The Turkmen have a rich tradition oral, epic literature and storytelling, including the great epic “Gorkut Ata”, similar to the “Dede Korkut” of other Oghuz Turks. They have also have produced a number famous poets, the most highly esteem of which is the 18th century bard Magtymguly.

The Turkmen epic Gorkut Ata (also known as "Oghuz-nameh") belongs 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. It highlights the pre-Islamic tribal culture of the Oghuz and the influence of Islam in the 11th - 12th centuries. Epic poems were traditionally performed by singer-storytellers. [Source: advantour =]

Traditional Turkmen poetry employed the Chagatai language (very similar to Persian), also used by other ethnic groups in Central Asia. Before Magtymguly 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 created 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.” =

Other famous Turkmen writers include the 19th century poet Kemine, known for his satirical works; and Mollanepes, the author of popular lyrical poems. Annasultan Kekilova, a Turkmen poet who dared to criticize the Soviet government, was sent to a mental institution in 1971. She died there. Shirai Nurmuradov is poet who fled to Sweden to escape political persecution.

Gorkut Ata: the Great Turkmen Epic

The Book of Gorkut Ata (Turkish:Dede Korkut, Turkmen: Gorkut Ata) is the most famous among the epic stories of the Oghuz Turks. The stories carry morals and values significant to the social lifestyle of the nomadic Turkic peoples and their pre-Islamic beliefs. The book's mythic narrative is part of the cultural heritage of Turkic countries, including Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and to a lesser degree Kyrgyzstan. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The work originated as a series of epics orally told and transferred over the generations before being published in book form. There are numerous versions collected of the stories. It is thought that the first versions were in natural verse, since Turkish is an agglutinative language, but that they gradually transformed into combinations of verse and prose as the Islamic elements affected the narrative over time. Various dates have been proposed for the first written copies, with the most accepted time period being the 14th or 15th century, with one story traced to 13th century Egypt. +

Gorkut Ata is a heroic dastan (legend), also known as Oghuz-nameh among the Oghuz Turk people. It is one of the best known of the thousand or 1,000 recorded epics among the Mongolian and Turkic language families by international scholars. The action in the story starts out in Central Asia, continues in Anatolia and Iran, but centers mostly in the Azerbaijani Caucasus. Russian-Soviet academician Vasily Bartold and British scholar Geoffrey Lewis, believe that the Gorkut Ata text "exhibits a number of features characteristic of Azeri, the Turkish dialect of Azerbaijan". According to Barthold, "it is not possible to surmise that this dastan could have been written anywhere but in the Caucasus". +

The Gorkut Ata is the principal repository of ethnic identity, history, customs and the value systems of the Turkic peoples, especially people who identify themselves as Oghuz. It commemorates struggles for freedom at a time when the Oghuz Turks were a herding people, although "it is clear that the stories were put into their present form at a time when the Turks of Oghuz descent no longer thought of themselves as Oghuz" but rather as Turkmen.The Turkmen (Turcomans) were those Turks, mostly but not exclusively Oghuz, who had embraced Islam and begun to lead a more sedentary life than their forefathers in the 10th to 13th centuries. In the 14th century, a federation of Turkmen tribesmen, who called themselves Ak-koyunlu established a dynasty that ruled eastern Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraq and western Iran. +

The twelve stories that comprise the bulk of the work were written down after the Turks converted to Islam, and the heroes are often portrayed as good Muslims while the villains are referred to as infidels, but there are also many references to the Turks' pre-Islamic magic. The character Gorkut Ata (“Dede Korkut,”, i.e. "Grandfather Korkut", is a widely-renowned soothsayer and bard, and serves to link the stories together. The thirteenth chapter of the book compiles sayings attributed to him. "In the dastans, Gorkut Ata appears as the aksakal ['white-beard,' or respected elder], the advisor or sage, solving the difficulties faced by tribal members. ... Among the population, respected aksakals are wise and know how to solve problems; among ashiks [reciters of dastans] they are generally called dede [grandfather]. The historian Rashid-al-Din Hamadani (d. 1318) said that Gorkut Ata was a real person and lived for 295 years. He appeared in the time of the Oghuz ruler Inal Syr Yavkuy Khan and was sent by him as an ambassador to the Prophet. He became a Muslim and gave advice to the Great Khan of the Oghuz. +

The stories in the Gorkut Ata tell of warriors and battles and are likely grounded in the conflicts between the Oghuz and the Pechenegs and Kipchaks. Many story elements have parallels in Western literature. For example, the story of a monster named "Goggle-eye" Tepegoz resembles the story of the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey, and perhaps was inspired by it or have a common ancient root. The book also describes in great detail the various sports activities of the ancient Turkic peoples: The athletic skills of the Oghuz Turks are described as "first-rate," especially in horse-riding, archery, cirit [javelin throw], wrestling and polo. +

