Ashgabat: Turkmenistan’s Lavish Capital of Marble and Gold

Ashgabat: Turkmenistan’s Lavish Capital of Marble and Gold

A strange and fascinating capital city, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan is a showcase of modernity set in an ancient desert landscape.

In spite of its location on an ancient trade route, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan didn’t achieve the status and influence of other Silk Road cities, such as Uzbekistan’s Samarkand or Bukhara. Originally known as Konjikala, the city was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century.

In 1881 the Russians built a fortress on the site as a buffer against English-dominated Persia, and by the early 20th century, Ashgabat was a prosperous and flourishing city. In 1948 a massive earthquake leveled the city, and since then it has been rebuilt from the ground up.

Ashgabat's characteristic blue and white architecturePhoto credit: Bill Thornton

Ashgabat’s characteristic blue and white architecture
Photo credit: Bill Thornton

Today, Soviet-style apartment buildings mingle with modern marble and gold monuments. So many, in fact, that in 2013, the Guinness Book of World Records awarded Ashgabat the record for the highest density of white marble buildings in the world. How did it happen?

Ashgabat's "Palace of Happiness" opened in 2011, accommodating up to seven weddings at once Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Ashgabat’s “Palace of Happiness” opened in 2011, and accommodates up to seven weddings at once
Photo credit: Devin Connolly

This Ashgabat monument of 10 Akhal-Teke horses reflects Turkmens' love for their Silk Road horses Photo credit: Russ & Ellen Cmolik

This Ashgabat monument of 10 Akhal-Teke horses reflected Turkmens’ love for their Silk Road horses, until it was mysteriously dismantled in 2014 
Photo credit: Russ & Ellen Cmolik

The PeopleThe Turkmen people were traditionally nomadic horsemen, and are only a handful of generations distant from their nomadic ancestors. They are still considered expert horsemen, and take great pride in the indigenous Akhal-Teke horse of Turkmenistan.

(click on small square photos to see a larger version)


Ashkabad, Turkmenistan

An early golden statue of Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan’s former president
Photo credit: Ana Filonov

The Old Leader, TurkmenbashiIn 1991, Saparmurat Niyazov declared independence from a crumbling Soviet Union and was elected President and soon thereafter, Prime Minister as well.

Officially declaring himself Turkmenbashi or “Father of all Turkmen,” Niyazov  erected dozens of monuments, many to himself.

Arch of Neutrality in Ashgabat. Photo credit: Michel Behar

At the top of the Monument of Neutrality, another golden statue of Turkmenbashi opens his arms in front of the Turkmen flag
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Arch/Monument of NeutralityTurkmenbashi was responsible for building the 250-foot Arch of Neutrality, on which a 11-foot golden statue of himself revolved to continuously face the sun. Sadly, the statue is now stationary, though still imposing; it has been retired to the edge of town, and has been demoted to a “Monument” of Neutrality rather than an “Arch.”

The stately golden Kipchak Mosque, dedicated to the former Turkmen president, Saparmurat NiyazovPhoto credit: Lindsay Fincher

The immense golden Kipchak Mosque, dedicated to the former Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Kipchak MosqueThe huge $100-million-dollar mosque in former Turkmen President Niyazov’s hometown of Kipchak was inaugurated in 2004. The mosque is big enough to hold 10,000 people, and its 164-foot golden dome had to be lowered in place by helicopter. Verses from Niyazov’s own spiritual book, the Ruhnama, are etched on the walls alongside Koranic verses. Niyazov was buried here in the family mausoleum that he built.

