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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Book Provides Glimpse Into the Turkmen Soul

APA monument to "Rukhnama," written by late President Saparmurat Niyazov, adorning Rukhnama Park in Ashgabat.
ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- Children are required to study it every day. Mosques are adorned with its words. Quotations are inscribed on fountains, monuments and government buildings.

No modern work of literature is more tied to the life and thought of a nation than Turkmenistan's "Rukhnama," seen in this country as combined epic history, divinely inspired moral guide and state policy.

The country's new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, solemnly kissed the tome upon taking office recently.

The book was written by his late autocratic predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, and will continue to exert a huge influence in Turkmenistan -- even as Berdymukhammedov signals that he will diverge from some of the polices set by Niyazov, who died Dec. 21 after more than two decades in power.

"Rukhnama," or "Book of the Soul," is the ideological spine of the all-encompassing personality cult of Niyazov, who called himself Turkmenbashi -- "Father of All Turkmen." Niyazov said diligent reading of "Rukhnama" would guarantee a place in heaven.

The book's starting point is Niyazov's vision of Turkmenistan as a civilization spanning five millennia that squandered its last three centuries of existence, and which is now set for a glorious rebirth.

History books portray Turkmenistan as an area largely subject to conquerors and empires, from Alexander the Great to the Bolsheviks, and whose culture is mostly known for its rich and intricately made carpets.

But according to "Rukhnama," no other people have founded more states, fought more wars or contributed more to humanity than the Turkmen, who it says invented agriculture, the wagon and gave the world wheat.

The book claims as Turkmen numerous other individuals and peoples, including the Turks, who established what Niyazov called "the Ottoman Turkmen Empire" and "dominated one-third of the world for more than 600 years."

The Turkmen are also said to have played a role in founding Baghdad, and to have established their own imperial states in Egypt, Iran, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Armenia and the Arabian Peninsula.

"The Turkmen nation has traced marks as magnificent as those of Great Britain, of the Great Indian Nation and of the Great Chinese Nation," the book says. "If the cities established by the Turkmen in the course of history had been preserved, they would fill all the land mass of the world."

But, the book explains, something terrible happened to the Turkmen people. They lost touch with their history and traditions, became divided into warring tribes and succumbed to the influence of communism under the Soviet Union.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, 50 centuries of Turkmen knowledge and treasure had been reduced to "nothing but ruined cities and old buildings," the book says. That left a gaping void for Niyazov to fill with his own outsized vision to build a new society funded by some of the world's largest natural gas reserves.

In the months since Niyazov's death, the grip of "Rukhnama" on the Turkmen public appears unweakened.

Television stations feature solemn readings from the book.

At the largest mosque in Central Asia, in Niyazov's hometown of Kipchak, the magnificent entrance arches are inscribed with the words, "Rukhnama is a holy book" on one side and "The Quran is Allah's book" on the other.

Posters of "Rukhnama" are also inescapable, flanking the roads of the capital, Ashgabat, alongside likenesses of Niyazov. Quotations from it are inscribed on the desert city's fantastic array of fountains, monuments and official buildings.

Among the book's fables, aphorisms and poetry are observations that could be seen as an attempt to justify Turkmenistan's harsh repression of dissent, restricted access to the outside world and what rights groups say was the intentional "dumbing down" of the Turkmen population to keep it from asserting any opposition.

There are different kinds of Turkmen, "Rukhnama" says: those with knowledge of Allah, those learned people "with a certain earthly reason," and finally the "ordinary people."

The last group, it says, "waste their time with ephemeral, worldly matters. They are not very well-equipped intellectually and need to be enlightened and led."

"Rukhnama" has been translated into some 30 languages, Turkmen officials say. "It is the first book about Turkmen, that tells the truth about Turkmen," said Ogulsapar Kadirova, a Turkmen employee of the Turkish Embassy in Ashgabat assigned to chaperone visiting journalists.

But some say there's no choice but to praise the book, because if one complains or expresses an unsanctioned opinion, one faces punishment.