Turkminestan Türkmenistan

Ashgabat Açgabat

Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, is home to numerous monuments that fuse Soviet architectural ideas with traditional Islamic geometric forms, such as the eight-pointed star seen on the Alem Entertainment Centre – the largest indoor Ferris wheel in the world.

This eight-pointed star, comprised of two overlapping squares, is called a rub el hizb and is an ornament often used to mark the end of passages in the Qur’an, the central and foundational religious text of Islam. The symbol appears all over the city in lifts, on railings, windows, street furniture, paving stones, and billboards.

Ashgabat, the otherworldly capital of Turkmenistan

Bordering Iran to the west and Uzbekistan to the east is Turkmenistan, one of the least visited and most secretive countries in the world. Obtaining a visa is a notoriously lengthy and unpredictable process to so I felt fortunate to finally get one in advance of my Silk Road journey. After crossing the border from Iran, I arrived in the city of Mary, known in ancient times as Merv. Here I rested a few days before heading to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s otherworldly capital, with my government appointed guide. It is certainly one of the most surreal places I have visited.

As we drove into the city, I was first struck by how bright and clean it was. Almost every building is clad in white marble. The city is blinding in the sunlight. The roads are pristine and the gardens manicured. Vast statues, futuristic monuments, and enormous fountains adorn the city but there is barely a soul there to see them. Guards stand silently to attention but there is no one there to protect the monuments from.

Outside the huge government ministry buildings, not even a smoker is in sight. I look for a trace of life on the balconies of the gleaming monolithic apartment buildings – drying laundry or a plant – but find none. I visit the National Museum for a tour, I am the only visitor.

The country’s symbol of an eight pointed star appears everywhere; elevators, railings, windows, street furniture, paving stones, and billboards. Even some monuments are constructed in the shape of this symbol.

I hope you enjoy these photos of the this otherworldly city.

Monument to Neutrality. The monument is topped by a 12-metre tall gold-plated statue of Turkmenistan’s first President Saparmurat Niyazov which rotates to always face the sun.
Monument to Neutrality
Independence Monument, Ashgabat
Independence Monument, Ashgabat
White marble-clad apartment blocks
With my guide
Independence Monument
Empty roads
The Palace of Happiness, a marriage registry office
A new park
Golden Horse Monument. It features current Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov riding an Akhal-Teke, Turkmenistan’s national horse.
Empty roads
The international airport. Several of the more important buildings in Ashgabat are designed in the shape of something that resembles their function or purpose.
The view toward the Independence Monument
Marble-clad apartment blocks
A shopping mall
Ashgabat contains the world’s greatest number of fountain pools in a public place
An almost-empty pavement
A government building of some sort
White marble-clad apartment blocks
Constitution Monument
Constitution Monument. Spot the two guards at the foot of the steps.
Alem Entertainment Centre. Home to the largest indoor ferris wheel in the world.
Alem Entertainment Centre. Home to the largest indoor ferris wheel in the world.
A solitary figure outside the Ashgabat National Museum of History
More empty roads
Kipchak Mosque; the largest mosque in Central Asia. 10,000 worshipers can attend services inside the mosque, but most of the time it is empty.

Konye-Urgench Köneürgenç

Not far from the Uzbekistan border lie the ruins of Konye-Urgench. The city was the capital of the Persian Khwarazmian civilisation and for centuries sat proudly at one of the main crossroads of the Silk Road. In 1221, Genghis Khan destroyed the city during the Mongol invasion of Central Asia. The city bounced back but was razed again a century later by Timur (Tamerlane), the founder of the Timurid dynasty.

The Ruins of Konye Urgench in Turkmenistan

Inside of the dome of the Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum

In eastern Turkmenistan, not far from the Uzbekistan border, lies the ruins Konye-Urgench. The city dates all the way back to the 4/5th century but today only a few buildings constructed between the 11th and16th centuries remain.

The city was the capital of the Iranian Khwarazmian civilisation and sat at one of the cross roads of the Silk Road – the network of trading routes that connected China with the Mediterranean – which enriched it over the centuries.

The entrance of the Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum
The Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum
Inside of the dome of the Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum. The surface is covered in colourful mosaic which forms intricate ornamental patterns consisting of flowers and stars, creating a visual metaphor for the heavens.
The Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum from a distance

In 1221, Genghis Khan destroyed the city in the Mongol invasion of Central Asia. Despite the devastating effects of the invasion, the city was revived and it regained its previous status.

Visiting in the 14th century, the great Berber traveller Ibn Battuta desctibed it as “the largest, greatest, most beautiful and most important city of the Turks.”

Shortly after that though, Amir Timur, the founder of the Timurid dynasty, razed the city to the ground after a Sufi uprising and massacred the population. The city never really recovered after that. In 1700, it was finally abandoned.

