CULTURE AND ART IN TURKMENISTAN

CULTURE IN TURKMENISTAN

The Soviets deserve some credit for helping to create a unified Turkmen culture, where one hadn't relay existed before. Before the Soviets — and to a large extent today — Turkmen identified themselves by tribe rather than as Turkmen.

Since claiming independence the Central Asia nations have revived languages, culture and customs long suppressed by the Soviet Union. Old customs, rituals and cultural practices are expressed much more openly and enthusiastically since the break up of the Soviet Union and independence. Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s first post-independence president — encouraged a rediscovery of Turkmen culture and customs as long as it didn’t threaten his authority.

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The law prohibits censorship and provides freedom to gather and disseminate information, but authorities did not fully implement the law. To regulate domestic printing and copying activities, the government required all publishing houses, and printing and photocopying establishments to register their equipment. The government did not allow the publication of works on topics that were out of favor with the government, including some works of fiction. The government continued to censor newspapers and prohibit reporting of opposition political views or of any criticism of the president.[Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

“The government strictly controlled the production of plays and performances in state theaters, and these were severely limited. Authorities also strictly controlled film screenings and limited viewings to approved films dubbed or subtitled in Turkmen, unless sponsored by a foreign embassy. The Ministry of Culture censored and monitored all public exhibitions, including music, art, and cultural events.” \*\

History of Turkmen Culture

The culture the Turkmen is slightly different from the cultural traditions of the neighboring Muslim states of Central Asia. The reason to this is that the ancestors of the Turkmen were nomadic tribes whereas the lands of modern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were populated by settled tribes of farmers. The basic cultural milestones of Turkmenistan are related to the traditions of Turkic-speaking Oghuz. The latter go back to the pre-Islamic period. Oghuz traditions are reflected in Turkmen literature, music, folklore. [Source: advantour <=>]

The most well known source from this period is the Oghuz epic "Oghuz-nameh" also belonging to the cultural legacy of Azerbaijanis, Turks and other Turkic people. It was passed orally from generation to generation and was not written down until the mid-16th century. Another epic — the poem "Kitabi Dede Korkud" — highlights the pre-Islamic tribal culture of the Oghuz and the influence of Islam in the 11th - 12th centuries. Epic poems were performed by national singers-storytellers. <=>

Along with the introduction of Islam came the widespread use of Arabian writing in Central Asia. However Turkmen poetry used Chagatai language (very similar to Persian), also used by other ethnic groups in Central Asia. Chagatai was the language used by the great Turkmen poets of the 18th and 19th centuries. <=>

The greatest Turkmen poet was Magtymguly (Makhtumkuli, 1724-1807). Before him, Turkmen poetry was very similar to Persian poetry that was basically Sufi philosophical treatises in poetic form. Magtymguly and his followers went beyond the narrow limits of the conventions characteristic to Persian poetry and cerated works with a unique Turkmen voice, addressing themes close to the heart of the Turkmen nomadic lifestyle and epic traditions. Seitnazar Seyidi (1775-1836) and Kurbandurdy Zelili (1780-1836) are considered Magtymguly successors. <=>

From the mid -19th century the influence of Sufism began to wane. The works of Turkmen poets acquired a political character. After annexation of Turkmenistan to Russian Empire in 1870-1890s, social and political satire became popular.

Turkmen artistic prose and dramatic art formally developed in the Soviet period. The literature of this period eulogized the achievements of socialism: the rights of women, collectivization of agriculture, and, later, the victory of Soviet people in World War II. Berdy Kerbabaev (1894-1974), a poet, novelist and playwright was one of the most noticeable Turkmen writers of the Soviet period.

Arts and Crafts in Turkmenistan

The traditional arts of Turkmenistan include felt manufacture, jewelry making, woodwork, ceramics, and silverwork, but the two crafts in which Turkmen excel are silk manufacturing and carpet making. Turkmenistan is the source of keteni, a homespun silk that is used for the beautiful dresses worn by Turkmen women on special occasions.

