History Files


Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia




Margiana / Mergu

The ancient province of Margiana lay largely within what is now central and western Turkmenistan. The Kopet Dag Mountains which today form a frontier with Iran were probably to be found within its borders. Prior to its late sixth century BC domination by the Achaemenid Persians, Margiana lay immediately outside a much larger and more poorly-defined region known as Ariana, of which the later province of Aria was the heartland. Barely recorded by written history, its precise boundaries are impossible to pin down. It may have encompassed much or all of Transoxiana, the region around the River Oxus (the Amu Darya), and could have reached as far south as the coastline of the Arabian Sea.

Persian Mergu was only a region within Chorasmia which lay to the north. Subsequent Greek domination saw 'Mergu' became 'Margiana' and it also became a separate province. To the east it was bordered by Bactria, to the south-east by Aria, and to the south-west by Hyrcania. By the first millennium BC it may have been populated largely by Indo-Iranian tribes which were migrating east and west from across the River Oxus. Those tribes which remained behind appear to enter the historical record around the sixth century BC, when they came up against their cousins from the rapidly expanding Persian empire.

(Additional information from The Marshals of Alexander's Empire, Waldemar Heckel, from Alexander the Great and Hernán Cortés: Ambiguous Legacies of Leadership, Justin D Lyons, and from External Link: Encyclopædia Britannica.)

Kingdom of Turan (Indo-Iranian)

Later myth ascribed a dynasty of Indo-Iranian rulers to this period, as described in the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), a poetic opus which was written about AD 1000 but which accessed older works (such as the semi-official seventh century AD book called the Ḵwadāy-nāmag), and perhaps elements of an oral tradition. The Kayanian dynasty of kings of the Persians were also the heroes of the Avesta, which forms the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. This faith itself had been founded along the banks of the River Oxus, the great river which had probably also formed part of the migratory route used by the Indo-European Persians as they entered Iran.

The earliest of these mythical Indo-Iranian rulers was Fereydun, king of a 'world empire'. His subjects were the Indo-Iranian tribes of the region while his kingdom was apparently in the land of Tūr (or Turaj, sometimes also shown without the accented 'u' as Tur). This can be equated to territory in the heartland of Indo-Iranian southern Central Asia and South Asia, focused mainly on the later provinces of Bactria and Margiana, along with the Kopet Dag region (a mountain range which serves to separate modern Turkmenistan and Iran), the Atrek valley (which supplies an easy route into eastern Iran and is a weak point in the country's defensive line), and the eastern Alborz Mountains (stretching from modern Azerbaijan, along the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, and into Hyrcania and the edges of eastern Iran). Judging by those borders, the land of Tūr stretched from Samarkand to Tehran, although the kingdom of Turan was probably a good deal smaller and more eastern-based (note the similarly between 'Turan' and Tehran'). The Persians themselves may still have controlled a good deal of the western section as they began to settle in southern Iran. Curiously (and probably not coincidentally), these borders would have placed it on the northern border of another ancient region, that of Ariana.

Fereydun became the father of three sons; Tūr, Salm, and Iraj. Tūr murdered Iraj, thereby triggering an unending feud between the two lines of their descendants. One of Tūr's descendants (possibly a seven-times grandson) was Afrasaib, who ruled the kingdom of Turan during the lifetime of the Persian Kai Kavoos of the seventh century. The stories regarding Turan show it to be in competition with the Persians for mastery of the eastern lands, with many battles being fought. Ultimately it is the Persians who emerge victorious, although the Shahnameh may be showing some bias - history is written by the victorious, after all. Turan's kings are shown with a shaded pink background to denote their legendary status.

(Additional information from Central Asia: A Historical Overview, Edward A Allworth (Duke University Press, 1994), from The Paths of History, I M Diakonoff (Cambridge University Press, 1999), from Islamic Reference Desk, Emeri 'van' Donzel (Brill Academic Publishers, 1994), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Iranica, and Iranians & Turanians in the Avesta.)

Fereydun / Faridun / Fareidun

Ruled a 'world empire'. Abdicated in favour of Manuchehr.


Son of Fereydun. Gifted Central Asia. Killed Iraj of Persia.

Thanks to the murder of Iraj by Tūr, Salm, the Persians retaliate under the command of Iraj's grandson, Manuchehr. Tūr and Salm cross the Oxus to face him on the border between Iran and Turan. The ensuing battle results in heavy casualties for the Turanians, and Tūr is later ambushed and beheaded. Salm is later captured and also beheaded.


Grandson. Continued the war against the Persians.

7th cent BC


Son. Defeated and died.

