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Last stand of Turcomans

Geok-Tepe, The Forbidden City
'Central Asia - A Traveller's Companion' by Kathleen Hopkirk

THE NAME OF Mikhail Dmitrievich Skobelev will always be associated with Geok-Tepe, the mighty fortress of the Tekke Turcomans. His ruthless conquest of it in 1881 avenged earlier Russian humiliations at the hands of these fierce tribesmen and led to their permanent subjugation. It also cleared the way for the Tsar's annexation of the vast desert region between the Caspian Sea and the Amu-darya, or Oxus, river and enabled the Transcaspian railway to be built. The Tekke stronghold at this time was the long, thin Akhal oasis, starting about 100 miles south-east of Krasnovodsk, on the Caspian, and extending 187 miles along the line of the present railway. At its extremities the oasis was only about 20 miles wide, and no more than 45 at the centre, where Geok-Tepe was situated. This was the main settlement and the base from which the Tekke set out on their raids or alamans. The ruins of Geok-Tepe can still be glimpsed from the train today.

The nomadic Turcomans, whom scholars believe to have come originally from the Altai mountains to the north of Mongolia, had long been a thorn in everyone's flesh. The struggle for survival in the inhospitable tracts of Transcaspia led to bitter quarrels between the various Turcoman tribes, of whom the Tekke were one of the biggest. Colonel Petrusevich, a Russian scholar and soldier, made a study of the Turcomans while surveying their lands in the 1870s and was forced to the conclusion that they were all 'rascals and thieves', raiding the Khivans, Bokharans, Persians and each other with equal enthusiasm. Every so often the settled peoples would rise up in fury and try to crush their Turcoman tormentors, but this onlv led to a sort of musical chairs: the Persians might drive the Salor out of Sarakhs, who would then flee to Merv and oust their kinsmen the Sarik, who would in turn seize Ashkhabad, driving the Yamud to the Akhal oasis, which was already full of Tekke. A new outbreak of raiding and plundering along the Kopet Dagh mountains would then ensue, and Persia would find the problem had simply moved westwards. And whichever tribe of Turcomans was ultimately left homeless would soon turn up at Sarakhs anyway, and the whole process would begin again.

The trouble was, as Petrusevich pointed out, there was just not enough water or grazing to go round, but it had to be admitted that the Turcomans really enjoyed raiding, and every young warrior longed to lead an alamati. The peaceable agricultural settlements of northern Persia suffered greatly, and more and more of their inhabitants, as well as their possessions, were abducted. For the Turcomans had found that there was a brisk market for Persian slaves at Khiva and Bokhara. Snatching Turcoman hostages proved to be of no use as a bargaining counter, for they were simply abandoned to their fate by their brethren. The problem was not new: the Persians had been searching desperately for a solution for at least 200 years. In the seventeenth century Shah Abbas the Great, finding himself harried on one side by the Turcomans and on another by the Kurds, had dumped 15,000 Kurds forcibly in the Kopet Dagh mountains on his northern border in the devout hope that these two turbulent peoples would exterminate each other. Needless to say, they did not.

But help was now at hand in the shape of the Russians. As successive Tsars had extended their borders southwards, and begun to trade with Central Asia, so Russian men, women and children became a prey to the 'man-stealing Turcomans'. Early in the eighteenth century it had already been estimated that 3,000 Russian subjects were being held as slaves in Bokhara alone, most of them abducted in Turcoman raids on caravans, or snatched from the isolated fishing communities along the northern shores of the Caspian Sea. Some, mostly unwary children, had even been taken from the outskirts of Orenburg. In 1840 a British officer was able to persuade the Khan of Khiva to release 416 Russians enslaved in his city (see khiva), but as recently as 1875 a Russian caravan had been waylaid as it travelled between Krasnovodsk and Khiva and totally pillaged. The Turcomans were incorrigible, and in 1877 the Tsar decided to teach them a lesson.

