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History of Turkmenistan

The land that is today known as Turkmenistan has been populated for hundreds of thousands of years by various people. It first gained some sort of larger government in the 300s BC when Alexander the Great arrived and took the region and founded the city of Alexandria (today called Merv, near the city of Mary).

Since Alexander the Great ruled the region, there have been numerous rulers over the region, but none of substantial greatness, although some Persian and Asiatic people ruled with some success, including the Sassanids and Huns. During this time though the city of Merv rose in wealth and power as it was an important city on the trade routes between what is today China and Iraq.

In the 600s or 700s the region fell to the Arabs, who brought one of their longest lasting introductions, Islam. Merv also became the capital of the Arab Khorasan Empire and a center or learning throughout the Arabic world, although at the time it was ruled over by the Arabs, not the Turkmen people.

The Turkmen people, in many ways, originated under Oghuz rule when they were nomadic Turkic people living in what is today Mongolia and Siberia (Russia). These people moved from that region into what is today known as Central Asia from the 700s to the 1000s, when they finally arrived in the region that is today known as Turkmenistan. However these people were nomadic in nature and rarely created permanent settlements.

From the Oghuz Empire came the Seljuk Turk Empire in the late 900s, which ruled over much of modern day Turkmenistan and the Turkmen are said to be the early Muslim Turks under these rulers. The Turkmen people were a powerful group under early Seljuk rulers and they began to settle, most particularly in what is today Turkmenistan. This empire collapsed in the late 1100s though and the Turkmen people had little structured government from that time until the Mongol took the region in the early 1200s.

The Mongols didn't view Merv and other powerful cities as prizes, but rather as threats so they destroyed this and numerous other cities. Among the Mongol leaders, the strongest in the Central Asian region was Timur and his descendants, who came to power in the mid- to late-1300s, but after Timur's death in 1405 the Turkmen escaped his dynasty's rule. The Timurids developed the Silk Trade Route as well as major cities along the path, most of which are in modern day Uzbekistan, including their capital of Samarkand.

Since the death of Timur in the early 1400s the Turkmen people were primarily divided into small groups, sometimes being ruled over by larger external peoples as well. However, none of these rulers proved to be excessively power as local rule dominated the region through the next couple centuries.

This small-scale rule continued until the late 1800s when the Russians entered the region, first taking lands from the Turkmen in 1869. This invasion was not well received by the Turkmen and soon wars had begun. However, the Russians held much larger and more powerful weapons and after tens of thousands of Turkmen deaths, in 1894 the Russians took full control over the Turkmen people.

The Russians quickly established military bases and transportation networks in Turkmenistan to secure power. They also encouraged ethnic Russians to settle the region as larger cities developed under Russian rule. This tension escalated in 1916 when the Russians decided that the Turkmen could be drafted to fight in the Russian army, leading to more revolts.

Russian rule came to an end in 1917 when the Soviets took power, however this only flared more violence as the Turkmen proved to be staunchly anti-communist and fought the Bolsheviks until the final hold outs fled to Afghanistan and Iran in 1923.

The Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic was formed in 1924 and it became a destination for Russians and political exiles soon after. The land has numerous natural resources, including vast amounts of natural gas, causing a great influx of Russians and industrialization. This also created an effort by the Soviets to settle the primarily nomadic Turkmen people to work in factories and in fields, a task that was not welcomed. The Soviets also deported numerous people to the region in order to prevent revolts by these minorities, most notably the Tatars and other Muslims from the Caucus region.

Under Soviet rule the Turkmen faced many hardships and a massive earthquake in 1948 didn't help matters as up to two thirds of Ashgabat's population died from the event, something that will always be remembered by the people as it remains an important moment in the country's history to this day.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Turkmen leader, Saparmurat Niyazov (also known as Turkmenbashi) took the reins of the country as he sort of turned the country into his personal playground. He wrote two books (Ruhnama) defining Turkmen culture and lifestyle along with creating some of the world's most bazaar laws, like banning lip synching and recorded music at weddings. Like a needy child, Turkmenbashi led his country with corruption and some violence; however was truly a slave to the people and their opinion of him. Turkmenbashi died in 2006, but left his Cult of Personality behind for all to enjoy, including a gold statue of himself that rotates to always face the sun.

Since independence, Turkmenistan has remained neutral and has sustained its economy almost solely through the export of natural resources. The country's new president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has proven to be as corrupt as Turkmenbashi, however has not been as successful in building his cult of personality as of yet.

This page was last updated: July, 2012