Turkmenistan's Journey to Independence: From Ancient Origins to Modern Times

Turkmenistan's Ancient Roots: A Journey through History

Turkmenistan, a country in Central Asia with a deep history and cultural heritage, has had a remarkable journey to independence. From its ancient roots to interactions with different rulers, including the Göktürks or Blue Turks, Mongols, Russians, and its current status, Turkmenistan's road to self-rule reflects its resilience and the enduring spirit of its people.

Turkmenistan, a landlocked country, is bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Caspian Sea. Its capital is Ashgabat, and it's one of six independent Turkic states. With a population of approximately seven million, it's one of the least densely populated Central Asian nations.

Throughout history, Turkmenistan has been a crossroads for various empires and cultures. Merv, one of the oldest oasis-cities in Central Asia, was once a prominent city globally, especially during its time on the Silk Road. The region was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1881 and played a role in the anti-Bolshevik movement in Central Asia. In 1925, it became the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic within the Soviet Union and gained independence in 1991 after the USSR's dissolution. The article delves into the historical narrative of Turkmenistan, exploring its development from a crossroads of empires to its modern-day independence in Central Asia.

💻 Table of Contents:

  1. Turkmenistan's Ancient Past: A Journey through Time
  2. First Turkic Khaganate: Ancient Turkic Empire Including Turkmenistan
  3. Turkmenistan's Cultural Shift: The Arrival of Islam
  4. The Khwarazmians and Mongols: Clash of Empires in Central Asia
  5. Turkmenistan's Post-Timurid Era: Rise of Regional Powers
  6. The Russian Conquest of Turkmenistan: Transformation and Resistance
  7. From Soviet Republic to Independence

Turkmenistan's Journey to Independence: From Ancient Origins to Modern Times
Turkmenistani Manat

Turkmenistan's Ancient Past: A Journey through Time

Turkmenistan's history traces back to around 500 B.C. when it fell under the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire. Then Alexander the Great won against the Achaemenids and built a city on the Murgab River, naming it Alexandria, later known as Merv. Seven years later, the Scythian nomads overtook the Greeks and established the Parthian Empire (238 B.C. to 224 A.D.) in Turkmenistan and Iran, with its capital in Nisa, near today's Ashgabat.

In 224 A.D., the Sassanids replaced the Parthians, and nomadic groups, like the Huns, moved into northern and eastern Turkmenistan, pushing out the Sassanids in the 5th century A.D.

As the Silk Road developed, Merv and Nisa became important stops, fostering art and learning. In the late 7th century, the Arabs introduced Islam to Turkmenistan, while the Oguz Turks, ancestors of today's Turkmen, migrated to the region.

The Oguz Turks established the Seljuk Empire in 1040, with Merv as its capital. Other Oguz Turks migrated to Asia Minor and later founded the Ottoman Empire in what is now Turkey.

First Turkic Khaganate: Ancient Turkic Empire Including Turkmenistan

The Göktürks, also known as the Celestial Turks or Blue Turks, were a group of nomadic Turkic people in ancient Inner Asia. Under the guidance of Bumin Qaghan and his brother Istämi centuries earlier to the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, they established the First Turkic Khaganate, the world's first and largest Turkic Empire, with Turkmenistan as part of its domain.

The First Turkic Khaganate emerged as the initial transcontinental empire in Central Asia, stretching from Manchuria to the Black Sea. The Göktürks played a crucial role in connecting the East and the West through their control of the Silk Road trade routes. In 603, it disintegrated due to internal conflicts, resulting in the formation of the Eastern and Western Turkic Khaganates.

Turkmenistan's Cultural Shift: The Arrival of Islam

In the early 7th century, Arab armies, driven by a desire to spread Islam, expanded beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Their conquest of Persia and Central Asia led to contact with Turkmenistan. Generals like Qutayba ibn Muslim gradually extended Arab rule in the region, marking the start of Muslim influence. Turkmenistan became part of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, with Islamic governance and institutions taking root. This era saw the rise of mosques, madrasas, and a transformation of Turkmenistan's culture and religion as Islam became the dominant faith, impacting local beliefs and traditions.

Turkmenistan's Journey to Independence: From Ancient Origins to Modern Times
First Turkic Khagnate

The Khwarazmians and Mongols: Clash of Empires in Central Asia

The Khwarazmian Empire, a Persian-influenced Sunni Muslim Turkic Rule, controlled parts of Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran from 1077 to 1231. They began as vassals under the Seljuk Empire and the Qara Khitai but later ruled independently from about 1190. Their reign ended with the Mongol conquest in 1219-1221.

