Alexander the Great established a city in what is now Turkmenistan on his way to India. The Parthians launched their kingdom in the 6th century B.C. around the Akhaktkin oasis, at the foot of the Kopetdag Mountains between modern day Turkmenistan and Iran. The Parthians were Rome’s main rivals in the east. In 53 B.C. the Parthians defeated the Romans in the Battle of Carrhae in Mesopotamia and took 10,000 Romans prisoner. The Parthian Empire prospered for around 500 years.

The Sassanids (A.D. 226-651) ruled mainly over what is now Iran and Iraq. At its height it ruled over what is now the Caucasus, southwestern side of the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Sedentary Oghuz tribes from Mongolia moved into present-day Central Asia around the eighth century. Within a few centuries, some of these tribes had become the ethnic basis of the Turkmen population.

In the 11th century, Sultan Sanjar made Merv in present-day Turkmenistan the capital of the Seljuk Empire and used it as a base for its conquests of Afghanistan and Persia. The Turkmen converted to Islam in the 11th century. Women did no begin wearing the veils until they became settled.

The Safavid dynasty of Persia ruled what is now southern Turkmenistan in the 16th and 17th centuries. At its height the Safavid empire (1502-1736) embraced the modern states of Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Afghanistan and parts of Syria, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan.

Bactria Margiana

The Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (or BMAC, also known as the Oxus civilization) is the name given to a Central Asian Bronze Age culture. Dated to ca. 2300–1700 B.C., and centered on the upper Amu Darya (Oxus River), it is located in present-day northern Afghanistan, eastern Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan. Bactria is the old Greek name for northern Afghanistan and the northeast corner of Iran, while Margiana is further north, in what is today Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Through the region runs the Amu Dar'ya River, which was known in Greek history as the Oxus River. Much of archeological work was done in Soviet era by Soviet scientists.

The Bactria-Margiana civilisation occupied the region from the Neolithic until around 1700 B.C.; archaeological evidence indicates that their civilisation was at its peak at around 2300 – 1700 B.C., boasting significant urban complexes with impressive walls and gates, monumental architecture, wheel-turned pottery, viticulture, and complex ceramics, tools and jewellery.

The Bactria Margiana Archeology Complex, began in the foothills around Ashgabat in 2300 B.C.—about three centuries after the pyramids were finished and at the time power in Mesopotamia was shifting from Sumner to Babylon and China had yet to develop writing—and spread to much of modern Turkmenistan and parts of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan around 2200 B.C. and then disappeared a few centuries later.

Bactria Margiana was a resourceful agricultural society that thrived around oases in the harsh Kara-kum Desert. It; 1) established large urban centers; 2) built mud-brick fortifications, large buildings and monumental arches; 3) established extensive irrigation systems to grow wheat and barley; 4) raised goats and sheep; 5) produced fine ceramics, bronze goods, alabaster and bone carvings and jewelry made with gold and semiprecious stones; 6) buried luxury goods with the dead; and 7) may have developed writing or proto-writing.


Writing from Ancient Turkmenistan?

In 2001, archaeologists found a thumbnail-size stone object from Bactria Margiana inscribed with three or four red symbols that may be an ancient form of writing. The symbols are different from those used in the writing of Mesopotamia, Iran and the Indus Valley. The scientists speculate the object may have been a seal, with a measure of units of grain, and was used in the accounting of commodities as was the case with seals in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. [Source: New York Times]

The symbols resemble an ancient form of Chinese writing that was used until about 200 B.C. A similar-sized seal found in Xinjiang, dated to the Han Period (206 B.C. to A.D. 9) has almost identical symbols. If there is a link between the newly-discovered symbols and the ancient Chinese writing it suggests that the Chinese writing was influenced by the writing of Turkmenistan’s ancient civilization.

