You never forget the first time you see a Religious Center. I caught my first view at dawn one morning as our westbound train drew us across the Kara Kum desert from Bokhara to what used to be called Ashkhabat, but is now called Merkez.
We couldn’t have been closer than 20 miles and already, from our rocking perch in the sealed observation car, we descried Merkez itself, its top towers blinking warning stars against a bright daylit desert sky. Soon thereafter, it began to dawn on us, in an almost uncanny manner, how vast is the mass of the Merkez structure. I describe this coming to awareness as a wholly new feature of our world announcing itself, a new scale to arrest our minds unwilling or unable to compass the scale of the edifice. The Center reveals its presence subtly at first, in the form of a slowly widening, narrow, sunrise-colored line on the horizon, a shimmering, north to south crescent hugging the horizon, like a spreading pool of hot oil in the desert heat. It soon seemed almost to embrace half the visible earth as we drew closer.
Our train soon was soon cleared from the Turkmenbashi Station control point and we switched off the through-rail line of the main east-west route and onto the single, one-way track taking us directly towards Merkez, 15 miles distant. For the purpose of our official visit, all regular trainloads of pilgrims had, for that day, been suspended.
Yes, until you first glimpse something like the Merkez, you have no idea what mankind can accomplish, when at last religious-ideological zealotry finally pushed civilization to the test and made such extremity necessary. The first of the concentric fence lines is at a distance of ten miles out from the Center. We crossed five miles of this innocuous seeming expanse of desert, knowing full well that it is some of the deadliest ground on earth, so deeply and thoroughly is it seeded with landmines of various yields and chemistries. At Mile 5 and the second fence line, the defenses became more obvious, in the form of guard ‘bots raising dust trails as they ran or flew their patrol courses. A herd, or, I guess, a pack, of some dozen-or-so of them, variously rolling, hopping at speed on multiple legs, or flying, pursued our train for a few thousand yards, weapons trained on us, practicing, I guess, until they fell away, disinterested. Dr Jameson joked nervously that he hoped the train’s IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) transponder was functioning. We all laughed, especially enjoying the archaic technology reference. Nothing can alter the kill programs of these mechanical sentinels. They are autonomous within the protective zone.
At Mile 5 until one mile out we lost sight of the Center as we passed through the Leaden Tunnel. Above us, in the penultimate circle from Miles 5 to 1, is the deadliest ground you will find on earth, the so-called “Moat.” Here, as at all the Religious Centers, at last, the eternally polluted sweepings of the Atomic Age are finally put to good use, guarding the Center with a four-mile-ring of highly radiation-salted earth. Under ideal conditions, the world’s fastest 5,000meter runner could cross this distance in perhaps 20 minutes. Under the conditions prevailing within the second inner ring, the accumulated radiation dose will have reached lethality within seven minutes, with death assured within 24 hours.
Why Ashkhabat, or, as we know it now, Merkez? The same reason as the Salt Lake Center or Mecca, or Jerusalem or Međugorje, Kosovo, Beijing, Bucharest, Rome, Moscow, or Istanbul, each called “The Center” in its appropriate tongue.
For in these places men founded religions and here men shall finish them.
In Turkmenistan’s case, a fairly modern foundation for the superstructure of the Merkez was created by Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkoman who created a state religion based on his own revelations, and created, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries a vast marble city to glorify himself and his Ruhnama, or Book of Teachings.
Whatever century your religion was founded in, wherever you call its birthplace, there is a Center for you and your true beliefs.
At last we left the tunnel, emerging from under the Moat at the one-mile mark, where the radiation clears, and here the true scale of the complex is finally comprehended. One’s eyes do not, initially, quite know how to gauge what they’re registering. Focus seems off. Nothing so regular, so undifferentiated, so smooth, yet so clearly manufactured has ever appeared to your eyes before. To call this vast structure “colossal” is to understate it by several orders of magnitude. Every other manmade structure is dwarfed. To first see it is akin to rounding the corner of a twisting forested road at sea level and suddenly to confront, straight ahead, a mere mile away, the sheer cliff face of a fjord jutting a mile straight into the sky. The outer walls, like an ominous thunderstorm, bulge outwards from the foundation of the immense structure. The last circle of ground before the wall is simply reddish clay, steamrolled flat, and this is as close as we will get, the final outpost. This is the Last Stop for so many. From here, they descend the retractable stairs and then the stairs are pulled away. The stairs will not come down again for forty days, and only then with a new batch of pilgrims. Some, just like always, will refuse to enter, and seek to survive in this wilderness. But they, just like always, will fail. For there is no water, here. Or food. Temperatures can reach 115 degrees in the day, down to minus 5 at night.
Most will choose to head inside the Religious Center, to seek their destiny beneath the ten-mile roof. They will find the entrance. And whatever else they will find within, they will not find their way out.
For there is no exit, within the Religious Center.
We have automated the process, to remove human error.