While the ancient history of Turkmenistan is largely shrouded in mystery, its past since the arrival of Indo-European Iranian tribes around 2000 BC is often the starting point of the area's discernible history. Early tribes were nomadic or semi-nomadic due to the arid conditions of the region as the steppe culture in Central Asia was an extension of a larger Eurasian series of horse cultures which spanned the entire spectrum of language families including the Indo-Europeans and Turko-Mongol groups. Some of the known early Iranian tribes included the Massagatae, Scythians/Sakas, and early Soghdians (most likely precursors of the Khwarezmians). Turkmenistan was a passing point for numerous migrations and invasions by tribes which gravitated towards the settled regions of the south including ancient Mesopotamia, Elam, and the Indus Valley Civilization.
The region's written history begins with the region's conquest by the Achaemenid Empire of ancient Iran, as the region was divided between the satrapys of Margiana, Chorasmia and Parthia. Later conquerors included Alexander the Great, the Parni, Ephthalites, Huns, Göktürks, Sarmatians, and Sassanid Iranians. During this early phase of history, the majority of Turkmenistan's inhabitants were either adherents of Zoroastrianism or Buddhism and the region was largely dominated by Iranian peoples. However, these incursions and epochs, though pivotal, did not shape the region's history as the invasions of two later invading groups: Muslim Arabs and the Oghuz Turks. The vast majority of inhabitants were converted to Hanifism, while the Oghuz brought the beginnings of the Turkic Turkmen language that came to dominate the area. The Turkic period was a time of cultural fusion as Islamic traditions brought by the Arabs merged with local Iranian cultures and then were further altered by Turkic invaders and rulers such as the Seljuks. Genghis Khan and Mongol invasions devastated the region during the late Middle Ages, but their hold upon the area was transitional as later Timur Leng and Uzbeks contested the land.
Modern Turkmenistan was radically transformed by the invasion of the Russian Empire, which conquered the region in the late 19th century. Later, the Russian Revolution of 1917 would ultimately transform Turkmenistan from an Islamic tribal society to a totalitarian Leninist one during the Soviet era. Independence came in 1991, as Saparmurat Niyazov, a former local communist party boss, declared himself absolute ruler for life as Turkmenbashi or Leader of the Turkmen and transitioned the newly independent Turkmenistan into an authoritarian state under his absolute control and has thus far resisted the democratization that has influenced many of the other former Soviet Republics. Niyazov ruled until his death on December 21, 2006.
The scant remains point to some sparse settlements in the region, including possibly early neanderthals, but the region as a whole remains largely unexplored. Bronze Age and Iron Age finds do support the probability of advanced civilizations in ancient Turkmenistan including finds at Djeitun and Gonur Tepe.
The territory of Turkmenistan has been populated since ancient times, especially the areas near oasis of Merv, where traces of human settlements have been found. Tribes of horse-breeding Iranian Scythians drifted into the territory of Turkmenistan at about 2000 BC, possibly from the Russian steppes and moved along the outskirts of the Karakum Desert into Iran, Syria, and Anatolia.
Alexander the Great conquered the territory in the 4th century BC on his way to South Asia. In 330 BC, Alexander marched northward into Central Asia and founded the city of Alexandria near the Murgab River. Located on an important trade route, Alexandria later became the city of Merv (modern Mary). The ruins of Alexander's ancient city are still to be found and have been extensively researched. After Alexander's death his empire quickly fell apart. It was ruled by Seleucids before the satrap of Parthia declared independence. The Parthians- fierce, nomadic warriors from the north of Iran —then established the kingdom of Parthia, which covered present-day Turkmenistan and Iran. The Parthian kings ruled their domain from the city of Nisa – an area now located near the modern-day capital of Ashgabat – founded by Arsaces I (reigned c. 250–211 BC), and was reputedly the royal necropolis of the Parthian kings, although it has neither been established that the fortress at Nisa was a royal residence nor a mausoleum.
Excavations at Nisa have revealed substantial buildings, mausoleums and shrines, many inscribed documents, and a looted treasury. Many Hellenistic art works have been uncovered, as well as a large number of ivory rhytons, the outer rims decorated with Iranian subjects or classical mythological scenes.
