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This is the second dairy in a series I'm doing on Central Asia. I did one on Kazakhstan previously.

Our trip through Central Asia continues with Turkmenistan. Unlike its wealthier neighbor to the north, Turkmenistan is still mostly unknown to Americans, although its giant natural gas reserves and the unchained egotism of its former ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov, has gotten this desert country some attention in the West. So without further ado, its time to explore the nation of Turkmenistan.


Turkmenistan lies on the Eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, with Iran to its southwest, Afghanistan to its southeast, and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to its north. The country is dominated by the massive, flat Kara Kum desert, which takes up over 80% of the country. The Kopat Dag mountain chain runs along the south of the country, forming the border with Iran and home to the capital city, Ashgabat (whose name, supposedly, means "city of love"). The other major mountain range is the Kugitangtau chain in the southeast, which contains the country's highest elevation, 10,290 ft, at Mt. Ayrybaba. In total land area, the country is slightly larger than California.

According to the CIA world factbook, most (85%) of the population are ethnic Turkmens. Their language, Turkmen, is similar to Turkish (I've read there is a degree of mutual intelligibility, but knowing neither language I can't say for certain). The country also possesses small minorities of Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Russians. Most Russians are Orthodox Christian, and the other inhabitants are mainly Sunni Muslim. The total population is slightly over five million.

Turkmenistan has a long and varied history. Alexander the Great passed through it during his conquests in 330 BC, founding what would later become the city of Merv (more on it in a minute). Later, the Parthian Empire-which ruled much of Iran and Central Asia, and would ultimately drive the Roman Empire out of Mesopotamia-built its capital city of Nisa in Turkmenistan, near where Ashgabat is now. The Parthians were replaced by the Sassanids, under whom the city of Merv began to be an important Persian cultural center. This trend only increased after the Arab conquest in the 8th century, which bought the Islamic religion to Turkmenistan. After the Arab conquest, Turkmenistan fell under the rule of the Arab Caliphs, or successors to the prophet Mohammad. Arab rule ended in the year 812, when the region fell under a succession of local Persian dynasties.

For 200 years, from the 10th century to the 12th, Merv became a great city, one of the most important centers of Islamic culture and scholarship Its architecture, libraries, and schools were renowned throughout the Muslim world. Many important Islamic scholars called the city home, including Ahmed ibn Hanbal, founder of the Hanbali interpretation of Islamic law, which remains influential in Sunni Islam to this day. Indeed, by some estimates, it may briefly have been the largest city in the world.

Persian rule of the region ended in 1037, when the Turkic Seljuks took control of Merv, though the city's golden age would continue for some time. It ended when the city fell to Genghis Khan's Mongols in 1221, who slaughtered the inhabitants of the city and burned it to the ground. Merv was eventually rebuilt (and a city exists today on the site, known as Mary, a Turkmen corruption of its original name). However, the city never regained its former glory.

What would become Turkmenistan had been home to Turkic peoples since the Seljuk conquest. Following the Mongol conquest, these nomadic tribes, which came to be known as Turkmen, became dominant. The Turkmen broke away from Mongol control in the 14th century and were known as fierce warriors who defended their lands against invaders such as Persians and, beginning in the 18th century, the colonizing Russians. The fierce resistance of the Turkmen meant they were the last part of Central Asia to be conquered by the Czar, holding out long after the rest of the region had fallen. Russia was determined to conquer the area however. In 1717, Russia founded the port of Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea, today the second largest city in Turkmenistan, as a base to resupply and garrison troops. As Russian influence expanded, they established forts and settlements, including one in 1818 that would grow into the city of Ashgabat. The Turkmens gallantly fought the Russian conquest, but the fall of the Turkmen stronghold of Goek Depe in 1881 and the massacre of its 6,000 civilian inhabitants spelled the end of Turkmen independence. By 1894, all of Turkmenistan had been subjugated by Russia.

Conquered Turkmenistan endured Czarist and then Soviet rule. The modern borders of the country were drawn up by the Soviets, who made it a "Soviet Socialist Republic", roughly equivalent to a US state. In 1985, Saparmurat Niyazov (pronunciation help: Sa-par-mur-at Ni-ya-zov) became the last Soviet governor of Turkmenistan.

Niyazov was an unrepentant hardline communist who supported the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev. However, the Soviet Union ended and Niyazov reluctantly declared his country independent.