The majority of the Turkic peoples and lands described in the Book of Gorkut Ata were part of the Soviet Union from 1920 until 1991, and thus most of the research and interest originated there. Soviet authorities criticized Gorkut Ata for promoting bourgeois nationalism. In a 1951 speech delivered at the 18th Congress of the Azerbaijani Communist Party, Azerbaijani communist leader Mir Jafar Baghirov advocated expunging the epic from Azerbaijani literature, calling it a "harmful" and "antipopular book" that "is shot through with the poison of nationalism, chiefly against the Georgian and Armenian brother-peoples." Nevertheless, the publication of dastans did not wholly cease during that period. It wasn’t until the Gorbachev perestroika era, in 1988, that a full edition — in the Azerbaijani language — was published. +

History of Turkmen Modern Literature

The journalist Daniel Kalder wrote: “Turkmen literature began in the 18th century, thanks to Makhtumkuli (1733- 1813) who composed mournful, painful poems about injustice, the decline of morals and the general harshness of life. Then came poets such as Mollanepes and Kemine whose works remain popular among Turkmen today. Makhtumkuli’s own poetry remained totally unknown in the West until the mid-1990s, when Songs from the Steppes of Central Asia was published. This curious little book had a truly unique pedigree: Dr. Youssef Azoumon, an ethnic Turkmen from Iran translated the text, which was then versified by the Hugo award winning SF author Brian Aldiss. [Source: Daniel Kalder, December 4, 2009. Kalder is an author and journalist originally from Scotland, currently based in Texas after a ten year stint spent living in the former USSR]|*|

“The Soviets appropriated Makhtumkuli and his successors, redefining them as “hero poets” living through revolutionary times, as if these Central Asian bards were proto-Bolsheviks fighting for the golden future. But the Soviets were also intent on creating new, modern cultures for the “backward” minorities in the USSR, which Stalin declared should be “national in form, socialist in content.” Thus crack squads of Russian writers were dispatched to Turkmenistan from Leningrad and Moscow in the early 1930s to train the locals in the literary arts. |*|

“The Russians traveled throughout Turkmenistan, observing and writing everything their guides showed them while Turkmen apprentices studied their every move. The locals learned from the Russians genres and forms entirely new to their culture, ranging from short stories to novels to plays. The most successful of these students was Berdy Kerbabayev (1894-1974) who in his youth had received a traditional Islamic education at a Madrasah in Bukhara, making him one of the 2-3 percent of literate Turkmen living in the republic when it was established in 1924. Although Kerbabayev had originally served as a scribe for an Islamic “Basmachi” warlord, he switched his allegiance to the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s. In 1930 he began his novel The Decisive Step, an epic saga of Turkmen and Russians struggling to establish a brave new world in the desert, free of the obscure and reactionary customs of the past.”

Kerbabayev was arrested in the Stalinist purges of 1933, but survived. The first volume of The Decisive Step was published in 1940; the final two came out in 1947; he was awarded the USSR State Prize a year later. Kerbabayev became a mini-Sholokhov, a living monument, piling up the prizes, translating Pushkin and other Russian greats into Turkmen. His masterpiece was Nebit Dag (1957), a novel about oil workers. |*|

Neither Kerbabaev nor any of his contemporaries ever achieved anything like the international success of the Kyrgyz author Chingis Aitmatov, however. In fact, the best novel to emerge from Soviet Turkmenistan was not written by a Turkmen, but rather by Andrei Platonov, one of the Russians dispatched to train the locals how to write in the socialist style. In Platonov’s novella Dzhan (translated into English as Soul) Nazar Chagataev leaves Moscow for his home in Turkmenistan, where he resolves to lead his tribe to socialism. Guiding them through the desert like an atheist Moses, Chagataev endures extremes of hope and despair, bleakness and beauty as his family and friends suffer and die in excruciating pain around him. Robert Chandler, Platonov’s English translator, reports that contemporary Turkmen authors marvel at the Russian’s ability to capture the spirit of their homeland after so short a visit. Criminally neglected in the West, Dzhan is one of the great, secret masterpieces of the 20th century.” |*|


The great Persian-Turkmen poet and philosopher Magtymguly Feraghy (Makhtumkuli, 1724-1807) is regarded as the father of Turkmen literature, a national hero and saint. Although many of his poems are about his tragic personal life and struggles of his people, Turkmen call him “Magtymguly, the giver of happiness.” Many of his poems are held in higher esteem by Turkmen than the Koran. Magtymguly promoted the idea of the unity and integrity of the Turkmen people. His dream of a state for the Turkmen people is the dominant theme of his poetry.

