with mountains in the background

Nisa is situated around 18 km to the west of Ashgabad. We went there by taxi from the city centre (15 Manat one-way) and found a public bus for the way back into town, which took more than one hour, but was much cheaper (0.30 Manat per person).

Our trip to Turkmenistan was not sponsored in any way and we paid for everything ourselves.

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16 Comments

  1. Wow, seems pretty remote – not one tourist in sight.
    I don’t know if we’ll ever get to that part of the world but find it interesting reading your stories about it!
    Frank (bbqboy)

  2. I love the more out of the way destinations. Sometimes I feel like I am discovering the ruins myself! These types of sites are more personal that the overcrowded touristy ones.

    1. Dear Donnamarie, it is quite difficult to get a visa for Turkmenistan. So not many tourists go there. The archeological site of Nisa really gives you an explorer feeling.

  3. I read this with great interest. Due to the recent past, this part of the world is still relatively undiscovered and I’m sure there are amazing places, landmarks, and ways of living to discover. Obviously, visiting the ‘Stans’ needs some thorough preparation – however, it’s a ‘project’ I’ll keep in the back of my head 😉

    1. Dear Renata, the Stans are worth a visit for sure. They become much more tourist-friendly too over the last 15 years. Coruption is less a problem than it used to be.

      1. The old town of Nisa in Turkmenistan looks like a place of significant historic importance with ruins from the age old Parthian rule. It’s nice to learn that it’s a UNESCO world heritage site and was an important part of the iconic Silk route.

  4. Sightseeing in such heat is not easy. But it is definitely worth seeing such amazing places like the ancient town of the Parthians. Old Nisa seems a great destination for ancient culture and architecture lovers and for archeologists.

    1. Dear Agnes, this towns are old Silk Road towns in the desert. The climate and the setting is part of the charme of these places.

  5. Nisa is definitely new to me as are the history of the Parthians. It’s very cool that you managed to visit, the town is still in decent condition. The Silk Road history is fascinating and I’d like to see at least one of these sites one day.

    1. Dear Lisa, the old Silk Road towns are fascinating. However it always pays to read up as much as possible before you go! There is not much information on site available.

  6. I like visiting historical places, but Nisa is the kind of place that I would visiting on the way to somewhere. I don’t think I will make a special ride to Nisa. It’s good to learn that you can rent a taxi or a public bus to visit Old Nisa.

  7. I’d love to visit these ruins and just see first hand some of the traces from their past. And what amazing skill the parthians must have had to shoot the arrows backwards. I don’t know much about them but I’d be interested to learn more about their battles with the Romans

  8. Seems like Nisa is full of history, an exotic & offbeat choice for sure. Thanks for sharing an important part of history as part of your travels.

  9. Old Nisa, ancient Merv. and Kunya Urgench are all impressive sites. I am fascinated by ancient historical sites. With 36 degree temperatures and nearly a mile long walk I would need to find a cooler time to go but I am not familiar with the temperatures throughout the year in this area of the world.

  10. Wow turkmenistan has never been on our radar but your photos and guide make us think twice. We had no idea that there were ancient ruins here and that they were named unesco world heritage sites. This guide was not only interesting but also educational, thank you!

    1. Unfortunately it is quite difficult to get a tourist visa to Turkmenistan. But, yes, if you are interested in culture and history of the silk road it is worth a visit.

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