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Turkmenistan | Facts and History

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Turkmenstan, c. 1905-1915. A man and his camel take grain to market.

A Turkmen camel driver in a sheepskin hat with his heavily-laden camel. 1905-1915.

Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

Capital and Major Cities:

Capital:

Ashgabat, population 695,300 (2001 est.)

Major Cities:

Turkmenabat (formerly Chardjou), population 203,000 (1999 est.)

Dashoguz (formerly Dashowuz), population 166,500 (1999 est.)

Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk), population 51,000 (1999 est.)

Note: More recent census figures are not yet available.

Government of Turkmenistan:

Since its independence from the Soviet Union on October 27, 1991, Turkmenistan has been a nominal democratic republic, but there is only one approved political party: the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.

The president, who traditionally receives more than 90% of the vote in elections, is both head of state and head of the government.

Two bodies make up the legislative branch: the 2,500-member Halk Maslahaty (People's Council), and the 65-member Mejlis (Assembly). The president heads both legislative bodies.

All judges are appointed and supervised by the president.

The current president is Gurbanguly Berdimuhammadov.

Population of Turkmenistan:

Turkmenistan has approximately 5,100,000 citizens, and its population is growing about 1.6% annually.

The largest ethnic group is the Turkmen, comprising 61% of the population. Minority groups include Uzbeks (16%), Iranians (14%), Russians (4%) and smaller populations of Kazakhs, Tatars, etc.

As of 2005, the fertility rate was 3.41 children per woman. Infant mortality stood at about 53.5 per 1,000 live births.

Official Language:

The official language of Turkmenistan is Turkmen, a Turkic language. Turkmen is closely related to Uzbek, Crimean Tatar, and other Turkic languages.

Written Turkmen has gone through a vast number of different alphabets. Prior to 1929, Turkmen was written in the Arabic script. Between 1929 and 1938, a Latin alphabet was used. Then, from 1938 through 1991, the Cyrillic alphabet became the official writing system. In 1991, a new Latinate alphabet was introduced, but it has been slow to catch on.

Other languages spoken in Turkmenistan include Russian (12%), Uzbek (9%) and Dari (Persian).

Religion in Turkmenistan:

The majority of Turkmenistan's people are Muslim, primarily Sunni. Muslims make up about 89% of the population. Eastern (Russian) Orthodox account for an additional 9%, with the remaining 2% unaffiliated.

The brand of Islam practiced in Turkmenistan and other Central Asian states has always been leavened with pre-Islamic shamanist beliefs.

During the Soviet era, the practice of Islam was officially discouraged. Mosques were torn down or converted, the teaching of the Arabic language outlawed, and mullahs were killed or driven underground.

Since 1991, Islam has made a resurgence, with new mosques appearing everywhere.

Turkmen Geography:

The area of Turkmenistan is 488,100 square km, or 303,292 square miles. It is slightly larger than the U.S. state of California.

Turkmenistan borders the Caspian Sea to the west, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to the north, Afghanistan to the south-east, and Iran to the south.

Roughly 80% of the country is covered by the Karakum (Black Sands) Desert, which occupies central Turkmenistan. The Iranian border is marked by the Kopet Dag Mountains.

Turkmenistan's primary fresh water source is the Amu Darya River, (formerly called the Oxus).

The lowest point is Vpadina Akchanaya, at -81 m. The highest is Gora Ayribaba, at 3,139 m.

Climate of Turkmenistan:

The climate of Turkmenistan is classified as "subtropical desert." In fact, the country has four distinct seasons.

Winters are cool, dry and windy, with temperatures sometimes dropping below zero and occasional snow.

Spring brings most of the country's scant precipitation, with annual accumulations between 8 centimeters (3 inches) and 30 centimeters (12 inches).

Summer in Turkmenistan is characterized by searing heat: temperatures in the desert can exceed 50°C (122°F).

Autumn is pleasant - sunny, warm and dry.

Turkmen Economy:

Some of the land and industry has been privatized, but Turkmenistan's economy is still highly centralized. As of 2003, 90% of workers were employed by the government.

Soviet-style output exaggerations and financial mismanagement keep the country mired in poverty, despite its vast stores of natural gas and oil.

Turkmenistan exports natural gas, cotton, and grain. Agriculture depends heavily upon canal irrigation.

In 2004, 60% of the Turkmen people lived below the poverty line.

The Turkmen currency is called the manat. The official exchange rate is $1 U.S. : 5,200 manat. The street rate is closer to $1 : 25,000 manat.

Human Rights in Turkmenistan:

Under the late president, Saparmurat Niyazov (r. 1990-2006), Turkmenistan had one of the worst human rights records in Asia. The current president has instituted some cautious reforms, but Turkmenistan is still far from international standards.

Freedom of expression and religion are guaranteed by the Turkmen Constitution, but don't exist in practice. Only Burma and North Korea have worse censorship.

Ethnic Russians in the country face harsh discrimination. They lost their dual Russian/Turkmen citizenship in 2003, and cannot legally work in Turkmenistan. Universities routinely reject applicants with Russian surnames.

History of Turkmenistan:

Ancient Times:

Indo-European tribes arrived in the area c. 2,000 B.C. The horse-centered herding culture that dominated the region until the Soviet Era developed at this time, as an adaptation to the harsh landscape.

Turkmenistan's recorded history starts around 500 B.C., with its conquest by the Achaemenid Empire. In 330 B.C., Alexander the Great defeated the Achaemenids. Alexander established a city on the Murgab River, in Turkmenistan, which he named Alexandria. The city later became Merv.

Just seven years later, Alexander died; his generals divided up his empire. The nomadic Scythian tribe swept down from the north, driving out the Greeks and establishing the Parthian Empire (238 B.C. to 224 A.D.) in modern-day Turkmenistan and Iran. The Parthian capital was at Nisa, just west of the present-day capital of Ashgabat.

In 224 A.D. the Parthians fell to the Sassanids. In northern and eastern Turkmenistan, nomadic groups including the Huns were migrating in from the steppe lands to the east. The Huns swept the Sassanids out of southern Turkmenistan, as well, in the 5th century A.D.

Turkmenistan in the Silk Road Era:

As the Silk Road developed, bringing goods and ideas across Central Asia, Merv and Nisa became important oases along the route. The Turkmen cities developed into centers of art and learning.

During the late 7th century, the Arabs brought Islam to Turkmenistan. At the same time, the Oguz Turks (the ancestors of modern Turkmen) were moving west into the area.

The Seljuk Empire, with a capital at Merv, was established in 1040 by the Oguz. Other Oguz Turks moved to Asia Minor, where they would eventually establish the Ottoman Empire in what is now Turkey.

The Seljuk Empire collapsed in 1157. Turkmenistan was then ruled by the Khans of Khiva for about 70 years, until the arrival of Genghis Khan.

Mongol Conquest:

In 1221, the Mongols burned Khiva, Konye Urgench and Merv to the ground, slaughtering the inhabitants. Timur was equally ruthless when he swept through in the 1370s.

After these catastrophes, the Turkmen were scattered until the 17th century.

Turkmen Rebirth and the Great Game:

The Turkmen regrouped during the 18th century, living as raiders and pastoralists. In 1881, the Russians massacred the Teke Turkmen at Geok-tepe, bringing the area under the Tsar's control.

Soviet and Modern Turkmenistan:

In 1924, the Turkmen S.S.R. was founded. The nomadic tribes were forcibly settled onto farms.

Turkmenistan declared its independence in 1991, under President Niyazov.

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