Culture, Traditions, and History

"Water is a Turkmen's life, a horse is his wings, and a carpet is his soul"

The energy-rich Central Asian country revives its most ancient rituals and customs and discovers old taboos that were thinly papered over during Communist rule.

Yurta, the traditional tent (it has a collapsable wooden frame and is covered with reeds and felt) is still used today. The tent is placed in the front yard and used as a summer house...

National dress: men wear high, shaggy sheepskin hats and red robes over white shirts. Women wear long sack-dresses over narrow trousers (the pants are trimmed with a band of embroidery at the ankle). Female headdresses usually consist of silver jewelry. Bracelets and brooches are set with semi-precious stones. Young women with two braids and a small scarf are unmarried; those with one braid and a big kerchief have been wed.


History of Turkmenistan

Tools from the Stone-Age have been discovered along the Caspian Sea shore and near the modern port of Turkmenbashi, establishing the pre-historic presence of humans in the area that is today known as Turkmenistan. The remains of farming settlements in the Kopet-Dag Mountains date back 8,000 years. The ancient cultivators in this region used the mountain streams to irrigate their crops. They also survived by herding livestock and by hunting wild game.

As early societies learned to make pottery and metal tools, they began to trade with other people of central Asia. This profitable trade, however, also attracted foreign invaders. By the 6th century B.C., the powerful Persian Empire had established the provinces of Parthia and Margiana in what is now Turkmenistan. From their base south of the Kopet-Dag range the Persians controlled trade through central Asia and subdued the many nomadic people who lived on Turkmenistan's arid plains.

Early Rulers

In the 4th century B.C., the Persian Empire was defeated by the army of Alexander the Great. In 330 B.C., Alexander marched northward into Central Asia and founded the city of Alexandria near the Murgab River.
Located on an important trade route, Alexandria later became the city of Merv (modern Mary). The ruins of Alexander's ancient city are still visible along the banks of the Murgab River.

After Alexander's death in 323 B.C., his generals fought for control of his empire, which quickly fell apart. The Scythians—fierce, nomadic warriors from the north—then established the kingdom of Parthia, which covered present-day Turkmenistan and Iran. The Parthian kings ruled their domain from the ancient city of Nisa. At its height, Parthia extended south and west as far as the Indus River in modern India.

Parthia fell in A.D. 224 to the Sasanian rulers of Persia. At the same time, several groups—including the Alans and the Huns—were moving into Turkmenistan from the east and north. A branch of the Huns wrested control of southern Turkmenistan from the Sasanian Empire in the 5th century A.D.

The Arrival of the Oguz 

Although Turkmenistan was still populated mostly by nomadic herders, permanent settlements were prospering in the fertile river valleys. Farmers raised grains, vegetables, and fruits along the Amu Darya River; and Merv and Nisa became centers of sericulture (the raising of silkworms). A busy caravan route, connecting China and the city of Baghdad (in modern Iraq), passed through Merv. In addition, merchants, traders, and missionaries introduced the religions of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism to the region.

Central Asia came under Arab control after a series of invasions in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Meanwhile, the Oguz—the ancestors of the Turkmen—were migrating from eastern Asia into central Asia, the Middle East, and Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The Arab conquest brought the Islamic religion to the Oguz and to the other people of central Asia.

By the 11th century, the Oguz were pushing to the south and west, and the Arabs were retreating from Turkmenistan. In 1040, the Seljuk clan of the Oguz tribe established the Seljuk Empire, with its capital at Merv. At one time, the Seljuk realm stretched all the way to Baghdad. Other Oguz groups moved west across the Caspian Sea, settling in Azerbaijan and in Asia Minor, where they joined the Seljuk Turks in establishing the Ottoman Empire. After mixing with the settled people in Turkmenistan, the Oguz living north of the Kopet-Dag Mountains gradually became known as the Turkmen.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the main centers of Turkmen culture were at Khiva in the north (now in Uzbekistan) and at Merv in the south. Khiva controlled the cities and farming estates of the lower Amu Darya Valley. Merv became a crossroads of trade in silk and spices between Asia and the Middle East. This business created vast wealth in the ancient city, where the Seljuk rulers built fabulous mosques and palaces. At the same time, a growing class of wealthy traders and landowners was challenging the Seljuks for control of Turkmenistan.