In the 13th century, the Mongol Empire, led by Genghis Khan and his successors, conquered Turkmenistan and vast territories in Asia and Europe, causing significant destruction, population displacement, and agricultural damage. Mongol invasion of the Khwarazmian was one of the deadliest in history, with an estimated two to fifteen million casualties.

During the Mongol era, Turkmenistan saw the rise of the prominent Timurid dynasty, led by the conqueror and arts patron, Timur (Tamerlane). Established in the 14th century, the Timurid Empire reached its zenith in the 15th century, bringing a period of cultural and intellectual growth to Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan's Journey to Independence: From Ancient Origins to Modern Times
Independence Day Parade

Turkmenistan's Post-Timurid Era: Rise of Regional Powers

After the collapse of the Timurid Empire, Turkmenistan went through a period of destruction and witnessed the rise of various regional powers. Several successor states arose, each fighting for control over different parts of the region. Some of the notable powers that took power in Turkmenistan after the fall of the Mongol Empire include:

Uzbek Khanate (1501-1920): The Uzbek Khanate, led by the Uzbek tribes, gained control over portions of Turkmenistan in the 16th century. The Uzbeks established a centralized state and exerted influence over the region for several centuries.

Persian Safavid Empire (1501-1736): The Safavid Empire, based in Persia (modern-day Iran), expanded its influence into parts of Turkmenistan during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Safavids were of Turkic origin but adopted Persian culture and Shia Islam as their state religion.

Khanate of Khiva (1511-1920): The Khanate of Khiva, located in present-day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, emerged as a powerful state in the 16th century. The Khiva Khanate controlled parts of western Turkmenistan and exerted influence over trade routes and agricultural lands.

The Russian Conquest of Turkmenistan: Transformation and Resistance

The expanding Russian Empire recognized the significance of Turkmenistan's cotton industry, and the relationship between Turkmen merchants and Russia dated back to the reign of Peter the Great. In 1802, members of Turkmen clans became Russian subjects, and trade relations prospered, aided by the construction of a port on the Caspian Sea, known today as Turkmenbashi.

Turkmenistan's Journey to Independence: From Ancient Origins to Modern Times
Pamir Mountains from Tajikistan to Kazakhstan

Russian Assistance and Turkmen Rebellions:

During the 19th century, the Turkmen sought Russian support in their frequent uprisings against local khans and Persian shahs. The Russians, in turn, were driven by their quest for new markets, fertile lands for cotton cultivation, and access to Turkmenistan's natural resources. As an initial step in their conquest, the Russians provided arms and sustenance to Turkmen rebels.

Russian Military Expeditions:

From the mid-19th century, Russia initiated military campaigns in Turkmenistan. Between 1863 and 1868, they defeated and incorporated the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva. While western Turkmenistan voluntarily joined the Russian Empire, eastern and southern Turkmenistan resisted fiercely. Notably, the Battle of Geok-Tepe in 1881 marked a pivotal moment when Turkmenistan became a part of the Russian Empire.

By 1885, the Russian Empire had secured control over all Turkmen clans. Russian forces annexed territories, extending their reach to Persia and Afghanistan. The conquest of Turkmenistan was a complex historical chapter marked by transformation and resistance.

From Soviet Republic to Independence:

After the Russian Revolution, Turkmenistan became a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924, remaining under communist control throughout most of the 20th century. Independence from the Soviet Union was achieved on October 27, 1991, under the leadership of Saparmurat Niyazov, who became the first president. Niyazov focused on strengthening Turkmen identity and cultural heritage.

Today, Turkmenistan is a nation that cherishes its ancient traditions while aspiring for modernity. The government places great importance on safeguarding Turkmen culture, with activities like carpet weaving, horse breeding, and traditional music integral to the national identity.

Turkmenistan's Journey to Independence: From Ancient Origins to Modern Times
Oghuz Khan Presidential Palace

While Turkmenistan has made progress in education, healthcare, and infrastructure, it faces difficulties concerning political freedoms and human rights. Access to independent media and freedom of expression remain limited.


Turkmenistan has a long history that began when it was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire in 500 B.C. After that, different empires and nomadic groups ruled the region. Turkmenistan was an important part of the Silk Road, a famous trade route. When Islam arrived, the culture of Turkmenistan changed. Later, the Mongols came and other regional powers rose to power. Eventually, the Russian Empire took over Turkmenistan. In 1991, Turkmenistan became independent. Today, it tries to keep its old traditions alive, but there are challenges with political freedoms and human rights.