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Republic of Turkmenistan ( ), also known as Turkmenia, ) is a country in Central Asia. Until 1991, it was a constituent republic of the Soviet Unionmarker, the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republicmarker (Turkmen SSR). It is bordered by Afghanistanmarker to the southeast, Iranmarker to the south and southwest, Uzbekistanmarker to the east and northeast, Kazakhstanmarker to the north and northwest and the Caspian Seamarker to the west.

Turkmenistan's GDP growth rate of 11.5% (IMF estimate for 2007) ranks 11th in the world, but official government statistics on which this estimate is based are widely regarded as unreliable. Although it is wealthy in natural resources in certain areas, most of the country is covered by the Karakum Desert.

Until recently it was a single-party system, that was considered to not meet even the most basic standards of democracy. Turkmenistan was ruled by President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov (called "Türkmenbaşy" — "leader of the Turkmens") until his sudden death on December 21, 2006. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was elected the new president on February 11, 2007.


The territory of Turkmenistan has a long and checkered history, as armies from one empire after another decamped there on their way to more prosperous territories. The region's written history begins with its conquest by the Achaemenid Empire of ancient Persia, as the region was divided between the satrapies of Margiana, Khwarezm and Parthia .

Alexander the Great conquered the territory in the fourth century BC on his way to Central Asia, around the time that the Silk Road was established as a major trading route between Asia and the Mediterranean Region . One hundred and fifty years later, Persia's Parthian Kingdom established its capital in Nisa, now in the suburbs of the capital, Ashgabatmarker . After replacement of the Parthian empire by Persian Sassanids, another native Iranian dynasty, the region remained territory of the Persian empire for several centuries.

In the seventh century CE, Arabs conquered this region, bringing with them Islam and incorporating the Turkmen into the greater Middle Eastern culture . The Turkmenistan region soon came to be known as the capital of Greater Khorasan, when the caliph Al-Ma'mun moved his capital to Mervmarker .

In the middle of the eleventh century, the Turkoman-ruled Seljuk Empire concentrated its strength in the territory of modern Turkmenistan in an attempt to expand into Khorasan (modern Afghanistanmarker). The empire broke down in the second half of the twelfth century, and the Turkmen lost their independence when Genghis Khan took control of the eastern Caspian Seamarker region on his march west.

For the next seven centuries, the Turkmen people lived under various empires and fought constant inter-tribal wars. Little is documented of Turkmen history prior to Russianmarker engagement. However, from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, Turkmen formed a distinct ethnolinguistic group . As the Turkmen migrated from the area around the Mangyshlak Peninsulamarker in contemporary Kazakhstanmarker toward the Iranian border region and the Amu Daryamarker basin, tribal Turkmen society further developed cultural traditions that became the foundation of Turkmen national consciousness.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, control of Turkmenistan was fought over by Persian Shahs, Khivamarker Khans, the Emirs of Bukharamarker and the rulers of Afghanistan. During this period, Turkmen spiritual leader Magtymguly Pyragy reached prominence with his efforts to secure independence and autonomy for his people.

At this time, the vast territory of Central Asia including the region of Turkmenistan was largely unmapped and virtually unknown to Europe and the Western world. Rivalry for control of the area between the British Empire and Tsarist Russiamarker was characterized as The Great Game. Throughout their conquest of Central Asia, the Russians were met with the stiffest resistance by the Turkmen. By 1894, however, Russia had gained control of Turkmenistan and incorporated it into its empire.

Soviet Union

The rivalry officially concluded with the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. Slowly, Russian and European cultures were introduced to the area. This was evident in the architecture of the newly formed city of Ashgabatmarker, which became the capital. The October Revolution of 1917 in Russia and subsequent political unrest led to the declaration of the area as the Turkmen SSRmarker, one of the six republics of the Soviet Unionmarker in 1924, assuming the borders of modern Turkmenistan.
A Turkmen man of Central Asia in traditional clothes, around 1905–1915.
The new Turkmen SSR went through a process of further Europeanization. The tribal Turkmen people were encouraged to become secular and adopt European-style clothing. The Turkmen alphabet was changed from the traditional Arabic script to Latin and finally to Cyrillic. However, bringing the Turkmens to abandon their previous nomadic ways in favor of communism was not fully embraced until as late as 1948. Nationalist organizations in the region also existed during the 1920s and the 1930s. The Ashgabat earthquake of 1948 killed over 110,000 (2/3 of the city's population).


