STREETS OF OLD ASHGABAT IN THE RETROSPECT OF TIME
The beauty of modern Ashgabat equally strikes the imagination of those who see it for the first time and those born in this city. Dressed in white clothes, the Turkmen capital breathes freely through the open spaces, bathes in the greenery of parks and gardens and admires itself in the reflection of fountain cascades. And today it is hard to believe that this beautiful city was not always like this...
Ashgabat is a city with an amazing history. It has undergone a number of radical changes over the past one hundred and forty years, so that very little remains now of its former appearance. There are many different reasons for this. They are mainly associated with changes in the state system, ideology and economic systems. However, there was one reason that was not man-made – a natural disaster on the night of October 6, 1948 that divided the short history of this city into two eras: before and after the earthquake.
The tragedy that destroyed Ashgabat almost completely and claimed tens of thousands of lives in the capital of Turkmenistan and its environs on that fateful night happened in the sixty-seventh year of the city’s development, if we count from the date of the founding of the Russian military settlement around the old Turkmen fortress. Ashgabat has been healing the wounds inflicted by that catastrophe for the seventy-third year now. Few buildings survived the earthquake, yet the mighty century-old trees are well preserved. Most importantly, there remained the main street pattern that was laid in the 19th century.
This street pattern deserves special mention. 140 years ago, the first Europeans began to develop the territory of the future city, buying the fields from local residents where they sowed wheat and barley. Military engineers, who arrived from Russia, appreciated the favorable location of this fertile plain between the mountains and the desert with many water sources. Having identified a wind rose on the spot, or, in other words, the location where wind was blowing from, they produced a layout of the future city. It took into account the regular evening and night waves of coolness, which is especially important in summer in the hot zone. This efficient planning of streets and buildings in the old part of Ashgabat is preserved to this day, creating a microclimate in narrow streets shaded by tree crowns and within city blocks.
Two most important factors influenced the planning of Ashgabat, i.e. the location of an old fortress with an adjoining square from which the first streets spread out towards the mountains and to the west, and a railway track. This railway reached the city in 1885, connecting it across the Caspian Sea with Baku and increasing the transit importance of the Transcaspian region. The railway made it possible to quickly develop the local economy and expand economic ties. It directly influenced the further growth of Ashgabat. The railway station with a nearby settlement was the focus of intensive construction after the fortress.
They were only one kilometer apart from each other, and this distance was gradually reduced by oncoming buildings. In 1886, the new city already had 10,000 inhabitants, but it was still small. One could get around it on foot in just 45 minutes.
The authorities put a lot of efforts to make life bearable on this imperial outskirt in the dry months of the summer heat. Public gardens were laid and trees were planted in the streets. The year 1887 marked the construction of a public garden which is basically the same age with the city and was rightfully named the First Park. Its main entrance now faces Magtymguly Avenue – the main street of old Ashgabat which was originally called Mervsky Avenue because it merged with the road to Merv. This straight avenue was 4 kilometers long. It stretched from west to east parallel to the railway track: from the hippodrome of the Transcaspian Racing Society (currently 30th micro-district) to modern Andalib Street, which did not exist at that time, as this area was occupied by the fields of local farmers. From this side, caravans with goods from Merv and Khiva used to enter the city, coming along the ancient routes of the Great Silk Road from the Bukhara Emirate and the Khiva Khanate.
Along Mervsky Avenue, opposite the city garden, there stood buildings of the Trans-Caspian Railway Administration and the Technical Railway School. Further down the avenue, in the territory now occupied by the US Embassy, there has been preserved one of the two oldest Ashgabat buildings that was erected at the end of the 19th century to accommodate the branch of the Russian State Bank. Another building that has miraculously survived to this day is located on the recently built section of Magtymguly Avenue. This is an Orthodox church named after St. Alexander Nevsky. It was built as a military cathedral of the Taman Cossack regiment on the outskirts of the Turkmen village of Keshi that has long become part of Ashgabat. These structures are now included in the State Register of Historical and Cultural Monuments of Turkmenistan.
In 1898, Mervsky Avenue was renamed after General Alexander Kuropatkin, who was appointed Minister of War of the Russian Empire and before that served as the head of the Trans-Caspian region for eight years. He is also known for his works on the history and ethnography of Turkmens. The city began to develop rapidly under his administration. Some successes were made in improving the street infrastructure. The main pavements were covered with cobblestones and the sidewalks were covered with burnt bricks to get rid of the clouds of dust raised by gust winds or movements along the road. Other streets were covered with a pebble layer. Water in the aryks (narrow street irrigation ditches) flowed by gravity owing to the natural slope of the terrain to the north and west. They were also covered with bricks whenever possible to reduce the loss of life-giving water. A few kerosene lanterns illuminated the streets with the onset of dusk.
In the same years, there were built the first gymnasiums for men and women, a public library and a museum, whose funds formed the basis of the current State Library and the State Museum of Turkmenistan. A school of gardening and horticulture was created in Keshi, where Russian and Turkmen children studied together for the first time, the first newspaper “Transcaspian Review” was launched, a telephone network and a telegraph were established.
The main street was full of life at the beginning of the twentieth century too. There were built numerous administrative and public buildings, shops and cafes that were exclusively one-storey but with the unique street facades featuring decorative bricks or plaster cladding.