The story of Afrasiab's eventual defeat and death comes largely from the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings). He is repeatedly defeated by Kai Khosrow (his own grandson via his daughter, Farangis). Forced out of his own lands he wanders wretchedly, taking refuge in a cave known as the Hang-e Afrasiab (meaning the 'dying place of Afrasiab'), on a mountain in Azerbaijan. Ultimately, he is killed by the divine plant of Zoroastrianism, Haoma, near the Čīčhast (location uncertain, but proposed as Lake Hamun in Sistan, which contradicts his location in Azerbaijan). He meets his death in the cave.

7th cent BC

Sijavus / Siyavash

Son of Kai Kavoos of Persia, and son-in-law of Afrasiab.

Sijavus is a legendary Persian prince and the son-in-law of the mythical Afrasiab, the hero and king of Turan. Due to the treachery of his stepmother, Sudabeh, Sijavus exiles himself to Turan (presumably well before the defeat and death of Afrasiab). There, he marries Farangis, Afrasiab's daughter, but the king later orders Sijavus to be killed. His death is avenged by his son, the very same Kai Khosrow mentioned above, who inherits the early Persian throne.

c.546 - 540 BC

The defeat of the Medes opens the floodgates for Cyrus the Great with a wave of conquests, beginning in the west from 549 BC but focussing towards the east of the Persians from about 546 BC. Eastern Iran falls during a drawn-out campaign between then and about 540 BC, during which the further eastern regions of Arachosia, Aria, Bactria, Carmania, Chorasmia, Drangiana, Gandhara, Gedrosia, Hyrcania, Margiana, Parthia, and Sogdiana (with Ferghana) are also added to the empire, although records for these campaigns are characteristically sparse. The inference is very clear - whatever control of Turan the Persians had enjoyed following the death of Afrasiab, it did not last and the lands now have to be conquered properly.

Persian Satraps of Mergu (Margiana)

Conquered in the late sixth century BC by Cyrus the Great, the region of Margiana was added to the Persian empire. Before that it was populated largely by Indo-Iranian tribal groups. Under the Persians, it was formed into an official satrapy or province.

These eastern regions of the new-found empire were ancestral homelands for the Persians. They formed the Indo-Iranian melting pot from which the Parsua had migrated west in the first place to reach Persis. There would have been no language barriers for Cyrus' forces and few cultural differences. Although details of his conquests are relatively poor, he seemingly experienced few problems in uniting the various tribes under his governance. He was the first to exert any form of imperial control here, although his campaign may have been driven partially by a desire to recreate the semi-mythical kingdom of Turan in the land of Tūr, but now under Persian control. Curiously the Persians had little knowledge of what lay to the north of their eastern empire, with the result that Alexander the Great was less well-informed about the region than earlier Ionian settlers on the Black Sea coast had been.

(Additional information from The Persian Empire, J M Cook (1983).)

Index of Greek SatrapsArgead Dynasty in Margiana

The Argead were the ruling family and founders of Macedonia who reached their greatest extent under Alexander the Great and his two successors before the kingdom broke up into several Hellenic sections. Following Alexander's conquest of central and eastern Persia in 331-328 BC, the Greek empire ruled the region until Alexander's death in 323 BC and the subsequent regency period which ended in 310 BC. Alexander's successors held no real power, being mere figureheads for the generals who really held control of Alexander's empire. Following that latter period and during the course of several wars, Margiana was left in the hands of the Seleucid empire from 312 BC.

330 - 323 BC

Alexander III the Great

King of Macedonia. Conquered Persia.

323 - 317 BC

Philip III Arrhidaeus

Feeble-minded half-brother of Alexander the Great.

317 - 310 BC

Alexander IV of Macedonia

Infant son of Alexander the Great and Roxana.

330 - ? BC


Greek-appointed native satrap of Tapouria.

320s BC

At this time the Indo-Scythians appear to reside midway between modern Iran and India, or at least the Amyrgian subset or tribe does. Achaemenid records identify two main divisions of 'Sakas' (an altered form of 'Scythians', these being the Saka Haumavarga and Saka Tigraxauda, with the latter inhabiting territory between Hyrcania and Chorasmia in modern Turkmenistan.

Sakas on a frieze at Persepolis
Sakas (otherwise known as 'Scythians' who in this case can be more precisely identified as Indo-Scythians) depicted on a frieze at Persepolis in Achaemenid Persia, which would have been the greatest military power in the region at this time

314 - 311 BC

The Third War of the Diadochi results because the Empire of Antigonus has grown too powerful in the eyes of the other Greek generals, so Antigonus is attacked by Ptolemy (Egypt), Lysimachus (Thrace), Cassander (Macedonia), and Seleucus (Babylonia). The latter re-secures Babylon itself and the others conclude peace terms with Antigonus in 311 BC.

