I stood in the largest mosque in Central Asia at 12:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. Its domed prayer hall, with an alleged capacity of 20,000, was empty.
Outside, no one washed their feet and face in the complex of dancing fountains that lined the walkway to the front entrance. From the tops of crisp white poles, snapping green flags provided the only competition to the musical chant of Friday prayers, broadcast with crystal clarity from invisible speakers.
That this marble–and-gold shrine was vacant at Friday midday prayer time, the most important time of the week for observant Muslims, was actually not the most surprising thing about it.
The multimillion-dollar mosque, which was built by Turkmenistan’s leader-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov in his home village of Gypjak, rises from fields of alfalfa like a gold-plated UFO. Hardly a place of worship, it is an ostentatious, profane monument to one of the world’s most bizarre leaders in one of its few remaining closed societies.
The nearby capital city of Ashgabat is a larger-than-life diorama showcasing Niyazov’s brand of cultish self-promotion and his unique approach to urban design.
Turkmenistan (population about 5 million people), which is bordered by Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea, is slightly larger than California, but with about 17 percent of the population.
Turkmenistan was once part of the kingdom of ancient Persia, and was later ruled by Arabs, in the 8th century. It saw the invasion of Seljuk Turks in the 11th century. Mongols such as Genghis Khan conquered the region in the 13th and 14th centuries, before Turkmenistan came under Uzbek control in the late 15th century. Annexed by Russia in 1881, it became a constituent republic of the U.S.S.R. in 1925.
Until 1991, Turkmenistan was an anonymous cog in the great wheel of the Soviet Union, supplying the empire with natural gas and oil from its prodigious supplies.
Formerly head of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, President Saparmurat Niyazov was “elected” with 99.5 percent of the vote when Turkmenistan gained independence. Now a committed nationalist, he wraps himself in the green flag of Islam, but rules with a Stalinist-style iron fist.
He doesn’t give an inch of political or press freedom, and human rights groups condemn his regime. Having renamed several planets after himself and his mother and humbly selected the name “Turkmenbashi,” which means “leader of all Turkmen,” he has established a personality cult of cosmic proportions.
Not only is Turkmenistan politically isolated from the rest of the world, it is cut off economically, despite its oil wealth. Aside from a few explorers poking at the riches beneath Turkmenistan’s soil and some pioneering Turkish firms, there is little evidence of Western consumer culture. Just before my arrival, the president had expelled DHL and Fed-Ex, arguing that Turkmenpochta (the country’s postal service) could do the job just as well.
I stumbled into desert-brown Ashgabat dirty from three days of bouncing around the dunes of the Kyzylkum Desert in the back seat of a spare Russian-made Waz jeep. After spending my days exploring the empty desert and my nights in roadside chai khanas (traditional tea houses) and yurts of desert nomads, I was ready for smooth pavement and a shower.
Berzengi is a strip of 10 or so mid-priced, modern, government-run hotels sitting at the base of the Kopet Dag mountains. I stayed at the Chinese-themed Asia Hotel, but could have just as easily ended up at the white marble Black Gold Hotel, the Persian-themed Oil Palace or the one with the replica of the old-style “nodding donkey” oil-drilling rig in front. Visitors have lots of accommodation options since almost all of the hotels are completely empty.
Ashgabat’s urban design is a Central Asian interpretation of Las Vegas. Turkmenbashi has ordered old houses and buildings in the central city razed, and replaced them with toilet plunger–shaped monuments, white marble high-rise apartments that no one can afford to live in and chattering fountains that suck water from the tired Amu Darya River, hundreds of miles away. City maps more than a few years old are worthless; too much has changed.
In case it wasn’t clear enough from the smiling photos and inspirational quotations plastered on walls and banners around the city, the 200-foot–tall (75 meter) marble tripod known as the Arch of Neutrality in the center of the city sends an unmistakable message: Ashgabat is the personal fiefdom of one man.
At the top of the monument stands a 40-foot–tall (12 meter) gold statue of the president. Looming over downtown, the statue rotates to greet the sun, arms outstretched, in front of a gold Turkmenistan flag.
