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Turkmenistan's "Book of the Soul"

The Rukhnama was considered the passport to heaven in Turkmenistan. Children had to study its chapters every day, mosques are adorned with its words, and you need to know the book thoroughly in order to get a driver's license.

india Updated: Feb 16, 2007 15:30 IST

Few modern works of literature may be more tied to the life and thought of a nation as Turkmenistan's Rukhnama, which Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov solemnly kissed upon becoming president.

The gesture of fealty Wednesday indicated that the book written by his late autocratic predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov will continue to exert a huge influence on the natural gas-rich Central Asian nation even as Berdymukhamedov makes suggestions that he will diverge from some of the policies set by Niyazov, who died on December 21, after more than two decades in power.

The 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. Children are required to study its chapters every day, mosques are adorned with its words, and Niyazov himself said diligent reading of it would guarantee a place in heaven.

The book's starting point is Niyazov's vision of Turkmenistan as a 5,000 year-old civilization that squandered its last three centuries of existence, and which is now set for a glorious rebirth. History books portray Turkmenistan largely as an area 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 the Rukhnama, no other people have founded more states, fought more wars or contributed more to humanity than the Turkmen, who also 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 Turkmens 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 Turkmens in the course of history had been preserved, they would fill all the landmass 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 the dictator 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 early months after Niyazov's demise, the Rukhnama's grip 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, "The Rukhnama is a holy book" on one side, and "The Koran is Allah's book" on the other.

Posters of the Rukhnama are also inescapable, flanking the roads of the capital city, 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 in order to keep it from asserting any opposition.

There are different kinds of Turkmen, the Rukhnama says: those with knowledge of Allah, then the 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."

The Rukhnama has been translated into some 30 languages, Turkmen officials say.