General Lomakin was ordered to march on the Akhal oasis and occupy the Tekke fortress of Kyzyl Arvat at its western end. This entailed a 100-mile trek across the Kara Kum desert from Krasnovodsk, with large numbers of baggage animals carrying food and water as well as arms, ammunition and artillery. Lomakin's eight guns filled the Turcomans with terror and they quickly dispersed, but for some reason - presumably a shortage of supplies - Lomakin did not wait to receive their formal surrender but retreated hastily to the Russian fortress at Krasnovodsk. Because of the Russo-Turkish War which intervened in 1877-8, Russia was unable to follow up this action until the autumn of 1879, when Lomakin attacked the Tekke camp at Geok-Tepe. Inside the ramparts were 15,000 warriors, together with several thousand women and children. This time no fugitives were allowed to escape, and the kibitkas, or tents, within the clay walls were continually raked by artillery fire. But the Turcomans were driven to such fury that when the Russians tried to storm the stronghold, they were repulsed with heavy losses. 'Describe it as blind fanaticism or something higher,' a Russian eyewitness told the writer Charles Marvin, 'it was impossible not to see in the enemy men calmly contemplating death and meeting it with heroism.' Ignominiously, Lomakin was finally obliged to limp back to base with the remnants of his shattered force, abandoning most of his baggage animals on the way.

The blow to Russian prestige in Central Asia was devastating, and Turcoman insolence knew no bounds. They presented the Khan of Khiva with some captured Russian rifles, boasting that they now had so many they did not know what to do with them. They also began raiding villages along the Amu-darya river, on the edges of Russia's newly annexed province of Turkestan. General Lomakin was disgraced, and the Tsar turned instead to the vigorous, not to say ruthless, General Skobelev. This brilliant soldier, who was said to pursue danger as enthusiastically as he did women, was passionately anti-British, and he saw here an opportunity to spike their guns. The Russian Foreign Ministry had denied any intention of annexing Transcaspia, but they had said the same of Turkestan. Somehow this had not prevented General Kaufmann from quietly adding this territory, which was half the size of the United States, to the Tsar's already vast domains. The British were thus watching anxiously, wondering whether to believe the soothing assurances of the diplomats or to heed the bellicose noises of the generals, who often boasted that they would not stop until they had taken India. Now, Skobelev assured Tsar Alexander, the insufferable behaviour of the Turcomans of Transcaspia would enable him to pacify this lawless region with a clear conscience: it was his duty to confer on it the benefits of Russian suzerainty.

Lomakin had lost over 8,000 camels and Skobelev realized that transport would be one of the main problems, together with water. A light railway track was laid between Mikhailovsk (south of Krasnovodsk) and Kyzyl Arvat, and a water distillery was built near the fort of Krasnovodsk. Skobelev was a firm believer in the power of artillery to demoralize Orientals, and he allowed ten artillery pieces for every 10,000 troops. He also ordered a large supply of petroleum-filled shells, the better to terrify them, for his maxim when fighting natives was 'to astonish is to conquer'. He laid his plans carefully, and appointed as his Chief-of-Staff Colonel Kuropatkin, a man with an impressive record in the field who would soon become a General, and later War Minister.

Skobelev set out in the summer of 1880 from Chikisliar, a Caspian port near the Persian border, and continued to hug the frontier, which was well supplied with water from the Persian mountains, until he reached the edge of the Akhal oasis. Having captured the Turcoman stronghold of Bami, seventy miles from their capital of Geok-Tepe, he went forward with 1,000 men to reconnoitre the enemy positions. There were in fact three camps, each surrounded by enormous clay ramparts: the central one, on a mound, was known as Dengil-Tepe; the fort at the base of the hills was Yangi Kala; and the least significant was known by the general name of the area, Geok-Tepe. Skobelev decided that a full-scale siege was required, and retired to Bami - much harassed by roving bands of Turcomans, who were also attacking the supply lines to his other base at Kyzyl Arvat. Reinforcements of men and guns were summoned from the Caucasus. By the beginning of December all was ready.

This time the Tekke must have realized that they were in for serious trouble, and some 30,000 of them massed behind their crude fortifications, the majority in the central camp of Dengil-Tepe. This covered an area of about a square mile and was enclosed by mud walls eighteen feet thick and ten feet high on the inside, and surrounded by a ditch. Their only piece of artillery was an antiquated smooth-bore which they had captured from the Persians. The main Turcoman arms were Russian rifles seized from General Lomakin's force, and razor-sharp sabres, lethal in hand-to-hand fighting, but they had no effective long-range weapons. On 1 January 1881 Kuropatkin led an assault on Yangi Kala, using fifty-two cannon and eleven Hotchkiss machine-guns. The Tekke were forced to abandon this encampment, despite resisting fiercely, for they were helpless under the murderous artillery barrage, and on 3 January the Russians made Yangi Kala their new base. The following day they began their attack on Dengil-Tepe but the Tekke, now desperate, fought like men possessed. In a frenzied sortie they fell on their besiegers with their sabres, and the ground was soon strewn with severed heads and limbs. Three hundred Russians were left dead, including Colonel Petrusevich, whose study of the Turcomans had been published only a few months before in Tiflis.