The Parthian Kingdom succumbed in 224 AD to the Sasanids – rulers of Iran. At the same time, several tribal groups—including in the Huns of Kushan controlled Balkan Province in 91 AD according to Tacitus and later the Alans according to Chinese records —were moving into Turkmenistan from the east and north. Although Ancient Persian traditions always mentioned the Turanian control of the area, these records provided the first independently corroborated evidence of nomadic Non-Iranian peoples into the area of Turkmenistan.
By the early 4th century AD, a Kushan noble from the Balkan province called Malkar of Khi, had become leader of the Huns settled there. In alliance with Dulo the Alan king on the Volga Delta, Malkar went on to forge ten tribes into the first proto-Turkic tribal confederation. The Dulo clan's first proto-Turkic Empire spread its influence as far east as the sub-continent under the Kitolo and as far west as Central Europe under Attila's Dulo. Wresting control of southern Turkmenistan from the Sasanian Empire in the 5th century AD, Malkar's "Dulo" Confederation of Ten Tribes caused a migration of Khurasanis into Dagestan as the Caucasian Avars. As a result of this backfire, the Sabirs settled there were forced to attack the Alan strongholds of the Dulo Ten Tribe Confederation in the Kuban steppe. To strengthen their position, Malkar's Confederation of Ten Tribes now under the leadership of Ernakh entered into an alliance with Byzantium at Phanagoria in the 460s AD. However, in the 550s AD, the Caucasian Avars pushed further conquering Phanagoria and forcing Sarosios of the Alans to petition Byzantium for land. Within a few years, Dulo's Ten Tribe Confederation in Balkan Province allied themselves to the Ashinas forming the Western part of the Gokturk Empire and were able to snatch Phanagoria back from the Avars renaming the Sabirs as Khazars under the rule of Kaghan Kazarig. By exposing the Avars' close ties to Persia, once again the Ten Tribes of the Dulo entered into alliance with Byzantium. However, the Dulo clans Ten Tribes soon seceded from the Gokturks to become the Western Turkic Kaghanate which thrived until 630s. They appointed Dulo Kaghan Kubrat to establish the short-lived state of Old Great Bolgary disintegrating upon his death with the majority migrated west where they carried out the first Hungarian conquest in 677 under Kotrag who also went up the volga to establish Bolgary, and Batbayan's Balkars who settled down with the Circassians north of the Caucasus. The Kara-khazars in the Balkan Province eventually revolted against the Aq-Khazars to establish the Yabghu Oghuz State of the Kara dynasty which produced the Seljuks who thrived until their dynasty was taken over by Temujin.
At this time much of the population was already in settlements around the fertile river valleys along the Amu Darya, and Merv and Nisa became centers of sericulture (the raising of silkworms). A busy caravan route, connecting Tang Dynasty China and the city of Baghdad (in modern Iraq), passed through Merv. Thus, the city of Merv constituted an important prize for any conqueror.
Central Asia came under Arab control after a series of invasions in the late 7th and early 8th centuries and was incorporated into Islamic Caliphate divided between provinces of Mawara'un Nahr and Khorasan. The Arab conquest brought Islamic religion to all of the peoples of central Asia. The city of Merv was occupied by lieutenants of the caliph Uthman ibn Affan, and was constituted as the capital of Khorasan. Using this city as their base, the Arabs, led by Qutayba ibn Muslim, brought under subjection Balkh, Bokhara, Fergana and Kashgaria, and penetrated into China as far as the province of Kan-suh early in the 8th century.
Merv achieved some political spotlight in February 748 when Abu Muslim (d. 750) declared a new Abbasid dynasty at Merv, and set out from the city to conquer Iran and Iraq and establish a new capital at Baghdad. Abu Muslim was famously challenged by the Goldsmith of Merv to do the right thing and not make war on fellow Muslims. The Goldsmith was put to death.
