The desert lands of Kara Kum occupy some 80% of Turkmenistan's total area; the population is concentrated in oases at the foot of the Kopet Dag Mts. in the south and along the Amu Darya, Murgab, and Tejen rivers. In addition to the capital, Turkmenbashi (Krasnovodsk), Chärjew, Nebitdag, Dashhowuz, and Mary are the major cities and industrial centers. Part of the Kara Kum Canal crosses the desert, furnishing water for irrigation and hydroelectric power.
The Turkmens (or Turkomans) make up 85% of the population; the remainder are Uzbeks (5%), Russians (4%), and smaller groups of Kazakhs, Tatars, Ukrainians, and Armenians. The Turkmens are a Turkic-speaking people who are largely Sunni Muslims. Unlike other Central Asian groups, they still retain tribal and clan divisions. They are descendants of the medieval Oguz tribes (to which the Seljuk and Osmanli Turks also belonged). Besides the Turkmen language, Russian and Uzbek are also spoken. About 10% of the people belong to the Orthodox Eastern church.