Tools from the Stone-Age have been discovered along the Caspian Sea
shore and near the modern port of Turkmenbashi, establishing the
pre-historic presence of humans in the area that is today known as
Turkmenistan. The remains of farming settlements in the Kopet-Dag
Mountains date back 8,000 years. The ancient cultivators in this region
used the mountain streams to irrigate their crops. They also survived by
herding livestock and by hunting wild game.
As early societies learned to make pottery and metal tools, they began to
trade with other peoples of central Asia. This profitable trade however,
also attracted foreign invaders. By the 6th century B.C., the powerful
Persian Empire had established the provinces of Parthia and Margiana, in
what is now Turkmenistan. From their base south of the Kopet-Dag
range, the Persians controlled trade through central Asia and subdued the
many nomadic peoples who lived on Turkmenistan's arid plains.
In the 4th century B.C., the Persian Empire was defeated by the army of
Alexander the Great. In 330 B.C., Alexander marched northward into
central Asia and founded the city of Alexandria near the Murgab River. Located on an important trade route, Alexandria later became the city of
Merv (modern Mary). The ruins of Alexander's ancient city are still visible
along the banks of the Murgab River.
After Alexander's death in 323 B.C., his generals fought for control of his
empire, which quickly fell apart. The Scythians-fierce, nomadic warriors
from the north-then established the kingdom of Parthia, which covered
present-day Turkmenistan and Iran. The Parthian kings ruled their domain
from the ancient city of Nisa. At its height, Parthia extended south and
west as far as the Indus River in modern India.
Parthia fell in A.D. 224 to the Sasanian rulers of Persia. At the same time,
several groups-including the Alans and the Huns-were moving into
Turkmenistan from the east and north. A branch of the Huns wrested
control of southern Turkmenistan from the Sasanian Empire in the 5th
The Arrival of the Oguz
Although Turkmenistan was still populated mostly by nomadic herders,
permanent settlements were prospering in the fertile river valleys. Farmers
raised grains, vegetables, and fruits along the Amu Darya River, and Merv and Nisa became centers of sericulture (the raising of silkworms). A busy caravan route, connecting China and the city of Baghdad (in modern Iraq), passed through Merv. In addition, merchants, traders, and missionaries introduced the religions of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism to
Central Asia came under Arab control after a series of invasions in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Meanwhile, the Oguz-the ancestors of the Turkmen-were migrating from eastern Asia into central Asia, the Middle East, and Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The Arab conquest brought the Islamic religion to the Oguz and to the other peoples of central Asia.
By the 11th century, the Oguz were pushing to the south and west, and
the Arabs were retreating from Turkmenistan. In 1040, the Seljuk clan of
the Oguz tribe established the Seljuk Empire, with its capital at Merv. At
one time, the Seljuk realm stretched all the way to Baghdad. Other Oguz
groups moved west across the Caspian Sea, settling in Azerbaijan and in
Asia Minor, where they joined the Seljuk Turks in establishing the
Ottoman Empire. After mixing with the settled peoples in Turkmenistan,
the Oguz living north of the Kopet-Dag Mountains gradually became
known as the Turkmen.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the main centers of Turkmen culture were
at Khiva in the north (now in Uzbekistan) and at Merv in the south. Khiva
controlled the cities and farming estates of the lower Amu Darya Valley.
Merv became a crossroads of trade in silks and spices between Asia and
the Middle East. This business created vast wealth in the ancient city,
where the Seljuk rulers built fabulous mosques and palaces. At the same
time, a growing class of wealthy traders and landowners was challenging
the Seljuks for control of Turkmenistan.
In 1157, during a revolt of powerful landowners, the Seljuk Empire
collapsed. The leaders of Khiva took control of Turkmenistan, but their
reign was brief. In 1221, central Asia suffered a disastrous invasion by
Mongol warriors who were sweeping across the region from their base in
Under their commander Genghis Khan, the Mongols conquered Khiva
and burned the city of Merv to the ground. The Mongol leader ordered
the massacre of Merv's inhabitants as well as the destruction of
Turkmenistan's farms and irrigation works. The Turkmen who survived the invasion retreated northward to the plains of Kazakhstan or eastward to the shores of the Caspian Sea.
After Genghis Khan's death in 1227, the Mongols lost control of
Turkmenistan. Small, semi-independent states arose under the rule of the
region's landowners. In the 1370's, the Mongol leader Timur (known as
Tamerlane in Europe), a descendant of Genghis Khan, conquered these
states once more and established the Timurid Empire. But after Timur's
death in 1405, the realm weakened and soon disintegrated.
The Mongol invasions had divided the Turkmen into small clans and had
pushed them into the desert. Later, as the Mongols retreated from
Turkmenistan, the Turkmen fell under the control of Muslim khans rulers)
who established khanates in Bukhara (in modern Uzbekistan) and Khiva.
The rivalry between the khans and the rulers of Persia touched off
centuries of war in Turkmenistan. Persians, Turkmen, and the khans
fought for the scattered oases in southern Turkmenistan. From the 14th
through the 17th century, Turkmenistan was in decline. To escape the
conflicts, most Turkmen moved to the remote deserts along the borders of Persia and Afghanistan.
Russia and Turkmenistan
In the 18th century, after centuries of poverty and isolation, the Turkmen
began to rebuild their way of life. The poet Magtymguly created a literary
language for the Turkmen and laid the foundations for their modern culture and traditions. Keimir-Ker, a Turkmen from the Tekke clan, led a
rebellion of the Turkmen against the Persians, who were occupying most
of Turkmenistan. Popular ballads and folk legends still recount the deeds
At this time, the Russian Empire was expanding into central Asia from the
plains and forests of eastern Europe. The Russian czar, Peter the Great
sent the first Russian expeditions into Turkmenistan. Peter was seeking a
route for Russian trade with southern Asia and the Middle East. In 1716,
however, members of a Turkmen clan murdered the czar's representatives near Khiva. Russia waited for more than a century before sending another mission into Turkmenistan.
