Turkmenistan has a population of 5.3 million people, making it one the least populous countries in the world. It is also one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries, with only 10.5 people per square kilometer (24 people per square mile). Most people live: 1) around the Amu-Darya, which runs long the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan border; 2) the valley around the Mugrab River in the mountains along the Turkmenistan-Iran border; and 3) the canal-fed oases between Gyzylarbat and Mary. The interior of the country is mostly unoccupied. About 50 percent of all the citizens of Turkmenistan live in urban areas. Women have traditionally had lots of kids.

People in Turkmenistan are referred are to as Turkmen, and sometimes Turkomen, Turkmenis or Turkmenistani. Technically, Turkmen refers to the ethnic group but is often also used to describe the citizens of Turkmenistan. Turkmenistani refers to Turkmenistan citizens. The word Turkmen comes from two Turkic words: “Turk”, which means "Turk" and “men” which means "I" or "me." Thus Turkmen means "I am a Turk." The plural of Turkmen is Turkmens.

The population is made of Turkmen (85 percent), Uzbek (5 percent), Russian (4 percent) and Other (6 percent) (2003). Other includes Kazakhs, Tatars, Azerbaijanis, Tajiks, Karakalpaks, Kyrgyz, Koreans, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews, Armenians, Persians, Lezghins, Uyghurs, Beludzhi, Kurds, Arabs and other ethnic groups from the former Soviet Union. According to the U.S. Department of State: There were an estimated 300 Jews, mainly in Ashgabat, but there was no organized Jewish community. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.


Turkmen, also known as Turkomen, are a Turko-Mongol tribes people that have traditionally been nomads and are regarded as superb horsemen, They are descendants of the Huns and forebears of the Mongols. The Turkmens are divided into five major tribes: the Ersary, Goklen, Teke, Yasyr, and Yomut. The Teke, to which President Niyazov belonged, predominate in top cultural and political positions.

Turkomen and Turks are different. Turkomen are recent descendants of nomadic warriors who seem to have more in common with the original 6th century Turkic tribes from Mongolia than they do with modern Turks. Up until the 20th century, for example, Turkomen organized raids into southern Iran to claim slaves. Turkomen live in the Central Asian parts of the former Soviet Union, northern Afghanistan and Iran, a few parts of Turkey and Iraq, and their homeland in Turkmenistan. Men traditionally wear big black turbans made from the wool of newborn Persian lambs. Turkmen ribesmen with Caucasian features trace their ancestry back to white slaves from Russia and the Caucasus mountains.

Turkmenistan is relatively ethnically homogenous. Turkmen tend to be tall and have a mix of Mongolian and Caucasian features. According the DNA studies, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen have retained their "ethnic purity."

The Turkmens are an ancient Turkic people. According to Soviet sources: they “are related to Trans-Caspian race of South Europeids. Turkmen are tall with oblong heads, narrow faces, high foreheads, relatively dark hair, eyes and complexion. Mongoloid facial features are negligible.” [Source: advantour.com]

There are communities of Turkmen in Uzbekistan and Tajikstan and significant numbers of them in northeastern Iran, northwestern Afghanistan, northern Iraq and eastern Turkey. In the 1990s about 3.6 millions Turkmen in Turkmenistan, 150,000 elsewhere in the Soviet Union, 1 million in Iran and 650,000 in northwest Afghanistan and smaller communities in Turkey and Iraq.

People of Central Asia

The people of Central Asia are basically divided into two types: the traditional nomads and semi-nomads (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongols and Turkmen) and the settled people (the Uzbeks and Tajiks). According the DNA studies, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen have retained their "ethnic purity."

There has traditionally been a lot of intermarriage between the ethnic groups of Central Asia. Uzbeks and Tajiks have traditionally been difficult to distinguish from one another. The same is true with Kyrgyz and Kazakhs. Clan and regional ties have historically been more important than ethnic identity.

Alexandre Bennigsen wrote in 1979 that ‘sub-national and supra-national loyalties remain strong in Central Asia and actively compete with national ones’; however, his thesis that this supra-national identity ought to be based on anti-Russian ‘pan-Turkestanism’ with the Uzbeks as its directing element is difficult to accept, at least as far as Tajikistan is involved.” [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

Ethnic Groups in Turkmenistan

In 2003 the population of Turkmenistan was 85 percent Turkmen, 5 percent Uzbek, and 4 percent Russian. Smaller ethnic groups, in order of size, are Tatar, Kazakh, Ukrainian, Azeri, and Armenian. There is no more recent data than 2003. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Ethnic Groups in 1991, Turkmen 72 percent, Russians nearly 10 percent, Uzbeks 9 percent, and Kazaks 2 percent. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the Soviet era there were more than twice as many Russians as there are now and Turkmen made up a smaller percentage of the population, but this has changed because so many Russians have left Turkmenistan since the break up of the Soviet Union. The Russians, who have traditionally lived in the cities, resented being relegated to second-class citizens. Most of the Russians that remained live in Ashgabat.

