Travel: Turkmenistan — abounding in history

Published August 10, 2014
An impressive mosque in Turkmenistan
An impressive mosque in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is the least known among the Central Asian countries; in fact, the best known fact about it used to be the eccentricities of its ‘president for life’ Saparmurat Niyazov, who dubbed himself ‘Turkmenbashi’, the father of the Turkmen nation. Other than that, he also renamed the month of April after his mother and, due to his hatred of lip-synching, banned recorded music. But enough about him and more about the country he ruled until his death in 2006.

Known as Turkistan in centuries past, the inhabitants speak several variant of the Turki language. In the West the country is well known as one of the ‘stan’ countries which are remnants of Soviet Russia, ruled by dictators who were groomed in the Soviet era.

There has been limited or no tourism in the country. With the demise of Niyazov, the country is making an effort to reduce restriction on free travel and has opened up to group travel, though there are still restrictions on visas. Having travelled to other central Asian countries I had keen interest to travel to Turkmenistan.


After decades of Soviet rule, Turkmenistan struggles to reclaim its roots


We entered Turkmenistan from Uzbekistan. At the Uzbek border post, which is a mobile caravan, in addition to the usual checking of passport and declaration of money and goods, multiple stamps of entry and customs at various tables were required; the whole process took about two hours. After clearance from Uzbekistan border post we had to hire transport to reach the border gate about 1.5km away, which cost 500 Som ($1= Som 2,000) per tourist. At the border gate another transport was needed to go to Turkmenistan check post 3km away and costing $1.

When we reached the check post — a well-built solid building constructed by US aid — it was 12 o’clock. Our guide from Turkmenistan informed us that it was lunch time and qailula, (an afternoon nap) is mandatory. This lasted up to 15 minutes past two. The custom checking went for another hour after which we began our journey. Travelling about 10km we reached Amu Darya, which is the life line of the two countries. The crossing of the river was an ordeal as there was only a floating bridge of boats (a bridge formed by mooring boats side by side across a river). We had heard of the bridge of boats over the Jamuna River in India during the mid-19th century but found a similar one in 21st century. Only one way traffic was allowed at a time. Since the military and general traffic had to cross over from the other side we had to wait and then our coach with other vehicles forming a caravan passed through, rocking like a boat.

A Rhyton & Monument of Azadi with statue of Bairam Khan
A Rhyton & Monument of Azadi with statue of Bairam Khan

Travelling on the narrow single lane road with traffic travelling on both sides we reached Mary, about 230km from the border. It’s a newly established town constructed in the Soviet era, with wide roads and dull multi-storeyed monotonous buildings.

The next morning we went to Merv, now an archaeological site of one of the greatest Islamic cities until it was destroyed by Genghis Khan’s forces in 1226 AD. The site includes three sites ranging from prehistoric to the Islamic period. The most prominent building is the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, the last famous Sultan of the Seljuq dynasty. There are three ruined castles, the most recent one of Shahrukh, the 15th century Taimuri Sultan.

In addition there are two mausoleums of the companions of the Holy Prophet (Peace be upon him) — mausoleum of Mohammad Ibn Zaid, an Ahl-al-bait, and Khawaja Yousuf Hamadani, a Shaikh of the Naqshbandi order of Sufis.

An Akhal Tekke Horse
An Akhal Tekke Horse

The finds from Merv and other archaeological places in Turkmenistan are housed in a museum in Mary. Turkmen history has been illustrated beginning with Ghuz Khan, who is considered the ancestor of all Turkmens. He is depicted holding an owl in one hand and a snake in the other.

Merv and Mary lay in the south-east corner of the country. It used to be a part of the greater Khurasan before it was carved up into three countries following Russian influence in Central Asia. The town of Mashhad went to Iran, Herat to Afghanistan and Merv to Turkmenistan. The valley of Merv was famous breadbasket of the area, which was converted into the centre of cotton production by the Russians.

To go to Ishqabad, the capital of the country, we had to travel 354km on a narrow single lane road, so narrow that on crossing the oncoming vehicle the coach had to get off the paved road. The road passes all the way along the north of Kopeh Dagh mountain range, on the border with Iran.

