Exploring Tourism in Turkmenistan
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The boyhood home of Turkmenbashi, Gypjak is 11km west of Ashgabat. The major sight here is the gleaming Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque; the biggest structure of its kind in Central Asia (it can hold 10,000 worshippers). It stands on the edge of the village of Gypjak, where the terrible earthquake of October 6 1948 struck the Niyazov family, killing the president's mother and two brothers. Four minarets soar above the gold-domed mosque, each 91m tall, representing the year of Turkmenistan’s independence. The mosque was built by the French construction company Bouygues, and opened to mark Earthquake Memorial Day in October 2004. The mosque is ringed by eight marble-faced arched entrances. Above the main arch, facing the road, an inscription reads, in Turkmen: ‘Ruhnama is a holy book; the Quran is Allah’s book’ and there are quotes from the Ruhnama etched into the minarets. Two stone panels under the main arch carry the texts of the Turkmen national anthem and oath. Below the arches a cascade of water around the building runs into a long pool. The mosque building is octagonal in form, with seven heavy carved wooden doors. Above each of these is a circular stained-glass window, its design centred on the word 'Allah', in Arabic. The eighth wall houses the mihrab. Inside, you can contemplate the grandeur and extravagance of it all while sitting on enormous hand-woven carpets.

Next to the mosque is a surprisingly modest mausoleum containing the tomb of former President Niyazov. He is buried alongside his two brothers and his mother; the marker for his father is ceremonial. The mosque and mausoleum are clearly visible from the main Ashgabat–Balkanabat road. Parking shouldn’t be a problem – there is an enormous underground car park big enough for 400 vehicles and 100 buses.

Taking one of the staircases up to ground level, you emerge in the gardens of the mosque, with a view of the huge golden-domed building, flanked by four minarets, each reportedly 91m tall. Around each minaret are rings of Turkmen-language slogans, though the lowest ring in each case is comprised solely of exclamation marks. The mosque dominates the memorial complex for the victims of the 1948 earthquake, named after President Niyazov's mother Gurbansoltan Eje.

The spacious interior is marked out by a circle of 16 large columns. The dome is painted with a design of pastel lozenges, whose overall shape suggests a large flower. A line of latticed windows surrounds the base of the dome. Either side of these run two lines of Turkmen-language inscriptions in blue lettering, offering exhortatory quotations by President Niyazov. Immediately above the mihrab, tin-wording of both lines of lettering is the same: 'Saparmurat Turkmenbashy the Great'. A balcony, decorated with another line of Turkmen-language inscriptions, runs around the interior of the building. Small shelving units in the mosque offer copies of the Koran, and also books written by President Niyazov, including both volumes of Ruhtiama and his books of poetry.

On the western side of the mosque is a place for the holding of the commemorative meal (sadaka) for those killed in the earthquake. This is a large open-sided columned area, with long, low marble tables behind which guests squat to dine. There is space here for 5,000 people. A large marble-covered head table is for the president and his senior ministers. The neighbouring kitchen area features a huge expanse of brick gas-fired tamdyrs, and circular brick receptacles in which cooking pots are placed for the making of plov. Bouguyes even built a pen for the sheep awaiting slaughter.

To the west of this complex is the original centre-piece of the Gurbansoltan Eje Memorial Park, a statue of an earthquake-tossed female figure protecting her son, which is dedicated to those killed in 1948. A flight of marble steps leading to this memorial is flanked by columns, designed to represent stylised female figures in Turkmen headgear, bowing their heads respectfully.

To the north side of the mosque, close to the road, is a golden-domed mausoleum. Inside are five tombs, the central one framed by an eight-pointed star design. An interior balcony rings the building. A female statue on the balcony, looking benevolently over the tombs below, is a replica of that of the memorial outside, an idealised representation of President Niyazov's mother. At a ceremony on 10 December 2004, the bodies of Niyazov's parents and two brothers were symbolically reburied in this mausoleum. The building, whose exterior is decorated by six granite eagles, is usually locked and guarded.

There is one more place to see, across the railway line in the village of Gypjak itself. This is a conifer-studded park, built by a Turkish construction company to mark President Niyazov's 60th birthday in 2000. The focus of the park is a semicircular arcade comprising a double row of marble-faced columns, framing a golden statue of the president, his right arm reaching forward. A book next to him rests on top of a squat Ionic column. Behind this statue a golden frieze depicts Niyazov's father heading off to war, his family bidding him farewell.

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