In the latter part of the 8th century Merv became obnoxious to Islam as the centre of heretical propaganda preached by al-Muqanna "The Veiled Prophet of Khorasan". Present Turkmenistan was ruled by Tahirids between 821 and 873. In 873 Arab rule in Central Asia came to an end after Saffarid conquest. During their dominion Merv, like Samarkand and Bokhara, was one of the great schools of learning, and the celebrated historian Yaqut studied in its libraries. Merv produced a number of scholars in various branches of knowledge, such as Islamic law, Hadith, history, literature, and the like. Several scholars have the name: Marwazi (المروزي) designating them as hailing from Merv. But Saffarid rule was brief and they were defeated by Samanids in 901. Samanids weaked after second half of 10th century and Ghaznavids took present Turkmenistan in 990s. But, they challenged with Seljuks, newcomers from north. Seljuks' decisive victory against them, present Turkmenistan was passed to 1041.
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 8th 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 8th century. By the 10th century, the Oghuz had expanded west and north of the Aral Sea and into the steppe of present-day Kazakhstan, absorbing not only Iranians but also Turks from the Kipchak and Karluk ethnolinguistic groups. In the 11th 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.
First mention of Oghuz goes back to the time prior to the Göktürk state- there are references to the Sekiz-Oghuz ("eight-Oghuz") and the Dokuz-Oghuz ("nine-Oghuz") union. The Oghuz Turks under Sekiz-Oghuz and the Dokuz-Oghuz state formations ruled different areas in the vicinity of the Altay Mountains. During the establishment of the Göktürk state, Oghuz tribes inhabited the Altay mountain region and also lived along the Tula River. They also formed as a community near the Barlik river in present-day northern Mongolia.
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 10th 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.
After the fall of Göktürk kingdom, Oghuz tribes migrated to the area of Transoxiana, in western Turkestan, in modern Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan. This land became known as the "Oghuz steppe" which is an area between the Caspian and Aral Seas. Ibn al-Athir, an Arab historian, stated that the Oghuz Turks had come to Transoxiana in the period of the caliph Al-Mahdi in the years between 775 and 785. In the period of the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma'mun (813–833), the name Oghuz starts to appear in the Islamic historiography. By 780 AD, the eastern parts of the Syr Darya were ruled by the Karluk Turks and the western region (Oghuz steppe) was ruled by the Oghuz Turks.
The name Turkmen first appears in written sources of the 10th 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 13th 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 11th 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."
In the 11th century, Seljuk domains stretched from the delta of the Amu Darya delta into Iran, Iraq, the Caucasus region, Syria, and Asia Minor. In 1040 the Seljuk Turks crossed the Oxus from the north, and having defeated Masud, sultan of Ghazni, raised Toghrul Beg, grandson of Seljuk, to the throne of Iran, founding the Seljukid dynasty, with its capital at Nishapur. A younger brother of Toghrul, Daud, took possession of Merv and Herat. Toghrul was succeeded by his nephew Alp Arslan (the Great Lion), who was buried at Merv. It was about this time that Merv reached the zenith of her glory. In 1055 Seljuk forces entered Baghdad, becoming masters of the Islamic heartlands and important patrons of Islamic institutions. 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 Silk Road. 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. During the reign of Sultan Sanjar or Sinjar of the same house, in the middle of the 11th century, Merv was overrun by the Turkish tribes of the Ghuzz from beyond the Oxus. It eventually passed under the sway of the rulers of Khwarizm (Khiva). After mixing with the settled peoples in Turkmenistan, the Oguz living north of the Kopet-Dag Mountains gradually became known as the Turkmen.
The Seljuk empire broke down in the second half of the 12th century, and the Turkmen became independent tribal federation.
In 1157, the rule of Seljuks dynasty came to an end in the province of Khorasan. The Turkic rulers of Khiva took control of the area of Turkmenistan, under the title of Khwarezmshahs in 1221, central Asia suffered a disastrous invasion by Mongol warriors who swept across the region from their base in eastern Asia.
Under their commander, Genghis Khan, the Mongols conquered Khwarezm and burned the city of Merv to the ground. The Mongol leader ordered the massacre of Merv's inhabitants as well as the destruction of the province's farms and irrigation works which effectively ended the Iranian dominance in urban areas and agricultural communities of khwarezm. These areas were soon repopulated by the Turkmen who survived the invasion and had retreated northward to the plains of Kazakhstan or westward to the shores of the Caspian Sea. After division of Mongol empire, present Turkmenistan was passed to Chagatai Khanate except southernmost part was belonged to Ilkhanate.