The verdict is still out on whether the symbols are a true writing based on a spoken language. Critics claim the symbols are simply too limited to link them with a language. Dr. Fredrik T. Hiebert of the University of Pennsylvania, one the discoverer of the inscription, told the New York Times, “What is super significant to me, this is the first time that three or four signs have been found in relation to each there this long ago in Central Asia. At some basic level, this seems to be writing. These are not just a series of random signs, potter’s marks or decorations. Of course, with only one seal, it is premature to talk about how it was used, what the symbols meant or what kind of language it was.”

Cannabis, Soma and Ephedra in Bactia Margiana

Oxus or Bactria-Margiana civilisation, which was at its peak from around 2300 to 1700 B.C. in parts of preset-day Turkmenistan, produced pottery with what some have said are impressions made by hemp seeds, but this conclusion has been disputed. The Scythians, who lived in various parts the Eurasian steppe were first recorded to use cannabis in around 700 B.C.. [Source: Seshata, September 30, 2014, Sensi Seeds sensiseeds.com -]

According to Sensi Seeds:“The Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi (1929-2013) discovered the remnants of the Oxus civilisation during excavations near the Oxus River (Amu Darya) in 1976, and was the source for the claim that traces of cannabis were found in pottery stored in rooms apparently intended for purposes of ritual worship. It is thought that the religion of the civilisation was a form of fire-worship that later developed into Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the Persian Empire. He claimed that cannabis (along with opium and ephedra, other entheogenic plants indigenous to the region) was used to make an intoxicating beverage, known as haoma to the Zoroastrians and soma to the Vedic priests of India. He also observed modern cannabis plants growing in the vicinity of the temples.-

“According to Sarianidi, three ceramic bowls with traces of cannabis and ephedra were discovered, as well as a basin containing a considerable quantity of cannabis, and several items apparently used for extracting and straining the juices from the plants. It was reported that analysis of the samples confirmed the presence of cannabis and ephedra. The ceramic pots also contained layers of gypsum that had settled over the years and retained the impressions of small seeds stated to be from the hemp plant.-

“However, the positive identification of the substances could not be replicated in the laboratory, although attempts were made by later researchers. Furthermore, the identification of the seed impressions as being hemp has also been disputed, with some arguing that they are too small. This in turn has been countered by others who argue that ancient strains of cannabis produced generally smaller seeds, which has been demonstrated by other prehistoric excavations such as the Scythian burial sites in Pazyryk, which were unearthed between 1925 and 1949 by the Russian archaeologist Sergei Rudenko. Furthermore, crosses of modern indica varieties with the wild-type ruderalis that is still found in the region of the excavations have produced varieties thought similar to the dominant ancient phenotype; some of these varieties are notable for their exceptionally small seeds.-

“It is not possible to state with certainty that the substances found at the Oxus excavation sites were cannabis and ephedra, and the identity of haoma/soma remains a mystery. It is likely that, rather than any one plant, the drink was a mixture of plants with psychoactive properties, and that the plants themselves may have varied with locality or point in time—which, of course, does that preclude the likelihood that cannabis would have been among them. It is worth noting that at the point at which the Zoroastrian religion became formally established (circa 575 BCE), references to haoma cease and references to bhanga, which certainly refers to cannabis, suddenly begin to appear. Revered as the ‘bhanga of Zoroaster’, cannabis was used extensively in ritual from that point on, and was said to transport the soul to the heavens and reveal the higher mysteries.-

Origin of the Turkmen

There are different opinions about the origin of the Turkmen people. Many believe that they are the descendants of Oguz Khan, who originated from outside of present-day Turkmenistan and entered Turkmenistan in the 9th to 11th centuries. However, some scientists believe that the earliest ancestors of the Turkmen were members of ancient Iranian-speaking nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes living in what is now Turkmenistan. The word “Turkmen” has an Old Persian origin. Iranian-speaking nomads were called “turkmanend,” meaning this name mea“resembling the Turks”, The word “Turkmen” first appeared in Arabic sources in the second half of the 10th century. [Source: advantour.com]

