A forgotten dawn in Ashgabad
Culture and History, Photoblog, Turkmenistan5 Comments
Turkmenistan’s former ruler, Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov, often prophecized that his nation had a grand destiny. From the perspective of the world’s youngest global religion, the Baha’i Faith, he was indeed prophetic, but just not in any way he would have realized.
In 1902, Ashgabad, the future capital of independent Turkmenistan, was the site of the Baha’i Faith’s first ever Mashriqu’l-adkhar (مشرق اﻻذكار, literally, “Dawning-place of the remembrance of God”) or House of Worship. In the central religion’s scripture, the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the prophet-founder of the religion, Baha’u'llah, writes:
O people of the world! Build ye houses of worship throughout the lands in the name of Him Who is the Lord of all religions. Make them as perfect as is possible in the world of being, and adorn them with that which befitteth them, not with images and effigies. Then, with radiance and joy, celebrate therein the praise of your Lord, the Most Compassionate. Verily, by His remembrance the eye is cheered and the heart is filled with light.
Because Baha’is believe that their faith shall eventually be instrumental in the establishment of a world commonwealth in which the sexes, science and religion, and all nations are reconciled, the construction of the Ashgabad House is looked upon as a significant moment for human history. So, what happened to it? Well, the Soviets happened.
According to Baha’i scholar Moojan Momen, life for Bahai’s during the early days of the Communist Revolution was good.
Activities were expanded, publications increased, and, freed from the legal restriction against converting Christians, the Baha’is began to teach the religion to Russians. As many as five hundred attended public meetings convened for this purpose. Although there was some state-sponsored anti-religious propaganda, this only served to bring the Baha’i teachings to public attention.
By his estimate, the community numbered 4000, of which 1000 were children — equivalent to 3% of the entire international Baha’i community at the time. Indeed, the Turkmenistan community was among the more established ones in the early Twentieth Century.
From 1926 onwards, however, the Soviets began to crack down on the community. The repression culminated in 1928, when the Ashgabad House was confiscated by authorities, and in 1938, when they arrested and exiled every adult male Baha’i to Siberia; the women and children were deported to Iran. In 1963 an earthquake irreparably damaged the foundations of the House and it was torn down. According to the travel guide Lonely Planet, its doors currently grace the entrance of the Art Museum.
The Baha’i Faith continues to be active in Turkmenistan, as well as neighboring Uzbekistan, still suffering under waxing and waning repressions. To this day, many in the international community still think fondly of “Old Ishkabad”. In 1996, Jeff Lavezzo, a Baha’i from the United States, made a computerized reconstruction based upon old photos and a floor plan:
Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, Schwartz is himself a practicing Baha’i. This post is intended purely for cultural interest.