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Turkmenistan: Gor-ka Hill--Turkmen History Without A Future

By Lowell Bezanis

Ashgabat, 5 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat, is slated for an important change: Gor-ka, a hill located in the city's heart, is to be removed as part of an ongoing effort to make the city more attractive and modern.

The decision to extirpate the modest hill was announced late last month by Turkmen President Saparmurad Niyazov after meeting with the municipal authorities involved in implementing the larger urban renewal project. It is also in conjunction with the re-opening of the newly refurbished four-star Hotel Turkmenistan, which sits directly adjacent Gor-ka hill.

Niyazov explained the need to remove the estimated 6 meter high, 100 meter long, and 50 meter wide hill by saying it constituted an eyesore.

Neither in the local nor foreign press has the fate of Gor-ka hill received attention. Arguably, it should, as Gor-ka is rather more than just any hill. Beyond the fact that it is part of the city's heritage, remembered by children who played upon it as well as their elders who enjoyed the cold beverages once sold from atop it, the hill is the solitary remnant of Gor-ka, a minor Parthian city which existed some 2,500 years ago.

Though menaced by various nomad armies as well as those from Rome, the Parthian Empire (247 BC - 224 AD) was a vast, feudal and decentralized state. At its peak in the first century BC, the empire stretched from the Euphrates across Afghanistan to the Indus and from the Amu Darya to the Indian Ocean.

As it controlled most of the trade routes between Asia and the Greco-Roman world it was fabulously wealthy and artifacts which have remained reflect a cross pollination of Western and Eastern style. Gor-ka's position in Parthia was not exceptional: it was merely a town, some eight kilometers away from the empire's capital at Nisa, today just outside of Ashgabat.

Despite its ancient pedigree, Gor-ka hill has not been fully excavated. Portions of it were examined by Professor Evgenii Mason in the 1950's. Two years ago a Turkmen scholar, Yegen Atagariev, followed in his footsteps. While the historical importance of the hill is yet to be fully evaluated, it is clear that expansion of the Russian Empire into Turkmen lands is intimately, if unpleasantly, connected wit the Gor-ka hill.

In Russia's conquest of Central Asia, the final and most problematic segment involved the subjugation of the Turkmen. Not only were they an independent-minded, unruly lot prone to raiding and slaving, but they disappeared with ease into the great deserts of the region then called by Russian imperial strategists, Transcaspia. Those same deserts were impossible for Russian expeditionary forces to penetrate until they laboriously began to lay a railroad and moved men, material and supplies right into the heartland of the Turkmen.

In any event, the most recalcitrant of the tribes facing down the infinitely better armed and equipped Russians made their last stand at Goek-Tepe in 1882. The Russian commander leading this infamous operation, General Skobolev, was not only the hero of the Russian Pan-Slavists of the time but a man who went down in history for remarking that "Asians only understand force. The harder you hit them, the longer they stay down."

And it was Skobolev, whom after directing his men to pursue and kill fleeing women and children at Goek-Tepe, directed his subalterns to erect his tent upon Gor-ka, the highest point in the vicinity. And it was there sitting upon Gor-ka that Skobolev had his picture painted with six Turkmen, hanging from a tree, like the trophies of a hunter.

Considered in light of Gor-ka's ancient pedigree, or the more painful recent history associated with it, the hill represents rather more than an eyesore.

As Turkmenistan has a limited number of historical and natural wonders which might attract outsiders to visit the country, it can only be hoped that the authorities in Ashgabat will contemplate alternatives to removing it.