The sheer heroic ferocity of the Turcomans gave them many such minor victories, but always the Russians were able to bring up reserves and advance their trenches, under the covering fire of their artillery. And all the time Skobelev was getting the enemy's measure and adjusting his tactics. Observing the slaughter - and terror - wrought by the fanatical Turcomans when they leapt suicidally into the Russian trenches, brandishing their vicious knives, he instructed his troops to creep back after sundown and lurk ten paces in the rear. So the next time the warriors made a sortie and leapt into the trenches, they found them empty, and it was the turn of the Russian soldiers to hack the enemy to pieces from above.

All the same, after three weeks of stubborn resistance by the Tekke, Skobelev was forced to revise his original plan. Clearly a siege was going to take too long, for these Turcomans would hold out to the last man. He would have to storm Dengil-Tepe, but he must not risk being routed like his predecessor. The General had come to respect this primitive foe, who refused even to evacuate the women and children who had to endure stoically the terrifying hail of petroleum shells among their felt kibitkas. On the eve of the final assault Skobelev reminded his troops that they were up against a tribe 'full of courage and honour'. Dressed in a white uniform, with all his decorations, he was a charismatic figure and adored by his men. In the recent war in the Balkans the Turks had called him Akh-Pasha, the White Leader, and the name had stuck.

After a battle, however, he was always covered in mud and dust, for he was not one to lead from the rear, and his face would be haggard, his eyes bloodshot and his voice a hoarse whisper. 'Old Bloody Eyes' was what the Tekke called him.

On Skobelev's instructions, Russian sappers dug tunnels beneath the walls of Dengil-Tepe and filled them with over a ton of gunpowder. The Tekke watched uncomprehendingly, calling the Russians pigs, digging their snouts into the earth. Early in the morning of 24 January two Russian officers blew a preliminary hole in the walls with gun-cotton, and at first light the artillery battery began firing through the gap, inflicting severe damage. At 11.20 a.m. the gunpowder-filled mines were exploded, sending up a plume of smoke and rubble. The sappers had done their work well, and fifty yards of ramparts had been blown down. In well-ordered waves the Russians stormed into Dengil-Tepe, each battalion with its band playing, its colours flying and its drums beating. They would have been amazed to know that twelve miles to the south an Irishman was watching the action through binoculars from a spur of the Kopet Dagh mountains.

Edmond O'Donovan, special correspondent of the Daily News, had persuaded some Turcoman chieftains to invite him to the Akhal oasis as the Russians had barred him from the area. He arrived at his vantage point rather late, but he was in time to witness the final victory of the Russian forces and the panic-stricken flight of the Tekke:

With my double field-glass I could easily make out the lines of the Turcoman fortress, and the general position of its besiegers, but I was too far off to be able to make notes of details. I could plainly see, by the smoke of the guns and the movements of the combatants, that the attack had begun in earnest, and I watched its result with intense anxiety. The Russian assault was directed against the southerly wall of the fortifications, and after what was apparently a desperate conflict there, it was evident that they had forced their way. A crowd of horsemen began to ride in confusion from the other side of the town, and spread in flight over the plain. Immediately afterwards, a mass of fugitives of every class showed that the town was being abandoned by its inhabitants. The Turcoman fortress had fallen , and all was over with the Akhal Tekkes.

O'Donovan, The Merv Oasis, 1882

General Skobelev was later accused by his enemies of allowing his troops to rape and slaughter Turcoman women and children, running them down if necessary in the desert, although Colonel Kuropatkin always strenuously denied this. Certainly, like any good commander, Skobelev sent his dragoons and Cossacks in pursuit of the fleeing enemy, and many of both sexes were killed. His official report concludes: 'The enemy's losses were enormous. After the capture of the fortress 6,500 bodies were buried inside it. During the pursuit 8,000 were killed.' His policy towards an Asian foe was born of experience in the Caucasus and the Balkans, and was brutally straightforward: 'My system is this: to strike hard, and keep on hitting till resistance is completely over; then at once to form ranks, cease slaughter, and be kind and humane to the prostrate enemy'. In his declaration of victory to the Tekke he invited 'the whole remaining population of Akhal-Tekke to place its destiny at the unconditional mercy of the Emperor, in which case I hereby make it known that the lives, families and property of those who declare submission will be in complete security, like those of the other subjects of His Majesty the White Tsar'.

