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Last Updated: Monday, 26 November 2007, 16:54 GMT
Turkmenistan's tourism ambitions
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan largely disappeared from world view under the eccentric personality cult of its leader Saparmurat Niyazov.

On a recent trip to the country, the BBC's Natalia Antelava saw signs of a nation preparing to open up - with hopes of becoming a tourist destination.

A woman standing by the ruins of the ancient mosque
Turkmenistan hopes the ruins will attract tourists

In the middle of a windy, sprawling desert just outside the Turkmen capital Ashgabat lie the ruins of an ancient mosque.

Hairpins and small toys are scattered amid the rubble of the fading blue mosaic tiles.

They are here for a reason.

In Central Asia, Islam has always managed to coexist with paganism and ancient tradition. This mosque is the monument to their unlikely marriage.

Hundreds of people come here every Friday, not only to pray but also to visit the grave of Jamal al-Din, a sheikh who built the mosque in the 15th Century.

His tomb is said to have special powers.

Surprise discoveries

Brushing a wrinkled hand through his white beard, Avli, the old guardian of the site, says that leaving a hairpin near Jamal al-Din's grave can lead to a birth of a baby girl. Leave a toy car, he says, and there will be a son in the family.

"It's a special place," Avli says. "Make any wish, and it will come true".

Alvi, the guardian of Jamal-ud-Din's tomb
Investigations of the tomb have uncovered rare artefacts

But apart from its alleged magical powers, the site, and the area around it have a unique architectural and archaeological value.

The mosque was destroyed in 1948 when a massive earthquake hit Ashgabat.

It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that local archaeologists, with the help of the US government, restored parts of the site.

Among the remnants that they managed to rescue was the front panel featuring the snake shaped bodies of two dragons, a highly unusual ornament in Islamic architecture.

Now local archaeologists plan to launch the second stage of the restoration and prop up the remnants of the mosque.

There is more to be found in the Annau hills nearby, where research has already revealed the existence of ancient settlements that date back more than 4,000 years.

The tomb of Jamal-ud-Din
The relics are gradually being opened to foreign tourists

Set along the ancient Silk Road, Turkmenistan is home to dozens of unique archaeological sites, including the ancient cities of Merv, Margoush and Nisa, which was the capital of the ancient Parthian Empire.

Although they are part of the Unesco World Heritage site, until recently they were closed to the most Western tourists.

The country's late authoritarian leader Saparmurat Niyazov, turned Turkmenistan into one of the most isolated corners of the planet.

A year after his death, the new government says it wants to open up, and that they hope that their country's ancient cities will help them to attract tourists.

Country profile: Turkmenistan
21 Aug 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Turkmenistan
21 Aug 07 |  Country profiles
Turkmenistan starts tourist drive
23 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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