Historians believe that the original Turkmen were nomadic horse-breeding clans known as the “Oghuz” from the Altai region of what is now Mongolia and Siberia. They began migrating from their homeland around the 6th century, then were driven out by the Seljuk Turks, and formed communities in the oases around the Kara-kum deserts of modern Turkmenistan and also parts of Persia, Anatolia and Syria. The name Turkmen was used in 11th century sources to refer to groups among the Oghuz that converted to Islam.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Turkmen, as more than two dozen tribal groups of Turkic ethnic and linguistic heritage are collectively known, were pastoral nomads who lived in encampments, raised livestock, bred horses, and occasionally plundered settled areas for booty and slaves. In order to ensure year-round green pastures for their animals, the tribes moved two or three times a year. The Turkmen first appear under this name in Central Asian written sources in the ninth century, and by the eleventh century some groups had migrated westward as far as Iran, Syria, and Anatolia, while others had remained in the area that is present-day Turkmenistan. [Source: Department of Islamic Art. "Turkmen Jewelry", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York, August 2011]

Oghuz and the Turkmen

The origins of the Turkmen may be traced back to the Oghuz confederation of nomadic pastoral tribes of the early Middle Ages, which lived in present-day Mongolia and around Lake Baikal in present-day southern Siberia. Known as the Nine Oghuz, this confederation was composed of Turkic-speaking peoples who formed the basis of powerful steppe empires in Inner Asia. In the second half of the eighth century, components of the Nine Oghuz migrated through Jungaria into Central Asia, and Arabic sources located them under the term Guzz in the area of the middle and lower Syrdariya in the eighth century. By the tenth century, the Oghuz had expanded west and north of the Aral Sea and into the steppe of present-day Kazakstan, absorbing not only Iranians but also Turks from the Kipchak and Karluk ethnolinguistic groups. In the eleventh century, the renowned Muslim Turk scholar Mahmud al-Kashgari described the language of the Oghuz and Turkmen as distinct from that of other Turks and identified twenty-two Oghuz clans or sub-tribes, some of which appear in later Turkmen genealogies and legends as the core of the early Turkmen. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Oghuz expansion by means of military campaigns went at least as far as the Volga River and Ural Mountains, but the geographic limits of their dominance fluctuated in the steppe areas extending north and west from the Aral Sea. Accounts of Arab geographers and travelers portray the Oghuz ethnic group as lacking centralized authority and being governed by a number of "kings" and "chieftains." Because of their disparate nature as a polity and the vastness of their domains, Oghuz tribes rarely acted in concert. Hence, by the late tenth century, the bonds of their confederation began to loosen. At that time, a clan leader named Seljuk founded a dynasty and the empire that bore his name on the basis of those Oghuz elements that had migrated southward into present-day Turkmenistan and Iran. The Seljuk Empire was centered in Persia, from which Oghuz groups spread into Azerbaijan and Anatolia. *

The name Turkmen first appears in written sources of the tenth century to distinguish those Oghuz groups who migrated south into the Seljuk domains and accepted Islam from those that had remained in the steppe. Gradually, the term took on the properties of an ethnonym and was used exclusively to designate Muslim Oghuz, especially those who migrated away from the Syrdariya Basin. By the thirteenth century, the term Turkmen supplanted the designation Oghuz altogether. The origin of the word Turkmen remains unclear. According to popular etymologies as old as the eleventh century, the word derives from Turk plus the Iranian element manand , and means "resembling a Turk." Modern scholars, on the other hand, have proposed that the element man /men acts as an intensifier and have translated the word as "pure Turk" or "most Turk-like of the Turks." *

Early Turkmen

The Oghuz first appeared in the area of Turkmenistan is the A.D. 8th to 10th centuries. According to legend Turkmen are descended from the fabled Orghuz Khan or the warriors who formed clans around his 24 grandsons. The Turkmen (Turcomans) were those Turks, mostly but not exclusively Oghuz, who had embraced Islam and begun to lead a more sedentary life than their forefathers in the 10th to 13th centuries.