Nevertheless, trade between Turkmen merchants and Russia continued
and was helped by the building of a port on the Caspian Sea at
Krasnovodsk, (modern Turkmenbashi). In 1802, members of several
Turkmen clans officially became Russian subjects. During the 19th
century, the Turkmen also asked for Russia's help during their frequent
rebellions against the khans and against the shahs of Persia. The Russians
were seeking new markets for their goods, fertile land for the growing of
cotton, and access to Turkmenistan's natural resources. As a first step in
the conquest of the region, the Russians agreed to provide arms and food
to the Turkmen rebels.
Russia began sending military expeditions into Turkmenistan in the second
half of the 19th century. From 1863 through 1868, Russian armies
defeated and annexed the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva. The people of
western Turkmenistan, who were seeking independence from the khans,
willingly joined the Russian Empire.
But the Turkmen of eastern and southern Turkmenistan fiercely resisted
Russian annexation. In 1879, at Geok-Tepe near Ashkhabad (modern
Ashgabat) Turkmen warriors of the Tekke den stopped a large Russian
force. Two years later, the Russians besieged Geok-Tepe, eventually
capturing it as well as Ashkhabad.
By 1885, all of the Turkmen clans had submitted to Russian control. The
Russians annexed Mary and pushed across Turkmenistan to the borders
of Persia and Afghanistan. The building of the Transcaspian Railroad,
which connected Krasnovodsk (modern Turkmenbashi), Mary, and
trading centers to the east, opened up the region for economic
From 1890 to 1917, Turkmenistan was part of Russian Turkestan, a
province that included central Asia and its Muslim nationalities-the
Kazakhs, the Uzbeks, the Kyrgyz, the Taliks, and the Turkmen. Within
Turkestan, however, the Turkmen had a lesser status. Their lands were
defined as the Transcaspian Region and were ruled as a military colony.
This neglect by Russia's government allowed the Turkmen to maintain their culture, language, and nomadic way of life with little interference.
War and Revolution
In the early 20th century, discontent with strict czarist rule spread among
the people of the Russian Empire. At the same time, the empire was being
drawn into a bloody international conflict. During World War I (
1914-1918), the Turkmen and other peoples of central Asia moved to
reclaim their homelands. A violent uprising broke out in 1916, when the
Turkmen, led by Dzhunaid Khan, defeated the Russians at Khiva. The
Turkmen established a national government that lasted until 1918.
In October 1917, the Communist leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin overthrew
the Russian government. The Communists succeeded in taking control of
Ashkhabad in the summer of 1918. In response, Dzhunaid Khan and
forces loyal to the old Russian regime joined together to drive out the
Communists. In July of 1919, these anti-Communist allies established the
independent state of Transcaspia.
Soviet Victory and Stalin's Rule
By the fall of 1920, however, the Communist Red Army was advancing
from Tashkent (in modern Uzbekistan) and from Bukhara. The
Communists gradually subdued Turkmenistan by military occupation and
by putting Communist politicians in control of local governments. In 1922,
the Communists founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Two years later, they established the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) as a full member of the USSR.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin made
harsh and sweeping changes throughout the USSR. Private property was
seized, and the Soviet government used brutal methods to punish
opposition. These policies sparked a rebellion in Turkmenistan, and in
1927 the Soviets lost control of the republic to a national resistance
movement called the Turkmen Freedom.
After reclaiming the Turkmen SSR in 1932, Stalin executed thousands of Turkmenistan's Communist leaders-including the president and the
premier-whom he accused of helping the nationalists. After the terror of
the 1930s, the Communist regime in Ashkhabad became completely
obedient to the central Soviet government in Moscow.
Meanwhile, another international conflict was brewing in Europe. The
western Soviet Union was devastated by World War II (1939-1945),
when Germany invaded with a huge military force. Fierce fighting
destroyed factories, farms, and cities throughout western Russia and
Ukraine. After the war, the Soviets built new plants in central Asian cities,
including Ashkhabad and Chardzhou (modern Turkmenabat). A work
force made up of ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians emigrated to the
Turkmen SSR to take advantage of new jobs in the republic.
Most Turkmen, however, remained rural and nomadic. Despite the
immigration of factory workers, the Turkmen SSR remained one of the
Soviet Union's most isolated republics. Foreigners, and even Soviet
citizens, were forbidden to visit most of the region, and the Soviet
government also would not allow most Turkmen to travel out side the
In spite of the republic's isolation, economic development continued in the
region. New irrigation projects diverted water from rivers to collective
farms, many of which began growing fruits and vegetables instead of
cotton. During the 1970s, the Soviet government also developed the
region's energy resources, including oil and natural gas.
The Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev instituted several new policies after
coming to power in 1985. Glasnost allowed more open criticism of the
Communist party and of the country's economic system. Perestroika
eased government control over many small businesses, which could now
set their own wages, prices, and production schedules. Turkmen
Communist leaders, however, were slow to adopt these reforms.
Annamurad Khodzhamuradov, who became the Turkmen SSR's leader in 1986, remained loyal to the Soviet government but never accepted
In the late 1980s, many Soviet republics attempted to gain their
independence from Moscow. In 1990, the Turkmen SSR declared that it
would take greater control over local politics and economic policy. The
government established the office of president and named Saparmurat
Niyazov to the post.
On October 27, 1991 Turkmenistan proclaimed its independence from
the United Soviet Socialist Republic.