Oct 272014


Today is Independence Day in Turkmenistan, formerly known as Turkmenia, one of the Turkic states in Central Asia. Turkmenistan is bordered by Kazakhstan to the northwest, Uzbekistan to the northeast and east, Afghanistan to the southeast, Iran to the south and southwest, and the Caspian Sea to the west. Present-day Turkmenistan covers territory that has been at the crossroads of civilizations for centuries. In medieval times Merv (today known as Mary) was one of the great cities of the Islamic world, and an important stop on the Silk Road, a major highway used for trade with China until the mid-15th century. Annexed by the Russian Empire in 1881, Turkmenistan later figured prominently in the anti-Bolshevik movement in Central Asia. In 1924, Turkmenistan became a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (Turkmen SSR). It became independent upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

I have certain loose policies about the subject matter of my posts, one of which is that I generally avoid celebrating nations with poor human rights records. Turkmenistan has one of the worst in the world today. But just as I occasionally post about wars because they marked major turning points in history, I am celebrating Turkmenistan today because human rights issues there are not representative of the population as a whole nor of the nation’s overall history, and because the country is probably not well known in the West, and should be.


In the 8th century CE, Turkic-speaking Oghuz tribes moved from Mongolia into present-day Central Asia. Part of a powerful confederation of ethnic groups, these Oghuz formed the basis of the modern Turkmen population. In the 10th century, the name “Turkmen” was first applied to Oghuz groups that accepted Islam and began to occupy present-day Turkmenistan. There they were under the dominion of the Seljuk Empire, which was composed of Oghuz groups living in present-day Iran and Turkmenistan. Turkmen soldiers in the service of the empire played an important role in the spreading of Turkic culture when they migrated westward into present-day Azerbaijan and eastern Turkey.


In the 12th century, Turkmen and other groups overthrew the Seljuk Empire. In the next century, the Mongols took over the more northern lands where the Turkmen had settled, scattering the Turkmen southward and contributing to the formation of new communities and associations. The 16th and 18th centuries saw a series of splits and confederations among the nomadic Turkmen, who remained staunchly independent and inspired fear in their neighbors. By the 16th century, most of these groups were under the nominal control of two sedentary Uzbek khanates, Khiva and Bukhoro. Turkmen soldiers were an important element of the Uzbek militaries of this period. In the 19th century, raids and rebellions by the Yomud Turkmen group resulted in their dispersal by the Uzbek rulers.

Russian forces began occupying Turkmen territory late in the 19th century. From their Caspian Sea base at Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi), the Russians eventually overcame the Uzbek khanates. In 1881 the last significant resistance in Turkmen territory was crushed at the Battle of Geok Tepe, and shortly thereafter Turkmenistan was annexed, together with adjoining Uzbek territory, into the Russian Empire. In 1916 the Russian Empire’s participation in World War I resonated in Turkmenistan, as an anti-conscription revolt swept most of Russian Central Asia. Although the Russian Revolution of 1917 had little direct impact, in the 1920’s Turkmen forces joined Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks in the so-called Basmachi Rebellion against the rule of the newly formed Soviet Union. In 1924 the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic was formed from the tsarist province of Transcaspia. By the late 1930’s, Soviet reorganization of agriculture had destroyed what remained of the nomadic lifestyle in Turkmenistan, and Moscow controlled political life. The Ashgabat earthquake of 1948 killed over 110,000 people, amounting to two-thirds of the city’s population.

During the next half-century, Turkmenistan played its designated economic role within the Soviet Union and remained outside the course of major world events. Even the major liberalizing movement that shook Russia in the late 1980’s had little impact. However, in 1990 the Supreme Soviet of Turkmenistan declared sovereignty as a nationalist response to perceived exploitation by Moscow. Although Turkmenistan was ill-prepared for independence, and communist leader Saparmurad Niyazov preferred to preserve the Soviet Union, in October 1991 the fragmentation of that entity forced him to call a national referendum that approved independence.

The Turkmen people have traditionally been nomads and equestrians, and even today after the fall of the USSR attempts to urbanize the Turkmen have not been very successful. They never really formed a coherent nation or ethnic group until they were forged into one by Joseph Stalin in the 1930’s. Rather they are divided into clans, and each clan has its own dialect and style of dress. Turkmen are famous for making Turkmen rugs, often mistakenly called Bukhara rugs in the West. These are elaborate and colorful rugs, and these too help distinguish between the various Turkmen clans.

The Turkmen are Sunni Muslims but they, like most of the region’s nomads, adhere to Islam rather loosely and combine Islam with pre-Islamic animist spirituality.


