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From the Shaybanids to the Russians

From the late 15th century, the maritime trade route to India started to eclipse the traditional land routes of the Silk Road. The decline of the great Central Asian oasis settlements was further accelerated by the loss of strong centralised power. For several centuries, the territory of present-day Turkmenistan was a battle for influence between Uzbek and Persian rulers, in which these dynasties frequently managed no more than notional control over the local Turkmen tribes and caravans were vulnerable to raids.

Mohammed Shaybani, a descendent of Shayban, grandson of Genghiz Khan, ruling from the territory of modern Uzbekistan, attempted to control the wider region, but was defeated in 1510 by the Persian Safavids, who incorporated Merv into their domains. A later Safavid general named Nadir Shah briefly created a significant empire of his own, establishing the Afsharid Dynasty in 1736, with its seat at Mashhad. The Afsharid Dynasty did not long survive Nadir Shah's assassination in 1747. The three Uzbek Khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand also made various attempts to extend their domains. The Emir of Bukhara, for example, took Merv in 1785, having destroyed its main dam.

In 1860 an appeal for assistance by Turkmens of the Sarik tribe, having been displaced from the Merv Oasis by Tekke Turkmen, unleashed the so-called Qajar War. The forces of the Persian Qajars advanced towards Merv, but were comprehensively defeated by the Tekkes. Among the prisoners taken by the Tekkes was a French cartographer named Henri de Blocqueville, who had been in the service of the Persians. De Blocqueville was later to publish an account of his fourteen months in Turkmen captivity. The defeat of the Qajars left Merv under Tekke Turkmen control.

Nineteenth-century travellers such as the Hungarian Arminius Vatnbery, who crossed the territory in 1863, found the Turkmen deserts a frightening place, controlled by nomadic Turkmen tribes of fearsome reputation, frequently at war with each other, menacing of caravans crossing the desert, and zealous in their slaving expeditions against the Persians.

It was into this environment that the Russians arrived in the late 19th century, carried there by the momentum of imperial expansion. Russian interest in Central Asia had first been ignited during the reign of Peter the Great, when Prince Alexander Bekovich landed on the eastern shores of the Caspian to pursue Peter's interest in the trade routes of Central Asia. But the Bekovich expedition was snuffed out by the Khan of Khiva, and a determined Russian attempt to secure the history of modern Turkmenistan did not take place until the late 1860s, by which time Tashkent was already under Russian control, and the Russians needed Transcaspia to provide improved supply lines to its new territories further east. A permanent fort was established at Krasnovodsk in 1869. The Russians secured a devastating defeat of the Tekke Turkmens at Geok Depe in 1881, and took Merv without a fight three years later.

The rapid Russian advance across Transcaspia caused considerable disquiet in Britain, where there was great concern about possible Russian designs on India.

The transcaspian theatre was one of the arenas of the so-called Great Game, played out by agents of these two powers. Britain and Russia indeed appeared to come periously close to war in 1885, when the Russians seized the oasis of Panjdeh from its Afghan defenders, who were backed by the British. The Joint Afghan Boundary Commission eventually settled the frontiers, and the Russians strenghtened their control over their new territories with the construction of the Transcaspian Railway. The Transcaspian Region was established, with Ashgabat as its capital.

That was why we went to war with the Russians,' Safar said. 'They wanted to bring the railway here, but we Turcomans hated it.' Unconsciously he was peddling a Soviet version of the conflict, I suspected: an interpretation of czarist imperialism which made the Turcomans look backward. As for the Russians, a confusion of motives - the greed for trade and raw materials, a hunt for secure borders, outrage at the slave-traffic in Slavs -drove the czarist empire piecemeal to the walls of Geok-Tepe. In the end the void and weakness of all this land - a simple power-vacuum - sucked the Russians in.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron