Turkmen are a Turkic-speaking people of nomadic origin (similar to the Kazakhs steppe nomads and the Kyrgyz mountain nomads, and differing from the Persian-speaking Tajiks, or the Turkic-speaking settled Uzbeks). While the majority live on the territory of Turkmenistan, significant numbers of Turkmen can also be found living in Iran, Afghanistan, and even Syria and Iraq.
Turkmen adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam, but also respect a wide variety of local traditions, customs and rituals. Ancient Islamic monuments such as mosques and mausoleums often serve as destination for a pilgrimage as well. Particularly mausoleums and graves of local respectables attract a constant flow of people praying for a wish, circling a grave or other monument of importance, tying pieces of cloth, placing little stone piles or leaving symbolic personal belongings behind, hoping for their wish to come true. The most popular destinations for pilgrimage in Turkmenistan include the graves of Gozli Ata near Nebitdag, Parau Bibi near Serdar (Kyzyl Arvat), Said Jemaleddin in Anau, Kyz Bibi in Nohur, Yusuf Hamadani and Ibn Zayd in Merw, Kyrk Molla and Najmeddin Kubra in Kunya Urgench, Meane Baba in Meane, Serakhs Baba in Mary, and Kyrk Kyz in Kugitang.
Turkmen tribes since the arrival of Oghuz (Guzz) Turks (10th century AD) lived in yurt-settlements and roamed the desert oases with their herds of camels, sheep and goats. Next to the care for the family and the household, women engaged in intricate forms of dress embroidery, knitting, silk weaving and carpet knotting, whereas men busied themselves with the herds, horses, and were masters at pottery baking and jewelry making.
For the roaming tribes the main public meeting place was at the bazaar. Trade in cattle, local agricultural produce and arts and crafts brought together large crowds of people coming from far away places. Melons and grapes were on sale, next to carpets, jewelry and silk material. Today the bazaar continues to fulfill this important role. While every local settlement has its own daily bazaar, once a week the bazaar extends to include traders from all around the neighbouring villages and districts. The absolute best example of such a bazaar we can see at Tolkuchka Bazaar just outside Ashgabat. Biggest in Central Asia and comparable in size with the Sunday Bazaar in Kashgar (China) this bazaar is working on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Other bazaars worth visiting are the Sunday bazaars in Turkmenabad or Mary.
Lots of people also gathered at the occasion of a family’s celebration, where everyone would appear in their best dress and decorations, and would enjoy music performances and dancing.
In Turkmen tradition marriage remains the most colorful social event. When a Turkmen family holds a wedding or “toy” (literally: feast) a lot of guests are invited and all neighbors help to celebrate it, bringing crockery and cooking up dishes. Every passer-by is welcomed to attend. Marriage is a very lengthy process, which begins with arranging the match. The suitor sends matchmakers to the girl’s parents. The matchmakers - relatives of the suitor - will bring lavish gifts to the girl’s parents and ask their consent. Then the bride price and wedding date will be set. When a Turkmen bride arrives to the bridegroom’s house both mothers offer to the bride and guests sweets, wishing the bride a sweet life. They present toys to children, wishing the bride to have children. At this moment young men toss up telpeks –traditional fur hats, wishing the bride and the bridegroom a long life. Every word and every motion during this ceremony are loaded with meaning. Different games and tournaments are always held to celebrate this family occasion. During the ceremony “gushak chozdurme” or un-tying a sash (waste band of the groom) the bridegroom and the bride are dressed in traditional costumes. The bride groom is wearing a red silk gown with a scarlet homespun sash and a shaggy hat of snow-white sheepskin. The bride is wearing a long silk dress and her head is covered by traditional robe and her mouth is closed by a special kerchief of silence.
Turkmen women have never completely closed their faces. The legend says that Turkmen have originated from the light of the Great Creator therefore their faces should be opened to the Sun. That is how Turkmen are dressed for a feast. Their embroidered dress and silk headscarves mark the tribe they represent, and intricate gold-on-silver jewelry completes their decorations.
The Turkmen telpek is only a part of the traditional Turkmen male costume. It obliges the person with a number of duties - to protect his family, to be wise and to live in dignity, to be true to his word and merciful. When the bride takes off the bridegroom’s hat and unties his sash that means she will always serve her husband.
If you are interested in watching a marriage ritual, include a visit to a folklore show to your itinerary in Ashgabat, and arrange your trip such that it includes a Thursday, Saturday or Sunday stay in Ashgabat for a visit to Tolkuchka Bazaar.