Suitcase and World: Turkmen Culture. Carpets, Hats and Horses.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Turkmen Culture. Carpets, Hats and Horses.

A Turkmen, in traditional costume, with his beloved Akhal-Teke horse.  Photo by Reza

As I've been reading about the culture of the countries we'll be visiting, I've come to the realize that Turkmenistan stands slightly apart from the other four.  The reason for this is that the ancestors of the Turkmen were nomadic tribes; the other four countries were populated by settled tribes of farmers.   Each clan has its own dialect and style of dress and that has been true for centuries.

Even now, long after the fall of the Sovient Union, attempts to urbanize the Turkmens have not been very successful - their nomadic heart beats strong.  Today, there are five major tribes - Teke (Tekke), Yomut (Yomud), Chowdur (Choudu), Saryk (Saryq), and Arsary (Ersari).

I wanted to know more about Turkmen culture so my reading began.  I quickly stumbled upon a quote on the Embassy of Turkmenistan webpage that I think nicely sums it up:

"Water is a Turkmen’s life, a horse is his wings, and a carpet is his soul”

The more I read, the more I was convinced that the heart of Turkmen culture centers around three things:  wool carpets, shaggy wool hats and magnificent horses.

Carpets are the crowning glory of traditional Turkmen handicrafts.  Archaeological findings date Turkmen carpet making  back to the 6th century BC.

Turkmen carpets are very distinctive in design and feel.  The traditional Turkmen carpet has a rich red colored background filled with and repeated print motifs known as *guls*. The wool is soft but durable and the pile is cut thin. Due to their tribal origins, the rugs tend to be small to mid-sized as they were woven on looms that had to be easily transportable.

The gul (sometimes gol or göl) is a medallion of octagonal or angular shape used in Turkmen designs.

Examples of guls.  Image from Arastan

Guls are essentially tribal motifs and as such are associated with  specific Turkmen tribes from which they take their name. Thus, there are Tekke guls, Ersari guls, Yomut guls, and so forth.

Tribal culture holds such a strong place in Turkmen culture that the five main tribal guls are included on a vertical strip on the country's flag. From top to bottom, the tribes are Teke, Yomut, Arsary, Chowdur, and Saryk.

Aside from the guls, the traditional Turkmen carpet design typically incorporates highly stylized imagery not only because of the restrictions imposed by Islamic tradition, which never favored figurative art, but also because of the practical limitations of weaving and knotting techniques, which often dictated simplification of forms and the portrayal of real-life shapes as geometric designs.  I'm sure the designs all have meaning to them.

In days long gone by, almost all Turkmen rugs were produced by nomadic tribes almost entirely with locally-obtained materials -  wool from the herds and vegetable dyes or other natural dyes from the land.   The art of carpet weaving was passed from generation to generation.  Nowadays, the carpets are being churned in large factories.

By the end of the 20th century, carpet weaving in Turkmenistan had become one of the most important sectors of the economy. In 1992, Turkmen Carpet Day officially became a public national holiday, celebrated annually on the last Sunday in May. This year, the holiday will fall on May 31.

I have a well known weakness for carpets and have bought my fair share of them on my travels.  I particularly love tribal rugs. With one exception, I have always bought small carpets that I can carry back with me.  Who knows?  Maybe a *real* handwoven, nomadic, Turkmen rug will make its way back to the US with me!

Photo from DN Tours
Hats.  If you were to put 1,000 men in a room, each wearing traditional headgear, you could easily pick out the Turkmen from the crowd.  They would be the ones wearing white colored, shaggy sheepskin hats, known as *telpek*.

Hat making is a centuries old tradition that is passed down from father to son.  Then as is now, telpek are expensive and men prized them for both their beauty and their practicality.

Telpek are worn all year round and you would think that the heavy looking hat would be too much in hot weather but apparently, despite how it looks, it's actually quite lightweight.  I think that the hat sits high enough on the head that there's a gap between it and the man's hair and that the gap of space essentially creates an air buffer that effectively insulates the head from freezing cold and from blistering heat.

Karakul Sheep (Photo by Jean)
Traditional telpek are made from the fur of grey or golden Karakul sheep, Angora goats, martens, foxes, and muskrats.  Telpek are expensive, and men prize them for their beauty and practicality.

The art and skill of making telpeks is passed down from father to son, and is a tradition spanning centuries.  Masters were revered and well respected in their villages.

Telpeks are still being made today but craftsman are now producing a wider assortment of hats of various quality to satisfy every possible demand.