Magtymguly was one of the Turkic language’s first prominent thinkers to write in the vernacular. Bruce Pannier of Radio Free Europe wrote: “Makhtumkuli, is the beloved 18th century poet of the Turkmen people.” He “is one topic all the Turkmen in Turkmenistan, and all the Turkmen outside Turkmenistan, can agree upon, though his fame extends far beyond the Turkmen people. [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, May 14, 2014 /*]

“As is true of all the world's great poets, Makhtumkuli draws on his experiences of love and loss to produce verse that expresses the inevitable feelings and emotions all people have at some time during their lives. But fast forwarding to the present, there are elements of Makhtumkuli's works that speak more specifically to the suffering and hopes of the Turkmen people today.” /*\

Book: "Songs from the Steppes of Central Asia; The Collected Poems of Makhtumkuli" by Youssef Azemoun not only includes translations of Magtymguly poems in English, but also provides some details of Makhtumkuli's life. Available from: Society of the Friends of Makhtumkhuli, 152 Lowfield Aveneu, Caversham, Reading RG4 6PQ, UK.

Magtumguly’s Life

Some say Magtymguly was born near Garrygala, Turkmenistan. Other say he was born in Hajygowshan village near Gonbad-e Qabus city in what is now the Iranian province of Golestan, the northern steppes of which are known as Turkmen Sahra ("Turkmen steppes"). In one of his poems he says: “Tell those who enquire about me that I am a Gerkez, I hail from Etrek and my name is Makhtumkuli,” identifying his tribe as the Gerkez and his homeland as lying on the banks of the Etrek River, an area near the Caspian Sea where present-day Iran and Turkmenistan meet.

Magtymguly learned the Persian and Arabic languages from his father Döwletmämmet Azady, a leading scholar at that time. He studied at a number of madrassahs, including the Idris Baba Madrassah in the village of Gyzyl Ayak, the Madrassah of Shir Gazi Khan in Khiva and perhaps a madrasah in Bukhara. He became fluent in classical Arabic, Persian and several Turkic languages, particularly the dominant Turkic language of Makhtumkuli's region at the time — Chagatai. Upon his return home, Magtymguly worked as a silversmith while he taught and wrote. He was also a devout naqshbandi Sufist who traveled widely through what is now Turkmenistan and northern Iran, teaching, praying and presumably engaging in Sufi rituals.

It is said that during a raid by another Turkmen tribe,Magtymguly was kidnaped. After that he wrote about Turkmen unity, which was the first time a nationalist theme appeared in Turkmen literature, and acted as an intermediary between feuding clans. As with some accounts of episodes from Magtymguly’s life the veracity is these claims is unverifiable. Many of the details of Makhtumkuli's life remains uncleart to this day. There were not many records kept in his homeland and that time. Much of what is known about has been surmised from his poetry.

Magtumguly, Mengli and Other Losses

While Magtymguly was away studying his sweetheart, Mengli, married another man. His own marriage appears to have been unhappy. His two sons died when they were children. His elder brothers disappeared. He was deeply hurt by the loss of his father, with whom he had maintained close scholarly relations throughout his life.

Bruce Pannier of Radio Free Europe wrote: “Makhtumkuli's great love was a "beautiful and literate" girl named Mengli (whose real name was said to be Yangybek). But while the young Makhtumkuli was wandering and studying at madrasahs, Mengli was forcibly married off to another. Makhtumkuli refers often to "Majnun" in his poems. The tale of Layla and Majnun is something like the Central Asian version of "Romeo and Juliet." For several hundred years, people across the Middle East and Inner Asia have been familiar with the story and know that Layla's father forbade her from marrying the young man, who became "Majnun," or "the madman" and wandered lonely for the rest of his life. Makhtumkuli was heartbroken by the loss of Mengli but married another woman whom he appears not to have loved. He had two boys, both of whom died while still children. He was also taken captive, possible several times, during his life. [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, May 14, 2014]

Youssef Azemoun author a book on Makhtumkuli wrote that the poet "lost the fruits of years of hard and devoted work...including his manuscripts" during an invasion of his homelands. Makhtumkuli's possessions were loaded onto raiders' camels and taken away but he was watching when the camel carrying away his manuscripts slipped and dumped all his written works into a river.

Magtumguly, the Poet

Magtymguly spurned classical 14th- century forms, which most writers at the time used, and wrote in the vernacular. His works are filled with Islamic imagery and humble words of wisdom. The simplicity in language appealed to ordinary Turkmen. His works are full of proverbs, some which he no doubt borrowed and others he may have coined himself.

