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2018 †N7-8(160-161)
Turkmens and their ancestors tamed and domesticated the wild lands of one of the greatest deserts of the world - the Karakum desert. It occupies 350 000 square kilometers, that is, most of Turkmenistan's entire territory. The Karakum desert stretches from the foothill plains of the Kopetdag mountains in the south to the Khorezm lowland in the north and from the Amudarya valley in the east to the old bed of Uzboi river in the west. Only in the east and the south, the desert borders on the fertile oases in the foothill strip of the Kopetdag range and the river valleys of Amu Darya, Murgab and Tejen.
From century to century, Turkmens lived in a hot desert, valleys, gorges, on the slopes of mountain ranges located at different heights. The landscape of Turkmenistan is extremely diverse, including warm-humid subtropics, majestic mountain panoramas, rumbling rivers and waterfalls, forest foothills and the purest blue water lakes in stone settings. The expanses of the Karakum desert seem almost boundless... And all of this is Turkmenistan, with its epic beauty, mystery and inaccessibility that have long attracted researchers, travelers, artists and tourists.
The Turkmen people, whose history goes back many millennia, is the heir and inheritor of cultures of many ethnic groups that inhabited this vast territory. It was here that nomadic and agricultural civilizations emerged and demised, and various cultures, religions, political influences mixed and mutually enriched each other. The Great Silk Road passed through the territory of modern Turkmenistan in ancient times, serving as a communication bridge between the cultures and trade interests of China and Rome, India and Africa, Arabs and Europe - the history of which today is so much attractive to orientalists of the whole world.
The monuments of the ancient and medieval culture of Turkmenistan are now extensively represented in the collections of Turkmen museums. For many centuries, our ancestors kept in touch with the millennial period of cultural development, with the covenants of ancient and medieval texts that have been preserved in the verbal form in the folk memory. The Turkmen people created a powerful stratum of folk and poetic lore, the richest visual-plastic folklore that is replete with decorative and applied forms.
Having developed in a relatively closed space, yet in the context of broad economic and cultural ties, the national culture of Turkmens acquired a strong ethnic identity. At the same time, it is quite closely related to the cultures of other neighboring peoples. Turkmens lived in close and harmonious touch with nature. They were united with nature by the common spatial-temporal rhythm. This rhythm influenced the seasonal movements of flocks, land works, the entire life process of nomads and farmers. Nature guided not only the way of life, but also the spiritual character of the people, their moral attitude to the world and aesthetic taste.
The oral-poetic tradition of Turkmens, crowned by the grandiose heroic epic "Gerogly", included in UNESCO's Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which is still extremely popular among people, occupies an exceptionally important place in the system of traditional folklore art. It continues to live both in its original form and in new transformations. The image of Gerogly presents all the best qualities that have always been highly appreciated by the Turkmen people - fearlessness, military skill and valor, adherence to principles, loyalty to the glorious customs of their ancestors, hospitality. It also glorifies a war-horse, a faithful companion of the brave warrior. The glory of the horse is absolutely equal to the glory of Gerogly, as his horse made half of the hero's power. Although the singer-storytellers were mostly illiterate, they knew by heart and performed a great number of folklore and literary works thanks to their exceptional memory.
Turkmen bakhshi - singers, musicians and storytellers - played an exceptional role in creating, preserving and popularizing the national epic. Bakhshi memorized texts, processed them in their own way and conveyed them to a wider audience. They knew and performed a lot of folklore and literary works. There were also "kysachi" - literate readers - whose number was very small, who also performed "Gerogly" and other Turkmen destans. This epic, which reflects the entire historical path of Turkmens from ancient times to the later stages of history, existed in the form of the grandiose signing performed by singers (dessanchi-bakhshi), who were skillful in poetic improvising, signing and dramatic acting. Possessing an exceptional memory, they knew by heart and performed a huge number of folklore and literary works. This unity of poetry, music and performance was so strong that listeners often happened to have visions of battles, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. The talents of famous dessanchi-bakhshi were legendary.
Epic "Gerogly" is the greatest but not the only creation of the Turkmen poetic folklore. It seemed to be accompanied by no less than a dozen small epic poems. In addition, there existed a vast layer of songs - lyrical, labor, ritual, edifying - various satirical and humorous genres, proverbs, sayings and other small forms of verbal culture.