The Kutlug-Timur Minaret
The impressive 60 metre tall Kutlug-Timur Minaret dates to the 11th and 12th centuries

Only the ruins of a few mosques, mausoleums and a minaret remain but elements of the city’s art and architectural style live on through the civilisations they influenced.

Examples of this style can be found across the Muslim world and beyond in Uzbekistan, Iran, Afghanistan and later in the Mughul Empire of 16th century India and Pakistan.

Some of the few remaining structures at Konye Urgench
The Il-Arslan mausoleum. The architectural style developed in Konye Urgench influenced numerous other Muslim civilisations including the Timurids in modern day Uzbekistan. A multitude of buildings in Samarkand were erected by builders and architects employed from Kunya Urgench in the 14th century.
A nearby dromedary of the Arabian variety

Konye-Urgench Köneürgenç

All that remains today are the Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum, the 60-metre tall Kutlug-Timur Minaret (left) and the Il-Arslan mausoleum (right), alongside a few other ruins.

The Ruins of Konye Urgench in Turkmenistan

Inside of the dome of the Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum

In eastern Turkmenistan, not far from the Uzbekistan border, lies the ruins Konye-Urgench. The city dates all the way back to the 4/5th century but today only a few buildings constructed between the 11th and16th centuries remain.

The city was the capital of the Iranian Khwarazmian civilisation and sat at one of the cross roads of the Silk Road – the network of trading routes that connected China with the Mediterranean – which enriched it over the centuries.

The entrance of the Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum
The Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum
Inside of the dome of the Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum. The surface is covered in colourful mosaic which forms intricate ornamental patterns consisting of flowers and stars, creating a visual metaphor for the heavens.
The Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum from a distance

In 1221, Genghis Khan destroyed the city in the Mongol invasion of Central Asia. Despite the devastating effects of the invasion, the city was revived and it regained its previous status.

Visiting in the 14th century, the great Berber traveller Ibn Battuta desctibed it as “the largest, greatest, most beautiful and most important city of the Turks.”

Shortly after that though, Amir Timur, the founder of the Timurid dynasty, razed the city to the ground after a Sufi uprising and massacred the population. The city never really recovered after that. In 1700, it was finally abandoned.

The Kutlug-Timur Minaret
The impressive 60 metre tall Kutlug-Timur Minaret dates to the 11th and 12th centuries

Only the ruins of a few mosques, mausoleums and a minaret remain but elements of the city’s art and architectural style live on through the civilisations they influenced.

Examples of this style can be found across the Muslim world and beyond in Uzbekistan, Iran, Afghanistan and later in the Mughul Empire of 16th century India and Pakistan.

Some of the few remaining structures at Konye Urgench
The Il-Arslan mausoleum. The architectural style developed in Konye Urgench influenced numerous other Muslim civilisations including the Timurids in modern day Uzbekistan. A multitude of buildings in Samarkand were erected by builders and architects employed from Kunya Urgench in the 14th century.
A nearby dromedary of the Arabian variety

Konye-Urgench Köneürgenç

The city’s art and architectural styles, however, lived on through the civilisations they influenced such as the Mughal Empire, which once covered Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Seen here, the inside of the dome of the Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum.

The Ruins of Konye Urgench in Turkmenistan

Inside of the dome of the Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum

In eastern Turkmenistan, not far from the Uzbekistan border, lies the ruins Konye-Urgench. The city dates all the way back to the 4/5th century but today only a few buildings constructed between the 11th and16th centuries remain.

The city was the capital of the Iranian Khwarazmian civilisation and sat at one of the cross roads of the Silk Road – the network of trading routes that connected China with the Mediterranean – which enriched it over the centuries.

The entrance of the Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum
The Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum
Inside of the dome of the Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum. The surface is covered in colourful mosaic which forms intricate ornamental patterns consisting of flowers and stars, creating a visual metaphor for the heavens.
The Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum from a distance

In 1221, Genghis Khan destroyed the city in the Mongol invasion of Central Asia. Despite the devastating effects of the invasion, the city was revived and it regained its previous status.

Visiting in the 14th century, the great Berber traveller Ibn Battuta desctibed it as “the largest, greatest, most beautiful and most important city of the Turks.”

Shortly after that though, Amir Timur, the founder of the Timurid dynasty, razed the city to the ground after a Sufi uprising and massacred the population. The city never really recovered after that. In 1700, it was finally abandoned.

The Kutlug-Timur Minaret
The impressive 60 metre tall Kutlug-Timur Minaret dates to the 11th and 12th centuries

Only the ruins of a few mosques, mausoleums and a minaret remain but elements of the city’s art and architectural style live on through the civilisations they influenced.