Magtymguly’s four lines poems, known as “qoshuk” lyrics, lend themselves well to music. Many popular folk songs, especially those performed by “baghsys “singers accompanied by a “dutar” (two-stringed guitar)—are Magtymguly poems.

Bruce Pannier of Radio Free Europe wrote: “His best poetry was written in the Turkmen language and he could be considered the father of the Turkmen language in many ways. Turkmen was an underdeveloped language when Makhtumkuli was young. Writers and scholars were producing work in the two dominant languages – Persian and Chagatai, but Makhtumkuli would change that for his people. Makhtumkuli not only wrote poetry in Turkmen, he developed and enriched the language through this works. His influence on the Turkmen tongue has even led some to compare it Shakespeare's impact on English. [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, May 14, 2014]

Magtumguly Poems

One of Magtymguly’s most famous poems, “Nightingale,” is believed to have been inspired by his lost love for Mengli. One of the most famous lines goes: “

I’m a nightingale. Here’s my sad song
From my garden of roses. Now I’ve begun
See the tears in my eyes. There they belong
What pleasure is life when loving is done?

In his poem "Making My Dear Life Lost," Magtymguly describes his feelings when the camel fell in the river and his writings were lost.

Making my dear life lost to all that's good,
An evil fate wrought awesome sacrilege,
Hurling the books I'd written to the flood,
To leave me bookless with my grief and rage.

Some of Magtymguly poems have political overtones. In "Dawn is the Time", he wrote: “Though you might rule this world, so stark in trust/ Come next century you'll be but dust.” Mocking Muslim clerics who things other than religion on their agenda, he wrote in "Unholiness:"

The call to prayer can scarcely stir a martyr.
The studies of the mullahs are in vain.
Now tea and "nas"* are all the Kazis** know.
Corruption shows, with all its foul stigmata.

In "Exhortation in Time of Trouble," he urges the Turkmen to unite:

If Turkmens would only tighten the Belt of Determination
They could drink the Red Sea in their strength.
So let the tribes of Teke, Yomut, Gokleng, Yazir and Alili
Unite into one proud nation.
What is Soul? Makhtumkuli tries to understand it.
Let us not be subjugated by the Kyzylbash!
Grant us a union of the Teke and Yomut.

Honoring and Forgetting Magtumguly

Turkmenistan celebrates Magtymguly’s birthday, even though no one is exactly sure when it is, as a national holiday on May 18, which is also the anniversary of the 1992 adoption of Turkmenistan's post-Soviet constitution. Many Turkmen travel to Iran to visit the Islamic shrines that mark the graves of Magtymguly and his father Azad

Radio Free Europe's Turkmen Service reported: Magtymguly is buried in the village of Aktokay in Iran's Golestan Province, which borders Turkmenistan. Amanmyrat Bugayev, former executive director of the Union of Writers of Turkmenistan and a member of an official Turkmen delegation's visit to Magtymguly's shrine in 1987, the first in many years, told Radio Free Europe that little importance in Turkmenistan is given today to literature in general, but particularly to Magtymguly. [Source: Radio Free Europe, May 17, 2011 ^/^]

“"It's really painful for me to admit that Magtymguly's poetry is no longer vital in our country, as it's become an issue of minor importance," Bugayev told Radio Free Europe. "Furthermore, combining the poetry day of Magtymguly with our so-called 'Most-Justified Constitution' day has wiped out the significance of this day [for him]." The traditional annual journey to Magtymguly's grave as a mark of respect is organized by the Turkmen government, in an event in which great thanks must be shown to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov for making the pilgrimage possible.” ^/^

Magtymguly Studies

Christopher Schwartz of Radio Free Europe wrote: The "Journal of Magtymguly Studies" was “a pseudo-academic journal from the late 1990s that was dedicated to the Enlightenment-era Turkmen thinker, Magtymguly Pyragy. Its president was Niyazov himself and its contributors included several established Western and Turkish scholars and even the British science fiction author Brian Aldiss.” [Source: Christopher Schwartz, Radio Free Europe, February 19, 2011]

One of the the things the journal addresses was the fact that Magtymguly “was a contemporary of Immanuel Kant. Both Magtymguly and Kant believed that the core of human existence is steadfastness to an inner universal and divine moral law — as Kant puts it, “Two things awe me most, the starry skies above me and the moral law within me” — over and against the contrary instincts of our bodies or the pressures of society.