Small, semi-independent states arose under the rule of the region's tribal chiefs later in the 14th century. In the 1370s, Amir Timur (known as Tamerlane in Europe), one of the greatest conquerors in human history, captured Turkmen states once more and established the short lived Timurid Empire, which collapsed after Timur's death in 1405, when Turkmens became independent once again.
As a whole, the 14th to 16th centuries was a period in which the Turkmen's dislocation due to the Mongol invasions gave way to new political groupings which became tribal groupings which have continued to modern day.
In addition to the new political arrangements, historical sources suggest that a large tribal union called the Salor confederation remained from the original Oghuz tribes and into modern times. In the late 17th century, the confederation fell apart and three senior tribes moved eastward and then southward. Of these tribes, the Yomud split into eastern and western groups, and the Teke migrated to the Akhal region near the Kopetdag Mountains and eventually into the Murgap River basin. Other Salor tribes moved into the region near the Amu Darya delta and into other parts of modern day southeast Turkmenistan. Salor groups also live in Turkey, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and China.
The history of Turkmenistan from the 16th until the 19th century is mostly known by the relations with the states of Iran, Khiva, Bukhara, and Afghanistan (after declaring independence from Iran in 1747). However, wars of the period took place mostly in the lands of Turkmenistan. The invasion of the Khan of Khiva, Abul Gazi Bahadur Khan, from 1645 to 1663, caused some difficulties to the Turkmens, coupled with the impact of the drought that occurred at about the same period, most of the Turkmens within the khanate moved to areas around Akhal, Atrek, Murgap and Tedjen. In this period, many of the Turkmens tribes living around the Lake Aral left also migrated because of pressures from both the Khanate of Khiva and the Kalmyks and migrated to around Astrakhan and Stavropol in northern Caucasus.
Popular epics such as Koroglu, and other oral traditions, took shape during this period which could be taken as a beginning of Turkmen nation. The poets and thinkers of the time such as Devlet Mehmed Azadi and Makhtumkuli became a voice for an emerging nation, calling for unity, brotherhood and peace among Turkmen tribes. Makhtumkuli is venerated in Turkmenistan as the father of the national literature. Most of present Turkmenistan was divided between Khanates of Khiva and Bukhara except southernmost parts were handed to Persia. Nader, was shah of Persia conquered it in 1740 but after him assassination in 1747, Turkmen lands were recaptured by Uzbek khanates of Khiva and Bukhara. During the 1830s, the Tekke Turkomans, then living on the Tejen River, were forced by the Persians to migrate northward. Khiva contested the advance of the Tekkes, but ultimately, about 1856, the latter became the sovereign power of southern and southeastern parts of present Turkmenistan.
In the 18th century Turkoman tribes came into contact with Tsarist Empire. The Russian Empire began to move into the area in 1869 with the establishment of the Caspian Sea port of Krasnovodsk, current-day Turkmenbashy. After the suppression of Bukhara and Khiva emirate, Russians decided to move into Transcaspian region, allegedly to subdue Turkmen slave trade and banditry. The service of some Turkmen tribes, especially the Yomud, for the Khivan Khan also encouraged the Russia to punish them by raids into Khorazm, which killed hundreds. These wars culminated in the campaigns of General Mikhail Skobelev, and in 1881 fighting climaxed with the massacre of 7,000 Turkmen at the desert fortress of Geok Depe, near modern Ashgabat; another 8,000 were killed trying to flee across the desert. By 1894 imperial Russia had taken control of almost all of Turkmenistan except around part of Konye-Urgench was in Khiva and around part of Charju was in Emirate of Bukhara.