Examples of this style can be found across the Muslim world and beyond in Uzbekistan, Iran, Afghanistan and later in the Mughul Empire of 16th century India and Pakistan.

Some of the few remaining structures at Konye Urgench
The Il-Arslan mausoleum. The architectural style developed in Konye Urgench influenced numerous other Muslim civilisations including the Timurids in modern day Uzbekistan. A multitude of buildings in Samarkand were erected by builders and architects employed from Kunya Urgench in the 14th century.
A nearby dromedary of the Arabian variety

The Silk Road

In 138 BCE, General Zhang Qian of China’s Han Dynasty was sent on a diplomatic mission to develop economic and cultural links with the peoples of Central Asia. In so doing, he set in motion the creation of a transcontinental trade route that would shape the world as we know it today.

The Silk Road, as it would later be called, is neither an actual road nor a single route. It refers to the historic network of trade routes that stretched thousands of miles across Eurasia connecting China with Europe. Grain, livestock, leather, precious stones, porcelain, wool, gold and, of course, silk were transported along its network of trading posts and markets. As a consequence, two thousand years ago affluent Romans could garb themselves in silk clothes made in China while gold coins bearing Caesar’s image were spent in spice markets in India.

It was not only goods that travelled these routes but knowledge, religions and people too. Gunpowder, the magnetic compass, the printing press, and advanced mathematics all came to Europe from China and the Islamic world. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam each found new converts in the lands that opened up to the East and West. Along these same routes, Mongol armies swept across Eurasia — as did bubonic plague, travelling with merchants and their animals.

These exchanges had a profound impact on the empires and civilisations through which they passed, giving them political, religious and cultural shape. Many of the more networked cities developed into hubs of culture and learning and, in some, the sparks of a golden age were ignited.

By the late 16th century, the Silk Road had lost its prominence to new maritime trade routes but the legacy of interconnectivity and exchange endured. Today, it is being reimagined on an unprecedented scale. Through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Eurasia is the focus of the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in history. If realised, a massive network of roads, railways, pipelines and ports could connect as much as 65% of the world’s population and radically alter the flow of global trade. It is already beginning to reshape Eurasia, focusing world attention once again on the exchange of goods and ideas running from East to West. While these investments will bring enormous opportunities, they come with many risks, especially for Central Asia. Regional insecurity, rising inequality, cultural dislocation, resource scarcity and climate change — all these must be mediated if the new Silk Road is to deliver prosperity to all of those who live along it.

The Aga Khan Foundation & The Silk Road

The Aga Khan Foundation and agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) have been active in countries along the Silk Road for decades. AKDN is a long-term partner in the development of Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.

Alongside its partners, AKDN has channelled significant financial and human resources into economic, social and cultural development in these regions. Promoting pluralism, self-reliance and women’s empowerment have been central to those efforts. AKDN’s initiatives are wide-ranging and include agriculture and food security, climate resilience, education, energy, enterprise development, financial services, healthcare, infrastructure, telecommunications and promoting civil society. It has also restored hundreds of historical monuments, parks and gardens and supported some of Central Asia’s greatest musicians to transmit their knowledge and perform on the world’s stage. AKDN’s overarching aim is to improve the quality of life.

This exhibition

The Silk Road: A Living History invites you to take a journey from London to Beijing, encountering some of the people, places and cultures in-between. The exhibition aims to celebrate the diversity found along this route, explore how historical customs live on today, and reveal connections between what appear at first glance to be very different cultures. Ultimately, the exhibition aims to help build bridges of interest and understanding between distant places and challenge perceptions of less well-known or understood parts of the world. The exhibition was created by Christopher Wilton-Steer, a travel photographer and Head of Communications at the Aga Khan Foundation (UK).

This exhibition is not an exhaustive photographic documentation of Eurasia’s people and cultures. It is a record of some of those Christopher encountered over the course of an overland journey from London to Beijing that he undertook in 2019 and therefore reflects only a fraction of the realities of these places. It is one of an infinite number of stories that could be told.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank first and foremost the wonderful and kind people I met on my travels and who allowed me into their lives. I am grateful to Simon Norfolk, Gary Otte, Andrew Quilty, Sebastian Schutyser and Kapila Productions for allowing me to use some of their photographs of places or events I was unable to visit on my journey. I would like to acknowledge the invaluable travel advice I received from Wild Frontiers and Eastern Turkey Tours, and the support from King’s Cross Central General Partner Ltd. who have allowed for this exhibition to take place in this public space. Lastly, I would like to thank my colleagues across the Aga Khan Development Network for their support and especially the Aga Khan Foundation who shared in the vision for this exhibition.

Christopher Wilton-Steer