The original musical culture of Turkmens reflected the way of life and peculiarities of their world-view, history and psychology. The Turkmen instrumental and song singing folklore is characterized by improvisational flexibility, epic narration, a wide range of tonal and rhythmic techniques. Turkmen music is easily associated with certain images, such as endless sands, mountain ranges, steppes, shapes of hills, sounds of battles, clatter of hooves, rumbling waterfalls and mountain rivers, gentle murmur of brooks, sounds of the wind, screeches of birds. Lyrical songs full of poetic melancholy tug at people's heartstrings. Resonant dutar tunes are full of artistic enthusiasm. Dutar remains the most beloved instrument of the Turkmen people.
The decorative and applied art, highly developed and rich in various types and forms, which is closely associated with folk life and architecture, makes the powerful and most canonized layer of the Turkmen traditional culture. Living the nomadic way of life, Turkmens did not need fixed constructions made of durable building materials. Mosques and madrasahs, memorials and fortifications that appeared in Muslim times were the exceptions. They were made of raw and burnt bricks and stone. This line of architecture is associated with the traditions of developed urban civilizations of Central Asia.
Portable dwellings called "Ak Oy" (yurt), presenting a perfect house by its construction-functional qualities, is the main achievement of the national architecture of the Turkmen people. It is an independent link in the world architectural practice necessitated by the specifics of the way of life of the Turkmen people.
The Turkmen yurt "Ak Oy" is characterized by a domed roof, the elegance of appearance and interior decoration. It strikingly fits into the landscape owing to its time-tested form and architectonics. Yurt "Ak Oy" is functionally adapted to the life beat of nature. It easily changes the system of air exchange and lighting, depending on the change of seasons, day and night. There is a special hole in the upper part of the dome to carry off smoke from the hearth and let fresh air in. In summer, the hole stays open and, on the warm nights, one can see the stars through it. In the summer heat, one can also open the lower tier of the felt cover.
The process of building a yurt is quite complicated and requires great skill. This trade has been perfectly mastered by folk architects - craftsmen in wood. Ancient technologies are used for construction of the frame of the vertical and dome parts of the Turkmen yurt "Ak Oy". It is erected without a single nail. When the frame is ready, women begin their part of work to winterize and decorate the yurt. They cover it with removable felt parts, which were cut out and sewn together, and fill it with items for everyday life made of felt, fell, leather, wool and wood.
The interior of the Turkmen yurt presents a harmonious ensemble in terms of its use and beauty, a rich world of decorative and applied forms and ornaments, which testifies to the high artistic traditions of the people. There is no furniture in the traditional sense. The Turkmen yurt is spacious enough (from 4 to 8 meters in diameter), and, at the same time, it is staffed with comfortable and beautiful items. The first thing striking a visitor's eye is the prevalence of red color in various shades, as well as the effect of soft and noble textures. The walls and floor of the yurt are tightly covered with layers of large and small carpets.
A panel called "Duye-bashlyk" attracts particular attention. This is a wedding decoration carried by a camel. It is placed in a plane view inside the yurt. The body of the panel is made of fabric rhombuses and decorated with wide edging that is richly embroidered with a floral ornament. Such items served as an amulet and a sort of family "archive." First, people used it to decorate camels in wedding processions. Then, they would place it on the yurt's wall, above a place for honorable guests. A one-year-old child's hair shaved for the first time in a solemn ceremony would be stuck to this panel. A member of the family setting off for a long travel would leave a detail of his clothes on it. It was believed that it would keep him safe during his travelling and provide the whole family with health, prosperity and well-being. A pile of bedding, carpets and mats has long been regarded as a compositional center of the yurt.
Kitchen utensils, large wooden bowls, dark leather vessels for oils and syrups were simple and sculpturally expressive. A box serving as a repository of family values and relics occupies a separate place in the yurt. It is richly decorated with carvings, metal and other types of decor. Shepherd items and hunting armor, weapons and horse equipment have their own places. All sorts of colorfully decorated large and small carpet bags called "chuval" and "torba" inherent in the nomadic way of life hang on the walls.