Mongol Invasions

In 1157, during a revolt of powerful landowners, the Seljuk Empire collapsed. The leaders of Khiva took control of Turkmenistan, but their reign was brief. In 1221, central Asia suffered a disastrous invasion by Mongol warriors who were sweeping across the region from their base in eastern Asia.

Under their commander Genghis Khan, the Mongols conquered Khiva and burned the city of Merv to the ground. The Mongol leader ordered the massacre of Merv's inhabitants as well as the destruction of Turkmenistan's farms and irrigation works. The Turkmen who survived the invasion retreated northward to the plains of Kazakhstan or eastward to the shores of the Caspian Sea.

After Genghis Khan's death in 1227, the Mongols lost control of Turkmenistan. Small, semi-independent states arose under the rule of the region's landowners. In the 1370’s, the Mongol leader Timur (known as Tamerlane in Europe), a descendant of Genghis Khan, conquered these states once more and established the Timurid Empire. But after Timur's death in 1405, the realm weakened and soon disintegrated.

The Mongol invasions had divided the Turkmen into small clans and had pushed them into the desert. Later, as the Mongols retreated from Turkmenistan, the Turkmen fell under the control of Muslim khans (rulers) who established khanates in Bukhara (in modern Uzbekistan) and Khiva.

The rivalry between the khans and the rulers of Persia touched off centuries of war in Turkmenistan. Persians, Turkmen, and the khans fought for the scattered oases in southern Turkmenistan. From the 14th through the 17th century, Turkmenistan was in decline. To escape the conflicts, most Turkmen moved to the remote deserts along the borders of Persia and Afghanistan.

Russia and Turkmenistan

In the 18th century, after centuries of poverty and isolation, the Turkmen began to rebuild their way of life. The poet Magtymguly created a literary language for the Turkmen and laid the foundations for their modern culture and traditions. Keimir-Ker, a Turkmen from the Tekke clan, led a rebellion of the Turkmen against the Persians, who were occupying most of Turkmenistan. Popular ballads and folk legends still recount the deeds of Keimir-Ker.

At this time, the Russian Empire was expanding into central Asia from the plains and forests of eastern Europe. The Russian czar, Peter the Great, sent the first Russian expeditions into Turkmenistan. Peter was seeking a route for Russian trade with southern Asia and the Middle East. In 1716, however, members of a Turkmen clan murdered the czar's representatives near Khiva. Russia waited for more than a century before sending another mission into Turkmenistan.

Nevertheless, trade between Turkmen merchants and Russia continued and was helped by the building of a port on the Caspian Sea at Krasnovodsk, (modern Turkmenbashi). In 1802, members of several Turkmen clans officially became Russian subjects. During the 19th century, the Turkmen also asked for Russia's help during their frequent rebellions against the khans and against the shahs of Persia. The Russians were seeking new markets for their goods, fertile land for the growing of cotton, and access to Turkmenistan's natural resources. As a first step in the conquest of the region, the Russians agreed to provide arms and food to the Turkmen rebels.

Russia began sending military expeditions into Turkmenistan in the second half of the 19th century. From 1863 through 1868, Russian armies defeated and annexed the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva. The people of western Turkmenistan, who were seeking independence from the khans, willingly joined the Russian Empire.

But the Turkmen of eastern and southern Turkmenistan fiercely resisted Russian annexation. In 1879, at Geok-Tepe near Ashkhabad (modern Ashgabat) Turkmen warriors of the Tekke den stopped a large Russian force. Two years later, the Russians besieged Geok-Tepe, eventually capturing it as well as Ashkhabad.

