Recently Turkmenistan has been on the news for declaring a new national day in the country in honor of a very special animal- the Alabai dog.
Fascinated by the news, I was inspired to find out more about Turkmenistan and their cultural heritage. Therefore, I will be sharing my discoveries about the former Soviet state and its numerous cultural symbols. Keep reading to know why the dog is being celebrated in the country.
Turkmenistan is a country in Central Asia that borders Iran to the south, Afghanistan to the southeast, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the north and the Caspian Sea to the west. It is the second-largest country in Central Asia after Kazakhstan and, it is known for its natural gas reserves, its flashy white marble buildings in the capital, Ashgabat. It is also known for its desert and mountainous landscapes, dry and hot climate and lastly, for its tangible and intangible cultural heritage.
Presently, the country is fairly isolated from other nations and, tourism activities were minimal even before the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, the country doesn’t usually come under the spotlight.
Brief History of Turkmenistan
The event of Turkmen history is limited however, studying the available literature, it can be understood that the country was invaded multiple times by forces in the neighbouring regions.
These influences have affected the culture within the region and fragments of it can still be seen in cultural institutions, their lifestyle, their traditions, rituals and heritage objects. Since its independence from the Soviet Union, the country’s leaders have shown efforts to encourage traditional practices and foster unity and national pride with their culture, after nearly 70 years of cultural oppression.
The following years mark the important turn of events that shaped Turkmen history:
6000 BC: Archaeological evidence dating back to 8000 years ago was found in the region. This evidence shows that humans had begun to settle down in this area, they were cultivating crops using the mountain streams to irrigate their crops and, they were domesticating cattle, sheep and horses.
2000BC: Records show that Indo-European tribal groups settled down in the region.
Soon, these settlements would prosper, as they would begin to make tools, pottery and trade with other settlements nearby.
4th century BC: Records show that the region was under the control of the Persian empire, however when Alexander the Great was on his way to India, he passed through this region and defeated the Persian forces and found a city that is known as Merv today. The location of the city was strategic as it was part of an important trading route.
3rd century BC: Once Alexander the Great died, nomadic warriors from the northern lands attacked the remaining forces and won. They then went on to establish the Parthian Empire, which in its prime, covered the areas in present-day Turkmenistan and Iran.
5th century AD: The Parthian Empire fell; more tribes from the east and south were coming into the area and eventually one of the tribes managed to take control of the southern part of the region. During this period, the rest of the region was mostly populated by tribes, especially near the rivers and mountain streams, where the land was more fertile. This is speculated to be the time when the region became a part of the ancient Silk Road connecting, Baghdad and China.
7thcentury: The Arab invasion took place and Central Asia was under their control. At this time, the Oghuz tribes, a group of Turkic people from eastern Asia migrated and settled down in the Turkmen region, the Middle East and Asia Minor. Today’s Turkmen are said to be the descendants of this tribe.
13th century: The region was invaded by the Mongols under instruction from Genghis Khan, their leader. They conquered the area and destroyed some of the previously important cities such as Merv. Those who managed to survive moved north and closer to the Caspian.
15th century: Marked the end of Mongol rule and by then the Turkmen tribes were divided and soon, they were controlled yet again by another foreign force, the khans of Uzbekistan. During this time to the 17th century, there was a sort of rivalry between these rulers and rulers of Persia. To avoid ending up as collateral damage during their conflicts, the local tribes dispersed and settled in the remote desert areas.
18th century: The people of Turkmenistan struggled to survive and mostly lived impoverished. It was at this time, that a Turkman poet and spiritual leader named Magtymguly Pyragy Turkmen developed the Turkmen language and, established some of the Turkmen traditions. His work managed to unify the different clans together.
19th century: The Russians were looking for fertile lands and resources nearby therefore, they began to send military officials to explore the country. They even helped the Turkmen defeat the troubling Uzbek khans after which, many of the clans voluntarily became a part of the Russian empire. Some objected to the gradual annexation however, over time the entire territory came under their control. They were part of Russian Turkestan, which was a region including the present Central Asian countries.