Ishqabad, the town of love, itself is not far from the northern border of Iran. It was established as an Awl (meaning an enclosure of tents in Turki) and lies in the oasis south of Karakum desert. It was taken over by the Russians in 1919, though their incursions had started in 1881.

Turkmens continued to wage guerrilla warfare until 1936, during which more than a million Turkmens had to emigrate. Ishqabad was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1948, but Stalin refused to accept any international humanitarian aid to help the victims. Almost all the buildings of the Russian and post-Russian era are white. Niyazov wanted to build a city of marble. The city roads are wide, well lit and at night road lights brighten the town. The city is planted green.

Since the demise of Soviet Russia the Turkmens have taken a keen interest in their history, culture and religion, and have built mosques, research institutions and are holding conferences to look into their culture, history and their heroes.

A national museum and library was established in 1915. It contains Persian manuscripts and the emphasis is on Turkmen history and culture. Turkmens have always been a migrant nation. The famous tribes of Turkmenistan, Qaraqoyunlu and Aqqounlu migrated from here to Iran in the 13th century.

A well-built park surrounding a fountain and an independence monument also houses a number of statues of Turkmenistan’s heroes such as Ghaz Khan (the ancestor of Turk nation) and Bairan Khan (the famous Ataliq of Akbar the Great) — Bairam was a Turkmen as well.

In the centre of the city in another park are the statues of famous Muslim scholars including Abdur-Rahim, Khan-i-Khana of Akbar and Jahagir era of India. The largest mosque was built by Niyazov in memory of his mother outside the city. Niyazov himself is now buried outside the mosque. The mosque has a half dome and a huge hall for prayers. The mosques’ four minarets not only have Ayats from the Quran but quotations from Ruhnama — Saparmurat Niyazov’s book of history, religion and culture — as well.

It is a testament to the man’s megalomania that he demanded that this book be placed at an equal level with the Quran and punished those who did not do so. The paintings and statues of Turkmen heroes have all been made or constructed from imagination. This could have been improved by approaching museums around the world, e.g. instead of using imagination for Bairam Khan’s painting and statue his miniatures in a number of Akbar namas could have been consulted as they give his constitution and figure.

About 18km outside Ishqabad is another large archaeological site known as Nisa. It consists of two fortresses, the new and an old Nisa. The old Nisa was the residence of the kings and belongs to post Alexandrian Greek rulers. The civilisation, called Parthian, was at its height between 250BC and 87BC and was the main rival of Rome at that period. Most of the finds from here are kept in Ishqabad Museum.

Worth mentioning is a room full of drinking vessels, called Rhytons, made of ivory; they are horn-like vessels, the lower end of which is bent forward and decorated with mythical creatures, and a hole at the tip for pouring alcohol into the mouth of drinkers. Ceramic vessels for storing wine with inscription on them were found in a large square building. Other interesting finds are the marble statue of the daughter of a Parthian King and a golden eagle, besides coins, throne of ivory, battle axes, knives and shields.

About 50km to the north of Ishqabad is a stable of Turkmen horses. Horses from Central Asia were the main source of horse power for Mughal emperors in India. The best known horse breed now in Turkmenistan is the Akhal Tikka — a large horse, taller than an Arab horse, which is famous for long distance travel with speed and endurance. In 1935, when Stalin tried to get rid of these horse studs, three Turkmens travelled from Ishqabad to Moscow, a distance of 4,300km, on horseback to prove to Stalin that these horses are worth preserving.

Now there is only one large government stud farm in the area. We spent a beautiful afternoon looking at the graceful animals and how they are reared. It was strange to learn that horses are not shoed here. Apparently the shoe is needed only if the horses run on tarmac roads, which is painful for them.

The country is rich in oil and gas. It supplies a large amount of gas to Russia and earns a lot of revenue. The country’s economic conditions are good; gas supply to homes is free, while electricity is very cheap and every car driver gets 100 litres of petrol free every month. Besides hospitals for treatment there are sanatoria as well where one can go and rest. These are good steps but there’s a need to invest in the basic infrastructure like roads, bridges, etc; the road from Mary to Ishqabad needs upgrading, while there is urgent need to build a permanent bridge over Amu Darya.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 10th, 2014

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