Yet Greek-Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi has uncovered just that since his expedition began in 1972. He says Gonur-depe was the capital or imperial city, as he prefers to call it of a complex, Bronze Age state one that stretched at least a thousand square miles and encompassing hundreds of satellite settlements.
Sarianidi claims that this society was so sophisticated that it should be considered the world's fifth center of ancient civilization. This would add Turkmenistan's Murgab River society, officially known as the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, to a more familiar list of cultural cradles of antiquity: Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. Although the debate continues, Sarianidi's views have gained credence, particularly once his work became more accessible to the world upon the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Unsurprisingly for such a parched region, the area's early history was dictated not by humans, but by the vagaries of the wandering Murgab River. Civilization followed the Murgab's course as it meandered south and west, abandoning the Gonur-depe site and, later, the Silk Road city of Merv. The river currently flows through the modern regional capital of Mary, situated about 40 miles from the archeological site.
As with many detective stories, Sarianidi relied on a lot of sleuthing to find Gonur-depe, which dates to the late 3rd millennium BC. According to a local guide who worked at the site with Sarianidi, the team began to notice that minor ruins to the north of Merv itself established in the 6th century BC got progressively older the deeper one pushed into the Karakum. Tipped off in part by herders who spoke of desert mounds covered with smashed pottery, Sarianidi's researchers followed the trail to Gonur-depe.
After 35 years, excavations at the sprawling maze of sun-baked adobe have revealed much of the Murgab civilization's way of life. An agricultural and herding community, residents grew grain, raised sheep, built sophisticated irrigation and sewage systems, and produced ceramics in the many kilns that dot the landscape. The main city was fortified by thick walls and packed with one-story buildings that included a vast palace featuring living quarters, funeral chambers, and what researchers believe are a pair of observatories. Cemetery digs have revealed exquisite objects of both local and foreign origin, the latter indicating trade with cultures as far off as Egypt and the Indus Valley.
Religious life in Gonur-depe appears to have been complex, with ritual sheep sacrifices and separate temples dedicated to the elements of fire and water. According to Sarianidi, these rituals included the drinking of soma-haoma, a mind-bending brew believed to contain opium, ephedra, and a local narcotic. It was likely this beverage that Zoroaster criticized as he promoted his eponymous new religion, considered by some to be the world's first monotheistic faith. Based on the soma-haoma connection and other links between Murgab society and descriptions in Zoroastrian texts, Sarianidi proposes that Gonur-depe was the religion's birthplace.
The archaeological community has yet to fully accept some of these theories, fascinating as they may be. But academic debates surrounding Gonur-depe may be cut short by more pressing circumstances.
In a painful irony, some of the dust that swirls around Gonur-depe comes from the crumbling walls themselves. To study the city, Sarianidi's team had to remove the protective earthen shield laid down over millennia, thereby exposing the structures beneath to the desert sun and wind. Indeed, today's photographs of Gonur-depe show a significant deterioration when compared to those of the 1970s and 1980s.
The archaeologists must therefore make the difficult decision whether to preserve and partially rebuild the ruins thus altering their current state, even if they are true to ancient techniques or to let them continue to crumble. An added consideration from a tourist's perspective is that the right angles and smooth surfaces of the new areas, while perhaps giving a more complete picture of life at Gonur-depe, lack the mystery of the unreconstructed ruins.
Nonetheless, according to the local guide, most of the archaeologists working the site would prefer to rebuild, if only they had the funds. The excavation continues to operate on a shoestring budget, paid mostly by foreign donors. Without a greater commitment from the Turkmen state, funding will dry up, the guide said, and Gonur-depe will slowly blow away.
But the site's most critical dilemma may be its least solvable: the mortality of Gonur-depe's main champion, Viktor Sarianidi. At 77 years old, he is still active, but a time will come when he can no longer work, nor carry on equally important fundraising in the off-season. Sarianidi has no obvious successors, and there is fear that the project will expire soon after he does. If so, Gonur-depe may indeed return back to the sands of the Karakum.