Expressing a similar sentiment, Magtymguly wrote:“When Satan says, 'It's sweet, forget your soul!', God says 'Defy the Fiend, stay in control.' So, Magtymguly, seize the blazing coal: then go and do it, if pain you can bear!” In another poem he said; “I'm tired of roaming the roadless hills, I forgot how to understand my heart. I lost my track and my hope, I'm too weak to seek the straight road.” =|=

Magtymguly and Kant were both “champions of individualism and democracy, Kant of the French Revolution and Magtymguly of social modernization in his tribal society. So, it's very surprising to read this claim by Berdi Sariyev of Ankara University: “In conclusion, we know that, according to the poems of his time, Magtymguly would accept the constitution,” referring to the constitution of post-independence Turkmenistan. Sariyev's assertion seems careful to hint at legitimacy for one of the world's dictatorships without outright granting it; the journal is littered with such kinds of double entendres.” =|=


While Niyzov was president all citizens of Turkmenistan were expected to follow the moral and spirtutal principals outlined in Niyazov’s book “Rukhnama” (“Spiritual Revival” or “Book of the Soul”). The Rukhnama was required reading in all schools and mosques, even among people taking the test to get a driver’s license.

The “Rukhnama” (also spelled “Ruhnama”) is a rambling two-volume, stream-of-consciousness guide to Niyazov’s philosophy, Turkmen traditions, interpretations of historical events, and advise on correct behavior. Disorganized and quasi-religious, the book was compared with the Koran in Turkmenistan and was one of few books that was freely available there. More than a million copies were printed, in more than 40 languages, including Zulu and Japanese, and in Braille. When Russian translators were asked to translate it one Russian poet said “the gibbersih is impossible to translate.”

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: ““Ruhnama” is a farrago of memoir, Turkmen lore, potted history, dietary suggestions, Soviet-bashing, boasting, wild promises, and Turkmenbashi’s poems. He seemed to regard it both as a sort of Koran and as a how-to guide for the Turkmen people, a jingoistic pep talk. In fact, it is little more than a soporific, “chloroform in print,” as Mark Twain described “The Book of Mormon.” I read it once. Turkmenbashi would have to promise more than Heaven for me to read it two more times. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

In his confused and patchy exposition, Bashi reaches back five thousand years (or so he says). After the flood of Noah, he explains, the original ancestor of the Turkmen, Oguz Khan, emerged. Oguz’s sons and grandsons produced Turkmenistan’s twenty-four clans. The figure of Oguz is key to “Ruhnama”; his name, according to Bashi, was set upon many features of the earth and the sky. Turkmen called the Milky Way “the Oguz Arch,” and the Amu Darya River “the Oguz River,” and the constellation Taurus “the Oguz stars.” Oguz also “implemented . . . the use of the national Oguz alphabet.” “Ruhnama” might as well be subtitled “The Second Coming”: Bashi sets himself up as a reincarnation of Oguz Khan, every bit as powerful and wise—which was why he chose to name cities, hills, rivers, and streets after himself and to dedicate his life to his country.

Studying the Rukhnama and Niyazov’s Poems

Most schools and workplaces had special rooms set aside for study of the book. A mammoth mosque built in Niyazov’s home town features quotes from the Rukhnama side by side with quotes for the Koran. Some libraries have few books in them other than the Rukhnama.

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “ At Bashi’s command, “Ruhnama” is studied in all the schools of Turkmenistan; a thorough knowledge of it is still an entry requirement for colleges and universities and for advancement in the civil service. (Elections held in February, which were widely criticized as neither free nor fair, brought to power Bashi’s former Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov. Berdimuhammedov promised to stay true to the spirit of his predecessor, and, since then, conditions in Turkmenistan have changed little.) The immigration officials who gave me a hard time had little idea how to handle a simple customs matter, but they probably could have quoted “A smile can make a friend for you out of an enemy.” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

After Niyazov died The Rukhnama was slowly phased out as required reading. In 2013, Radio Free Europe reported: “In recent years, current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has been slowly closing the book on his predecessor's legacy, including "Rukhnama". Now it seems that this tome of spiritual and moral guidance will not make it onto this year's public-school curriculum.” [Source: Radio Free Europe, August 13, 2013]

“Be vigilant and be cautious, that is my request to you
Even when you and your country are facing luck
And you are as mighty as King Solomon
And when you feel yourself strong
Be aware, for there are many traitors with traps to set “

Contents of Turkmenbashi's 'Rukhnama'

In the Rukhnama are gems of moral wisdom like “Do whatever lawful things your parents tell you to do” and goals of the country like “the main target in agriculture until 2010 is to increase production of grain and cotton.” Niyazov blamed the Soviet Union for disrespecting Turkmen, but conveniently omits his service to the Soviets as a party functionary. In the book he refers to himself in North-Korean-style as “Beloved Leader Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great.” A couple of months before his death in December 2006, Niyazov said: "A person that reads 'Rukhnama' becomes smart...and after it, he will go straight to heaven."