When the Soviet Unionmarker began to collapse, Turkmenistan and the rest of the Central Asian states heavily favored maintaining a reformed version of the state, mainly because they needed the economic power and common markets of the Soviet Union to prosper. Turkmenistan declared independence on 27 October 1991, one of the last republics to secede.

In 1991, Turkmenistan became a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, an international organization of former Soviet republics. However, Turkmenistan reduced its status in the organization to "associate member" in August 2005. The reason stated by the Turkmen president was the country's policy of permanent neutrality. Turkmenistan Reduces Ties To ‘Associate Member' Radio Free Europe, 29 August 2005 It is the only former Soviet state (aside from the Baltic states now in the European Union, and Georgia that withdrew on 18 August 2009) without a full membership.

The former leader of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republicmarker, Saparmurat Niyazov, remained in power as Turkmenistan's leader after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Under his post-Soviet rule, Russian-Turkmen relations greatly suffered. He styled himself as a promoter of traditional Muslim and Turkmen culture (calling himself "Türkmenbaşy", or "leader of the Turkmen people"), but he became notorious in the West for his dictatorial rule and extravagant cult of personality. The extent of his power greatly increased during the early 1990s, and in 1999 he became President for Life.

Niyazov died unexpectedly on 21 December 2006, leaving no heir apparent and an unclear line of succession. A former deputy prime minister rumored to be the illegitimate son of Niyazov, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, became acting president, although under the constitution the Chairman of the People's Council, Ovezgeldy Atayev, should have succeeded to the post. However, Atayev was accused of crimes and removed from office.

In an election on 11 February 2007, Berdimuhamedow was elected president with 89% of the vote and 95% turnout, although the election was condemned by outside observers as unfair. He was sworn in on 14 February 2007.

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After 69 years as part of the Soviet Unionmarker (including 67 years as a union republic), Turkmenistan declared its independence on 27 October 1991.

President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov, a former bureaucrat of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, ruled Turkmenistan from 1985, when he became head of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR, until his death in 2006. He retained absolute control over the country after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. On 28 December 1999, Niyazov was declared President for Life of Turkmenistan by the Mejlis (parliament), which itself had taken office a week earlier in elections that included only candidates hand-picked by President Niyazov. No opposition candidates were allowed.

The politics of Turkmenistan take place in the framework of a presidential republic, with the President both head of state and head of government. Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan had a single-party system; however, in September 2008, the People's Council unanimously passed a resolution adopting a new Constitution. The latter resulted in the abolition of the Council and a significant increase in the size of Parliament in December 2008. The new Constitution also permits the formation of multiple political parties.

The current President of Turkmenistan is Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who took control following Niyazov's death in December 2006.

The former Communist Party, now known as the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, has been the only one effectively permitted to operate. Political gatherings are illegal unless government sanctioned.

Turkmenistan is among the twenty countries in the world with the highest perceived level of corruption: the 2008 Corruption Perception Index for Turkmenistan is 1.8 on a scale of 0 (most corrupt) to 10 (least corrupt).

Human rights

Although human rights and civil liberties are guaranteed in the Constitution of Turkmenistan (such as social equality, sex equality, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and freedom of movement), human rights remains a contentious issue in the country. Other social and economic rights include the right to work, the right to rest, and the right to education. However, there are freedom of religion issues.

According to the 2007 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, Turkmenistan had the third-worst restrictions on the freedom of the press in the world. Former president Saparmurat Niyazov enforced a ban on satellite dishes and also banned beards, long hair, ballet, opera and recorded music in Turkmenistan. These restrictions are now being gradually relaxed by the new president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Although there were modest improvements, the government continued to commit serious abuses, and its human rights record remained poor.

Administrative divisions

Provinces of Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is divided into five provinces or welayatlar (singular welayat) and one capital city district. The provinces are subdivided into districts (etraplar, sing. etrap), which may be either counties or cities. According to the Constitution of Turkmenistan (Article 16 in the 2008 Constitution, Article 47 in the 1992 Constitution), some cities may have the status of welaýat (province) or etrap (district).