20th century: Eventually, the Russian czarist rule fell and in 1922, the communists formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Turkmenistan was absorbed into the union.
1991: The country gained independence as the Soviet Union collapsed in that year and Saparmurat Niyazov was elected president of the new state.
2006: Niyazov died. Therefore, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was elected president and is still in power.
Now that we have an understanding of the history of the country, let’s look at some of their cultural symbols. History will help us understand these symbols better.
Festivals, Celebrations and National Days
Turkmen Horse Day
The Akhal-Teke horses are a type of purebred horse native to Turkmenistan. The horse is treasured for its strong built, intelligence, utility, speed and shiny coat among other things. This specific breed of horse is rarely found in other countries and even in Turkmenistan, the numbers are limited.
Historically, and even now the nomads living in the desert areas, would breed these horses to use them as transport. They’d ride the horses across the barren lands in search of water. This has made them extremely valuable and over time it has become a Turkmen national heritage. Today, the horse is seen in the Turkmen coat of arms and there are multiple golden statues dedicated to the animal across the capital city.
There is even one that has the former president, Saparmurat Niyazov riding a horse, looking almost heroic. This is the picture on the thumbnail of this post.
If that weren’t enough, there is even a dedicated day for the horses, which is celebrated at the end of April. Every year there is a horse race and a beauty contest organized for this day. An association that is known as the Turkmen Atlary, is responsible for breeding, training and taking care of the horses for this day.
This year, it was celebrated on the 25th, along with a newly established holiday; explained in the next segment.
Lastly, the current president has made it mandatory for Alkhal-Teke horse owners to arrange a funeral or burial for a dead horse that requires the presence of a government official as well.
The horse holds a special place in the Turkmen’s hearts. They value their horses as much as they value their own life and regard them as a symbol of fidelity and happiness.
Turkmen Shepherd Dog Day
This is the new national holiday that I was talking about earlier. Last Sunday, the Turkmen president declared the day a national holiday in honour of the Alabai dog. It was celebrated for the first time ever combined with Turkmen Horse Day.
The Alabai dogs, also known as the wolf-crusher, is a breed of dog that is native to Central Asia. However, it is seen as a symbol of national pride in Turkmenistan mostly by the president as he wishes to use the dog as a national symbol to instill pride among the Turkmen citizens.
However, it isn’t merely a symbol or a bias of the president, it holds much greater importance than that. The Alabai is a fairly large dog, that can grow up to 85cm and weighs around 80kg on average. It has a huge skull, a strong build, it has a broad muscular structure and displays brute strength and courage. In addition to that, it is an extremely loyal dog as well.
Due to these qualities, the animal makes an excellent guard dog, to chase off predators and to intimidate those who aren’t welcome. Historically and even now, the rural population, keep at least one of these dogs around their yurts to protect their sheep, goats, horses and their crops from wild animals such as wolves. The wolves lurk around at night to snatch sheep and other animals away, to satiate their own hunger. However, these dogs are so strong and fierce that they can easily fight off the wolves.
Their importance and abilities have made the dogs even be used by the police and border forces to assist them in patrolling and policing. Plus, once in a few years, a national alabai fight championship is also organized where trained alabai dogs fight. To train them, their owners feed, massage and maintain them really well but they also have to cut their ears and tails off as those are their most vulnerable points. These championships award high prize money to the owners.
The people’s dependence on protection from dogs has made them a symbol of Turkmenistan. In November 2020, the president even inaugurated a 19 feet golden statue of the guard dog at the centerof a roundabout in Ashgabat. And now, the dog even gets a day in its honour.
To celebrate, musicians were invited to play traditional instruments, dancers were also invited for entertainment, fixtures of dogs were placed in the capital city where participants wore traditional dresses and paraded a stage along with the dogs. Moreover, a contest for the best dog was held where the winning dog received an award and its owner, a car from the president’s son/deputy prime minister. Truly unique indeed.
