For centuries the Turkoman people have been bonded
together in strongly independent tribal groups. The Tekke, Yomut, Salor,
Sarik, Tchaudor and Ersari were the major Turkoman tribes during the time
of the Khiva khanate, along with the more minor Kora, Alieli and Goklen
tribes. Despite clear differences in location and occupation, they proudly
trace a common ancestry back to the Manghischlak or 'ming kishlack' (a
thousand villages). It was the mainly the Yomut and Tchauder tribes, who
lived between the Caspian and Aral Seas, and the Tekke, who were the leading
traders in Persian slaves, which interacted with the khans of Khiva.
In days of old the nomadic Turkoman tribes exhibited a curious mixture of contrasts; on one hand they were feared as the scourge of the Korakum desert and were famed for their merciless raids, untrustworthiness and general debauchery, yet on the other hand they displayed incredible hospitality and generosity. Whilst the men were considered indolent and lazy, the industrious women created fabulous textiles. The few foreigners who visited Turkoman encampments without wearing shackles were baffled at the wonderful treatment they received from the same people who savagely dealt with their captured Persian and Russian victims.
In 1864 Vambery estimated that there were roughly 100
500 Turkoman people, who, despite this relatively small population, became
infamous as a result of their unexpected ambushes.
"The leading feature in the life of a Turkoman
are the 'Alaman' (predatory expedition) or the Tchapao (the surprise)....
The attack is always made either at midnight, when an inhabited settlement,
or at sunrise, when a caravan or any hostile troop is its object.... The
party assailed must possess great resolution and firmness to be able to
withstand a surprise of this nature; the Persians seldom do so....
Richmond Shakespear witnessed the misery of newly captured Persian slaves at first hand.
"Well may they shed tears of anguish, for well
they know their fate. Never in their surliest moods did they inflict such
cruel treatment on their cattle as they themselves are now doomed to undergo
from their fellow creatures; and all hopes of home, or wife, children,
and kindred, have vanished like the dreams of the previous night. The
rest of their life is doomed to be passed in slavery, amongst people indifferent
to human suffering, and unacquainted with mercy.
"The camel carrying the women is now made to sit
down, the unfortunate wretches are dragged brutally to the ground, and
their veils torn off. Their cries for mercy and attempts to screen their
faces are alike food for mirth to these accursed savages The poor women,
if possessing any beauty, are allowed to ride on the camels and have food
given to them, lest hardship and suffering should reduce their value when
produced for sale."
After a raiding party had returned to their encampment, the booty would be divided equally between the men with an additional portion set aside as well. Each robber would examine his portion and if it was deemed lacking in any way, it would be reimbursed from the central pot.
Despite the prosperity gained from raiding, most Turkomans
lived a very basic lifestyle. Few could afford to bake bread more than
once a week, subsisting instead on dried fish. Turkomans would usually
buy flour whilst selling their slaves in the Khiva or Bukhara bazaars.
"It is remarkable how little the 'Deb' has suffered
in its struggle of eight centuries with Mohammedism. Many usages which
are prohibited to the Islamite, and which the Mullahs make the object
of violent attack, exist in all their ancient originality.... What before
they found in the sun, fire, and other phenomena of nature, they now saw
in Allah Mohammed. The nomad is ever the same, now as two thousand years
ago; nor is it possible for any change to take place in him till he exchanges
his light tent for a substantial house; in other words, till he ceases
to be nomad."
The 'Deb' was particularly adamant on the rules of welcoming guests. Crucial to the survival of any desert nomadic culture, the bonds of hospitality were incredibly strong.
"Shir Dil stepped forward, bowed deeply to his
father, and said: 'Father, I bring our brother to you, the man about whom
I have told you so much, who saved the life of both your sons.'
Shakespear, even though he was repulsed by the Turkomans' cruelty and underhand raiding tactics, was taken aback by the generosity of one tribal leader towards him.
"Just as I was leaving the governor brought me
two superb hawks, which he begged me to accept. I pleaded the impossibility
of carrying them with me; upon this he immediately gave me an old man
to take care of them. The only way of escape was to give the old man a
couple of ducats, and tell him to look after the hawks until my return.
