The territory of what is now Turkmenistan provided the bedrock for many of the most powerful empires of their age. The Parthians, the Seljuks and the Khans of Khoresm all based their empires at various points on the edge of the Kara-Kum Desert, while Alexander the Great conquered the region during his epic campaign of the fourth century BC. The influence of Islam dates from the seventh century AD, when the region was under Arab control. Modern-day Turkmen are descended from tribes that migrated to the area in the 10th century from the northeast.
Almost all the attractions lie around the fringes of the desert and in ancient ruins such as Merv (now Mary). The capital, Ashgabat, is a modern city. It replaced the one founded in 1881, which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1948. The Sunday market here is the best place to buy Turkmen carpets. Mary, due east of Ashgabat, is Turkmenistan's second city and lies near the remains of Merv, which was once the second city of Islam until Ghengis Khan's son Toloi reduced it to rubble in 1221.
Turkmenistan's harsh desert conditions and terrain mean that tourism has been relatively undeveloped. Another reason is that since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has remained largely closed to the outside world under the rule of President Niyazov, who died in December 2006. It is effectively a one-party state, governed by the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, which comprises mostly former communists. Although the country benefits from from its oil and gas deposits, its economy remains underdeveloped due to the low presence of foreign investors. It remains to be seen whether Niyazov's death will bring about the changes needed to encourage foreign investment and tourism.