Add a red robe over a white shirt to a telpek and you have the traditional Turkmen mens' costume - it most certainly is a very distinctive look!  I'm looking forward to seeing a lot of men wearing fuzzy telpeks....maybe I'll even try one on!

Horses are the pride of Turkmenistan; there is no more a national symbol of the country than this magnificent four legged animal. Horses have been part of the Turkmen culture as long as there has been Turkmen culture.

Approximately 10,000 years ago, as desertification took hold of Central Asia, the stocky horses indigenous to its steppe grasslands began to evolve into the lean and graceful but hardy horses that inhabit Turkmenistan today. The pride of Turkmenistan is the breed of horse known as the Akhal-Teke.

Akhal-Teke horses in performance.  From

The Akhal-Teke is an ancient breed descended from one of the four horse types that crossed the Bering Strait from the Americas in prehistoric times.

The breed got its name from Akhal oasis and Turkmen Teke tribe which has bred the horse for centuries.  Turkmen tribesmen valued their horses above all else.  Ancient Turkmen warriors came to rely heavily on the strength, speed and endurance of their horses during times of conflict. The Akhal-Teke’s ability to cover great distances of harsh terrain under extreme climatic conditions, and to travel at night, made them indispensable to the Turkmen warriors. Aside from their valiant exertions as warriors’ mounts, Akhal-Teke’s were also invaluable in assisting Turkmen nomads with their daily work.

In appearance, the Akhal-Teke horse is similar to its descendent, the Persian Arab, though in size it is more comparable to another of its descendants, the English thoroughbred.  The average height of an Akhal-Teke is 15 to 15.1 hands. Its small hooves are unusually hard and are therefore rarely shod.

The Akhal-Teke has a small thin head, long ears and large eyes. It has a short silky mane or no mane at all, and a short tail.
The Turkmen practice of covering their horses with two to three layers of felt blankets to protect against cold in the winter and flies in the summer encouraged a remarkably fine textured coat, which is also naturally shiny.

The golden coloring predominant among the Akhal-Teke once provided the necessary camouflage against the desert landscape. Today, Akhal-Teke are known for their golden coloring but they can also be white, black, dappled, dun, bay, gray or chestnut colored.  Cremellos are the most highly prized. 

Blue eyes are fairly common in the breed, especially in cremellos. It is not unusual to have a chestnut, bay, black, or grey with one blue eye, often "marbled," where the eye is only partially blue.  I can only imagine how stunning the look of a marbled blue eye must be!

Akhal-Tekes are known for their speed and grace, making the breed a coveted racer, show jumper and dressage mount.  As you can expect, they are also the animal stars of the National Circus of Turkmenistan.  They most certainly are elegant looking - even more so when they are adorned with ornately decorated bridles.

In reading about them, I watched a few YouTube videos that showed them performing - this one shows them off the best.  Of course, there are some very skilled Turkmen riders as well!

Prior to the Russian occupation of 1917, nearly every Turkmen family owned at least one or two horses. With Bolshevism however, came an end to private ownership and the horses were placed in state owned stud farms.  When the Soviet government ordered that all horses be slaughtered for meat, the Akhal-Teke breed was nearly snuffed out despite attempts by Turkmen to send their beloved horses to neighboring countries. At one point, only 1,250 horses remained, and the breed continues to suffer genetic difficulties due to the combination of a limited gene pool and the understandable reluctance to bring in new blood by cross-breeding the Akhal-Teke with outside breeds. Today, the Akhal-Teke is considered to be a rare and highly desired breed.

(Photo from susiestravelweb

After independence in 1991, the government of Turkmenistan declared the Akhal-Teke horse a national treasure.  An image of Yanardag, an Akhal-Teke horse owned by the first
President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, graces the state seal of Turkmenistan.  The Akhal-Teke horse also has its own annual national holiday - celebrated the last Sunday in April!

If that's not enough horse love, there are plenty of statues dedicated to the Akhal-Teke including a monument of 10 bronze Akhal-Teke horses, in the heart of the capital city of Ashgabat, that I'm sure we'll get to visit. of all, our tour will take us to a hippodrome where we can see these four legged beauties for real.  I'm not much of a horseman but I've most certainly done my share of riding - went on horseback in Cappadocia, Turkey, in Mongolia, and in San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemela.  I don't think we'll get to ride an Akhal-Teke horse but I would love it if I could just sit atop one for a few minutes.  I'm going to ask.

We only have a few days in Turkmenistan and while it's not all about seeing historic sights, I do hope we have time to just kick back and soak in the local culture.