LOCATION: Turkmenistan; northern Iran; northwestern Afghanistan

POPULATION: 5 million

LANGUAGES: Turkmen; Russian; Persian

RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)


The ethnic origins of the Turkmens are generally traced to the Oghuz, a loose alliance of Turkic tribes in what is now Mongolia in the seventh and eighth centuries AD . By the twelfth century, Turkmen tribes had migrated into what are now Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and other parts of the Middle East. They established dynasties and played an important role in political life. However, in present-day Turkmenistan, they never united into one political force.

In the 1880s, after bitter fighting, Russia conquered the region. In 1924, the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic became one of the fifteen republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Under Soviet rule, property was taken over by the government, traditional social structures were attacked, and the traditional nomadic way of life ceased to exist. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Turkmenistan gained its independence. However, since most political, social, and economic institutions are Soviet holdovers, genuine change has been slow.

There are more than two dozen tribal groupings among the Turkmens today, the largest of which are Teke, Yomut, and Ersari.


Turkmenistan has an area of 188,450 square miles (488,100 square kilometers). Most of Turkmenistan is a vast, arid desert. In fact, Central Asia's two largest deserts—the Garagum and the Gyzylgum—make up almost 90 percent of Turkmenistan's territory. To the south are the Balkan and Kopet Dag mountains. Other geographical features are the Caspian Sea in the west, and the Amu Darya River in the east.

An estimated 3 million Turkmens live in Turkmenistan. Some 2 million more live in northern Iran and northwestern Afghanistan.


Turkmen is part of the Oghuz group of Turkic languages. Linguistically, it is close to Azeri (Azerbaijani), Turkish, and Uzbek. It contains many Turkic, Persian, and Arabic elements. The Turkmen language used in Turkmenistan borrows many words from Russian.


Like other Central Asian peoples, the Turkmens have a rich folklore tradition of epic stories, tales, and lyric poems. Turkmens maintain a theory of common origin from a mythical ancestor, Oghuz Khan. The original Oghuz tribes—the core of the early Turkmens—are supposed to have descended from this ancestor.

A popular legend says that when Allah (God) made the world, the Turkmens were the first to get a land filled with sunshine, but the last to get any water. The Turkmen folklore tradition also includes various superstitions. Knowledge of and belief in charms, omens, lucky and unlucky days of the week, and the evil eye are common to almost every Turkmen.

Each Turkmen tribe and clan has it own series of legends and tales that define tribal genesis and trace genealogy.


All Turkmen are Sunni Muslim, and almost every tribe or clan has a legend or account of how it became Muslim. Because they still adhere to some pre-Islamic religious practices, the Turkmens have often been described as "half" Muslims. However, conversion to Islam is often the defining moment in a tribe's or clan's history. Each tribe or clan has its own cemetery and saint's shrine. Members may conduct pilgrimages there when the need arises. At the shrine, a pilgrim may appeal to the saint for good fortune, the safety of a loved one, a cure for an illness, or the birth of a child. Hundreds of such shrines dot the Turkmen landscape.


The most important religious holidays are Islamic holy days celebrated according to the lunar calendar. Gurban bairamy commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son to God. The Oraz bairamy is celebrated at the end of the month of fasting (Ramadan). Nowruz (New Year's Day) is an ancient holiday celebrated on March 21. It marks the beginning of spring and the planting season. All of these holidays are marked with family gatherings and feasts. National holidays include Independence Day (October 27) and a series of memorial days. These commemorate Turkmen veterans; victims of the 1948 earthquake in the capital city, Ashgabat; and the end of World War II (1939–45).


As Muslims, all Turkmen males are circumcised (usually between the ages of three and seven). Through this ceremony they become members of the male community and genuine Muslims. After circumcision, a boy no longer sleeps with his mother, and he spends more time with adult males. Girls make a less dramatic passage into adult womanhood by wearing head scarves, having their ears pierced, and spending more time with women.

Weddings are celebrated with a great deal of festivity and lavish expenditure.

Although funerals are important events, most mourning rituals take place at a later time. On the third, seventh, and fortieth day after a loved one's death, there are large gatherings dedicated to the deceased's memory. These often continue on a yearly basis as well.


Turkmens follow three codes of conduct: Adat (Turkmen customary law), Sherigat (Islamic law), and Edep (rules of proper etiquette and behavior). Much of Turkmen behavior and etiquette come out of these codes. Some aspects of these traditions were lost in the Soviet period (1924–90). However, they still continue to shape social behavior on a daily basis. The essence of these traditions is often referred to as turkmenchilik, meaning "Turkmenness." The codes include elaborate and exact modes of greeting based on age and gender, hospitality toward guests, respect toward elders, and a clear sense of tribal identity.


The traditional Turkmen dwelling is a felt tent called a gara oy (black house). It is often called a "yurt" in Western literature. The felt covering is attached to a wooden frame. The tent may be assembled or taken down within an hour. In Turkmenistan it is no longer a primary residence. Instead it is used in summer pasture areas or constructed for recreation or holidays. In rural Turkmenistan, most people live in one-story homes made from clay and straw. Often these homes are located within a walled courtyard which also contains an agricultural plot and livestock. In the cities of Turkmenistan, high-rise apartment dwellings are also common.