Turkmen are regarded as among the world’s best weavers and textile artisans. Their weaving skills are displayed in saddle bags and purses as well as large carpets, some of which are considered works of art. Turkmenistan make handmade cloth with beautiful striped designs. Many of the designs have tribal, folkloric and religious significance.

Embroidery has always held an important place in Turkmen handicrafts. It has allowed Turkmen women to show their abilities with sophisticated stitches and patterns. Embroiderers uses different patterns that are as unique as a family seal, identifying the tribes of the artists.

Jewelry in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is also famous its jewelry. For nomads, jewelry was a way of keeping wealth small and portable so you could carry it with you when you were on the move. It also contained clues on the tribe, family and social status of its wearer. .

Families have traditionally kept much of their wealth in the form of silver jewelry, often hidden somewhere in the house and only brought when women wear it at weddings and other events. When Turkmen brigands raided villages and camps their aim was often to make of with the jewelry of their residents.

Silver jewelry was traditionally made by jewelers and their apprentices from melted silver coins fashion into rings, bracelets, necklaces and brooches. They are often set with red carnelians, which Turkmen believe wards off eye disease. At weddings and feasts interlinked rings are hung with bells and precious stones.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; “Although nominally Sunni Muslim, the Turkmen kept many of their pre-Islamic customs and beliefs, which were often embodied in the jewelry they made and wore. Turkmen silver jewelry carried deep symbolic meanings and often marked an individual's passage from one stage of life to another. From a very early age, a woman started wearing jewelry whose shapes and materials were believed to ensure her ability to bear healthy children later in life. The amount of embellishments a girl wore increased as she approached marriageable age. Once she had had her first children, and her fertility had been established, the amount of jewelry she received and wore decreased. In addition, silver jewelry believed to ward off evil and illness was worn by men, women, and especially by children. [Source: Department of Islamic Art. "Turkmen Jewelry", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2011 ==]

“Jewelry was a significant financial investment, as it was handcrafted from precious materials. There were cases when, in times of dire need, a woman would part with her jewelry in order to help the survival of the tribe. Significant in size and weight, Turkmen jewelry objects were made of silver, decorated with semi-precious stones, and sometimes gilded for an added color effect and value.” ==

Turkmen Jewelry as Works of Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; “Common shapes found on Turkmen jewelry include mountains, animals, horns, and plants. The mountain motif is part of the Turkmen creation story and is significant for its ancestral and heavenly connection. Each Turkmen tribe holds a specific mountain in their region sacred and only that tribe can ascend it. The mountain ram is a sacred animal to the Turkmen and its horns are frequently used in rituals. The double leaf and two-leafed flower motifs are connected to the growth of human existence, and are part of a long-established decorative tradition. [Source: Department of Islamic Art. "Turkmen Jewelry", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2011 ==]

“In addition to the shape and theme of the silver metal itself, the semi-precious stones that embellish the jewelry are also imbued with protective powers. Pieces of carnelian, a bright red colored stone, are popular because they are believed to protect the wearers from illness and death. Turquoise is less commonly used among the Turkmen, but serves as a symbol of purity and chastity. In some cases, less expensive glass beads of the same colors are used instead of semi-precious stones.” ==

The holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Department of Islamic Art include a fine collection of nearly 200 Turkmen silver jewelry pieces and other decorative objects donated by Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf. The Wolf collection is rich in amulets, armlets, belts, dorsal plates (hung from the hair onto the back, headdresses, and pectoral ornaments (hung from the neck onto the chest.”

Books: Diba, Layla S. Turkmen Silver: Jewelry and Ornaments from the Marshall and Marilyn Wolf Collection. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011; Schletzer, Dieter, and Reinhold Schletzer “Old Silver Jewellery of the Turkoman: An Essay on Symbols in the Culture of Inner Asian Nomads, “ Berlin: D. Reimer, 1983.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016


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