Turkmen are a Turkic-speaking people of nomadic origin (similar to the Kazakhs steppe nomads and the Kyrgyz mountain nomads, and differing from the Persian-speaking Tajiks, or the Turkic-speaking settled Uzbeks). While the majority live on the territory of Turkmenistan, significant numbers of Turkmen can also be found living in Iran, Afghanistan, and even Syria and Iraq.
Turkmen adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam, but also respect a wide variety of local traditions, customs and rituals. Ancient Islamic monuments such as mosques and mausoleums often serve as destination for a pilgrimage as well. Particularly mausoleums and graves of local respectables attract a constant flow of people praying for a wish, circling a grave or other monument of importance, tying pieces of cloth, placing little stone piles or leaving symbolic personal belongings behind, hoping for their wish to come true. The most popular destinations for pilgrimage in Turkmenistan include the graves of Gozli Ata near Nebitdag, Parau Bibi near Serdar (Kyzyl Arvat), Said Jemaleddin in Anau, Kyz Bibi in Nohur, Yusuf Hamadani and Ibn Zayd in Merw, Kyrk Molla and Najmeddin Kubra in Kunya Urgench, Meane Baba in Meane, Serakhs Baba in Mary, and Kyrk Kyz in Kugitang.
Turkmen tribes since the arrival of Oghuz (Guzz) Turks (10th century AD) lived in yurt-settlements and roamed the desert oases with their herds of camels, sheep and goats. Next to the care for the family and the household, women engaged in intricate forms of dress embroidery, knitting, silk weaving and carpet knotting, whereas men busied themselves with the herds, horses, and were masters at pottery baking and jewelry making.
For the roaming tribes the main public meeting place was at the bazaar. Trade in cattle, local agricultural produce and arts and crafts brought together large crowds of people coming from far away places. Melons and grapes were on sale, next to carpets, jewelry and silk material. Today the bazaar continues to fulfill this important role. While every local settlement has its own daily bazaar, once a week the bazaar extends to include traders from all around the neighbouring villages and districts. The absolute best example of such a bazaar we can see at Tolkuchka Bazaar just outside Ashgabat. Biggest in Central Asia and comparable in size with the Sunday Bazaar in Kashgar (China) this bazaar is working on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Other bazaars worth visiting are the Sunday bazaars in Turkmenabad or Mary.
Lots of people also gathered at the occasion of a family’s celebration, where everyone would appear in their best dress and decorations, and would enjoy music performances and dancing.
In Turkmen tradition marriage remains the most colorful social event. When a Turkmen family holds a wedding or “toy” (literally: feast) a lot of guests are invited and all neighbors help to celebrate it, bringing crockery and cooking up dishes. Every passer-by is welcomed to attend. Marriage is a very lengthy process, which begins with arranging the match. The suitor sends matchmakers to the girl’s parents. The matchmakers – relatives of the suitor – will bring lavish gifts to the girl’s parents and ask their consent. Then the bride price and wedding date will be set. When a Turkmen bride arrives to the bridegroom’s house both mothers offer to the bride and guests sweets, wishing the bride a sweet life. They present toys to children, wishing the bride to have children. At this moment young men toss up telpeks –traditional fur hats, wishing the bride and the bridegroom a long life. Every word and every motion during this ceremony are loaded with meaning. Different games and tournaments are always held to celebrate this family occasion. During the ceremony “gushak chozdurme” or un-tying a sash (waste band of the groom) the bridegroom and the bride are dressed in traditional costumes. The bride groom is wearing a red silk gown with a scarlet homespun sash and a shaggy hat of snow-white sheepskin. The bride is wearing a long silk dress and her head is covered by traditional robe and her mouth is closed by a special kerchief of silence.
Turkmen women have never completely closed their faces. The legend says that Turkmen have originated from the light of the Great Creator therefore their faces should be opened to the Sun. That is how Turkmen are dressed for a feast. Their embroidered dress and silk headscarves mark the tribe they represent, and intricate gold-on-silver jewelry completes their decorations.