The melon day is celebrated on the second Sunday of August every year to honour the special breed of muskmelon that is available only in Turkmenistan. It is undoubtedly the most important food crop of Turkmenistan so, to respect its importance, the day is marked to honour the fruit and its producers. To celebrate this day, vendors and farmers arrange a sort of exhibition for the melons and, musicians and dancers perform for entertainment and people wear traditional clothes and eat the melons.
Magtymuly Pyragy Day
This day is celebrated on May 19 and 20 in honour of the aforementioned Turkmen poet, Magtymuly Pyragy. He is respected for his successful efforts in unifying the different Turkmen clans together.
Eid al-Fitr is celebrated to mark the end of the month of Ramadan, during which followers of Islam fast from dawn to evening. People celebrate it with their families by eating traditional dishes and spending time together. Though the Turkmen people follow various religions including Christianity, Zoroastrianism and local nomad animist religions, the majority of the population (89%), follows Islam, therefore, Eid al-Fitr becomes one of the most important festivals in the country.
The Arts and Aesthetics
Carpet weaving is the oldest art form from the region that dates back to 500 BC and it can be called Turkmenistan’s truest form of identity because a glimpse of the carpet design can be seen in their flag as well. Some of the designs from the earliest carpets made have been retained even today and they can be seen in the flag as well. The designs symbolize the 5 largest tribes that make up the Turkmen population.
The carpets are made from the wool of the Saryja sheep that produce flexible, durable and shiny white wool, ideal for the carpets. The wool is first sheared in the spring season when the sheep naturally begin to shed their coat. Then, the raw wool is washed, rinsed and then dried to remove impurities. Next, the wool is separated, pounded, combed and finally spun into yarn using a traditional spindle and spinning wheel. After turning them into yarn, the wool is dyed using natural and eco-friendly plant-based dyes to dye the wool. The signature red colour comes from the madder plant.
The next step is extremely laborious and can take months to complete. The yarn is arranged onto a traditional handloom then the process of weaving and knotting by hand begins. The end result is a beautifully designed quadrangle carpet with geometric patterns that symbolize the culture of Turkmenistan.
The Turkmen women are the ones blessed with the skill to weave the carpets and this special skill is passed down to future generations and siblings, verbally and through observation. The act of weaving carpets comes along with their own rituals and traditions.
For example, the weaving process begins with prayer and wishing each other good luck. During the process, women sing and tell folk stories or stories about their daily lives. The day that the carpet is completed is considered auspicious.
The carpets were initially used to cover the floors of the nomads’ wagons, to form walls within the yurts and to keep the yurts covered to protect them from the cold weather. Today, they are also used for special occasions such as weddings, the birth of a child, funerals, prayer and decoration.
There is even a carpet museum in Ashgabat showcasing various designs, the art and craftsmanship of carpet weaving.
Music and Dance
The Turkmen folk songs tell stories about the landscape, the men, the women and the country’s political scene. The men’s songs are about their heroism while the women’s songs express their feelings that aren’t otherwise possible in the patriarchal society. They talk about their passage through life and the important milestones they achieve. By tradition, the songs have been passed on to younger generations verbally but, some have also been written down and have been storied in the Turkmenbashy National Manuscript Institute.
These traditional songs and poetry are performed by singers, children and teachers around the country on national holidays and on special occasions. In some cases, it is mandatory by law to perform them.
Apart from the folk songs, there is the unique Turkmen Kushtdepdi rite of singing and dancing. Here men and women wear traditional clothes, form a circle or semi-circle and dance together while a singer from the group stands nearby and sings.
Before the performance begins, a group of women pray to nature then, they sit together and sing poems while clapping their hands. Once this is done, the performance can commence.
This performance is a way to express positive feelings, good wishes, prosperity and fertility to others. The movements of the dance involve clapping, stomping, turning and jumping all of which supposedly wards bad and negative spirits away and invite good feelings.
