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Turkmenistan is a mid-sized country in Central Asia. It covers 188,500 square miles (488,000 sq. km), making it a bit larger than the state of California. It shares borders with Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, and has coastline along the Caspian Sea.
Turkmenistan’s concrete history begins at about 2000 BCE, when Iranian tribes began using the area as part of their nomadic lifestyle. Turkmenistan often served as a stop-over point for mass invasions or migrations of people, as well, heading further south. In the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the region, adding it to his vast empire and constructing the city of Alexandria, which would later become Merv and then Mary. The Parthians invaded after Alexander’s death, conquering the region, along with Iran, and forming the Kingdom of Parthia. The Parthians held the region for a short time, however, before it was conquered by the Sasanids of Persia, who would hold on to Turkmenistan until the 5th century, when invading Huns drove them out.
By this time Turkmenistan had become an important point on the Silk Route, and Merv become an important city in the production of silk. This led to an Arab invasion near the end of the 7th century, introducing Islam to the region. Various Turks moved into the area, beginning with the Oghuz, and the region was soon divided by different groups. In the 11th century the Seljukid conquered much of the region, although portions remained under the control of the Oghuz, the Ghuzz, and the Karluk.
In the early 13th century Turkmenistan, along with much of Central Asia, was conquered brutally by the Mongols. After a brief period of autonomy, the Mongol Timurid Empire re-established Mongol rule through the 14th century, eventually collapsing in the early 15th century. Upon the Timurid Empire’s collapse, Turkmenistan went back to a system of small independent states. For the next few hundred years various sections of lands were passed back and forth between major powers and minor rulers.
In the late 19th century Imperial Russia took control of all of Turkmenistan. Russian control was not always friendly to the Turkmen population, but during this time the country’s infrastructure did develop somewhat, most notably with the creation of the Transcaspian Railway. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Turkmenistan became a center for anti-Bolshevik fighters, eventually being subjugated by the new Soviet Union, and becoming a Soviet Republic in 1924. During this period there was severe resistance from nomadic Turkmen and Muslims in Turkmenistan, but despite constant guerilla action, the Soviets remained in control.
Turkmenistan achieved independence in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The head of the Communist Party in Turkmenistan at the time, Saparmurad Niyazov, was elected president, and quickly began ruling the country in an authoritarian manner, banning all opposition, and eventually changing the Constitution in 1999 to allow himself to serve as president for life. In 2005, however, he announced that he would allow free elections by 2010, then died in 2006. An election in early 2007 found a new president, but the election was largely condemned by international observers as being far from fair or open.
Although perhaps not the most democratic of nations, Turkmenistan is nonetheless relatively secure. Visitors have no more to worry about in this country than in many other Central Asian republics, and it is much friendlier to Westerners than nearby Afghanistan or Iran. The physical landscape of Turkmenistan is fascinating, and unlike anywhere else on Earth, although many have pointed out similarities with the face of the moon. The enormous Karakum Desert makes up more than 80% of the country, a blisteringly hot desert with little for tourists to visit, although plenty of oil beneath the surface. The remains of the city of Merv may be fascinating for archaeologists planning a vacation, but for most people they will seem to be rather unimpressive. Although the history here is awe-inspiring, little remains to the untrained eye.
Flights come in fairly frequently to Ashghabat from a number of Eastern European countries, and there is a once-weekly flight from London. Visitors interested in taking their time can also enter Turkmenistan by cargo ship across the Caspian Sea, and overland travel is easy from neighboring Iran as well.