A Turkmen can be identified anywhere by the traditional telpek, large black shaggy sheepskin hats. For national dress men wear the telpek and red robes over white shirts. Women wear long sack-dresses over narrow trousers (the pants are trimmed with a band of embroidery at the ankle). Female headdresses usually consist of silver jewelry. Bracelets and brooches are set with semi-precious stones…

Outside the capital, the national language of Turkmen is the most widespread. In Ashgabat, it would be hard to find a person who does not speak Russian, however with recent efforts to revive the ancient culture of Turkmenistan, Turkmen is quickly regaining its place as the chief language of the state.


A few centuries back, almost all Turkmen rugs were produced by nomadic clans almost entirely with locally-obtained materials, wool from the herds and vegetable dyes or other natural dyes from the land. They used geometrical designs that varied from clan to clan; most famous are the Yomut, Ersari, Saryk, Salor, and Tekke. Irregularities — considered part of the charm by many rug collectors — were fairly common since natural materials vary from batch to batch and woolen warp or weft may stretch, especially on a loom that is regularly folded up for transport and set up anew at another camp.

More recently, large rug workshops in the cities have appeared, there are fewer irregularities, and the technology has changed some. Since about 1910, synthetic dyes have been used along with natural ones. The size of nomadic rugs is limited to what can be done on a nomad’s portable loom; larger rugs have always been produced in the villages, but they are now more common. Using cotton for warp and weft threads has also become common.

The rugs produced in large numbers for export in Pakistan and Iran and sold under the name of Turkmen rugs are mostly made of synthetic colors, with cotton warps and wefts and wool pile. They have little in common with the original Turkmen rugs. In these export rugs, various patterns and colors are used, but the most typical is that of the Bukhara design, which derives from the Tekke main carpet, often with a red or tan background. Another favorite is derived from the Ersari main carpet, with an octagonal elephant’s foot design.

Turkmen cuisine, is similar to that of the rest of Central Asia. Plov (pilaf) is the staple, everyday food, which is also served at celebrations. It consists of chunks of mutton, carrots and rice fried in a large cast-iron cauldron similar to a Dutch oven. Manti are dumplings filled with ground meat, onions or pumpkin. Shurpa is a meat and vegetable soup. A wide variety of filled pies and fried dumplings are available in restaurants and bazaars, including somsa, gutap (often filled with spinach), and ishlykly. These are popular with travelers and taxi drivers, as they can be eaten quickly on the run, and are often sold at roadside stands. Turkmen cuisine does not generally use spices or seasonings, and is cooked with large amounts of cottonseed oil for flavor.


Shashlyk, skewered chunks of mutton, pork, chicken, or sometimes fish, grilled over charcoal and garnished with raw sliced onion and a special vinegar-based sauce, is served in restaurants and often sold in the street. Restaurants in Turkmenistan serve mainly Russian fare such as pelmeni, buckwheat (grechka), golubtsy, and a wide variety of mayonnaise-based salads. Lagman, an Uyghur noodle dish, can also be found in some areas.

I have not been to Turkmenistan but I am familiar with Turkic Eurasian food from trips to the general region. I find it a bit too bland and stodgy for my tastes in general, but I like the soups. Shurpa, variously called chorba, shorba, shorwa, ciorbă, shorpa, shorpo, and sorpa, is one of various kinds of soup or stew found in national cuisines across the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. I suppose the basic recipe is – bung some meat and onions in a pot, stew them until the meat is tender, then add vegetables, cook until they are soft, and serve with bread. Turkmeni shurpa is commonly made with lamb or mutton, and the choice of vegetables depends on what is seasonally available. I like it because it is spicier than most dishes of the region.


Turkmeni Shurpa


¼ cup olive oil
1½ pounds stewing lamb, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 cup onions, chopped
10 cups beef stock
1 large turnip, peeled and cut into a ½-inch dice
1 large zucchini, cut into a ½-inch dice
2 carrots, cut into a ½-inch dice
2 big green bell peppers, cored, seeded, and cut into strips
1½ pounds tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped (or use canned tomatoes, chopped)
1½ tsp cumin
½ tsp hot pepper flakes
1 tsp ground coriander
1 lb cooked chickpeas
3 tbsp white vinegar
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro



Heat the oil over high heat in a Dutch oven and brown the meat and onions thoroughly. Add the stock, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer gently for about 1 ½ hours, or until the meat is tender. Refrigerate overnight.

When ready to prepare the soup, remove the layer of congealed fat and return to a boil. Add the vegetables, chick peas, and seasonings (except for the vinegar and cilantro), cover and simmer until the vegetables are cooked (20-30 minutes).

Remove from the heat, stir in the vinegar, and cover and let stand for 15 minutes. Serve in deep bowls with a generous garnish of cilantro.