The Turkmen telpek is only a part of the traditional Turkmen male costume. It obliges the person with a number of duties – to protect his family, to be wise and to live in dignity, to be true to his word and merciful. When the bride takes off the bridegroom’s hat and unties his sash that means she will always serve her husband.
If you are interested in watching a marriage ritual, include a visit to a folklore show to your itinerary in Ashgabat, and arrange your trip such that it includes a Thursday, Saturday or Sunday stay in Ashgabat for a visit to Tolkuchka Bazaar.
Arts and crafts
Traditional Turkmen women’s garments are real pieces of art. Dresses, overcoats and scarves are made form fine material, woven on simple horizontal looms, and decorated with intricate embroidery, unique in the Central Asian region. Next to being decorative, these embroideries, particularly those at the edges of a garment, were also functioning as an amulet that would deter evil spirits.
The art of sowing embroidered head coverings (kurte or chirpe), dresses (koynek), single-piece robes (don) and scarves has remained unchanged over centuries. These garments are plain in shape, and well adapted to the local living and climatic conditions. The dresses and overcoats were mostly made from narrow pieces of silk material called ketene, in red, green or purple color, whereas for some of the single-piece overcoats cotton material was also used. A selection of
Chirpe head coverings were worn by women on special occasions. The decorative embroidery covered the whole garment, and reflected stylized shapes of animals, household items, but mostly flowers (lotus, tulip). Kurte head coverings – though similar in shape and purpose – were decorated less densely than the chirpe.
The shape of the ceremonial dress called ketene koynek – also made from ketene material – stresses the yellow lining of this material. The lining in turn – running all the way from top to bottom of the dress in the front, back, both sides and over the arms, stresses the overall shape of the dress.
Besides a dress, robe and head covering women wore a cover for the lower part of their face. This garment is called gynach. They are sown from silk material and triangular in shape. Two sides are richly decorated with embroidery and brushes.
A less formal, yet extremely popular piece of clothing that was and still is worn at home by virtually everyone, and in public by nearly all women in the cold period of the year are jorabi and cheshki. These respectively longer or ankle sized knitted socks are made from sheep wool, camel hair or synthetic thread, and are intricately decorated on all sides.
Young girls and boys and teenagers, up to the time they marry, frequently wear an embroidered head cover called tahiya during formal functions, including when attending school or university.
Traditional Turkmen men’s robes, also called don, are made from cotton material with plain decorative edges. The don ichmek is a heavy winter version, made from sheep’s skin, polished/treated with pomegranate skin.
Men’s hats, telpek, come in many designs. The most striking is the silkme telpek, made from long sheep hair, and providing perfect protection to the head from heat and cold alike.
Fine collections of antique garments can be seen on display at several museums in Turkmenistan. But also at a wedding photo shoot next to popular monuments, in the streets and at the bazaars in the southern parts of Turkmenistan we can see ordinary people wearing these garments.
Traditional Turkmen jewelry is, just as the embroidered garments, very peculiar and unique for Turkmens only. And just as the garments, we can identify different styles and designs used by different Turkmen tribes. The ornaments are in general fairly massive; silver foundations were often gilded with gold top coatings, and with inlays of turquoise (Yomut) or Cornelian (Teke).
The craft of making jewelry has been practiced by Turkmen artisans since many centuries ago. Today we find samples of this jewelry dating from no earlier than the beginning of the 19th century. This can be explained by the fact that jewelers used old jewelry to make new creations, and therefore melted down old jewelry. Systematic collection of rare samples was begun in the late 1930s.
A wide variety of decorations are worn by women on the occasion of special celebrations. These pieces of jewelry are very large in size and more densely decorated with precious stones and engraved designs than the daily pieces of jewelry. A special set comes as bridal decorations, and a particular set is also made for children. All these have the combined functions as decoration as well as protective amulet.