In the early 2000s, government and societal discrimination against minority citizens, particularly Russians, has increased the rate of emigration and depleted the fund of Russian technical expertise. Dual Russian-Turkmenistani citizenship was abolished in 2003. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007]

The main ethnic groups of Central Asia are the Uzbeks, Turkmen, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Uyghurs of western China—which all speak Turkic—and Tajiks, who speak a Persian languages. All of main these groups are Muslims and all but the Uyghurs have their own country. Many were once nomads who lived in yurts. Some still do.

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]

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.”

Traditional Lifestyle of the Turkmen

The traditional occupation of the Turkmen was irrigation farming combined with the nomadic animal herding. The Turkmen who led a semi-nomadic style of life lived in villages occupied by animal herders or settled farmers or both. The Western Turkmen were mainly animal herders who raised cattle, sheep, camels and horses). Turkmen who lived in oases engaged in farming (wheat, sorghum, melons, cotton) and cattle ranching. By the mid 19th century carpet and silk weaving were highly developed as well. [Source:advantour.com =]

As with other Central Asian people, the yurt is traditional dwelling of the Turkmen. It is still used in many areas as a summer home or a dwelling for shepherds in remote, seasonal pastures. Many Turkmen still wear traditional clothing such as woolly hats and long quilted robes. Women often wear long silk dresses and striped trousers, hiding their hair under light scarves. Most Turkmen are Sunni Muslims. Even among urban Turkmen affiliations to tribal groups, regions and clans are of utmost importance. =

The Soviet period dampened but did not suppress the expression of prominent Turkmen cultural traditions. Turkmen carpets continue to receive praise and special attention from Western enthusiasts. The high sheepskin hats worn by men, as well as distinctive fabrics and jewelry, also are age-old trademarks of Turkmen material culture. The Ahal-Teke breed of horse, world-renowned for its beauty and swiftness, is particular to the Turkmen. Aside from a rich musical heritage, the Turkmen continue to value oral literature, including such epic tales as Korkut Ata and Gurogly . [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Turkmen Identity

Today's Turkmen have fully embraced the concepts of national unity and a strong national consciousness, which had been elusive through most of their history. The Turkmen have begun to reassess their history and culture, as well as the effects of Soviet rule. Some of the more notable changes since independence have been a shift from open hostility to cautious official sanctioning of Islam, the declaration of Turkmen as the state language, and the state's promotion of national and religious customs and holidays. For example, the vernal equinox, known as Novruz ("New Year's Day"), is now celebrated officially country-wide. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Interest and pride in national traditions were demonstrated openly prior to independence, particularly following the introduction of glasnost' by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1985. Since independence, the government has played a less restrictive and at times actively supportive role in the promotion of national traditions. For example, in a move to replace the Soviet version of Turkmen history with one more in harmony with both traditional and current values, President Niyazov formed a state commission to write the "true history of sunny Turkmenistan." *

Increased national awareness is reflected in modifications of the school curriculum as well. Among new courses of instruction is a class on edep , or proper social behavior and moral conduct according to traditional Turkmen and Islamic values. Officially sanctioned efforts also have been made to contact members of the Turkmen population living outside of Turkmenistan, and several international Turkmen organizations have been established. *

Migration Trends in Turkmenistan

In 1989 about 45 percent of the population was classified as urban, a drop of 3 percent since 1979. Prior to the arrival of Russians in the late nineteenth century, Turkmenistan had very few urban areas, and many of the large towns and cities that exist today were developed after the 1930s. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Ashgabat, the capital and largest city in Turkmenistan, had a population of about 420,000 in the 1990s. The second-largest city, Chärjew on the Amu Darya, had about 165,000 people at that time. Other major cities are Turkmenbashy on the Caspian seacoast, Mary in the southeast, and Dashhowuz in the northeast. *

Because much of the Russian population only came to Turkmenistan in the Soviet period, separate Russian quarters or neighborhoods did not develop in Turkmenistan's cities as they did elsewhere in Central Asia. This fact, combined with a relatively small Slavic population, has led to integration of Turkmen and Slavs in neighborhoods and housing projects. *

Apart from the outflow of small numbers of Russians immediately following Turkmenistan's independence, neither out-migration nor in-migration is a significant factor for Turkmenistan's population. In 1992 there were 19,035 emigrants from Turkmenistan to the Russian Federation and 7,069 immigrants to Turkmenistan. *

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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