By 1885, all of the Turkmen clans had submitted to Russian control. The Russians annexed Mary and pushed across Turkmenistan to the borders of Persia and Afghanistan. The building of the Transcaspian Railroad, which connected Krasnovodsk (modern Turkmenbashi), Mary, and trading centers to the east, opened up the region for economic development.

From 1890 to 1917, Turkmenistan was part of Russian Turkestan, a province that included central Asia and its Muslim nationalities—the Kazakhs, the Uzbeks, the Kyrgyz, the Taliks, and the Turkmen. Within Turkestan, however, the Turkmen had a lesser status. Their lands were defined as the Transcaspian Region and were ruled as a military colony. This neglect by Russia's government allowed the Turkmen to maintain their culture, language, and nomadic way of life.

War and Revolution

In the early 20th century, discontent with strict czarist rule spread among the people of the Russian Empire. At the same time, the empire was being drawn into a bloody international conflict. During World War I (1914-1918), the Turkmen and other people of central Asia moved to reclaim their homelands. A violent uprising broke out in 1916, when the Turkmen, led by Dzhunaid Khan, defeated the Russians at Khiva. The Turkmen established a national government that lasted until 1918.

In October 1917, the Communist leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin overthrew the Russian government. The Communists succeeded in taking control of Ashkhabad in the summer of 1918. In response, Dzhunaid Khan and forces loyal to the old Russian regime joined together to drive out the Communists. In July of 1919, these anti-Communist allies established the independent state of Transcaspia.

Soviet Victory and Stalin's Rule 

By the fall of 1920, however, the Communist Red Army was advancing from Tashkent (in modern Uzbekistan) and from Bukhara. The Communists gradually subdued Turkmenistan by military occupation and by putting Communist politicians in control of local governments. In 1922, the Communists founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Two years later, they established the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) as a full member of the USSR.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin made harsh and sweeping changes throughout the USSR. Private property was seized, and the Soviet government used brutal methods to punish opposition. These policies sparked a rebellion in Turkmenistan, and in 1927 the Soviets lost control of the republic to a national resistance movement called the Turkmen Freedom.

After reclaiming the Turkmen SSR in 1932, Stalin executed thousands of Turkmenistan's Communist leaders—including the president and the premier—whom he accused of helping the nationalists. After the terror of the 1930s, the Communist regime in Ashkhabad became completely obedient to the central Soviet government in Moscow.

Meanwhile, another international conflict was brewing in Europe. The western Soviet Union was devastated by World War II (1939-1945), when Germany invaded with a huge military force. Fierce fighting destroyed factories, farms, and cities throughout western Russia and Ukraine. After the war, the Soviets built new plants in central Asian cities, including Ashkhabad and Chardzhou (modern Turkmenabat). A work force made up of ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians emigrated to the Turkmen SSR to take advantage of new jobs in the republic. 

Most Turkmen, however, remained rural and nomadic. Despite the immigration of factory workers, the Turkmen SSR remained one of the Soviet Union's most isolated republics. Foreigners, and even Soviet citizens, were forbidden to visit most of the region, and the Soviet government also would not allow most Turkmen to travel out side the republic. 

In spite of the republic's isolation, economic development continued in the region. New irrigation projects diverted water from rivers to collective farms, many of which began growing fruits and vegetables instead of cotton. During the 1970s, the Soviet government also developed the region's energy resources, including oil and natural gas.

The Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev instituted several new policies after coming to power in 1985. Glasnost allowed more open criticism of the Communist party and of the country's economic system. Perestroika eased government control over many small businesses, which could now set their own wages, prices, and production schedules. Turkmen Communist leaders, however, were slow to adopt these reforms. Annamurad Khodzhamuradov, who became the Turkmen SSR's leader in 1986, remained loyal to the Soviet government but never accepted Gorbachev's reforms.


In the late 1980s, many Soviet republics attempted to gain their independence from Moscow. In 1990, the Turkmen SSR declared that it would take greater control over local politics and economic policy. The government established the office of president and named Saparmurat Niyazov to the post.

On October 27, 1991 Turkmenistan proclaimed its independence from the USSR.