In the 11th and 12th century Oghuz-Turkmen established the Khorosan and Khorsem khanates, the core of the future Turkmen nation. During the 13th century Mongol invasions they fled to remote areas near the shores of the Caspian Sea. There they remained relatively isolated. Unlike many other Central Asian peoples, they were not influenced much by Mongol culture or political traditions. In the 14th century, a federation of Turkmen tribesmen, who called themselves Ak-koyunlu established a dynasty that ruled eastern Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraq and western Iran. In the 15th century what is now Turkmenistan was divided between the Khivan and Bukharan khanates and Persia.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “ The Turkmen resisted being subject to any of the neighboring Islamic states, with whom they sometimes formed alliances based on mutual interest. While not merchants themselves, the Turkmen were in constant contact with urban populations, and were often involved with providing transport and security for long-distance caravan trade. [Source: Department of Islamic Art. "Turkmen Jewelry", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York, August 2011]

Seljuk Period in Turkmenistan

In the eleventh century, Seljuk domains stretched from the delta of the Amu Darya delta into Iran, Iraq, the Caucasus region, Syria, and Asia Minor. In 1055 Seljuk forces entered Baghdad, becoming masters of the Islamic heartlands and important patrons of Islamic institutions. The last powerful Seljuk ruler, Sultan Sanjar (d. 1157), witnessed the fragmentation and destruction of the empire because of attacks by Turkmen and other tribes. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Until these revolts, Turkmen tribesmen were an integral part of the Seljuk military forces. Turkmen migrated with their families and possessions on Seljuk campaigns into Azerbaijan and Anatolia, a process that began the Turkification of these areas. During this time, Turkmen also began to settle the area of present-day Turkmenistan. Prior to the Turkmen habitation, most of this desert had been uninhabited, while the more habitable areas along the Caspian Sea, Kopetdag Mountains, Amu Darya, and Murgap River (Murgap Deryasy) were populated predominantly by Iranians. The city-state of Merv was an especially large sedentary and agricultural area, important as both a regional economic-cultural center and a transit hub on the famous Silk Road. *

Mongols in Turkmenistan

Between 1219 and 1225 the Mongols moved into Turkmenistan. Merv, in present-day Turkmenistan, was among the great Silk Road trading centers destroyed by Genghis Khan's armies.

According to one source a Muslim holy men and his helpers spent 13 days counting 1.3 million victims in Merv "taking into account only those that were explain to see.” Under the Seljuk Turks, Merv had become a city full of palaces, libraries, observatories, and canals that nourished parks and lush gardens. All this came to an end when messengers of Genghis Khan in 1218 appeared, demanding tribute and the pick of the city's most beautiful women. The Seljuks refused and killed the messengers. The Mongol arrived three years later and demanded that city surrender. The Seljuks complied and the Mongols responded by massacring all the city's inhabitants. According to some accounts each Mongol soldiers was ordered to decapitate 300 to 400 civilians and set the city aflame. After the Mongols left, Merv remained uninhabited for more than a century.

Most historians believe the huge casualties figures were greatly exaggerated. These cities as important as they were didn't have that many people and there was little incentive to slaughter that many people. "I can't believe they would have wasted time doing that," historian Larry Moses said. "The Mongols pretty much annihilated the armies they came against and a lot of civilians were marched in front of the army as cannon fodder, but I don't think a lot of citizens were wiped out. The Mongols needed people to move their packtrains and siege weapons."

Formation of the Turkmen Nation

During the Mongol conquest of Central Asia in the thirteenth century, the Turkmen-Oghuz of the steppe were pushed from the Syrdariya farther into the Garagum (Russian spelling Kara Kum) Desert and along the Caspian Sea. Various components were nominally subject to the Mongol domains in eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Iran. Until the early sixteenth century, they were concentrated in four main regions: along the southeastern coast of the Caspian Sea, on the Mangyshlak Peninsula (on the northeastern Caspian coast), around the Balkan Mountains, and along the Uzboy River running across north-central Turkmenistan. Many scholars regard the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries as the period of the reformulation of the Turkmen into the tribal groups that exist today. Beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing into the nineteenth century, large tribal conglomerates and individual groups migrated east and southeast. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Historical sources indicate the existence of a large tribal union often referred to as the Salor confederation in the Mangyshlak Peninsula and areas around the Balkan Mountains. The Salor were one of the few original Oghuz tribes to survive to modern times. In the late seventeenth century, the union dissolved and the three senior tribes moved eastward and later southward. The Yomud split into eastern and western groups, while the Teke moved into the Akhal region along the Kopetdag Mountains and gradually into the Murgap River basin. The Salor tribes migrated into the region near the Amu Darya delta in the oasis of Khorazm south of the Aral Sea, the middle course of the Amu Darya southeast of the Aral Sea, the Akhal oasis north of present-day Ashgabat and areas along the Kopetdag bordering Iran, and the Murgap River in present-day southeast Turkmenistan. Salor groups also live in Turkey, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and China. *

