A tourist in Turkmenistan

The former Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan (bordered by Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and the Caspian Sea) is the seventh least visited country in the world.

The Turkmenistan community in Israel continues to maintain its traditions, such as this pre-wedding Henna celebration held a few months ago (photo credit: YEKUTIELI FAMILY)
The Turkmenistan community in Israel continues to maintain its traditions, such as this pre-wedding Henna celebration held a few months ago
(photo credit: YEKUTIELI FAMILY)
There’s a rather strange metropolis in Central Asia dubbed the “city of the dead.” It boasts five Guinness World Records that include the most white marble buildings in the world, the largest enclosed observation wheel, the largest fountain, the largest mural of a star and the largest image of a Turkmen carpet that adorns the main airport’s passenger terminal.
The only problem is that there are very few people around. Even tourists stay away.
The former Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan (bordered by Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and the Caspian Sea) is the seventh least visited country in the world. Its capital, Ashgabat, is described by the Lonely Planet travel guide as a cross between Las Vegas and Pyongyang. It’s easy to understand why.
Driving in from the airport, my taxi driver feels the need (despite the fact that it’s 3 a.m.) to take the longest route to my hotel so I can marvel at one magnificent structure after another. The main avenues are lined on both sides with breathtakingly beautiful buildings, all made of imported Italian white marble. No two are the same, as commanded by the president. Neon lights adorn the top of each façade and like Vegas, the flashy city rises as an oasis from the middle of the desert.
But Human Rights Watch says the country remains one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Disparagingly referred to as North Korea with oil – the country boasts the second largest natural gas reserves in the former Soviet Union and the sixth largest in the world – the glitz and glamor are artificial. During daylight hours there is not a soul on the street – except for cleaners who dust the shrubs lining the roadsides. In the six days I visited the “city of love” – as it translates from Persian – I saw fewer than 200 people (including hotel staff) from a population of nearly one million. (The entire country has a population of under six million.) The parks are empty, the roads are quiet and no one walks the perfectly manicured pavements.
An extragavant city in an isolated country, Ashgabat is home to a Jewish community with an estimated 700 members that time and history have forgotten. At its peak in the 1980s, the Turkmenistan Jewish community numbered about 2,500. Today, fewer than 1,000 Jews still live in the country. They have no rabbi, no synagogue and, by all assessments, no future. According to the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, the majority live in Ashgabat, and the rest in Mary and Turkmenabat, a village on the border with Uzbekistan, which is home to a few dozen Bukharan Jews.
According to Prof. Zeev Levin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the first Jews to arrive in Turkmenistan were part of a wider group of Iranian Jews who spread from ancient Persia to central Asia. Archeological evidence of their presence in the region dates back to the ninth century. At that time, Turkmenistan was an important junction on the Silk Road trade route that connected Europe with Asia.
“They were quite small in number so we cannot consider them a unique group,” says Levin.
“They adopted quite a lot of practices and customs from the surrounding environment. The women wore a veil and some of their folklore and prayer practices were common to the Persian environment, although some were unique.”
Most of these Jews were involved in merchandise and families would move with the father’s work. Commerce was the cornerstone of the community.
“Don’t romanticize those times. It was difficult,” says Ze’ev Wolf, who remembers his father singing songs from Turkmenistan that were passed down from his grandfather who traveled the area selling fur and china.
“The Jews didn’t behave like they were different. They wore almost the same clothes as the Muslims. The food was similar, there was no alcohol, the music was the same. In some synagogues people would take off their shoes before entering, like in a mosque. They also treated their women badly – it was only after coming to Israel that women became literate.”
The Jerusalem-born Wolf taught his mother to read and write when he was seven years old.
“My mother’s family didn’t have much,” he reflects, “but they were full of dignity. The house was always open to guests, even if there was only a little food. My grandmother taught me that a guest always brings luck.”
Most of the community left for Israel and America in the 1940s. But in 1948 when a major earthquake wiped out 80% of the population of Ashgabat, among those who came to rebuild the city were Jews from Russia and Ukraine. Ephraim Yekutieli’s family was among those trying to get out. They headed for the Iranian border.
