The Great Game: Borderlines

By Jheri St. James

(Landscape with Kopet Dag Mountains)

Turkmenistan is wealthy in natural resources in certain areas, possessing the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas. Most of the country is covered by the Karakum (Black Sand) Desert. Also known as Turkmenia, Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union 1991. Its borderlines are named for the countries of Afghanistan southeast, Iran south / southwest, Kazakhstan north / northwest and the Caspian Sea west. Turkmenistan contains one of the driest deserts in the world, over 80 percent of the country covered by the Karakum Desert. The climate is mostly arid subtropical desert with little rainfall. Winters are mild and dry. The Caspian Sea is entirely landlocked with no access to the ocean.

“President for Life” Saparmurat Niyazov (called “Turkmenbasy—leader of the Turkmens”) died suddenly in December 2006 after 21 years in office, marked by publication of his own religious text entitled “The Ruhnama.” His regime required that the book be given equal status with the Quran, and the book was heavily promoted as part of the president’s personality cult. Knowledge of the Ruhnama is required for obtaining a driver’s license. He styled himself as a promoter of traditional Muslim and Turkmen culture, but he became notorious in the West for his dictatorial rule and extravagant ego. Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov is currently president, elected in 2007.

“Everybody looks so ill at ease
So distrustful so displeased
Running down the table
I see a borderline
Like a barbed wire fence
Strung tight, strung tense
Prickling with pretense
A borderline




The territory of Turkmenistan has a long, checkered history, as armies from one empire after another decamped there on their way to more prosperous territories. Alexander the Great and troops from Persia (Margiana, Kharezm and Parthian) were among the first conquerors. Turkmenistan remained the territory of the Persian empire for several centuries. Then Arabs ruled, followed by Mongolian Genghis Khan and for the next seven centuries, the Turkmen people lived under various empires and fought constant inter-tribal wars; Persian Shahs, Khivan Khans, Emirs of Buhkara and rulers of Afghanistan fought over the borderlines of Turkmenistan. This vast territory was largely unmapped and virtually unknown to Europe and the Western world. Rivalry for control of the area between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia was characterized as The Great Game. By 1894, Russia gained control of Turkmenistan and incorporated it into its empire.

“Prior to the Russian conquest, the Turkmen were known and feared for their involvement in the Central Asian slave trade. The neighboring rural villages of Persia and Afghanistan were the main victims of Turkmen raids, in which groups of armed men on horseback carried away captives to be sold in the slave markets of Khiva, Bukhara, and Mari.” (Paul R. Spickard, Wikipedia)

“Every notion we subscribe to
Is just a borderline
Good or bad, we think we know
As if thinking makes things so!
All convictions grow along a borderline

Smug in your jaded expertise
You scathe the wonder world
And you praise barbarity
In this illusionary place--
This scared hard-edged rat race
All liberty is laced with

Continuing human rights abuses have imposed severe restrictions on foreign travel; discrimination against ethnic minorities remains in practice; Turkmenistan had the third worst press freedom conditions in the world behind North Korea and Burma, and is one of the 10 most censored countries (Reporters Without Borders 2006 World Press Freedom Index).

* * *

Our soil collecting friends in Turkmenistan were Eleonora Malashkevich and Vladimar Grigoryants on June 16, 2008. Their collection came from the park in front of the Ak Altyn Hotel and the Turkmen Circus in Ashgabat City, the capital city. They captured this historic moment in time and place in the photos below. Sincere thanks for the time and effort they contributed to our project.


The word for peace in Turkmenistan is "parahatgylyk."








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