The world’s first temple of the Bahai community, a new religion that originated in the middle of the 19th century in Persia, was the most spectacular building and main attraction of this street and the entire city. This completely unique structure resembled a Muslim mosque at first glance. This was explained by the fact that the portal had two minarets, monumental inscriptions in Arabic script and decor typical for Islamic architecture. However, in terms of layout and internal structure, this temple had nothing to do with a mosque. The Bahai themselves called it Mashrik ul-Azkar (place of conveying the praise of God). According to the canons of this doctrine, the building had 9 sides, 9 bays, 9 columns, 9 entrances and one dome, symbolizing the unity of all religions, as well as 9 gardens around. Unfortunately, the building was badly damaged during the 1948 earthquake and demolished a couple of years later. A monument to Magtymguly carved from gray basalt was installed in its place. This monument has been the main decoration of the square on the site of the former Bahai gardens for forty years now.
There was another Ashgabat dominating structure that towered, like the Bahai temple, over the city with one-storey buildings. It was located a little further west along Kuropatkinsky Avenue, where the Kopetdag stadium is now situated. This is the five-domed Resurrection Cathedral – the largest Orthodox church in the entire Transcaspian region at that time. The high-quality construction was built to last for centuries, yet it stood only for a quarter of a century, as it was demolished in the early thirties against the background of a sweeping antireligion campaign across the country. Like all other disappeared Ashgabat buildings of that time, the look of this cathedral has been preserved on postcards with the emergence of professional photography that was not a mass phenomenon at that time. Several numbered serial sets dedicated to the cities and monuments of the Transcaspian region were published by private publishing houses in Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Ashgabat, and Tashkent. They have long become precious specimens in the collections of philocartists.
Even these rare photographs show that Ashgabat had some provincial charm and comfort in the first years of the last century. Decades later, famous Russian writer Vasily Yan, who served there in 1901–1904, recalled that “it was a small, clean town, consisting of many clay houses surrounded by orchards, with straight streets planned by a military engineer, lined with slender poplars, chestnuts and white acacia. There were no sidewalks in the modern sense, and clear mountain water purled in the irrigation ditches along the streets, separating roadways from footpaths.”
In 1905, Ashgabat got a rail access to the central regions of Russia through Tashkent, and the city further strengthened its role as a transit center. Moreover, after Russia and England established their spheres of influence in Persia in 1907, Ashgabat’s ties with the Iranian province of Khorasan began to expand. The melodic sounds of bells could be heard on the streets of the city more and more often. Those were camel caravans stretching for tens and hundreds of meters, following along the Kuchan road (Gaudan highway) from Iran to Ashgabat. They carried cotton, wool, dry fruits, almonds, pistachios, leather, carpets, morocco and other goods for sale, while Russian manufactory, sugar, kerosene, glass, porcelain, metal, tobacco and much more went in the opposite direction.
It is hard to imagine now the intensity of the caravan trade. The archives have preserved amazing statistics. In 1899 alone, one thousand caravans entered the city! All merchants from Europe and Asia were accommodated by dozens of hotels with impressive names – Grand Hotel, Naples, Paris... A Russian guest house and traditional caravanserais served visitors for days and nights. If there were 24 of them in 1888, sixteen years later the city already accounted for 42 such accommodations! The largest one stood on Kirpichnaya Street, which was renamed into Karl Liebknecht Boulevard in Soviet times. It was a two-storey building with spacious basements for warehouses that even survived the earthquake, as well as several underground baths in different quarters: the natural disaster destroyed only the surface part of the building. There were shops, hairdressers, artisan workshops, eateries and teahouses on the ground floor as well as hotel rooms with a common open terrace on the first floor.
Bazarnaya Street (now a section of Gerogly Street stretching from the building of the Cabinet of Ministers to Turkmenbank) was then, as now, almost the busiest place in the city. It is the oldest street in Ashgabat, dating back to 1881, when a trade, craft and cultural center of the new city was taking shape. There quickly appeared numerous shops, music salons and trading houses, branches of Russian businesses and representative offices of large commercial companies. There opened the first cinema building in this street and, naturally, many drinking establishments, ranging from fashionable restaurants to modest taverns. According to the recollections of one of the oldtimers whose words were once written down by Ashgabat historian of local lore Marat Durdyev, “during the day, phaetons with bearded coachmen rolled around Bazarnaya, peddlers of soft drinks or just water with ice bustled about and housemaids hurried for groceries. In the evening, Bazarnaya Street would turn into a place of festivities for respectable public, who used to come over to parade and see other people.”
A lot has changed since that time. The turbulent events of the past century literally left no stone unturned in former Ashgabat. However, there have survived not only the main streets but also those centers of attraction that emerged at the end of the 19th century that still accumulate the activities of the townspeople. While several generations have already passed, the memory of the city has not disappeared at all. It lives not only in old photographs and archives but also in the daily activities of the modern Turkmen capital. It is deeply symbolic that the fountain-monument was erected in honor of Ashgabat in its historical part, on the section of Magtymguly Avenue, where a business life of the new city once emerged, where caravans moved slowly, where brass bands thundered and city dwellers went out for evening strolls.