Much of what we know about the Turkmen from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries comes from Uzbek and Persian chronicles that record Turkmen raids and involvement in the political affairs of their sedentary neighbors. Beginning in the sixteenth century, most of the Turkmen tribes were divided among two Uzbek principalities: the Khanate (or amirate) of Khiva (centered along the lower Amu Darya in Khorazm) and the Khanate of Bukhoro (Bukhara). Uzbek khans and princes of both khanates customarily enlisted Turkmen military support in their intra- and inter-khanate struggles and in campaigns against the Persians. Consequently, many Turkmen tribes migrated closer to the urban centers of the khanates, which came to depend heavily upon the Turkmen for their military forces. The height of Turkmen influence in the affairs of their sedentary neighbors came in the eighteenth century, when on several occasions (1743, 1767-70), the Yomud invaded and controlled Khorazm. From 1855 to 1867, a series of Yomud rebellions again shook the area. These hostilities and the punitive raids by Uzbek rulers resulted in the wide dispersal of the eastern Yomud group. *

Turkmen in Turkmenistan

Turkmen have traditionally been a loose confederation of warring tribes. They generally kept their distance from the other major powers in the region and exploited pastures and oases that no one else really wanted. In the 16th century after the remnants of the Mongol dynasties and their successors had been driven out of Turkmenistan, the Turkmen gradually took over the agricultural oases of Turkmenistan. By the 19th century, most Turkmen, particularly those that lived south of the Amu-Darya, were settled farmers or semi-nomadic agriculturalists but a significant number remained nomadic animal herders, who traveled with the seasons over wide areas in search of pastures for their animals.

During this period the Turkmen were divided into more than 20 tribes that lacked any kind of political unity. Even so they were powerful enough to challenge and clash with neighboring states such as Iran, Khiva and Bukhara. By the early 19th century the dominant tribes were the Teke, based in the south, the Yomut, in the southwest and in the north around Khorezm, and the Ersari in the east, near the Amu Darya. The three tribes together constituted about half of the total Turkmen population with the Teke being the largest Turkmen tribe.

Turkmen Brigands

Up the 19th century, Turkmen were largely regarded as brigands infamous for raiding Central Asian caravans. They settled in areas in Iran and Turkmenistan , raided as far away as southern Iran and southern Russia and provided the khanates in Khiva and Bukhara in Uzbekistan with Persian and Russian slaves. Today many Caucasus-looking Turkmen trace their ancestry back to captured slaves.

One 19th century traveler in Central Asia wrote that Turkmen “would not hesitate to sell into slavery the prophet himself, did he fall into their hands.” The Turkmen extorted “protection” money from villagers in return for not raiding them. Turkmen pirates operated on the Caspian Sea and the rivers near Turkmen territory. When there were no villages or caravans to raid or harass, the Turkmen tribes often fought among themselves.

Few western European ventured into Turkmen territory. An Englishman, James Baille Fraser, as captured and came very close, he claimed, to being killed. In his melodramatic account of his experience he wrote: “I knew but too well of the character of these Talish highlanders, who live by blood and plunder..into whose hands I had unhappily fallen....I knew that by all calculations my life was not worth an hour’s purchase in the their hands...one of them, drawing his Gheelance knife, exclaimed with an oath, that kill me he would.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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