The Transcaspian Railway was started from the shores of the Caspian in 1879 in order to secure Russian control over the region and provide a rapid military route to the Afghan border. In 1885 a crisis was precipitated by the Russian annexation of the Pandjeh oasis, to the south of Merv, on a territory of modern Afghanistan, which nearly led to war with Britain. as it was thought that the Russians were planning to march on to Herat in Afghanistan. Until 1898 Transcaspia was part of the Governor-Generalship of the Caucasus and administered from Tiflis, but in that year it was made an Oblast of Russian Turkestan and governed from Tashkent. Nevertheless Turkestan remained an isolated colonial outpost, with an administration that preserved many distinctive features from the previous Islamic regimes, including Qadis' courts and a 'native' administration that devolved much power to local 'Aksakals' (Elders). In 1897 the Transcaspian Railway reached Tashkent, and finally in 1906 a direct rail link with European Russia was opened across the steppe from Orenburg to Tashkent. This led to much larger numbers of Slavic settlers flowing into Turkestan than had hitherto been the case, and their settlement was overseen by a specially created Migration Department in St. Petersburg (Переселенческое Управление). This caused considerable discontent amongst the local Turkmen population, as mainly Russian-populated cities such as Ashgabat appeared.
The best-known Military Governor to have ruled the region from Ashkhabad was probably General Kuropatkin, whose authoritarian methods and personal style of governance made the province very difficult for his successors to control and led to a revolt in 1916. Consequently the administration of Transcaspia became a byword for corruption and brutality within Russian Turkestan, as Russian administrators turned their districts into petty fiefdoms and extorted money from the local population. In 1908 Count Konstantin Konstantinovich Pahlen led a reforming commission to Turkestan which produced a monumental report detailing these abuses of power, administrative corruption and inefficiency.
Following the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, Ashgabat became a base for anti-Bolshevik counter-revolutionaries, who soon came under attack from the Tashkent Soviet. The Communists succeeded in taking control of Ashkhabad in the summer of 1918, forming a Soviet. In response, Junaid Khan and forces loyal to the old Russian regime joined together to drive out the Communists. In July 1919, these anti-Communist allies established the independent state of Transcaspia. A small British force from Meshed occupied Ashgabat and parts of southern Turkmenistan until 1919. It is alleged that 26 Baku Commissaires were gunned down by British forces or their Transcaspian allies. The region was one of the last centres of Basmachi resistance to Bolshevik rule, with the last of the rebellious Turkoman fleeing across the border to Afghanistan and Iran in 1922-23.
In 1924, the Turkestan ASSR was dissolved, and the Turkmen SSR became one of the republics of the Soviet Union. At this time the modern borders of Turkmenistan were formed. The Turkmen SSR was under full control of Moscow, which exploited its raw materials resources for the purposes of the Soviet Union. Sovereignty was only a formality, since Moscow ultimately ruled all Soviet states. Incensed by attempts from Moscow to end their nomadic lifestyle, establish collective farms, and destroy their religion, Turkman basmachi staged guerrilla warfare against the communist government until 1936. More than a million Turkmen fled into exile in Afghanistan or Iran. Of the 441 mosques that existed in Turkmenistan in 1911, only 5 remained open in 1941. In the meantime, the ethnic balance of Turkmenistan was altered by an influx of thousands of Russian immigrants from other parts of the Soviet Union.
Soviets renamed Ashgabat into Poltoratsk after a local revolutionary, however the name "Ashgabat" was restored in 1927 to please the local population, though it was usually known by the Russian form "Ashkhabad". From this period onward the city experienced rapid growth and industrialisation, although this was severely disrupted by a major earthquake on October 6, 1948. An estimated 7.3 on the Richter scale, the earthquake killed over 110,000 (2/3 the population of the city), however the official number announced by Soviet news was only 14,000.
In the 1950s, the 1375 kilometer long Qaraqum Canal was built. Draining the Amu-Darya river, it enabled huge areas to be opened for cotton production, but resulted in the destruction of the native riparian tugai forests. It also greatly diminished the inflow of water to the Aral Sea, resulting in an ecological catastrophe.
Turkmenistan remained one of the most economically and socially backward republics in USSR, with largely agrarian economy, despite exploration and exploitation of enormous oil and gas resources – discovery of 62 trillion cubic feet Dawletabad gas field in the 1960s became the largest gas field find in the world outside Russia and Middle East.
Turkmenistan became independent on October 27, 1991, amidst the dissolution of the Soviet Union .