Division ISO 3166-2 Capital city Area Pop (2005) Key
Ashgabat City Ashgabatmarker 871,500
Ahal Provincemarker TM-A Anaumarker 939,700 1
Balkan Provincemarker TM-B Balkanabatmarker  553,500 2
Daşoguz Provincemarker TM-D Daşoguzmarker 1,370,400 3
Lebap Provincemarker TM-L Türkmenabatmarker 1,334,500 4
Mary Provincemarker TM-M Marymarker 1,480,400 5


It is one of the driest deserts in the world, some places have an average annual percipitation amount of only 12 mm. The highest temperature recorded in Ashkhabad is 48.9 °C (120 F°) and Kerki, an extreme inland city located on the banks of the Amu Darya river, recorded 51.7 °C (125 °F) in July 1983.


Map of Turkmenistan
Dust Storm Over Turkmenistan

At , Turkmenistan is the world's 52nd-largest country. It is slightly smaller than Spainmarker and somewhat larger than the US state of Californiamarker.

Over 80% of the country is covered by the Karakum Desert. The center of the country is dominated by the Turan Depression and the Karakum Desert. The Kopet Dagmarker Range, along the southwestern border, reaches 2,912 meters (9,553 ft) at Kuh-e Rizeh (Mount Rizeh).

The Great Balkhan Range in the west of the country (Balkan Provincemarker) and the Köýtendag Rangemarker on the southeastern border with Uzbekistan (Lebap Provincemarker) are the only other significant elevations. The Great Balkhan Range rises to at Mount Arlanmarker and the highest summit in Turkmenistan is Ayrybabamarker in the Kugitangtau Range – . Rivers include the Amu Daryamarker, the Murghabmarker, and the Tejenmarker.

The climate is mostly arid subtropical desert, with little rainfall. Winters are mild and dry, with most precipitation falling between January and May. The area of the country with the heaviest precipitation is the Kopet Dag Range.

The Turkmen shore along the Caspian Seamarker is long. The Caspian Seamarker is entirely landlocked, with no access to the ocean.

The major cities include Ashkhabadmarker, Türkmenbaşymarker (formerly Krasnovodsk) and Daşoguzmarker.


Natural gas

HQ of the Ministry of oil and gas of Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan ranks fourth in the world to Russia, Iran and the United States in natural gas reserves. The Turkmenistan Natural Gas Company (Türkmengaz), under the auspices of the Ministry of Oil and Gas, controls gas extraction in the country. Gas production is the most dynamic and promising sector of the national economy. Turkmenistan's gas reserves are estimated at 8.1-8.7 trillion cubic meters and its prospecting potential at up to 21 trillion cubic meters.


Most of Turkmenistan's oil is extracted by the Turkmenistan State Company (Concern) Türkmennebit from fields at Koturdepe, Balkanabad, and Chekelen near the Caspian Sea, which have a combined estimated reserve of 700 million tons. The oil extraction industry started with the exploitation of the fields in Chekelen in 1909 (by Nobel brothers) and Balkanabad in the 1930s, then production leaped ahead with the discovery of the Kumdag field in 1948 and the Koturdepe field in 1959. Big part of the oil produced in Turkmenistan is refined in Turkmenbashy and Seidi refineries. Also, oil is exported by tankers through Caspian Sea to Europe via canals.


Turkmenistan is a net exporter of electrical power to Central Asian republics and southern neighbors. The most important generating installations are the Hindukush Hydroelectric Station, which has a rated capacity of 350 megawatts, and the Mary Thermoelectric Power Station, which has a rated capacity of 1,370 megawatts. In 1992 electrical power production totaled 14.9 billion kilowatt-hours.


Half of the country's irrigated land is planted with cotton, making the country the world's tenth-largest producer of it. It possesses the world's fourth-largest reserves of natural gas and substantial oil resources. In 1994, the Russian government's refusal to export Turkmen gas to hard currency markets and mounting debts of its major customers in the former Soviet Union for gas deliveries contributed to a sharp fall in industrial production and caused the budget to shift from a surplus to a slight deficit.

Turkmenistan has taken a cautious approach to economic reform, hoping to use gas and cotton sales to sustain its economy. In 2004, the unemployment rate was estimated to be 60%; the percentage of the population living below the poverty line was thought to be 58% a year earlier. Privatization goals remain limited.

Between 1998 and 2002, Turkmenistan suffered from the continued lack of adequate export routes for natural gas and from obligations on extensive short-term external debt. At the same time, however, the value of total exports has risen sharply because of increases in international oil and gas prices. Economic prospects in the near future are discouraging because of widespread internal poverty and the burden of foreign debt.

