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History of Ashgabat

A small mound, which was known affectionately as Gorka ('Little Hill'), behind the present-day Hotel Turkmenistan, appears to have been the site of the original settlement here, and offered much information about the early history of Ashgabat. Gorka was, however, flattened as part of the post-independence redevelopment of the city.

There seems to have been a fortified settlement at Ashgabat during the Parthian period, when Ashgabat was probably a satellite of Nisa. Parthian ceramic tiles were found at Gorka. One theory as to the origin of Ashgabat's name links this to the Parthian king Arsakh, founder of the Arsakhid Dynasty, whose name in medieval Persian literature is, according to Professor Ovez Gundogdiyev of the Turkmen State Institute of Cultural Heritage, spelt 'Ashk'. Professor Gundogdiyev suggests that Ashgabat may thus mean the 'city of Ashk', or 'city of Arsakh', and proposes that Ashgabat's date of foundation be commemorated as the middle of the 3rd century BC, rather than 1881, the date used in the Soviet period.

A more popularly diffused version of the origin of the name Ashgabat is that it means 'city of love'. A well-known legend linked to this meaning runs roughly as follows. The children of the rulers of Nisa and Anau fell in love. They fled into the mountains, but their god disapproved of their romance, and caused all springs and rivers to run dry as they approached them. The lovers were on the point of dying of thirst, and the angel of death was sent to them. But the angel was so enraptured by the beauty of the young woman that he forgot all about his task. At this, a spring of clear water suddenly appeared from the ground, the young couple were saved, and decided to settle on that spot. Ashgabat was born.

The archaeological evidence suggests that the settlement here during the Seljuk period was relatively important, with evidence of defensive walls and towers of fired bricks, and utensils of good quality. But Ashgabat was unable to bounce back from destruction by the Mongols. A Tekke Turkmen settlement was founded here in the early 19th century. However, when the tsarist Russian forces arrived here on 18 January 1881, less than a week after the fall of Geok Depe, they found a settlement characterised by the Daily News journalist Edmund O'Donovan, who reached here a day ahead of the Russians, as a decayed place. It was also deserted; its inhabitants having temporarily evacuated to Persia in fear of the advancing Russians.

When the tsar established the Transcaspian Region in May 1881, Ashgabat was chosen as its administrative centre. Gorka became the site of a Russian fortress, and an expanse of ground nearby was used for military parades. This acquired the name of Skobclev Square, after the victor of Geok Depe. The place remains a central square, whose name has changed with regime, to Karl Marx and now Turkmenbashy. The arrival of the railway in 1885 gave a further impetus to the growth of the town. The Honourable George Curzon, future Viceroy of India, was rather impressed by the place when he visited in the late 1880s. He described it as a town of whitewashed single-storey houses, with 'European shops and hotels'.

Following the Russian Revolution, power in Ashgabat passed to the Social Revolutionary Party. This mainly comprised railway workers, who had gradually formed a disaffected Russian urban underclass in Ashgabat. But the ascendancy ot the Social Revolutionaries was unwelcome not just to the former municipal powers, but also to their revolutionary rivals, the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik administration in Tashkent determined to take control of Ashgabat, and despatched a thug named Fralov, together with a bodyguard of former Austro-Hungarian prisoners. Fralov removed the Social Revolutionary government with considerable brutality, installing in its place a Bolshevik administration. He then moved on to Gyzylarbat, intending to take that town too from the railway workers. But when news filtered back to Ashgabat of Fralov's excesses in Gyzylarbat, including indiscriminate shootings into a protesting crowd, the railway workers of Ashgabat were spurred to rise up again against the new Ashgabat administration. They hanged nine of the Bolshevik Ashgabat Commissars (see page 124), and then sent forces to Gyzylarbat in support of their colleagues there, quickly killing Fralov and his guards, who had been suffering the effects of hangovers when the train carrying the Social Revolutionary forces had pulled in.

The Social Revolutionary government sought the help of the British in fighting off the Tashkent Bolsheviks. The British, seeing the Ashgabat administration as an ally against Turco-German advances, potentially threatening to India, gave what limited help they could. But following the end of World War I, and the ensuing British withdrawal, Ashgabat was quickly retaken by the Bolsheviks, and the Social Revolutionary leaders shot. Ashgabat was in 1920 renamed Poltoratsk, after the most prominent of the Commissars hanged by the Social Revolutionaries. But this name never really stuck, and the city reverted to Ashgabat in 1927. It was by then the capital of the new Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic.

At 01.17 on 6 October 1948, as the people of Ashgabat slept, the city was hit by a devastating earthquake which flattened most of it, killing well over 100,000 people. Hardly a building was salvageable. Karl Marx Square was turned into a huge open-air hospital. The Soviet press of the day, which was not prone to admit major disasters, even natural ones, gave little prominence to the earthquake, and fewer details of it. Suggestions that the Turkmen capital might be rebuilt elsewhere were considered but quickly rejected, and a new Ashgabat emerged from the rubble of the old. Until the mid-1950s, the designs of the most prestigious buildings attempted to identify a specifically Turkmen architectural style. The buildings of the Mollanepes Theatre and the former Academy of Sciences complex are good examples. But from the later 1950s, construction took on a more standardised Soviet design. Independence in 1991 was to change all that.

History of Ashgabat