Entrance to the Kipchak Mosque, AshgabatPhoto credit: Lindsay Fincher

Entrance to the Kipchak Mosque, near Ashgabat
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher


Ashgabat's Independence Park, clad in characteristic gold and white marble, is lined with massive statues of Turkmen heroesPhoto credit: Lindsay Fincher

Ashgabat’s Independence Park, clad in characteristic gold and white marble, is lined with massive statues of Turkmen heroes
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Independence MonumentOne of Niyazov’s biggest undertakings was the Independence Monument, set in Independence Park, a 345-acre green space in the center of the city lined with monuments and statues. The white monument with a gold-tipped minaret is meant to bring to mind the Turkmen yurt. 27 sculptures of Turkmen heroes guard the round building, and fountains flow down its ribs. Nearby, a two-story representation of Turkmenbashi’s book, the Ruhnama, opens and lights up at night.

The Independence Monument in Ashgabat's Independence Park was inspired by traditional Turkmen tents and headgearPhoto credit: Michel Behar

The Independence Monument in Ashgabat’s Independence Park was inspired by traditional Turkmen tents and headgear
Photo credit: Michel Behar


The New LeaderNiyazov’s unexpected death from heart failure in December of 2006 left both political and cultural voids in Turkmenistan. Former Minister of Health Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov stepped in as president in 2007, and soon began building his own white marble monuments.

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Ashgabat’s Golden Horse Monument features current Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov riding an Akhal-Teke, Turkmenistan’s national horse
Photo credit: Kevin Testa

Golden Horse MonumentIn honor of his love of horses (in particular the Turkmen Akhal-Teke, said to have lent genes to both the Arabian horse and the American Quarter Horse), the new president’s likeness was cast in bronze, painted in gold leaf, and placed astride a golden Akhal-Teke stallion. The entire sculpture is poised on a huge marble cliff, a la St. Petersburg’s Bronze Horseman.

Ashgabat's Alem Cultural and Entertainment Center, site of the world's largest enclosed ferris wheelPhoto credit: Lindsay Fincher

Ashgabat’s Alem Cultural and Entertainment Center, site of the world’s largest enclosed Ferris wheel
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Ferris WheelIn another bid at Guinness World Record fame, Berdimuhammedov commissioned the tallest enclosed Ferris wheel in the world, called “Alem,” or “the Universe.”

A view of the world's largest enclosed ferris wheel at night. Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

The world’s largest enclosed Ferris wheel at night
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

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Ashgabat’s brand-new airport was built in the shape of a flying falcon
Photo credit: Bill Thornton

AirportOne of the country’s latest accomplishments is the opening of a beautiful new airport, with the . The modern international airport has a capacity of 1,110 passengers an hour, which it may need for Ashgabat 2017.

A visual lightworks display at one of Ashgabat's main squaresPhoto credit; Kevin Testa

A visual lightworks display at one of Ashgabat’s main squares
Photo credit: Kevin Testa

Ashgabat 2017In September 2017, Ashgabat will host the , which is scheduled to bring more than 5,000 athletes from 62 countries to compete across 17 sports. The Olympic Complex, projected to be ready by March 2017, includes over 30 different sites, including 15 competition venues and the Athletes’ Village.

To add to these improvements, U.S. golf hero and golf course developer, Jack Nicklaus, is opening a near Ashgabat just ahead of the games. The people of Turkmenistan are being encouraged to learn to play the unfamiliar sport.

A view from Independence Park. Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

The Independence Museum at the base of the Independence Monument
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Travel to Turkmenistan with MIR

MIR has more than 30 years of travel experience in Central Asia and has an affiliate office in Uzbekistan. We have a roster of contacts that can take you to places that you didn’t even know you wanted to go. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

MIR has unparalleled destination expertise in creating immersive cultural experiences in our destinations, including lesser-traveled Turkmenistan.

You can admire Ashgabat’s gleaming monuments on a small group tour:

Or on a rail journey by private train:

You can also book a custom private journey or a tour extension to Turkmenistan based on your interests and schedule.

Chat with a MIR destination specialist by phone (1-111-111-1111) or email today. 

 

(Top Photo: The Kipchak Mosque glows at sunset)

PUBLISHED: February 23, 2017

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