Most Turkmen live in extended families, and elders live with their adult children. Nursing homes are extremely rare. The youngest son bears the primary responsibility for his parents' welfare. Turkmen families are usually large. Families with six or more children are the norm in rural areas. Siblings and close relatives are expected to assist each other in times of need.

Many marriages are arranged, and virtually all must be blessed by the parents. Western-style dating is rare. A suitable match is based on age, social status, education level, tribal affiliation, and other factors. In most cases, the couple know each other. One common element in the process is the paying of the galyng (bride price). This consists of a transfer of either money or goods from the groom's family to the bride's family.


The most prominent feature of traditional Turkmen male clothing is the telpek, a high sheepskin hat. It may be brown, black, or white and is typically very shaggy. Men who wear the telpek usually wear a skullcap beneath it and shave their heads. Long, deep-red robes with wide sleeves are also common in traditional settings. In the cities, the clothing of the Turkmen male differs little from that of men in the West. A suit jacket (without a tie) and pants are the norm, and no hat is worn.

Turkmen women, both urban and rural, typically wear more traditional clothing than men do. The main features are a long dress, a long head scarf, and a cloak-type red robe called a kurte. Western-style clothing is considered too immodest by most Turkmen women. Turkmen women also sew a special type of embroidery called keshde, which adorns the collars and fringes of their clothing.

12 • FOOD

Milk products from camels, cows, goats, and sheep are made into a variety of butters, creams, and yogurts. The meat of these animals is used in the bulk of Turkmen dishes. Most meat dishes are baked (in dough) or boiled. Soups and meat pie-type dishes make up the bulk of the dinner fare.

One favorite Turkmen dish is dograma, a thick soup made with diced bread, lamb, onions, tomatoes, and spices. Hot green tea is part of every meal, even on the hottest days. Round flatbread is a staple throughout Central Asia.

When relatives or guests visit, the food is spread out on plates and dishes on a large cloth on the floor. Guests and family members sit and have their meal around this cloth covered with food (called a sachak ). A typical Turkmen sachak will include a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, sweets, tea and other beverages, and bread, as well as butters and creams—all this before the main meal.


All children must attend school and receive at least a high school education. Institutes, trade schools, colleges, and a university train those willing and able to continue their education. The economic crisis since Turkmenistan's independence has led to many problems in education. Low teacher pay, lack of funding, and run-down facilities have resulted in serious problems, especially in rural areas.


The most prominent figure in Turkmen cultural history is the eighteenth-century poet, Magtymguly. Virtually all Turkmens know his poetry by heart. The Turkmens also have a unique musical culture that is tied into the oral literary tradition. Turkmen music features the two-stringed dutar and the gyjak (a violin-like instrument), accompanied by singing.


In rural areas of Turkmenistan, virtually all work is centered around agricultural and livestock production. The state owns almost all the land and administers all the farms. Pagta (cotton) is Turkmenistan's chief crop. Fruits, vegetables, and grains are also grown throughout the country. Hailed as the "second Kuwait" because of its oil and gas reserves, Turkmenistan has pinned its hopes on oil and gas production and their export to countries outside the former Soviet Union.


Soccer (called futbal ) is perhaps the most popular sport among young men. Horse racing has become the most celebrated sport in Turkmenistan since independence. The horse has long symbolized the Turkmen spirit and occupies the most prominent spot on the state seal.


Visiting friends and relatives is a favorite pastime among Turkmens. Visits usually involve large meals, some sort of entertainment (such as music), and overnight stays. Many urban Turkmens own summer houses and gardens on the outskirts of town where they spend vacation time. Turkmens also enjoy the theater, movies, musical concerts, and television.


Turkmen carpets are prized as among the world's best by collectors and experts. Some carpets have up to 37,000 knots per square foot (400,000 knots per square meter). They are often known as Bukharan or "Oriental" carpets. Many Turkmen tribes have a distinct, identifying carpet ornamentation. Almost all of the labor connected with carpet weaving and production is carried out by women. Aside from carpets, women also weave a variety of items connected with the nomadic lifestyle. Adornments for the felt tent, such as storage bags and door coverings, as well as items used for horses and camels, are the most common.


Turkmenistan has experienced severe economic problems since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Poverty, crime, and unemployment have risen sharply. Drug abuse is increasing among young male Turkmens. Turkmenistan's low industrial and manufacturing production has led to a high reliance on imported foodstuffs and consumer goods.


Clark, Larry, Mike Thurman, and David Tyson. Turkmenistan: A Country Study . Lanham, Md.: Federal Research Division, United States Library of Congress, forthcoming.

Maslow, Jonathan Evan. Sacred Horses: The Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy. New York: Random House, 1994.

Turkmenistan, Then and Now. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1993.


Embassy of Turkmenistan, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.dc.infi.net/~embassy/ , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Turkmenistan. [Online] Available http://twww.wtgonline.com/country/tm/gen.html , 1998.

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