ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan, Aug. 11 (UPI) -- Residents in the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan attended festivities Sunday to celebrate Melon Day, a holiday that aims to revive the country's millennia-long tradition of melon growing, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported.
President Saparmurat Niyazov decreed in 1994 to establish a national holiday that would boost the image of Turkmenistan as one of global leaders in melon growing.
Today, the Central Asian nation, which has a population of 4.5 million, is mostly known for its extensive oil and gas reserves and its president who possesses almost unlimited powers and enjoys a personality cult rivaling those of former Soviet leaders Lenin and Stalin.
To a savvy botanist, however, Turkmenistan is the home to a number of rare varieties of melon first, and only then a one of world's most authoritarian regimes.
Turkmen archeologists assert the history of melon-growing in the region dates as far back as 4th century B.C., RIA Novosti said. The fact is witnessed by the melon seeds discovered at the ruins of the ancient city of Gyaur-Kala, which existed at the time.
According to RIA Novosti, one of Turkmenistan's most famous selectors Durda Nepesov grows at least 100 different sorts of melon on his own plot of land.
Throughout the country, the number of varieties of the crop reaches 400, the report added.
The figure is even more impressive because 80 percent of the country is occupied by the Kara Kum desert.
Ak-tak, Bakharman, Garrygyz, Gulaby, Bareng, Zamna, Subkhany are only a handful of trademark names of various sorts of melon that through centuries have earned Turkmenistan the nickname of the sweetest place on Earth.
Ancient history books keep record of Arab traders who gave money, gold and even lands in exchange for imports of Turkmen melon.
Today, melon -- as well as watermelon and gourd -- is grown chiefly in the Chardzhou and Tashauz provinces.
These three crops combine for a total of over 215,000 tons produced annually on plantations spreading over 23,000 hectares (56,810 acres) of land.
Hot, sunny weather and long summers contribute to one of Turkmen melon's most distinctive features -- high sugar content, which touches 18 percent.
The revival of melon-growing is part of the Turkmen government's program to revitalize its agricultural sector, which has been given the task of providing the country with all basic food staples by 2005.
Once the chief supplier of melon to the markets throughout the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan suffered as the Communist-led empire collapsed.
The union's disintegration dealt a heavy blow to the struggling economies of former Soviet provinces as transportation tariffs skyrocketed, urging farmers and other agricultural workers to give up long-distance deliveries and sell their produce locally.