308 -301 BC

The Fourth War of the Diadochi soon breaks out. In 306 BC Antigonus proclaims himself king, so the following year the other generals do the same in their domains. Polyperchon, otherwise quiet in his stronghold in the Peloponnese, dies in 303 BC and Cassander of Macedonia claims his territory. The war ends in the death of Antigonus at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC. Seleucus is now king of all Hellenic territory from Syria eastwards, turning Alexander the Great's eastern empire into the Seleucid empire, which includes Hyrcania.

c.220 BC

Index of Greek SatrapsThe realm of Euthydemus of Bactria is a large one, including Sogdiana and Ferghana to the north, and Margiana and Aria to the west. There are indications that from Alexandria Eschate in Ferghana the Greco-Bactrians may lead expeditions as far as Kashgar (a little under three hundred and twenty kilometres (two hundred miles) due east of Ferghana), and Urumqi in Chinese Turkestan. There they would be able to establish the first known contacts between China and the West around 220 BC.

Even more remarkably, recent examinations of the terracotta army have established a startling new concept - the terracotta army may be the product of western art forms and technology. An entire terracotta army plus imperial court are manufactured using five workshops and a form of human representation in sculpture that has never before been seen in China. Archaeologists today continue the process of discovering new pits and even a fan of roads leading out from the emperor's burial mound, one of which, heading west, may be a sort of proto-Silk Road along which Greek craftsmen may be travelling.

212 - 209 BC

Having defeated his rebellious cousin in Anatolia, Antiochus III of the Seleucid empire concentrates on the northern and eastern provinces of the empire. Xerxes of Armenia is persuaded to acknowledge his supremacy in 212 BC, while in 209 BC Antiochus invades Parthia. Its capital, Hecatompylos, is occupied and Antiochus forces his way into Hyrcania, with the result that the Parthian king, Arsaces II, is forced to sue for peace.

1918 - 1921

A reorganisation of Central Asian Soviet-controlled states along ethnic lines means the end of the khanate of Khiva, the Turkestan Krai, and the emirate of Bukhara (the latter being ousted by the Tashkent Soviet in 1920). They are merged into the newly-formed 'Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic', which is formed as a self-governing entity of the early Soviet Union. However, in the same year, the Islamic Council and the Council of Intelligentsia declare the rival 'Turkestan Autonomous Republic', and set about fighting against the Bolshevik forces who start closing down mosques and persecuting Muslim clergy as part of their secularisation campaign.

1921 - 1924

The Turkestan Autonomous Republic has gradually lost ground to the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks themselves have been divided into two groups over the region's future, but the idea of a pan-Turkic state is jettisoned in place of several smaller states. In 1924 the Turkestan ASSR is divided into the Uzbek SSR, the Turkmen SSR, the Kara-Kirghiz Autonomous Oblast (Kyrgyzstan), and the Karakalpak Autonomous Oblast (modern Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan). Initially, the Tajik ASSR is also adjoined to the Uzbek state.

Modern Turkmenistan
AD 1924 - Present Day

Modern Turkmenistan is made up mainly of desert, and has the smallest population of the five Central Asian ex-Soviet republics. Its western border lies on the Caspian Sea. To the north it almost reaches the Aral Sea and is mainly bordered by Uzbekistan, with a divide formed by the River Amu Darya, while what are now Iran and Afghanistan fill its southern and south-eastern borders.

The Black Desert region, or Karakum, was for a while home to Indo-European tribes from further north in Central Asia in the third millennium BC. Living here in vast mud-brick fortress citadels, herding cattle, and worshiping fire in rituals controlled by an early form of Brahmin, they also domesticated and worshipped the horse. Eventually they were forced southwards by climate change between about 2000-1500 BC. The bulk of them seemingly re-emerged in India as the Aryans who created the first documented states there, while some may have formed the proto-Persians and doubtless many others remained where they were to form part of the populations of later states in the region - albeit subsumed within the later-arriving Turkic population.

South-western Turkmenistan lies largely within the former Persian satrapy of Verkâna (Greek Hyrcania) while the eastern section lay partly within Bactria and much more so within Margu. This area was invaded by Alexander the Great's Greek empire, and Bactria became independent in 256 BC. Following that, the region was occupied by Indo-Scythians and Tocharians, and was controlled by the Kushans and then the Persian Sassanids. With the collapse of the Samanids in the ninth century AD the region became a battleground for vying factions of Turkic tribes, and it was the Turkic-speaking Oghuz who settled Turkmenistan and who today form much of its population. From the end of the tenth century AD the region was largely part of the emirate of Khwarazm, before being divided between the Mongol Il-Khanate and Mughulistan. Timurid Transoxiana claimed it next, and then it formed part of the region of Turkestan which was ruled by the Shaibanid empire in the sixteenth century. This in turn was displaced by the khanate of Khiva and then the Russian empire.

