History of Turkmenistan

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Turkmenistan has a complex and multifaceted history, in which it is possible to observe both a Turkish and an Indo-European past


The lands on which Turkmenistan stands have a very ancient civilization history that dates back to the Bronze Age with settlements such as Jeitun dating back to around 5750 BC. However, before observing the first real civilization it will be necessary to wait around 2000 BC, when the first Indo-European populations made their appearance; specifically, it seems that the Dahai lived in today’s Turkmenistan, the Scythians in the north and the Massagetes in the north-east. In the 4th century BC Alexander arrived here who placed these territories under his own empire and renamed himself the ancient and legendary city of Merv.

The first remains of Merv

With the fall of the Alexandrian Empire, the Parthians emerged, a population that until then had been part of the Dahai and managed to expand their dominion up to the present Iran; it is no coincidence that their first king, Arsaces I, also founded Nisa, the city near which Ashgabat, the current capital of Turkmenistan, stands. Sericulture was introduced here between 400 and 700, which allowed the cities of Nisa and Merv to become not only “resting places on the Silk Road“, but real producers, which increased their richness and charm.

The Arabs and the first Turks

Starting in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Arab army arrived in these areas and conquered all of them very quickly, introducing Islam here for the first time. With their arrival, these cities had a real cultural renaissance, becoming in a very short time the absolute centers of religious and cultural knowledge, becoming one of the pearls of the Islamic world. However, in this period many different dynasties will follow one another including: the Tahirids, the Saffarids, the Samanids, the Ghaznavids and finally the Seljuks. The Turkish advance in this territory, which until then had been more closely linked to the Persian world, is linked to the latter.


The Turkmens would in fact descend from the Oghuz Turks, a population originally from Mongolia and the area around Baikal, who, between the eighth and the tenth century, moved first to Zungaria and then to Central Asia, occupying the area around the lake. of Aral and its tributary, the Syr Darya. The Seljuks meanwhile had become staunch allies of the Samanids and, with their downfall, they scrambled to gain leadership in the region. In 1040, in particular, Seljuks and Ghaznavids fought the legendary battle of Dandaqan, a city just 50 km from Merv, thanks to which the doors were definitively opened to the conquest of the first who, in just 10 years, will also take Esfahan. Under their dominion Merv will reach its maximum splendor, so much so that Alp Arslan, one of its most famous sultans, was buried right here. However, the Turkmen tribes who settled there were not always on the Seljuk side and this was one of the factors that further destabilized their rule. In the 11th century, in fact, Merv was invaded by the Turkish Ghuzz tribe, starting an ever greater rift that will see its peak in the 12th century, a moment in which the Turkmen became a real separate identity. There are several theories on the origins of this term, however from that date the Oghuz who lived north of the Kopet Dag were considered Turkmen.

The Mongols and the birth of the Turkmen identity

The arrival of Genghis Khan will be a real turning point for Turkmenistan, as the great conqueror will be the architect of the end of Merv who, after his passage, never fully recovered. The famous Mongol in fact gave orders to burn the city from its foundations, exterminate its inhabitants and, even more definitively, to destroy the whole complex irrigation system, which allowed the city to flourish. These areas, once populated by Iranian people, were quickly inhabited by the Turkmen, many of whom survived the invasion by taking refuge in Kazakhstan. With the death of the great Khan, Turkmenistan became part of the Chagatai Khanate, then passing under the dominions of Tamerlane.

Some Teke

Once the wave of Mongol conquests ended, the country found itself radically transformed, having by now seen the Turkish culture supplant the Persian one, giving birth to new groups of power. The latter are of great importance as, until the arrival of the Soviet Union, they will be the real political forces of the area, definitively forming the backbone of the nation. Starting from the 14th century, the Salur, an ancient tribe of the Oghuz Turks, will gather the Yomut, the Teke, the Ersari and the Saryk, thus forming the first tribal nucleus of today’s Turkmenistan. Specifically: the Teke settled mainly in the Kopet Dag region, the Yomut mostly went to inhabit the western part of the country, while the other tribes occupied the remaining territories. From the 16th to the 18th century, however, Turkmenistan experienced a particularly unstable political situation, undergoing conquests and influences from its neighbors, including Persia and Khiva.

The arrival of the Russians and the Great Game

In 1869, Russia took possession of its old fortress on the Caspian Sea, once called Krasnovodsk and known today as Türkmenbaşy. Once both the Khiva Khanate and the Emirate of Bukhara had been conquered, Moscow was particularly interested in the territories of Turkmenistan, the last ones that separated them from Iran and from the domination of Central Asia. The casus belli was the slave trade actively carried on by the Turkmen, which gave the Russians the pretext for a rapid offensive culminating in the Battle of Geok Tepe in 1881.

The Geok Tepe battle

In this clash, General Skobelev managed to prevail over a far superior but much less armed army, however, committing serious crimes against the population. According to various studies, in fact, he killed between 20,000 and 150,000 civilians, so much so that he was later ousted from his post. In 1885 there was a real diplomatic crisis between the British and Russian Empire due to the latter’s advance on Panjdeh, an oasis that stood in Afghan territory. The British, specifically, were terrified of a Russian advance into Afghanistan as this would easily bring them close to India’s crown jewel. To avoid problems, London used a dense diplomatic network that led Kabul to recognize Russian domination over that territory, but blocking its advance south forever.

Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic

At the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ashgabat and all of Turkmenistan became one of the strongholds of the counter-revolutionary forces, so much so that the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed only in 1924. With the arrival of the Soviets, the country experienced rapid industrialization and development, blocked only by the tremendous 7.3 magnitude earthquake that struck Ashgabat in 1948, killing a large part of its population. Starting in the 1950s, the Soviet Union promoted the cultivation of cotton more than ever, starting a dense network of canalization that sees its worst disaster in the Karakum Canal.

The Karakum canal

The Soviets wanted to make the Karakum desert fertile and for this reason they hijacked the Amu Darya, the largest tributary of the Aral Sea, on several occasions. The ecological damage is incalculable, as it is believed that this channel is one of the reasons for the drying up of the Aral, especially since, according to some estimates, the materials are so scarce that 30 to 60% of the water is lost, contributing to soil salinization. In the end, Turkmenistan was not a particularly rich region for the Union, with the exception of gas. In fact, in 1974 the incredible Dauletabad reserve was discovered, at the time considered the largest outside Russia and the Middle East.


On 27 October 1991 Turkmenistan gained independence and Separmurat Nyazov, the former head of the local Communist Party, became the first president of independent Turkmenistan. In addition to a stunning and terrifying cult of personality, also marked by the writing of a “holy book” and renaming itself “Türkmenbaşy”, the new leader also practiced an obsessive position of neutrality towards any foreign country, so as to isolate more and more the country from any contact (and influence) with the rest of the world.

The famous “Monument to neutrality”

In 2006 Türkmenbashy died and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the second president of Turkmenistan, took his place. Even if Nyazov’s more “folkloristic” measures have been abolished, the country is considered one of the most dictatorial in the world, so much so that it is fighting for first place with North Korea. If you want to learn more about what Turkmenistan is today, I highly recommend “Sovietistan” by Erika Fatland.

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