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word stan found in Turkmenistan and other nearby countries comes from
the Persian meaning "country" or "place of." So the name Turkmenistan
means "place of the Turkmen," who are the Turkic people that make up the
majority of people living in Turkmenistan.
Life in Turkmenistan may seem odd to an outsider.
The country, like many of its neighbors, has been trying to re-discover its culture
and way of life since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. This process has
taken much larger and quicker strides in Turkmenistan than it has in any of the
other Central Asian countries, primarily due to the people's mentality and their
former president, Saparmurat Niyazov.
The earliest growth in Turkmenistan came with the
ancients, including Alexander the Great and later the Silk Road trade route, which
passed through the country. These outside influences helped introduce the people
to new foods and people as some cities grew in importance and the region as a whole
gained greater and greater wealth. Of these many outside influences though, the
most lasting was the introduction of Islam by the Arabs in about the 700s, although
the ancestors of today's people didn't arrive for about couple centuries.
Despite the outside influences, water routes later dominated trade and the Silk
Road and hence the region of Turkmenistan fell into the realm of the forgotten.
The people lived a quiet life as they were primarily settled farmers and city-dwellers
who lived off of the land and the animals that they raised.
In the late 1800s the Russians took most of the land and
in the early 1900s the Soviets took over. This takeover changed the people once
again as religion was outlawed, urbanization was essentially demanded, and industrial
growth expanded dramatically. The Soviets also limited free speech and access to
information, leading to a lifestyle not unlike that demanded by the Soviet government.
Since the fall of communism in 1991 the people of Turkmenistan
have been re-thinking their way of life and that began with their former president,
Saparmurat Niyazov, who named himself "Turkmenbashi," which means "Leader
of the Turkmen." As a country struggling to find their identity due to years
of suppression, Niyazov led the way in this fight creating laws to define the way
of life or making not so subtle suggestions that the people felt compelled to follow.
Niyazov used his control over the press and the people's mentality of never
speaking out against the government in order to define their culture and he did
so until his death. He dictated how men and women should dress, how they should
act, and even what they should like. He made himself and Islam central to the culture,
but also preached openness, neutrality, and happiness as essential to being a Turkmen.
Despite Niyazov's death, the people still have a tendency to follow leadership
without question as many people are very liberal, but practicing Muslims.
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