There are very few places of worship in the Turkmenistan capital. There are several reasons for this. An important one is the prayer tradition of the Turkmen. Visiting a fixed prayer room has always played a comparatively minor role in the daily life of the Turkmenistan faith, which is characterized by nomadic traditions. Completely suppressed during the Soviet era, no tradition of regular mosque visits has developed since then. In addition, the Turkmenistan government shows a pronounced distrust of any form of expression of faith, so that the followers of the three legal religions (Sunni Islam as well as Orthodox or Catholic Christianity) are reluctant to practice their faith publicly. The need for churches and mosques is correspondingly low.
The few places of worship built during the Tsarist era are (such as the former Catholic church built in 1904), the destruction of the 1930’s or the 1948 earthquake, so that today the Alexander Nevsky Church is the only historical building of its kind in Ashgabat. It is noteworthy that the destruction of places of worship continued even after the end of the Soviet era. This mainly affects the buildings of the non-legal religions. The last Shiite mosque and the only temple of Hare Krishna were destroyed at the beginning of the last decade. In addition to the mosque of the Iranian embassy, which is mostly closed to visitors, and some hidden semi-official churches and mosques, which will not be discussed here in order to protect the respective communities, only two larger places of worship can currently be visited in Ashgabat.
Alexander Newski Church
As if by a miracle, the Alexander Newski Church (37 ° 57’34 “N 58 ° 20’38” E) is one of the very few buildings that has been preserved from the time of the Tsar to the present day. The building survived the church storm of the early and Stalinist Soviet era as well as the severe earthquake of 1948, the renovation phase of the 1950’s and 1960’s and, last but not least, the building boom of the past two decades.
Although the outside hardly reminds of the original condition of the church, the visit is worthwhile for the lush, detailed and colorful wall paintings inside. With a little luck you will be able to attend one of the services of one of the very few active Christian communities still in Turkmenistan.
Not only the church itself, but also the access to it is somewhat hidden. The best way to get to the church is via Road 2033, which forms the extension of Makhtimkuli Street (formerly Swoboda) behind the National Circus. At the (western) end of the street 2033 is the closed (and slowly decaying) Soviet-era cinema “Kosmos” (restaurant “Alem”). Right at the cinemaA footpath leads past it to an area that has been expanded in recent years due to the demolition of several residential buildings and is currently mainly used as a parking lot. On the slightly angled and only partly asphalted square keep to the right and past a small row of residential buildings from the 1950’s, a wrought-iron gate appears in the right corner (with the cinema in the back), through which the entrance to the church is made.
Important clothing and photography information for church visits:
Due to the special political situation and the way the government deals with the Christian minority in particular, we urgently (!) Advise against taking pictures in the vicinity or within the church in which people can be recognized. If, during a later control (e.g. when leaving the country), pictures of people praying or even near the church are found on the camera, they put them and possibly the entire community in danger! If at all, the camera should only be used very cautiously and, if possible, recordings within the church should be completely dispensed with.
As a Christian gem, the church is definitely worth seeing. At the same time, extreme restraint is of the utmost importance not only when taking photos but also in contact with the Christian population, especially around the church. Even simple conversations with community members can be interpreted as a pretext to claim conspiratorial activity and lead to great difficulties after the visitor’s departure.
In addition, when visiting the church – as with any place of worship – it is important to wear correct clothing. In this specific case, this means: clothing that completely covers the arms and legs as well as a headscarf for women (a scarf is sufficient here, which is not available at the church, so must be brought with you).
Ertogul Gazi Mosque (also Azadi Mosque)
According to sunglassestracker, on the occasion of Turkmenistan independence, Turkey gave Turkmenistan this replica of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The only architectural difference is the number of minarets, which has been reduced by two compared to the original, making the Ertogul Gazi Mosque which has only four. In the interior there is space for 5,000 prayer rugs, but this number is not used. In the otherwise mostly orphaned building there are only a few believers for prayers. According to information from some residents, the reasons for this are, in addition to the above-mentioned reasons, the numerous (sometimes fatal) accidents during the construction of the mosque, which are seen as signs that the construction is not godly. Most of the building materials for the mosque come from Europe. The generously built marble, for example, was imported from Italy and Spain.
The mosque is architecturally and in its decorations clearly different from the Turkmenistan mosque type and is therefore worth a short detour.
In the course of the systematic destruction of Sunni houses of worship and the extermination of the Sunni communities, the right of residence was withdrawn from the last Sunni imam at the time of the first president of Turkmenistan. As a mosque of the Iranian embassy, this place of worship obviously enjoys special protection, so that it was the only Iranian mosque in the country to be saved from destruction. Nevertheless, the Sunni imam was forced to dedicate the building to the Shiite faith before leaving the city. It is therefore one of the very few Iranian Shiite mosques outside the country today.
The dress and behavior regulations outlined for the church also apply to the Iranian mosque located immediately south of the “Kosmos” cinema.