Freedom, however, was not to come. The country's communist party was renamed the "Democratic Party", yet continued to be the only one allowed. And Niyazvov began to slowly replace fanatical devotion to Marx with  an even more fanatical devotion to himself. He changed his official last name to "Turkmenbashi", meaning "ruler of the Turkmen" in the Turkmen language. He placed his picture on virtually every public space in the country, and when that wasn't enough, had a giant golden statue of himself constructed in the central square of Ashgabat, which rotated once every 24 hours so his face was always bathed in sunlight. In a distinctly Stalin-like gesture, he renamed Krasnovodsk after himself-it became the city of Turkmenbashi. He funded giant construction projects, particularly in Ashgabat, which cost billions the poor country could ill afford, and included such things as the "World of Turkmenbashi Tales", a theme park based on Turkmen folklore. He wrote the new national anthem himself, and its lyrics proclaimed the country "the great creation of Turkmenbashi." Wherever he went in the country, festivals and parades were held in his honor. Turkmenbashi passed increasingly bizarre laws, banning everything from video games, beards, car radios, recorded music, and makeup-wearing news anchors. Reportedly, the ever-modest president stated "I am personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets-but that is what the people want." Perhaps that was because the worst excesses were yet to come-Turkmenbashi decided, literally, to start his own religion.

In 2001, Turkmenistani presses began cranking out the first copies of the Ruhnama, or "book of the soul" in Persian. Written (of course)by Turkmenbashi, it purported to be a history of the Turkmen people as well as a moral guide. Turkmenbashi proclaimed the Ruhnama to be a "holy book" and ordered it to be displayed in Mosques as prominently as the Quran. The chief Imam protested that this was un-Islamic, and was sentenced to 22 years in jail. Just to make a point, other protesting mosques were demolished, and new ones were built with quotations from the Ruhnama engraved in their walls. (Churches were subjected to these requirements as well.) The government replaced math and science in Turkmenistani schools with a Ruhnama-based curriculum. Knowledge of the book became necessary for a government job, or even a drivers license. In Ashgabat, the golden statue of Turkmenbasi was joined by a monument to his book, on which a machine flips the pages of a gigantic Ruhnama so a different page is displayed every day, and a sound system plays passages from it. Turkmenbashi even renamed the days of the week and months of the year after himself, his mother, the Ruhnama, and various Turkmen historical figures. The repression of Turkmenbashi's personality cult eventually made many human rights groups declare his country the second most oppressive in the world, right behind North Korea.

The country's economy suffered. Turkmenbashi's mad edicts, closing rural libraries (country people didn't read anyway, he said) and all hospitals outside Ashgabat, and firing much of the health care workforce, cratered the health and education systems of his country. In his never-ending quest for self-aggrandizement, he neglected to spend money on such things as adequate pipelines to export his county's vast reserves of natural gas. The economy collapsed-the CIA world factbook estimated a whopping 60% unemployment rate as of 2004. The situation continued until 2006, when, four days before Christmas, Turkmenbashi performed what can be called his only actual service to his country-he suffered a fatal heart attack, and his demented ego trip came to a well-deserved end.

Turkmenistan's cabal of bosses duly selected a new president, a formally unremarkable government minister named Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow. His leadership, despite an authoritarian style common to the region, has shown signs of actual competence, rescinding many of Turkmenbashi's more nonsensical policies-libraries and hospitals have been reopened and their staff rehired, and an extra year taken off by Turkmenbashi was added back onto high school, making Turkmenistani students once again qualified to attend universities. The former calender has been restored, and the infamous gold statue of Turkmenbashi has been moved. Berdimuhammedow ultimately replaced Turkmenbashi's constitution last year. While the new one was hyped as being more democratic, polls under it have shown Berdinhammedow seems to have retained a penchant for fake elections, and democracy may be a long time coming to the land of the Turkmen.

Turkmenistan possesses a rich cultural heritage, a combination of the nomadic traditions of the Turkmen tribesmen, who placed high values on horsemanship (the country is home to a famous horse breed, the Akhal-Teke), music, and oral poetry, and the high Persian culture of neighboring Iran. Perhaps from the latter come the beautiful carpets Turkmen make. Like Iran and much of Central Asia, Turkmens celebrate the pre-Islamic Persian new year of Nowruz. Drawing from the cultural heritage of three civilizations-Persian, Arab, and Turkic, and containing what was once the greatest city on Earth, the past of Turkmenistan offers a strong counterpoint to its present, and a ray of hope for its future.

Originally posted to lexington1 on Fri Feb 13, 2009 at 10:03 PM PST.

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