Standing on the arch’s observation deck, I looked out over Independence Square, home to Turkmenbashi’s gold-and-marble Vegas-meets- Tehran-style palace, the boxy white Parliament Building and several blue-domed government ministries, but no pedestrians and few cars. Despite the sprawling spaces, there doesn’t seem to be room for anyone else in Ashgabat but Turkmenbashi.
Below the arch stands a monument to the tragic 1948 earthquake that destroyed Ashgabat and killed Turkmenbashi’s family, along with more than 100,000 others. A fractured globe rests on the horns of an enormous bull, while a golden child — Turkmenbashi himself — emerges from the riven earth, rising from the arms of his dying mother.
Turkmenbashi has authored a three-volume treatise on Turkmen history, culture and life known as theRuhnama, meaning “soul.” It offers helpful advice to Turkmen, instructing them, for example, to get rid of those Soviet-era gold teeth in favor of modern white dentures. Images of the Ruhnama are impossible to avoid in Ashgabat. A huge replica of the neon-green book, bathed in colored light, sits amid fountains in Independence Park.
Such a spectacle is like a car wreck. It’s impossible not to stare, mouth agape.
On my way out of town, I visited the Gypjak Mosque, where Turkmenbashi’s personality cult not only violates standards of good taste, it toes the ragged edge of blasphemy as well. Golden excerpts from Turkmenbashi’s Ruhnama — not the Koran — encircle the thick marble bases of its four minarets. Inside, quotations from the Ruhnama trace the latticed marble balconies where women pray.
During the tour of the empty mosque interior, the tour guide shushed frequently, to keep us from disturbing the worshippers.
“But no one’s in here!” I blurted out, finally asking the question that we’d been asking ourselves during our two-day visit to Ashgabat, my voice echoing beneath the gold dome. “Why isn’t anyone here? Where are all the people?”
Our government-approved guide’s eyes grew wide.
“Shhhhhhh!” his eyes seemed to counter in stereo, as if I had uncovered the dirty little secret about the emperor and his wardrobe.
Some Turkmen seem to take this all in stride, preferring to focus on bread-and-butter issues, rather than the huge amount of resources devoted to enhancing their president’s image.
“Petrol is almost free, gas is free, electricity is free and everything else costs the same as a pack of cigarettes! What’s to complain about?” volunteered a gypsy cab driver in a battered Lada (a Russian car) sedan I flagged down for a trip to the Turkish shopping mall where I played air hockey and rode the only escalators in Turkmenistan.
I was surprised he offered this information unprompted — few Turkmen will risk an open conversation with a foreigner, and I knew better than to ask directly. I had no way of knowing whether his comment reflected his true opinion or was stated for the benefit of those who might be listening in.
I never did come to terms with lifeless Ashgabat. Its empty squares, vacant apartment buildings and expressways devoid of traffic at 6 p.m. on a weeknight were a sharp contrast to its rural areas. The majority of my visit was spent in the desert, camping in yurts where friendly nomad families jockeyed for the chance to serve me a breakfast of fermented camel milk, or in busy mountain villages where curious people lined up to talk to me.
In Ashgabat, I was lucky to engage a taxi driver or a vendor in the bazaar.
Because of the repressive nature of the regime and lack of economic opportunity, urban life is lived privately in the leafy courtyards of Ashgabat’s traditional houses, not in the inhospitable public spaces of downtown, where the walls have ears. Only the luckiest visitors breach the high walls surrounding the homes for a glimpse at life inside.
Although the challenges presented by distance and bureaucracy can be discouraging, for me, poking around Ashgabat for a couple of days shined some light onto one of the world’s last remaining personality cults and the listless city he’s created.
It was also a great place to pick up a Turkmenbashi wristwatch, on which the president’s grinning face, topped by a shiny black pelt of hair, peeks from between the hands.
Like its namesake, it seems to march to the beat of a different drummer.
If You Go
Embassy of Turkmenistan in Washington D.C.
Visa approval in Turkmenistan can take three weeks or more, and applications are denied capriciously. I applied with a tour company and waited weeks for the visa.
If accepted, all visitors must engage the services of a government-approved tour company, which draws up a detailed itinerary to submit to the authorities for approval, and supplies a minder. Travel document and passport checks are frequent while on the road to make sure visitors stay on track.