What undoubtedly did happen to some of the Tekke fugitives, however, was that they had the misfortune to fall into the hands of a rival Turcoman tribe - the Yamud - and that many old scores were paid off against the defeated Tekke. 'Private feuds are at all times more powerful among the nomads than even national interests,' wrote O'Donovan in his book, adding that 'any Turcoman will, when an opportunity arises, plunder friend or foe indiscriminately.' Seven years later, however, the Honourable George Curzon was certainly not prepared to give Skobelev the benefit of the doubt, when he visited the remains of Dengil-Tepe in 1888. The future Viceroy of India described the fall of Geok-Tepe sternly as 'not a rout, but a massacre; not a defeat but an extirpation', adding that 'it is not surprising that after this drastic lesson, the Tekkes of the Akhal oasis have never lifted a little finger against their conquerors'. Curzon first caught sight of the 'mouldering ruins' from the newly opened Transcaspian railway, while on a fact-finding tour of Russian Central Asia in 1888. The rammed-earth walls were still clearly scarred by shell holes, and the breach made by the Russian mine could easily be seen. So many thousands of slain were found inside the fortress, he was told, that the Russians had demolished more of the walls immediately after the battle, in order to cover the bodies in a makeshift mass grave. A French engineer, Edgar Boulangier, who saw the ruins briefly from the train at about this time, described the walls as looking from a distance as though they were full of rat holes. 'The shells had sunk into the massive clay walls as if into butter,' he wrote in his book Voyage a Merv.

Ten years later an English traveller on the Transcaspian railway felt uncomfortable when some survivors of the siege were wheeled out as a tourist attraction:

At 9.30 in the morning the train stopped close to the enormous mud walls of what was evidently a disused fort. We rightly guessed that this was the famous Geok-Tepe, the last stronghold of the Tekke-Turkmans, when they were almost annihilated by the Great White General, Skobelev. When the train came to a standstill at the platform we found about forty Turkmans drawn up to receive us, headed by their starshina or headman. This latter was apparelled most gorgeously in cloth of gold, while the others wore the usual dress of the Turkmans, namely a long sort of dressing-gown of a dull red with small black stripes, high leather boots and the great sheepskin hat. Some there were present who had been in the fort when it was taken, and were fortunate enough to escape with their lives.

I have no desire to moralize, but who could fail to be struck with the fact that these fierce warriors who had held the power of Russia at bay for three campaigns should be drawn up on a railway platform within a stone's throw of their great ruined stronghold to do honour to a handful of English tourists? And though I was human enough to photograph these men, I was also human enough to be sorry for them, intensely interesting though it was to see them.

Perowne, Russian Hosts and English Guests in Central Asia, 1898

But Perowne, like Curzon, had to concede that 'whatever we may think of this wholesale slaughter, it answered in the end, for the Turkmans were thoroughly cowed, and the necessity for further bloodshed ceased from this time forward'. Indeed, so cowed were the Turcomans that at the opening ceremony for the Transcaspian railway they fell on their knees and begged for mercy when the band began to play. The only other time they had heard a military band was when Skobelev's troops stormed their fortress of Dengil-Tepe.

By 1914, when the writer Stephen Graham visited Geok-Tepe, the passage of time had softened some of these painful memories, and removed the starkness of defeat from the scene:

At the railway station there is a room in which are preserved specimens of all the weapons used in the fight. There are also waxwork representations of a Russian soldier with his gun, and a native soldier cutting the air with his semi-circle of a sword. Many passengers turned out to have a look at these things. It was sunset time, and the west was glowing red behind the train, the evening air was full of health and fragrance, the stars were like magnesium lights in the lambent heaven, the young moon had the most wonderful place in the sky, poised and throned not right overhead, but some degrees from the zenith, as it were on the right shoulder of the night. It was an evening that touched the heart.

Graham, Through Russian Central Asia, 1916

As for Skobelev, the victorious White General had died eighteen months after the fall of Geok-Tepe, at the age of only 38. His end was inglorious for he succumbed not on the field of battle but to a heart-attack in a seedy Moscow hotel, in compromising circumstances. Perhaps Nur Verdi Khan, the leader of the Akhal Tekkes, rested more peacefully in his grave at Dengil-Tepe.