Some representative passages from the Rukhnama: 1) Know Your Origins: Turkmenbashi dedicated a significant portion of his book to Oguz Khan, the legendary semimythological leader of the Turkmen nation. "The ancestor of the Turkmen people is Oguz Han" and "the style of our nation's culture and life originates with Oguz Han," he said. 2) Reading Makes You Smart: If you keep up with your reading you will eventually be seen as a practitioner of the sciences. Niyazov’s message to the young: "Today's Turkmen, you will be seen as scientists if you keep reading." 3) Cosmic Portal "Rukhnama" was once promoted by the Turkmen state as being equal to Islam's holy book, the Koran. But it seems it was also a kind of portal. "'Rukhnama' must be the center of this universe," Turkmenbashi admonished. [Source: Deana Kjuka, Radio Free Europe, August 13, 2013]

4) Like Nation, Nations Will Like: Despite the poetic and sometimes incoherent prose of "Rukhnama," Niyazov did not stray from giving others a lesson in diplomacy and devotion to one's country. "If everybody likes their own nation, then the nations will like each other," he concludes. 5) Solid Foundation: Philosophical, abstract, and difficult-to-grasp ideas are uniting themes throughout "Rukhnama," but most dictionaries would disagree with Niyazov's definition of a nation. "Nation is the transformation of human groups in the context of certain spiritual foundations," he wrote. "A nation is shaped materially according to these spiritual foundations."

6) Reinventing The Wheel: Writing a book that strings "the past, present, and future on a single rope" is no easy task. So who would notice a few facts that border on the improbable? This may explain why the father of the Turkmen nation boldly stated that the Turkmen people invented white wheat, mechanical robots, and the wheel. 7) The Apple Of His Eye:Niyazov was obsessed with Turkmenistan's famous horse breed, the Akhal-Teke. Niyazov's writing on the Akhal-Teke is quite enamored. "I caress his head. I comb his mane. I look into his eyes that are like apples." 8) One sentence taken from "Rukhnama's" fifth section, "The Spiritual World of the Turkmen," aptly encapsulates the propagandistic authoritarian rule of Niyazov. "Let me see what I've done for you in your smiling faces!" 10) Devotion To The Motherland: "Rukhnama" includes seven poems that highlight the glory of being Turkmen. Perhaps the English translation does not do their meaning justice, but this stanza gives you an idea of their devotion to the Motherland:Oh my crazy soul! Conceiving wishes and peace I find in my Motherland, / Determination, learning, diligence, fame, glory, I find in my Motherland,/ The winter over the raging spring I find in my Motherland.”

Close inspection by a contributor to Radio Free Europe's Turkmen Service, also a historian, revealed that the "Rukhnama" contains more than 70 pages of material taken word-for-word from Clifford E. Bosworth's "The New Islamic Dynasties." [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, August 16, 2011]

Rukhnama and Foreign Corporations

The “Rukhnama” has been translated into European languages and published in Italy, Netherlands, Germany and the United States and a number of other countries as part of its “victorious march through the world” with the help of corporations that do business in Turkmenistan who no doubt figure that promoting the book is a small price to pay for maintaining good business relations.

Among the companies that have helped get the book published are Daimler, the German machinery maker Zeppelin Baumaschinen and the Irish firm Emerol. The director of the Finnish electricity company Enstor wrote a letter to Niyazov, saying “the publication of your book will undoubtably serve as a stimulus for the development of relations between our countries” and “allow close acquaintance with the culture and traditions of your people.”

Human rights groups are disappointed by this position. Erika Daily of the Open Society Institute told the Washington Post, “If the Ruhnama were a benign text, like the memoirs of a U.S. president, this would be harmless, but the Ruhnama is the principal instrument for indoctrination and brainwashing in Turkmenistan.”

Poems and Ripped-Off Songs by the Turkmen President

At a concert in Ashgabat honoring Turkmenistan’s Independence Day, some poems of Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov such as "Go! And only forward native land - Turkmenistan! " — that had been put to music by the president — were performed. The newspaper "Turkmenistan: the Golden Age " reported:"This inspirational song sounded like a beautiful melody of the country, every day life is marked by great victories, labor achievements and, indeed, a national holiday. " The newspaper is noted that the concert was attended by "heads of the Mejlis (Parliament) of Turkmenistan, members of the Government, heads of military and law enforcement agencies, non-governmental organizations accredited to Ashgabat diplomatic missions and international organizations." [Source:, news from Ukraine and Russia, October 31, 2014 +]

