Turkmenistan is a landlocked country along the Silk Road, in one of the most inaccessible and remote territories of Central Asia. Its desert, steppe and multicolour mountains resembling a lunar landscape make the country look one of the most melancholy places of the region.
According to a tradition dating to the 11th century, the term ‘Turkmen’ derives from the Persian word ‘Tir’ or in Turkic pronunciation ‘Tur’ which means arrow, and the word ‘Kamon’ or in the Turkic pronunciation ‘Keman’ which means bow. The Persians, therefore, allegedly referred to the Turkmens as skilled archers. But then, over time, the Turkic peoples have allegedly forgotten the original meaning of the word, confusing the suffix man – later to become men – with the Turkish word meaning ‘I’, In most of Turkish languages, in fact, ‘Turkmen’ means ‘I am Turkish’.
Geographically, Turkmenistan covers an area of approximately 500,000 sq. kms and borders with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to the north-east, with Afghanistan to the south-east, with Iran to the south and with the Caspian Sea to the west.
The S-shaped Kopet-Dag and Paropamisos mountain ranges mark the country’s borders, while in the east there are canyons and the lush mountains of the Kugitang Nature Reserve. The coast on the Caspian Sea, which is flat with dunes and in large part below sea level, is characterized by large bays. As for the waterways, the 2600-km Amudar’ja River is considered the most important of the country, it flows across a wide area of the west-central Asian region and is a tributary of the Aral Sea. Another important river is the Murghab that rises in north-western Afghanistan, in the Paropamisos mountain range, runs north-west towards the Murghab District, in the Afghan territory, and then reaches the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan, where it peters out. This desert is the heart of the country. It covers about 80% of the territory – an area of about 40,000 sq.kms. – creating stunning scenery, which is much more varied than one would expect. The name ‘Karakum’, which means ‘black sand’ in Turkic languages, is emblematic because sand is the natural element characterizing this area.
The sand of the Karakum desert contains a characteristic salt, which is the result of the evaporation of the sea and river waters of this region, and remnants of mineral and alkaline deposits. Among the main features of this desert are the oases of Mary and Tejen – the largest in the area – noted for cotton growing, the mountains of the Balkan Bolshoi (where the remains of primitive humans have been found) and the Darvaza gas crater, better known as ‘The Door to Hell.’ The latter is the result of a bizarre combination of human accident and natural phenomenon, that created a vision of hell amid the incredible lunar landscape of the Karakum desert. In 1971, while drilling in the Derweze area, which is rich in natural gas, geologists tapped into a cavern filled with natural gas. The ground beneath the drilling ring collapsed, leaving a large hole with a diameter of 70 metres. To avoid poisonous gas discharge, it was decided the best solution was to burn it off. Geologists had hoped the fire would use all the fuel in a matter of days, but the gas is still burning today.
Locals have dubbed the cavern ‘The Door To Hell’. Like most of the neighbouring countries, Turkmenistan is also a land of ancient nomadic traditions. The Turkmen were mainly a nomadic people for most of their history, but became sedentary when Turkmenistan was incorporated into Tsarist Russia first and later into the USSR, which restricted freedom of movement. Despite that the Soviets tried to eliminate the traditional ethnic, linguistic and tribal characteristics of the Turkmen, many pre-Soviet tribal customs have survived in Turkmen society. This is particularly evident among the inhabitants of the desert steppe. These people, in fact, keep their cultural traits alive, through the use of traditional costumes, in some cases emblems of the social status of a person (e.g., girls with pigtails and wearing a scarf are unmarried), through carpet and jewel handicrafts, as well as through activities such as horse breeding, hunting and traditional dances. Poems and folk songs were passed down orally before being written down in the twentieth century.
Turkmenistan has a population of nearly 5,000,000 inhabitants, which represents an increase of approximately 40% compared to the 1989 USSR census (3,534,000 inhabitants). Fertility rates are high (about 3 children per woman) and the birth rate is 19.6%, with a population growth at an average annual rate of 1,14%; data also show a constant decline in mortality rates. To date 85% of the population are Turkmen, 5% Uzbeks and 4% Russians. The ethnic homogeneity is partly due to the migratory flows of Russian and Uzbek minorities that occurred in the aftermath of the independence from the USSR in 1991. (F.R.)