President Niyazov spent much of the country's revenue on extensively renovating cities, Ashgabat in particular. Corruption watchdogs voiced particular concern over the management of Turkmenistan's currency reserves, most of which are held in off-budget funds such as the Foreign Exchange Reserve Fund in the Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, according to a report released in April 2006 by London-based non-governmental organization Global Witness.

According to the decree of the Peoples' Council of 14 August 2003, electricity, natural gas, water and salt will be subsidized for citizens up to 2030; however, shortages are frequent. On 5 September 2006, after Turkmenistan threatened to cut off supplies, Russia agreed to raise the price it pays for Turkmen natural gas from $65 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters. Two-thirds of Turkmen gas goes through the Russian state-owned Gazprom.


Most of Turkmenistan's citizens are ethnic Turkmens with sizeable minorities of Uzbeks and Russians. Smaller minorities include Kazakhs, Tatars, Ukrainians, Armenians, Azeris, and Balochis.

The CIA World Factbook gives the ethnic composition of Turkmenistan as 85% Turkmen, 5% Uzbek, 4% Russian and 6% other (2003 estimates). According to data announced in Ashgabat in February 2001, 91% of the population are Turkmen, 3% are Uzbeks and 2% are Russians. Between 1989 and 2001 the number of Turkmen in Turkmenistan doubled (from 2.5 to 4.9 million), while the number of Russians dropped by two-thirds (from 334,000 to slightly over 100,000).


Turkmen is the official language of Turkmenistan (per the 1992 Constitution), although Russian still is widely spoken in cities as a "language of inter-ethnic communication". Turkmen is spoken by 72% of the population, Russian 12%, Uzbek 9%, and other languages 7%.


Islam is the dominant religion in Turkmenistan (89% of the population); the 9% of the population that adheres to the Eastern Orthodox Church are ethnic Russians; the remaining 2% religion is reported as unknown. Islam came to the Turkmen primarily through the missionary activities of sheikhs. These sheikhs were holy men and they often were adopted as patriarchs of particular clans or tribal groups, thereby becoming their "founders." Reformulation of communal identity around such figures accounts for one of the highly localized developments of Islamic practice in Turkmenistan.

In the Sovietmarker era, all religious beliefs were attacked by the communist authorities as superstition and "vestiges of the past." Most religious schooling and religious observance were banned, and the vast majority of mosques were closed. However, since 1990, efforts have been made to regain some of the cultural heritage lost under Soviet rule.

Former president Saparmurat Niyazov ordered that basic Islamic principles be taught in public schools. More religious institutions, including religious schools and mosques, have appeared, many with the support of Saudi Arabiamarker, Kuwaitmarker, and Turkeymarker. Religious classes are held in both schools and mosques, with instruction in Arabic language, the Qur'an and the hadith, and history of Islam.


Turkmen girl in traditional dress.

Education is universal and mandatory through the secondary level, the total duration of which was earlier reduced from 10 to 9 years; with the new President it has been decreed that from the 2007 - 2008 school year on, mandatory education will be for 10 years.

Mass Media

There are a number of newspapers and monthly magazines published in Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan currently broadcasts 5 national TV channels through satellite. There are no commercial or private TV stations. Articles published by the state controlled newspapers are heavily censored and written to glorify the state and its leader.

Internet services are the least developed in Central Asia. Access to internet services are provided by the government's only ISP company "Turkmentelekom". It is estimated that as of August 2007 there were 64,800 internet users in Turkmenstan or roughly 0.9% of total population.

See also

Further reading

  • Bradt Travel Guide: Turkmenistan by Paul Brummell
  • Historical Dictionary of Turkmenistan by Rafis Abazov
  • Lonely Planet Guide: Central Asia by Paul Clammer, Michael Kohn and Bradley Mayhew
  • The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk
  • Tradition and Society in Turkmenistan: Gender, Oral Culture and Song by Carole Blackwell
  • Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan by Adrienne Lynn Edgar
  • Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus by Robert D. Kaplan
  • Unknown Sands: Journeys Around the World's Most Isolated Country by John W. Kropf
  • Rall, Ted. "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?" New York: NBM Publishing, 2006.
  • Theroux, Paul, "Letter from Turkmenistan, The Golden Man, Saparmyrat Nyyazow’s reign of insanity" New Yorker, 28 May 2007


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