The poem, "Forward! And only forward native land - Turkmenistan! "was published on October 2014 in the newspaper" Neutral Turkmenistan ", together with a portrait of Berdymukhammedov. In Turkmenistan secondary schools students study Berdymukhamedov poems such as "Bird of Happiness" (President of the father), "The Good Name of Incorruptible" (his grandfather) and "Living Legend" (about Turkmen carpets). Students also study a novel about the president — "Grandson, to Realize the Dream of His Grandfather" — "Ode to Joy", written when Berdimuhamedov was named "Man of the Year" in Romania, as well as poems of praise for the horse of the president. +\

In 2011, Radio Free Europe reported: “Berdymukhammedov has surprised his people by making an appearance on stage to perform his new song. Before a packed house, he is shown in a video running above the stage strumming a guitar to the accompaniment of...himself, shown also playing accordion. It was no doubt hard for many to believe their president was also a songwriter, and indeed, there is reason not to believe it. Although state television has identified Berdymukhammedov as the writer and performer of the song "My White Rose For You," it bears an uncanny resemblance to "On My Wedding Day," written and performed by Dovlet Amanlykov and posted on YouTube in 2009. Still, it was a look at a lighter side of Berdymukhammedov, whose attire seemed to have come from the American children's show "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood." And the video of him "rocking out" in Ashgabat did have people on their feet. Who would dare to sit while Turkmenistan's head of state was crooning on stage?” [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, August 16, 2011]

Being a Writer in the Land of Turkmenbashi

Turkmenbashi famously hated writers. David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker, “Rahim Esenov, a veteran of the Second World War, is unlucky enough to be a novelist and journalist under the reign of Turkmenbashi, and in February, 2004, he was placed under house arrest by the Turkmen security police. He was accused of smuggling eight hundred copies of his novel “The Crowned Wanderer” from Moscow to his apartment in Ashgabat. When the novel, which is set in the Mogul era, was first published, in 1997, Niyazov denounced Esenov for “historical errors.” After suffering a second heart attack, Esenov, who is seventy-nine, was taken to the hospital, but three days later he was removed for interrogation. The security police charged him with “inciting social, national, and religious hatred.” And Esenov had undoubtedly given further offense to the regime by sending periodic reports to the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty.” [Source: David Remnick, The New Yorker, May 1, 2006 +]

Contemporary books, like Esenov’s, were generally considered rivals to works by Niyazov and were banned. “For obvious reasons, Esenov was reluctant to speak directly about Niyazov, but about his own novel he said, “In any era, the writer reflects the feelings and protest of the people, and I’m a child of my people. In ‘Animal Farm,’ the animals are there as an allegory for the people.” +\

“Esenov had every reason to believe that, like so many other members of the Turkmen intelligentsia, he would suffer for a long time. But when PEN American Center, the writers’ organization, sent word, through the American Embassy in Ashgabad, that Esenov had won its Freedom to Write Award and invited him to its annual dinner in New York, the regime, sensing an international scandal, relented and let him go. A day after leaving Turkmen airspace, Esenov found himself in the most surreal of all New York venues––under the ninety-four-foot-long blue whale in the Museum of Natural History’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life––where more than six hundred formally garbed members of PEN rose to cheer him.

“The night was tumultuous for me,” Esenov said, a couple of days later. “When they all got up to applaud, well, I couldn’t get any words out for a minute. I was so moved. Then, after I spoke, they rose and applauded again. No one in my country gets that kind of treatment except––maybe a dictator!” Esenov laughed and reached into his coat pocket to pull out a tiny bottle of pills bearing a label from a Turkmen pharmacy. “I’ve had two heart attacks lately,” he said. “I carry around these nitroglycerin pills. But since the award I haven’t had to take one!”

“You know, when I got out of jail and was told I was coming here, I thought about leaving the country forever—getting refugee status and living here,” he said. “For a while, it was a stubborn thought. But I can’t do that. My wife is ill. I have family. I’m too old. It’s too late. It’s Turkmenistan for me to the end.”

Paul Theroux Causes Diplomatic Incident in Turkmenistan?

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “One afternoon in Ashgabat, I caused a diplomatic incident. I had been invited by the United States Embassy to give a harmless pep talk to some writers and journalists. About thirty men and women showed up at a sort of boardroom in a hotel that the Embassy used as an annex. They were of every physical type: stylish women in velvet dresses with the impassive faces of nomads, dark beaky men in heavy coats, young mustached men in suits, Russian aunts in blue dresses, carrying satchels, some hefty warrior types braced behind the chairs, their arms folded, a furtive man fussing with a big shoulder bag, and two pale young women, slender Slavic beauties with lank blond hair and blue eyes, standing shyly by the wall.[Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]

“My topic was “the return journey,” how the passage of time reveals the truth of people and places. I spoke for about twenty minutes, through an interpreter. At the end, there was polite applause. The man who had been fussing with his shoulder bag had taken out an expensive camera and begun snapping pictures. “Any questions?” Hands shot up. “What do you think of Islam?” one man asked. I made a tactful reply, commending the verses of the Koran encouraging hospitality, which I, as a traveller among Muslims, appreciated, and quickly moved to the next question.