Turkmenistan in the modern sense was formed in 1924, when its Soviet masters divided Khiva and its short-lived successor, the Tashkent ASSR, The Turkmen SSR survived in that form until the collapse of the Soviet empire. In 1991 Turkmenistan became fully independent, with its capital at Ashgabat. Like the Soviet Union in the years before Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan now live under regimes that resolutely and brutally resist change. The capital, Ashgabat, soon lost its Soviet appearance, and began to resemble more and more a rather bizarre Las Vegas, with a giant star on top of a Palace of Happiness, and a wedding palace that changes colour. Rich in natural resources, with the world's fourth-largest gas reserves, Turkmenistan can afford this and much more extravagance.

(Additional information from Modern Times, H Kahler, and from External Links: BBC Country Profiles, and Lonely Planet, and The New York Times, and from the NOAA.)

1934 - 1939

Undaunted by his failures to date, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin directs a massive purge of the Bolshevik party, the armed forces (decimating the officer class), government and intelligentsia. Millions of people, labelled enemies of the state, are killed or imprisoned, with the notoriously harsh gulags in Siberia being used to deposit many thousands of his victims.

By the end of this decade another casualty of Soviet rule is the former pastoral nomadic existence of the Turkmen, now that a sedentary life is the only way to survive. Ethnic Russians are moved into the region, along with other groups from around the Soviet Union, serving to alter Turkmen social and cultural strands. Religious beliefs are attacked and mosques are closed down, but the country is generally peaceful, with many Turkmen continuing to live isolated agrarian lives that are less affected by Soviet oppression.


A magnitude 7.3 earthquake strikes Ashgabat in south-western Turkmenistan - formerly an important location for the Blue Horde and White Horde. It makes an orphan of one Saparmyrat Niyazov, future president of Turkmenistan. Reporting of the disaster is strictly limited by the Soviet authorities, perhaps reluctant to admit to any kind of failing. Admiral Ellis Zacharias, former US deputy chief of the Office of Naval Intelligence, claims more than once that the earthquake is the result of the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb test.

1950 - 1953

An over-ambitious canal-building programme is launched with the aim of connecting the Aral Sea to the Karakum Desert in order to irrigate it and make its soil productive. With Stalin's death in 1953 it is abandoned in an unfinished state, but work on the equally ambitious Qaraqum Canal begins the following year. In time this effectively drains the Amu Darya and severely diminishes the Aral Sea.

Turkmen canal
Soviet canal work was generally over-ambitious in scale and highly damaging to the surrounding ecology, especially in this case to the Aral Sea and the River Amu Darya


The turnover in general secretaries of a more senior level of experience in the Soviet Union now leaves an opening for younger, more reform-minded individual to make a mark on the Soviet Union. One of Mikhail Gorbachev's first actions is to remove from office Muhammetnazar Gapurow, first secretary of the Communist party in the Turkmen SSR. Unfortunately this leaves an opening for Saparmyrat Niyazov, who becomes a life-long 'dictator of Turkmenistan'.

1985 - 2006

Saparmyrat Niyazov

Dictator. 'Turkmenbashi' ('leader of the Turkmen'). Died.


Turkmen SSR achieves independence as the Soviet empire collapses. As with neighbouring Uzbekistan's own Communist leader, Turkmenistan's Saparmyrat (or Saparmurat) Niyazov is ready. He hails from Kipchak (or Gypjak), just outside Ashgabat. He makes a smooth transition from Communist Party first secretary to president, keeping a tight lid on his country of 5.1 million while cultivating a bizarre cult of personality.


Saparmyrat Niyazov has covered his desert republic with golden statues of himself, and grandiose monuments to the achievements of his 'golden age'. He has also ordered the construction of his own mausoleum, next to a giant mosque, before his death in 2006. Today it is guarded by strictly regimented soldiers similar to those who keep watch over Lenin's tomb on Red Square in Moscow. Acting President Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdymukhamedov (or Berdimuhamedow) formally succeeds in office after 'winning' the election in 2007 with a largely unopposed majority. This is despite the constitution stipulating that an acting president cannot stand for election. That inconvenient rule is swiftly cancelled by the 'People's Council in time for the elections.

2006 - Present

Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov

Dictator. 'Arkadag' ('protector').


The Turkmen fascination with specially dedicated grandiose monuments has not ended with the death of Saparmyrat Niyazov. In May 2015 a gold-leaf statue of a mounted President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov perched on top of a vast 'cliff' of rock is unveiled in the capital. However, the new president has cut back the cult of personality, and restored many of Niyazov's more arbitrary cuts. The regime is more open than previously, even though it is still strictly authoritarian.