Presidential playground: Ashgabat, the marble city

Updated 26th April 2016
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Presidential playground: Ashgabat, the marble city
Written by Thomas Page, CNN
What do you do when you're an all-powerful leader sitting on one of the world's largest gas reserves?
You build. And you build big.
What was once a quiet corner of the USSR, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan is quiet no more. Golden domes litter the city; imperious statues stand guard at the feet of monuments and marble, white marble, is everywhere.
The capital of Turkmenistan holds the record for the highest density of white marble-clad buildings anywhere in the world: 48,583, 619 square feet (approximately 4.5 million square meters) of the stone spread across 543 buildings. The equivalent of 632 standard size soccer pitches, or something amounting to one in nearly every 5 square feet of the city
Guinness World Records lists Ashgabat as reaching these figures in 2013 (the latest available); in the years since it has continued to build.
The men behind the architectural feat do not want you to forget who is responsible.
The face of current president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is ever present, his portrait hanging from many of the buildings he inherited from former leader and self-declared "Turkmenbashi" Saparmurat Niyazov.
Meanwhile Niyazov, who died in 2006, is alive and well in the many golden statues of his likeness. Berdimuhamedov joined the party in 2015 with his own monument, astride a rearing horse atop -- what else? -- a white marble cliff.
The current president has found other ways to stamp his authority on the city. In 2010 he moved the Neutrality Arch -- one of Ashgabat's biggest monuments, complete with a statue of Niyazov which rotated with the sun -- to the outskirts of the city.
Some have argued that these buildings are little more than vanity projects for both presidents, Ashgabat picking up a host of obscure records during its construction frenzy: the largest enclosed Ferris wheel; the largest architectural star; and the most fountain pools in a public place.
These were verified in person by Guinness World Records, but by and large Turkmenistan is a reclusive state, both difficult to enter and, if you're a citizen, not always easy to leave.
The country has been criticized by Human Rights Watch and scored unfavorably in the 2015 World Press Freedoms Index; meanwhile Berdimuhamedov was rebuked in the U.S. Embassy cable leaks as "vain, suspicious, guarded, strict, very conservative, a practiced liar, 'a good actor,' and vindictive."
Ashgabat may be a presidential playground but it surely ranks as one of the great architectural curiosities of the world.
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