“I am a poet,” one of the Russian aunties declared. And she went on to ask how she might get her poems translated into English and published in the United States. I referred her to the fellow who had translated her question. “How do you write a novel?” a young man asked. I mentioned needing an idea, and characters, and a setting, and about two years of solitude. “You are not here for very long,” another man said. “How can you understand us in such a short time?”“You’re right,” I said. “It’s impossible. So what particular thing do you think it’s important for me to understand about Turkmenistan?” “You’re a writer, all of you are writers,” I said. “You are the people who should write about it, not me. You have all the facts.” “I am not a writer,” the man said. “I am the chairman of the Unity and Neutrality Party of Turkmenistan.”

Before this could be translated, the photographer leaped forward and snapped pictures from several angles, his shoulder bag bumping against his hip. Then an American security officer took three strides toward the photographer, grasped his coat in one hand, snatched the camera with the other, and frog-marched the man to the back of the room and outside. This all happened so fast that the photographer did not have time to protest, though I heard him howl as the door slammed.

“Do you write about love?” one of the pretty women asked. “Constantly,” I said. I elaborated on this subject, and then declared the meeting over. The room emptied quickly. But the harm was done. I had allowed a political dissident a forum. It turned out that this was the first anyone had heard of his underground party. And there might be collateral damage, so to speak, because the other writers and journalists who had been quietly invited (many of them unpopular with the government) had all been photographed.

“What just happened?” I asked the security officer. I had been impressed by his deftness: without hesitating, almost without creating a scene, he had plucked the man and his camera from the room. The photographer had been a government spy, he said. In the corridor, he had erased the images from the camera. “He should know better,” the American said. “This is technically U.S. government property. Can’t take pictures here.” “Is this going to be a problem?” “We’ll see,” he said. “Hey, I liked your talk.”

The problem developed later that day when the spy complained to his superiors at Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And the next day the Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat was summoned to a meeting with the minister. Who is this Paul Theroux? she was asked. What are the details of his visa? Does he have permission to speak? When is he leaving? How? I had the answers to some of these questions. My visa was in order, and in a few days I planned to take the train to the eastern city of Mary, to see the ruins at Merv. Then the train to Turkmenabat and the Uzbekistan border and, I hoped, another train.

Paucity Of Turkmen Books At Ashgabat Book Fair

In 2010, Farangis Najibullah of Radio Free Europe wrote: “Readers in Turkmenistan have thousands of books to choose from if they wish to know about culture, history, economy, science fiction, or other apolitical themes. An international book fair opened in Ashgabat earlier this month under the motto "The Book is the Way to Cooperation and Progress." Participants include some 90 publishing houses and authors from 25 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states. [Source: Farangis Najibullah, Radio Free Europe, September 29, 2010 ^=^]

“The book fair was something of a disappointment for those looking for works by Turkmen authors. Radio Free Europe Turkmen Service correspondents in Ashgabat say there were only about 20 books by local authors on offer. However, there wasn't any shortage of books authored by Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

“Berdymukhammedov's latest work, "Public Regulation of Socioeconomic Development in Turkmenistan" has come out in Turkmen and Russian languages this month — just in time for the international book fair. According to Turkmenistan's state-run media, the president's two-volume new book "describes the ideological, theoretical, scientific and practical basis for public regulation of the national economy, a unique model of economic development of modern Turkmenistan." Whatever that means. ^=^

“Berdymukhamedov has authored two other books and published a collection of his speeches at cabinet meetings. The dentist-turned-president's first book, "Scientific Fundamentals of the Development of Public Health in Turkmenistan," was published within months of his quick rise to power in late 2006 and 2007. The second presidential book, "Akhaltekke: Our Pride and Glory," followed in 2009. A keen horseman, Berdymukhammedov dedicated that book to the Akhaltekke breed of horse, a national symbol of Turkmenistan. Unlike his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, the current Turkmen president has not turned his books into compulsory reading for all Turkmen students and public-sector workers. But unlike other Turkmen authors, he enjoys the exclusive privilege of having his name appear on the cover of his books. Other authors' names appear only inside their books.”

Merv is believed to be the setting for Scheherazade’s novels.

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.

Last updated April 2016

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