Turkmenistan culture

Downtown Ashgabat (photo: Kimberley Bulkley)

Downtown Ashgabat (Kimberley Bulkley)


Ashgabat, the capital, means City of Love. About 10% of Turkmenistan's population lives there. The city was destroyed in an earthquake in 1948 and has been completely rebuilt. The wide Kara Kum Canal passes through the middle of Ashgabad and keeps the desert at bay

Ashgabat street scene, 2013 (USIP/Ted Feifer)

Ashgabat street scene, 2013. (USIP/Ted Feifer)

Ashgabat's architecture reflects massive structures built during the Soviet and since the Niyazov period, all in white marble.  The style reflects the grandness and power of the state, and its overwhelming relationship to the individual. The Arch of Neutrality with a 12-meter high stature of Niyazov which revolves to follow the sun throughout the day, is one of the many structures that stand out.  Niyazov transformed Ashgabat from a dusty Soviet provincial outpost into a marble and gold citadel of luxury hotels, mosques and monuments to himself. But the veneer of prosperity is thin.

The huge Tolkuchka bazaar is held weekends 8 km. outside the city. Amid trucks, camels, and goats, traders offer for sale everything from jewelry and car parts to pistachios and the traditional Turkmen dark red carpets. There are also smaller bazaars open daily in the city.

Along the canal there is a strip of cultivated and irrigated land, but if you go north from the canal you soon hit the desert. The Kara Kum (Black Sand) Desert fills over four-fifths of the country with great crescent-shaped sand dunes and cracked baked-clay surfaces. The air temperature soars to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, while the sand surface may reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit. As the desert's name suggests, the predominant colors are ochre, gray, and black—except in April, when the spring rain makes the desert bloom briefly in an explosion of red, orange, and yellow.


South of the capital the land rises toward the Kopet Dag mountain range. On the lower slopes there is an underground hot water mineral lake. If you don't mind the smell of sulfur, you may like to take a dip. To the west lie the turquoise waters of the Caspian Sea. Along the pocked desert shoreline the sand is gray and frosted with salt. There is a dusty port town of single-story, pastel-painted buildings named Turkmenbashi (Father of the Turkmen), in honor of the previous president.


Nisa, some 18 kilometers southwest of Ashgabat, is described as one of the first capitals of the Parthians. An earthquake destroyed Nisa in the first decade B.C. UNESCO declared the Nisa fortress a World Heritage Site in 2007

There are also ancient buildings and archeological ruins in other parts of Turkmenistan. Old Urgench boasts two mausoleums and the tallest minaret in Central Asia (220 feet). (A minaret is the mosque tower from which the faithful are called to prayer.) The oldest ruins are those at the site of the ancient oasis of Merv.

Suleiman Demeril Mosque
The Suliman demiral Mosque, at night, 2013.  (USIP/Ted Feifer)

The Suleiman Demeril Mosque in Ashgabat, at night, 2013. (USIP/Ted Feifer)

Suleiman Demeril Mosque, which was built with the help of Turkey, was modeled after the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and is located in Ashgabat.

Nature reserve

If you are interested in cobras, scorpions, and tarantulas, the Repetek desert nature reserve in eastern Turkmenistan is the place for you.

In the extreme eastern corner of the country is the beautiful mountainous landscape of the Gaurdak region with caves, gorges, and waterfalls.

The Kugitang reserve, right on the Uzbek border, is a geological research center, the pride of which is a rock plateau imprinted with hundreds of dinosaur footprints.

Turmen ladies wearing the Turkmen national costume (photo: Kimberley Bulkley)

Turmen ladies wearing the Turkmen national costume (Kimberley Bulkley)

Turkmenistan's people are only a couple of generations removed from the nomadic life. They love horses and pride themselves on their hospitality. Tribal identities remain very important. You can tell which tribe people belong to by their dialect and the style of their clothing and carpets. Traditional dress is still often worn—baggy blue pants, cherry-red and gold-striped silk jackets, and shaggy wool hats for men, ankle-length silk dresses of wine red and maroon over striped pants for women. A woman's hair is always tied back and concealed under a kerchief or scarf.

Turkmen ladies celebrating International Women's Day on the 8th of March (photo: Kimberley Bulkley)

Turkmen ladies celebrating International Women's Day on the 8th of March (Kimberley Bulkley)

Important Muslim holy days include Eid-ul-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan, and Eid-ul-Azha, the feast of sacrifice. The originally Persian spring festival of Nauruz (New Yea'sr Day) is also a big holiday.


Turkmenistan is potentially a rich country, having a huge income from its reserves of oil and natural gas. However, the average person is very poor. Cotton, fruit, vegetables, and grains are grown on the lands irrigated by the Kara Kum Canal and by the Amu Darya River along the northeastern border.

Traditional Turkmen carpet (Turkmenistan Embassy in Washington Website)

Traditional Turkmen carpet (Turkmenistan Embassy in Washington website)

The Turkmen are justly proud of their carpets.  Geometric designs vary from tribe to tribe.  The largest carpet in the world is located in the Turkmen Carpet Museum in Ashgabat. 


Many common dishes are vegetarian, such as herb-filled pastries, cornmeal pancakes, and dried fruit plov (pilaf). Porridge of mung beans, cornmeal and pumpkin, or rice, milk, and yoghurt, can make a meal.