Settlement History and Architecture of Turkmenistan

The largest city in the country is the capital Ashgabat, located in the south of the country, with an estimated population of around 500,000 to 950,000.

Four other cities have a population of more than 100,000. Specifically, these are Daschogus in the north (280,000 residents), Turkmenabat in the northeast (235,000 residents, formerly Tschardschou), Mary in the southeast (125,000 residents) and Balkanabat in the west (110,000 residents, formerly Nebitdag).

The port city of Turkmenbaschi in the far west (75,000 residents, formerly Krasnowodsk), named after the country’s first president, and the city of Serdar (45,000 residents, formerly Kyzyl-Arbat), which is named after one of the honorary titles (Führer or commander) of the first president.

Settlement history up to the 19th century

According to, population densities of more than one resident per square kilometer can be found in only three regions in Turkmenistan: in the irrigation oasis along the Amu-Darja in the north, the irrigation oasis along the Murgab in the southeast and the foothills of the Kopet Dag in the south.

While the traces of settlement in individual mountain oases point to a settlement history of more than 5,000 years, most of the country was characterized by nomadic tribal associations with close clan ties until the early 20th century. Major settlement centers before the beginning of the 20th century:

  • Namazgadepe – one of the earliest recorded settlements in Central Asia.Status: Abandoned, archaeological excavations
  • Nissa – an early capital of the Parthians. The beginning of the settlement is said to be around 250 BC. And dated as early as the 1st century BC. After its destruction by an earthquake, the city was given up again. A settlement of the same name in the immediate vicinity probably existed until the 15th century. Only a few kilometers from Ashgabat, the ruins of Nissa are now a popular destination for domestic and foreign tourists alike.Status: Abandoned, archaeological excavations, UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Merw – an oasis town north of today’s Karakum Canal, possibly already entered by Alexander the Great and in any case significant for more than 2000 years. As a junction of various trade routes, Merw was regularly the victim of looting and destruction, but was rebuilt again and again. Only after the Afsharids, following the death of Nadir ShahLost control of the area, Merw became a repeated target of raids by Afghan tribes and the Silk Road trade collapsed as a result of the discovery of the sea route around Africa, the city was finally abandoned. In 1883 a nearby village of the same name fell under Russian rule. The ruins of Merw are among the most significant historical landmarks in the country.Status: Abandoned, archaeological excavations, UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Konye Urganch – one of the formerly most important and largest settlements along the Silk Road. The town’s settlement history goes back to early antiquity. The city was abandoned as a result of a shift in the course of the Amu-Darja in combination with the simultaneous destruction by the conqueror Amir Timur, who came from today’s Uzbekistan. Since Amir Timur did not allow the city’s sacred buildings to be demolished, the highest minaret in Central Asia and numerous mausoleums spread across the desert landscape still bear witness to the city’s former prosperity.Status: Abandoned, excavations completed, UNESCO World Heritage SiteAttention: The region around Konye Urganch is a border region. Konye Urganch may therefore only be visited with an appropriate permit (to be applied for with the visa). You can find more information on this in the section Everyday life (entry and residence requirements)

Settlement history from the late 19th century to 1948

All the cities of Turkmenistan that currently have a population of more than 20,000 were only founded after the Russian conquest in the late 19th century. Most cities started from military posts (e.g. Daschogus and Ashgabat) or stations of the Trans-Caspian Railway (e.g. Balkanabad and Turkmenabad). Some places like the port city of Turkmenbashi and the administrative post of Mary were founded for strategic reasons.

One of the country’s most striking architectural remains from pre-Soviet times is the historic Turkmenbashi Gate (founded as Krasnovodsk). In addition, there are occasional station buildings from the Tsarist era along the main line of the Trans-Caspian Railway. Most of the historical building fabric fell victim to the Soviet-era urban planning and especially in Ashgabat to the severe earthquake of 1948.

Since negative reports contradicted the interpretation of socialism at the time, the number of victims was initially given as a few hundred and later as 10,000. It was not until 1988 that a press release appeared in the Soviet Union, according to which the number of victims should henceforth be given as 110,000. A higher number of fatalities has been proven for just five earthquakes. This number corresponds to about 10% of the total population of Turkmenistan at that time. The exact number of deaths will probably no longer be able to be reconstructed, but according to various estimates it is still well above the stated number of 110,000 victims.

The location of Ashgabat on the southern edge of the USSR, the almost complete destruction of the infrastructure, the high number of victims, the government-controlled access to cameras and the strict censorship are the main reasons why the damage caused by the earthquake is only due to very few photos were documented. The following linked images belong to the few known images: Image 1, Image 2, Image 3 and Image 4.

Very occasionally – especially outside of the larger cities – buildings from the early Soviet period can also be found. Most of these date from the 1930’s and testify to the will of the Soviet government at the time to create acceptable living conditions nationwide for the population that had only settled down for a few years to a few decades. For this purpose, schools, shops and residential buildings were also created in the smaller desert settlements, the sometimes remarkable decorations of which still bear witness to a pronounced love for detail even more than 80 years after completion.

Architecture of Turkmenistan

The reconstruction of Ashgabat after the earthquake of 1948

After the earthquake, Soviet city planners saw the complete destruction of the city of Ashgabat as an opportunity to rebuild it according to the ideal image of the socialist city (see reconstruction of Tashkent after the severe earthquake of 1966). Regardless of the established structures and property rights, a main thoroughfare was drawn through the entire city from east to west (formerly Свoбода, today Maghtymguly Street). Representative, sometimes lavishly decorated buildings such as the National Theater, the Hotel Ashgabat and the circus as well as contemporary, modern residential buildings were built along this street. Other new buildings still standing from this period include the Karl Marx Library, which was completed in 1962 (now vacant), the train station built in the same year, the Academy of Sciences that was inaugurated ten years earlier with the desert research institute, which was also internationally highly regarded at the time of the Soviet Union numerous administration or office buildings (today the World Trade Complex).

The pictures attached below give an impression of the current condition of the buildings mentioned. In addition, rare views of the city of Ashgabat from the 1960’s to 1980’s have been compiled on some Internet sites.