Brutus says that the birds are celebrated for their speed, and worth at
least four slaves each."
The Turkomans, as Vambery noted, were nomads first and Muslims second, practising a syncretic version of Islam which drew heavily on animism and shamanism. They were, however, very strong in their identity as Sunnis and despised the Persian Shiites as worse than unbelievers. This religious fervour may have been partly attributed to the fact that it would be a sin for a Turkoman to enslave a fellow Muslim. However if Shiites were considered worse than unbelievers, a Turkoman raider could then rest with an easy conscience as he proceeded to shackle, sell or kill his captured booty.
Women in Turkoman society did not feature much higher than Shiites in the social pecking order and were expected to bear the brunt of all work, as Gustav Krist noted,
"They show not the slightest consideration towards their women
who are treated as slaves and expected to do all agricultural as well
as domestic work. The men hunt, get up displays and jousts on horseback,
or indulge in raiding; otherwise they live a leisured life of uninteruption
Despite the burden of work, the Turkoman women were able to create wonderful
textiles ranging from carpets to clothes. The women from the Sarik tribe
would make a special and highly valued material from the wool of a newly
born camel known as 'agary'. First the wool would be boiled in milk for
a couple of days until it become elastic like the consistency of silk
pulp. It would then be woven into men's outer garments. Agary was very
expensive and not easy to come by as the Sariks were not on friendly terms
with the other tribes.
"The women, when dressing themselves for holidays, are accustomed
to also bind a shawl round the waist over their long shift, which hangs
down in two slips. High heeled boots, red or yellow, are also indispensable;
but the objects which are most coveted, and that give them most pleasure
are trinkets, rings for neck, ear or nose. ...These accompany every movement
of the body with a clear sound, as it were, of bells. The Turkoman is
very fond of such clatter, and attachs articles that produce it either
to his wife or his horse; or when the opportunity fails him, he steals
a Persian, and suspends chains upon him."
The Turkomans continued to raid and capture Persians with impunity,
making the most of the Persian Shah's preoccupation with other matters.
However the Russian hatred and resentment towards the Turkomans did not
dissipate on the release of the Russian slaves from Khiva by Richmond
Shakespear in 1840. Russian sailors continued to be captured by the Yomuts
who were infamous pirates on the Caspian Sea and by the time an invading
Russian army finally reached the Korakum desert, they were ready for a
"Men, women and children at the breast were slain with ruthless
barbarity; houses with bedridden inmates were given up to the fiery element;
women- ay, and prattling babes - were burned alive amidst the flames;
hell was let loose on Turkomania. And this, the Russians would have us
believe, was done to further Christianity and civilisation.
This was the beginning of the end for the fiery independent Turkoman tribes. Russian expansion and colonialism began to encroach on their territory and the Trans-Caspian railway was built. By the 1930's the Soviets attempted to settle the nomads and turn them into model Soviet citizens but this resulted in vehement resistance and a mass exodus of various tribes into Northern Afghanistan and Persia. Russians were shipped in to modernise the region and a steady erosion of culture began. The Turkmen SSR became little more than a cotton-growing plantation.
In 1990, independence was unexpectedly thrust on the reluctant first secretary of the Communist Party, Saparmurat Niazov, who was keen to remain within the Soviet Union. However he rapidly re-invented himself as Turkmenbashi, the father of the Turkomans. The concept of the Turkoman tribes as a nation state was promoted with a new flag , national anthem and the slogan, "One people, one nation, one father, Turkmenbashi". Today pictures of the President are plastered all over the place and his face appears on every bank note and is the main icon for the national television channel. The port town of Krasnovodsk has been renamed Turkmenbashi and the centre of Ashgabad boasts a large three-legged monument topped with a golden revolving statue of Niazov, which overlooks his gold domed palace.
During independence the Turkoman cultural identity has been fostered
by the replacement of Russian by Turkmen as the official language and
a revival of handicrafts and national costume. However Niazov plans to
destroy the main historical archives, stating that they will confuse and
pollute people's minds. Nationalism and cultural identity have become
closely tied with the personality cult of the president as history and
culture has been reinvented to suit the current regime. To reject Turkmenbashi
is to reject Turkmenistan and all political opposition is firmly repressed.