A surprising amount of good coffee table books exist on the culture and carpets of Turkmenistan. Less surprising perhaps, there is a big gap in the market for any other type of book on Turkmenistan. Most were written by returned Peace Corps volunteers. Now, I know Paul Theroux was a PCV, but that does not excuse the vast majority of these books.
In short, of the books listed below, I cannot recommend even one book that would serve as a really good introduction to Turkmenistan like I can for the other countries. So below is not a list of best books on Turkmenistan, rather it is just a list of books that say something about Turkmenistan.
Good travelogues and historical accounts of Central Asia that include Turkmenistan can be found in the Central Asia books section.
Some books about Turkmenistan
The Black Gulf – Konstantin Paustovsky
In our mind, Konstantin Paustovsky was the greatest Russian prose writer of the 20th century (Nabokov very close second). The Black Gulf, a fictional account of the industrialisation of the Caspian bay of Kara-Bogaz, was hailed by Soviet critics as a triumphant description of the heroic efforts to tame nature. Reading it with today’s eyes, it’s clear the book is filled with doubt about the whole enterprise and melancholy for a disappearing world.
Literary pamflet, adventure story, dramatic novella and historically documented explorer’s diary all in one, The Black Gulf is not on a par with his magnum opus The Story of a Life. Regardless, it’s Paustovsky, and thus, sketches of places and people are on every page, heartfelt and dripping with lyricism. Widely translated.
Sacred Horses: Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy
A compilation of reviews: A little dated, but I enjoyed the rare insight into Turkmen life…. A rambling travelogue of the author’s often-frustrating, often-rewarding quest to ride the famous Ahal Tekke horses of Turkmenistan….. To be fair, the author’s love of the people and the horses shines through his bitterness about the inane bureaucracy and rough conditions he must endure….
One of the very few books out there about Turkmenistan at all, and thus worth a read.
Rukhnama – Turkmenbashi
What can I say? It’s a classic. This is what Turkmens were brainwashed with for years during the eccentric rule of Turkmenbashi, and it’s craaazzzy. Reading it is very difficult though, sometimes the words are really just randomly put together, it seems.
Unknown Sands – John Kropf
Badly written travelogue by a former US embassy worker. You might want to give it a try if you really want to learn more about Turkmenistan, since there isn’t much else out there, and he did travel around quite a bit. But really, I prefer to read an actual writer instead, and visit Turkmenistan all the same.
Pomegranate Roads: A Soviet Botanist’s Exile from Eden – Gregory Levin
Primarily for botany geeks. For those who are not botanically inclined, this book still has its merits. I particularly liked the author’s descriptions of the Turkmen landscape and his stories about the problems of being a scientist in the Soviet Union. I believe this is quite a good book, just not everyone’s kind of book.
Coffee table books
Turkmen Carpets: Masterpieces of Steppe Art – Elena Tsareva
The Hoffmeister Collection is one of the best and most extensive private collections of antique and historic Turkmen knotted carpets in Western Europe and America.
Turkmen Jewelry – Layla S. Diba
From the publisher: The Turkmen people of Central Asia and Iran are revered for their carpets and textiles. Less well known, but equally stunning, is the extraordinary silver jewelry created by Turkmen tribal craftsmen and urban silversmiths throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. This catalogue presents nearly two hundred pieces in glorious detail, ranging from crowns and headdresses to armbands and rings, and featuring accents of carnelian, turquoise, and other stones.
Between the Black Desert and the Red – Robert Pinner
A look at one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of Turkmen rugs, the Wiedersperg collection.
Love Me Turkmenistan – Nicolas Righetti
A hipster has a look at Ashgabat and the personality cult surrounding the late Turkmenbashi.
Bradt Turkmenistan Guidebook
With so little information coming out of the country, this book is a real treasure trove. There is still very little travel information to be found on the internet, so this guidebook is a true service to the Turkmen travel industry, showing that indeed there is more to see in Turkmenistan than deserts and marble buildings.
The book is written with humour and expertise by the former ambassador to the country. It is old though, and practical information is mostly out of date. Despite this, if you are planning an in-depth visit to Turkmenistan poking around places no one else bothers with, this is still an indispensable guide.
Turkmenistan (Far Flung Places) – Simon Proudman
Published in 2014 and revised in 2017 and 2018, here is finally an update to Paul Brummell’s seminal effort. This guidebook gives good practical advice about what’s important: how to visit Merv, where to find wi-fi in Ashgabat or a vegetarian meal in Mary. It does not cover the country in as much detail as the Bradt guide, but it covers all the places you are most likely to visit and adds interesting background information from the past and present.
The writing style is pleasant and humorous, and Proudman does not forget to add some entertaining and inspiring storytelling into the book. All in all, an excellent guidebook anyone traveling to Turkmenistan will find very useful, for an unbeatable price.