While the dictator Saparmurat Niyazov banned gold teeth because they offended him, he adored gold statues of himself.
As the ruler of Turkmenistan for over two decades, he gilded the country with his own image in a cult of personality that made Mao look modest. The centerpiece was erected in the capital city of Ashgabat. Called the Arch of Neutrality, it was a 75-meter-high rocket-shaped tower topped with a gold statue of Niyazov, which rotated throughout the day so that his face is always basking in the sun. Built in 1998, the marble-covered monument honored his adoption of neutrality as his official policy, and cost over $12 million to create.
Niyazov pronounced himself Turkmenbashi, or “Father of All Turkmen,” and “President for Life.” He exerted extensive control over the country, from defining the age at which a person becomes old to forbidding TV presenters from wearing makeup, as he was having trouble telling the men apart from the women. Despite the country having the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves, its five million people lived mostly destitute, while he constructed more and more lavish monuments.
One was the colossal statue of the Ruhnama, the rambling, semi-autobiographical philosophical text Niyazov wrote and made required reading for students and anyone taking the driving test. Not content with a ubiquitous image, he renamed the days of the week, months of the year, a meteorite, a moon crater, a breed of horse, airports, a canal, and a city after himself and members of his family. He even changed the Turkmen word for bread to his late mother’s name (Gurbansoltan). His increasingly personal laws included banning beards, long hair, opera, ballet, and circuses, and made it illegal to play recorded music at weddings. No dissent was tolerated under his authoritarian regime, with human rights groups reporting torture, detentions, house demolitions, forced labor, and exile.
In 2006, Niyazov died of heart failure. His successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, declared in January 2010 that the Arch of Neutrality would be removed and reassembled on the outskirts of Ashgabat. However, it was not until August of 2010 that the statue was finally removed and reassembled on the outskirts of Ashgabat, surrounded by a huge park.
The monument is still open to visitors, who can buy tickets for the elevators into the monument to enjoy city views.
Visit Turkmenistan with Atlas Obscura Trips
Turkmenistan and the Gates of Hell
On this sweeping, eclectic adventure through Turkmenistan, marvel at the towering white-marble structures of Ashgabat, roam through barren deserts and a world-class canyon, and spend the night camped out beside the flaming Gates of Hell.