A huge line of Turkmens mixed with foreign dignitaries streamed solemnly past the coffin of president Saparmurat Niyazov early yesterday as the country prepared for his burial.
Niyazov, who took the title "Turkmenbashi," the "father of all Turkmen," was to be buried later yesterday in his home village of Kipchak on the grounds of Central Asia's largest mosque -- which is named after him.
Niyazov's body lay in the rotunda of the presidential palace. A line of mourners stretched across the vast plaza outside, many of them bearing flowers.
After three hours of people filing past the open coffin, it was closed and placed by men wearing armbands on a flower-laden trailer hitched to an armored personnel carrier that began driving slowly toward the village, about 10km outside the capital.
With goose-stepping soldiers marching in front of the coffin, it was taken out of the palace carrying cushions with the late leader's numerous state awards -- in line with Soviet-era traditions.
Weddings, other celebrations and sporting events were canceled. The capital's streets were empty of traffic as people on foot headed toward the presidential palace.
State TV's live broadcast of the ceremonies was accompanied by constant playing of the national mourning music.
The procession of ordinary Turkmens periodically paused as foreign delegations arrived, including those of Russian Prime Minister Mikkhail Fradkov, Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher.
The deceased "president for life" will be best remembered as one of the world's most eccentric and hardline rulers.
During his more than two decades in power, Niyazov crushed dissent and established an elaborate personality cult that included renaming the months of the year after members of his family.
Niyazov was orphaned as a child but shook off a deprived childhood to rise through the Communist Party ranks and reign unopposed over this largely desert country of 5 million people. He sealed his people off from the outside world.
Niyazov was born in Ashgabat on Feb. 19, 1940. His parents died when he was a child. His father, a schoolteacher, was killed in World War II and his mother, a carpet-weaver, died in an earthquake that flattened the city in 1948.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Turkmenistan became a sovereign country. The following year, Niyazov was elected president in a landslide in the first and last vote in independent Turkmenistan. He ran unopposed.
Niyazov's deceased parents became central to his nation-building efforts. Official veneration of his parents was part of an elaborate personality cult.
The Turkmen leader also became known for his prodigious philosophical writings, most notably the Rukhnama (The Book of the Soul), which became mandatory reading for schoolchildren and state officials.