Jewelry art includes not only personal decoration, but also other items made from precious metal and other metals, such as horse harnesses, knife handles, swords and whips. Personal decorations come in dozens of shapes and have each their own function. Here is just a short list to give you an idea of the wealth of Turkmen jewelry:
|Gulyaka and gursakcha:||a conically-shaped piece of jewelry that is worn by young girls, on top of the head cover tahiya.|
|Gupba||a conically-shaped piece of jewelry that is worn by young girls, on top of the head cover tahiya.|
|Chekelik||a long pendant of triangular and other forms that hangs down from the head along the temples and cheeks. The largest pendants are inlaid with Cornelian or red glass. Brides often wear this type of decoration.|
|Gulak-khalka||earrings that were very popular among women from the Yomut tribe in particular. They have the form of a round loop with a decorated plate in the center of it, and bangles hanging down as if they were sunrays. Teke women usually wore long ear hangers called tenechir.|
|Bilezik||bracelets in the shape of cylinders, narrowing down towards the bottom, and teethed edges. The cylinders are usually composed of 4 or 5 sections. Some were as much as reaching from the wrist to the elbow.|
|Sachlyk||a hair/tail decoration (sach means hair). The sachlyk is made up of two long vertical pendants joined by various horizontal constructions. The Yomut tribal sachlyk as an extra detail has bells at the bottom.|
|Yuzyk||set of five rings connected on the upper part of the hand by silver strings, often connecting the yuzyk to a bracelet.|
|Bukov||Teke chest pendants that hold very large, richly decorated discs.|
|Ildirgich||a frontal ornament worn by Teke women. Whereas the ildirgich is composed of different little plaques and therefore more flexible in shape, the main component of the egme is a massive plaque with decorative Cornelian stone inlay.|
|Gynach-udzhi||a long piece of jewelry that is attached to the sides of the head cover gynach.|
|Boyun-bag or boyun-tovuk||necklaces of thick (twisted) silver with chest pendants, attached to a central medallion in the necklace.|
Next to jewelry that fulfills mainly an esthetical function, there are also decorations that are purely fulfilling the function of protection against the evil eye. Some are worn, and some are sown into or onto clothing. Some are solid, and some have a hollow part inside, that leaves space from something to keep evil spirits at a distance (such as Koran texts, salt or coal).
|Kheykel||mostly square (leather) cases that hold Koran texts or other written charms. The top part of the case, and the shoulder or neck band, are covered with gold and silver decorations and inlays of various precious stones.|
|Eginlik||an amulet-decoration that is believed to protect a mother’s milk.|
|Achar-bag||a square charm holder mostly worn by Yomut tribe (decorations in blue).|
|Tumar||a charm holder that was worn on the front, back or shoulder band, depending on the purpose of the charm it held. Shapes could be cylindrical, square, triangular or a combination of all these.|
|Goch-boynguz and ok-yai||amulet-decorations sewn into boys’ clothing.|
Various museums and several private collections in Turkmenistan have an impressive array of antique jewelry on display. Of course, you can also find Turkmen jewelry at Sunday bazaars. Without doubt the best occasion to watch the abundance of jewelry is when observing a Turkmen wedding ritual or photo shoot.
Carpets and felts
For Turkmen people carpets are not only a symbol of beauty and happiness, but also tell the story of their forefathers; carpets tell Turkmen history. For centuries, travelers through Turkmenistan document about the quality of the carpets woven here.
Although carpets were already being produced in the time of the Seljuks, the first written reference to Turkmen carpets was made by Marco Polo (XIII c). In the XIV c Ibn Batutta also writes about woolen carpets in homes of inhabitants of (Kunya) Urgench, and of silk carpets in the palace of Kutlug-Timur there. We can also find Turkmen carpets back in the paintings of the masters of the Italian Renaissance (XIV-XV cc), and (probably) in the miniatures of Timurid times such as the Shah-name (XV c).