Craftsmen inspired all this everyday items with patterns by developing a complex system of basic motifs and decorations tested by ages, which, as a rule, harmoniously interact with the objective form, not affecting the flatness or dimensions of the object but, on the contrary, highlighting it.
Items made of sheep and camel wool, the most accessible material in nomadic conditions whose qualities and subtleties were used at most by folk painters, naturally occupied the dominant position in the ornamental decoration of the yurt. In addition to carpets, Turkmens widely used various types of felt products. The most common type of bedding felt is called "Gulli Keche." Its decor with a smooth pattern of large and small ornamental forms is made by mixing dyed wool with one-colored felt (black, white, brown, gray, beige, etc.) and many hours of rolling and tamping. This process produces original patterns with soft colors - red, blue, orange, brown - that interpenetrate at the joints. The resulting patterns are soft. Their compositional scheme is noted for a mandatory fringe and evenly spread ornaments.
Embroidery is also traditional for the Turkmen art. The interior items of yurts, clothes, headdresses were embroidered. The Turkmen national costume with embroideries presents a whole spectrum of folk culture. The ancient Turkmen embroidery is distinguished by noble color combinations obtained through organic dyes and prevalence of plant forms in the ornament (branches, leaves, flowers, fruits). The patterns of embroideries sometime feature images of living creatures - figures of goats, camels, birds, scenes of migrations.
Turkmens were also skilled in many other kinds of decorating and applied arts. Pile carpet weaving was traditional. Leather was made and decorated with an embossed or extruded pattern. The yurt doors, boxes, saddles and musical instruments were decorated with woodcarvings.
Art processing of metal, such as notching in silver, stamping, chasing, openwork notching with carving, soldering and colored enamel is a special branch of folk art. These techniques were used to decorate harnesses, stirrups, saddles, weapons and clothing items. Since ancient times, jewelers have made round silver rings, bracelets, earrings, magnificent delicate-voluminous plait, temporal and chest decorations with cornelian and turquoise stones so beloved in the East. These large items with a matte shine of silver beautifully shaded a swarthy skin, matching the cut, silhouette and peculiar plasticity of Turkmen national clothes.
Turkmen ornaments have distinctive achievements and ancient sources and, like the patterns of other peoples, they combine realistic foundations with philosophical-cosmological and talisman symbolism. Having developed from natural images to abstract conceptual forms, many elements of the Turkmen decor are strongly associated in the minds of craftsmen with certain meanings and names, such as "ram horns", "bird eyes", "dog tail", "apricot flower", "running wave."
On the other hand, ornamental forms are signs of what cannot be seen immediately. Solar signs are widely used in the Turkmen ornamental pattern, including a whirling rosette as a symbol of the sun and life-giving force of nature; a complex-style tree-like figure meaning the tree of life; the ancient images of simple geometric figures - circle, square, rhombus, triangle, zigzag.
The Turkmen pattern has its own features, such as special importance of plants and zoomorphic forms, lack of strict symmetry in the pattern, preference of leading colors (red, yellow, white and black), connection of colors, technique and character of the pattern with the ancient and medieval culture of the region.
Certain types of folk art develop in different ways in the cultural life of modern Turkmenistan. Some of them fade with the demise of the old way of life, others mutate, transform and take root in the modern life and culture. Epic "Gerogly" continues to live, being enriched with new episodes and forms of existence. It has become the heritage not only of the Turkmen but also the world culture. Industrial construction supersedes the yurt. However, it is still widely used during various national festivities. Some kinds of traditional decorative and applied art migrated to modern city apartments, brightening up their subject-spatial environment. Folk singers bakhshi perform old and new tunes as part of amateur groups, on radio and television. Turkmen folklore grows into professional forms of art through its own way. Folk poetry and music are an invaluable fount of mastership, a breeding ground for talents of contemporary Turkmen writers, composers and performers.
An impressive galaxy of art jewelers and ceramists has grown up in Turkmenistan, whose aesthetic perceptions and plastic vision were influenced by the unique identity of the epic traditions of Turkmens. Turkmen masters of modern applied art, who are keenly aware of the expressiveness of ancient forms, boldly introduce new free rhythms and color combinations into traditional compositions, as if reviving the spirit of the epic and folk poems.
The living forms of traditional folk art are widely used in the modern Turkmen culture and imbued with the spirit of our time.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005