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Quick bites about Ashgabat: the capital

Ashgabat is the capital and the largest city of Turkmenistan. It is situated between the Karakum Desert and the Kopet Dag mountain range in Central Asia. It is also near the Iran-Turkmenistan border. The city was founded in 1881 based on an Ahal Teke tribal village and made the capital of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. Much of the city was destroyed by the 1948 Ashgabat earthquake but has since been extensively rebuilt under the rule of Saparmurat Niyazov’s “White City” urban renewal project. The Soviet-era Karakum Canal runs through the city, carrying waters from the Amu Darya from east to west. Since 2019, the city has been recognized as having one of the highest costs of living in the world largely due to Turkmenistan’s inflation and import issues.

Turkmenistan is a moderate Islamic state in a volatile region. The politics of Turkmenistan take place in the framework of a presidential republic, with the president both head of state and head of government. Turkmenistan has a single-party system. Any opposition to the government is considered treason and punishable by life imprisonment. The country has many political prisoners. Turkmenistan is dominated by a pervasive cult of personality extolling the late president as “Türkmenbaşy”, a title Saparmurat Niyazov assumed in 1993. Türkmenbaşy Palace, the presidential headquarters and home of the president of Turkmenistan is located in the city of Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan is largely a desert country with nomadic cattle raising, intensive agriculture in irrigated oases, and huge natural gas and petroleum resources. One-half of its irrigated land is planted in cotton, placing the country in the top 10 to 15 producers. It possesses the world’s fifth largest reserves of natural gas and substantial oil resources. Widespread internal poverty, a poor educational system, government misuse of oil and gas revenues, and Ashgabat’s unwillingness to adopt market-oriented reforms are viewed as obstacles to prosperity.

Ashgabat is primarily a government and administrative centre. The principal industries are cotton textiles, carpet weaving, glassworks, and metalworking. It is a major stop on the Trans-Caspian railway. The city’s spectacular environment has made it a centre for filmmaking. The city is served by Ashgabat Airport, the only international airport in Turkmenistan. It is located approximately six miles (10km) northwest of the city. The airport, with its air traffic control tower and a 12,000-foot-long precision-approach runway, opened in 1994 and was named after the country’s first president, Saparmyrat Niyazov.

Archaeological findings in the territory of modern Ashgabat date back to the second century BC, to the settlement called Konjikala. At that time, it was a wine-producing village and part of the Parthian Empire. After a destructive earthquake in the first century BC, it was rebuilt again and existed until the thirteenth-century invasion of the Mongol Empire. In 1881, there were several small Turkmen villages in the territory of modern Ashgabat, nominally under the Persian Empire. In 1881, it officially became a part of the Russian Empire under the Akhal Treaty and became a Russian garrison. In 1908, the first Bahai House of Worship was established in Ashgabat, but in 1938 the building became an art gallery, and in 1963 it was demolished.  In 1919, it was renamed Poltoratsk, and in 1925 the city became the capital of Turkmen. From 1927 on, the city was again called Ashgabat. The name of the city translated from Persian means Esk-love and Abad city, or the City of Love. However, local historians claim that Ashgabat means the city of Ashk, as it was the name of the founder of the Parthian Empire in the 3rd century BC. 

In Ashgabat, there are several famous places to visit as foreigners.

  • The National Museum of History

One of the best places to get acquainted with the general history of Turkmenistan is the National Museum. It is in a large white marble building and has over 500 thousand artefacts. There are amazing exhibitions of ancient jewellery, Hellenistic statues, and rhythms, or wine vessels, made of ivory such as elephant tusks, horns, and silver. Essentially, all the important archaeological finds of the country are found in this museum.

  • The Independence Monument

The independence monument is one of the symbols of the city. The base of the monument symbolizes a traditional yurt. The column on it is 118 meters high and topped with a crescent moon and five stars like on the Turkmen flag. Inside the dome, there is an ethnographical museum, and on top, there is a viewing platform. The main monument is surrounded by 27 prominent and important people in the history of Turkmens.

  • The Arch of Neutrality

The Arch of Neutrality was built in 1998 and dedicated to Turkmenistan’s policy of neutrality after gaining independence from the Soviet Union. It is 95-meters-high, and on top, there is a golden statue of the first president of Turkmenistan. It used to stand in the centre of the city, but in 2010 it was moved to the outskirts.

  • The Wedding Palace

The wedding palace was built in 2011 and has 11 floors. Even though you cannot go inside, it is worth visiting, as you might be lucky to see wedding couples outside.

  • Alem Entertainment Centre

The largest Ferris Wheel indoors is another Guinness record and was inscribed as such in 2012. Its diameter is 57 meters and has 24 cabins inside.

  • Halk Hakydasy Memorial Complex

Another large complex opened in 2014 and is dedicated to those killed in battles in the long history of Turkmenistan, including soldiers killed in WWII and victims of the 1948 earthquake. On October 6, 1948, almost two-thirds of the population of Ashgabat was killed, and most of the buildings in the city were destroyed in the earthquake.

  • Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque and Mausoleum

The Turkmenbashi Ruhy mosque, also known as the Gypjak Mosque, is located not far from Ashgabat, around 15 km away. It is located near the hometown of the first President, and near this mosque, there is also his family mausoleum.

  • Old Nisa

Old Nisa fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage site as it was one of the earliest cities of the Parthian Empire. It is located in an atmospheric area on a hill, at the foot of the Kopet-Dag Mountains. 14 hectares in size, the fort accommodates two semi-excavated complexes of Parthian period (III c. BC – III c. AD) structures, designated as royal residence and temple complex.

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