These performances take place at weddings, carnivals, cultural festivals, public events and national celebrations too. It is safe to say that the musicians and dancers at the Turkmen Horse Day and Shepher Dog Day, performed the Kushtdepdi.
Extravagant Structures and Cultural Institutions
Since its independence, the country’s leaders have commissioned the construction of numerous extravagant buildings around the capital. With a large amount of income generated thanks to its massive gas reserves, the construction of luxurious white marble buildings has been possible. The marble supposedly keeps the buildings cooler from the inside, which is helpful as the country faces high temperatures too unbearable for people to go out during the day.
Today, nearly 80% of the capital city is constructed with imported high-quality marble. Some of the most unique buildings are listed below:
Alem Cultural and Entertainment Centre: The home to the world biggest indoor Ferris wheel on the planet. The structure measures 95m in total and the white exterior of the structure is made of white marble.
Wedding Palace: This is a gigantic 11-story structure made of marble which is used for marriage registry and wedding ceremonies.
Apart from these architecturally advanced buildings made of marble, the country has also constructed some cultural institutions for educational purposes, to preserve history, for entertainment, among other reasons. Here are some of those cultural institutions:
Olympic Village: This is a massive sports complex that was built for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games that was held in Turkmenistan. The total cost of the project was 5 billion US dollars and can seat up to 45,000 people.
Turkmen Carpet Museum: This cultural institution located in Ashgabat displays a collection of Turkmen carpets over the centuries. It even houses the largest hand-woven carpet in the world, which measures 14 x 21m.
The museum also shows the process of weaving the carpets using the traditional handloom.
State Museum of the State Cultural Centre of Turkmenistan National Museum of Turkmenistan: This is the National Museum of Turkmenistan that houses 500,000 objects for display. There are 3 divisions of the museum, each exhibiting the Turkmen anthropology, arts and history with archaeological finds, carpets and rugs, textiles, tools, musical instruments, weapons, ornaments, awards, documents, paintings, sculptures, depictions of various stories and the Turkmen landscape over the years, among other things.
The gates of hell: The gas crater at Darvaza, Turkmenistan, is an accidental man-made crater in the middle of the Karakum desert. To add the element of fantasy, it is more popularly known as the gates of hell. The crater was created by accident when engineers in the Soviet era went searching for sources of oil in the desert. They didn’t find oil but they did find gas in during their search and formed a crater in the process. At the time, unsure if the gasses were toxic or not, they thought it best to burn it off to stop its diffusion. They thought that the spot would burn for a week but the place still burns, since its ignition in 1971. The nature and aesthetics of the crater make it look like the entrance to hell. I consider this to a cultural symbol because it tells the story of how an important economic resource was discovered. Additionally, it makes a popular tourist spot.
Turkmenistan today does not attract media attention and limits its interaction with foreigners as well. The few times that it has gained attention has been for eccentric and negative reasons. This is because the country faces numerous human rights issues, according to Human Rights Watch. This is because according to them, the liberty of the general public is limited as to their speech, everyday life, the practice of religion, etc are supervised by the government. Their media is controlled by the state as such access to certain websites and in fact, the internet, in general, is restricted.
However, looking past these issues, Turkmenistan remains to be a place with a rich history that results in a rich culture that is not too known to the rest of the world. This post, therefore, attempted to give some attention to the culture of this nation.
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Clement, V., 2014. Articulating national identity in Turkmenistan: inventing tradition through myth, cult and language. Nations and Nationalism, 20(3), pp.546-562.
Marchand, T., 2002. Tradition and society in Turkmenistan: gender, oral culture and song. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 65(1), pp.592-594.
Taylor, P., 2017. Turkic poetic heritage as symbol and spectacle of identity: observations on Turkmenistan’s Year of Magtymguly celebrations. Nationalities Papers, 45(2), pp.321-336.