Turkmenistan has a long history. In fact, human civilization here stretches back over 4,000 years. Lying at the crossroads between east and west, Turkmenistan has swapped hands many times in the battle for supremacy of rivaling powers. The first major name in history to set foot in Turkmenistan was Alexander the Great. Later, the territory became hard to resist by the warring empire builder Genghis Khan and his Mongol tribes. Later still it became the subject of colonization when it became part of the Soviet Union in the early 20th century. Even after the end of the days of communism, Turkmenistan continued to have a checkered history but as history unfolds into the 21st century, things look bright for this interesting crossroads of eastern and western culture.
The ancient prehistoric settlement of Turkmenistan is not entirely known by historians. Evidence can trace human existence in the area as far back as 2,000 BC, yet it is believed, due to its geographic location, it was used as a migratory path for people from the Indus Valley to Europe.
Alexander the Great conquered modern-day Turkmenistan in the 4th century BC and went on to form what is now known as the city of Merv. The city became an important trading post along the crucially important Silk Road from China to Europe. For a brief time in history, much of Turkmenistan was conquered by the Parthians, who were a fierce warrior tribe who migrated north from Iran. They founded the city of Nisa―thought to be their first official capital and seat of power―ruins of which can be seen today.
The Parthians remained strong until their defeat and conquer to the rulers of Iran, from the east. Turkmenistan remained in a state of constant conflict for the next 500 years, until the Arab Empire took control of the region in their conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries. The Arabs continued their plight westward and as a result, schematically the territories as far as Morocco adopted Islam as their national faith. Around 90 percent of Turkmenistanis today are Muslim. Turkmenistan was subject to one last great conquest in history when the Mongols swept in from the east in the 13th century, under the command of the notorious warrior Genghis Khan.
The Russians showed early interest in Turkmenistan during the 19th century because they desired access to the Caspian Sea. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, they creating the first leftist, communist state in history and by 1924 Turkmenistan had joined the Soviet Union. As with most states that were part of the Soviet Union at this time, Turkmenistan has since become an independent country after the dissolution of the USSR.
Like many nations that had endured a power vacuum as a result of the end of overarching rule by the Soviets, Turkmenistan succumbed to a dictator. Saparmurad Niyazov was elected president and assumed totalitarian control for the next 15 years until his death in 2006. He entitled himself Turkmenbashi, which means ‘leader of all Turkmen’.
The leaders who have followed Niyazov have attempted to reduce the charismatic personality cult that once governed the country. However, Turkmenistan remains a single-party state, one of the few left in the world alongside the likes of North Korea and Vietnam, and the government is admonished internationally for human rights abuses. Even though Turkmenistan possesses the fourth-largest reserves of natural gas in the world, around 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.
To gain insight into the centuries-old traditions of the Turkmen people, you should spend time taking in a show at one of the theaters in the capital city. At the Mollanepes Drama Theater in Ashgabat, regular shows every Wednesday to Sunday from 7:00 p.m are staged. Check the listings for the latest performances based on Turkmen folklore. During the winter months only, you can catch shows at the Magtymguly Theater in the capital, with performances starting at 7:00 p.m..