“When they got there, my grandmother suddenly remembered she had forgotten a pot with all her gold and jewelry at home. My father, Yosef, went back to get it. But the KGB caught him and put him in jail,” explains Yekutieli. “My grandmother waited for him, living on the Persian side for a few years. But when he didn’t come, she left with her children for Israel in 1948.”
Five years later, Yekutieli’s father was released from prison and returned to Yoloten, a city in southeast Turkmenistan where he married and had children. Yekutieli and his nine siblings grew up behind the Iron Curtain.
Little is known about the Turkmen Jews who lived under Soviet rule, as they were isolated and cut off from major cities and communication links. Many also changed their surnames.
“We lived like everybody else. My father was a businessman, an importer, but that was not accepted there – it was looked down upon because of the communists,” says Yekutieli.
“There was no antisemitism, not from the people or the government. The communists were the problem. They took my grandfather because he was a wealthy and important rabbi and sent him to Siberia, where they killed him. As a child I played basketball in the gymnasium without knowing it had been my grandfather’s synagogue before the communists converted it.”
In 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, Yekutieli’s family was among some 2,000 Jews to leave Turkmenistan. He settled in Israel. Former first secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party, Saparmyrat Nyýazow, declared himself President for Life of the newly independent country and soon became one of the world’s most totalitarian and despotic dictators. He named a meteorite after himself, banned gold teeth, made it illegal to drive dirty cars on the road, and because he disliked dogs he had them killed in barbaric ways. He renamed the months of the year after his family and banned smoking in public. In 2003, he passed a law that made Russian Orthodoxy and Sunni Islam the only religions allowed to be practiced in the country. He tore down the city’s only synagogue and built a fountain featuring a traditional Turkmen hero over it. The Jewish community was forced to register itself as a cultural, and not religious, organization.
Turkmenistan was the last former Soviet republic to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, in 1993, while Israel opened an embassy in Ashgabat in 2013.
In 2018, Israel and Turkmenistan marked 25 years since establishing diplomatic relations. On August 7, delegations from both countries held political consulations at the Turkmenistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced. “Speaking about the relations in the trade-economic area, the sides emphasized the oil and gas and agricultural industries, highlighting the advantageous location of Turkmenistan and the country’s natural resources,” it said in a statement.
Until today, non-Turkmen residents are treated as second-class citizens. Despite an unemployment rate of 60 percent, Nyýazow’s successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, continued with the excesses of his predecessor.
He ordered police to impound black cars in the capital and force their owners to repaint them silver or white because they’re his lucky colors. Along any central street through which he might pass, he demanded air-conditioning units be removed from the exterior walls of apartment buildings because they were ugly. This, despite the fact that the average temperature in summer is more than 40C and in high-rises can climb to 60C.
Foreigners are not allowed out on the streets after 11 p.m. and I could not leave my hotel, day or night, without a “minder” – a university student who was there “to assist” me I was told – in tow. He followed me to the golf course opposite the hotel (designed by American golf great Jack Nicklaus in a country where no one plays golf!); sat next to me as I caught a cable car on the Afghan border and even waited for me while I had a massage. The hotel security refused to allow a Russian colleague to visit the street where her father was born and when his childhood friend came to visit her at the hotel, they denied him entry.
To beautify the city, tens of thousands of homes were demolished and its inhabitants poorly compensated. A whole village, Choganly, was razed to the ground so that the new airport, which operates at 10% capacity, could have an international bus terminal. This, despite the fact that for the first five years of its existence, the airport did not serve a single international route.
No wonder then that those Jews who remain are precarious about their status and usually don’t want to disclose their religious origin.
“But,” insists Yekutieli, relaxing in his home in Holon, the city where most Turkmen Jews settled in Israel, “the people of Turkmenistan are very special. They are ‘Muslim lite.’ If we didn’t have bread, they would give us. At our weddings, everybody came; also to our hennas. The heart of the Turkmen is very special. They will give you everything they have. When we left, the older people cried.... They said that now because the Jews were leaving they would not have any blessings.”
In a certain sense, that prophecy came true. Years of seclusion and secrecy have created a capital city steeped in the future while being stuck in the past. And which – just like the Jewish community it shelters – is eerily empty.
Agostina Echecury contributed to this report