WHERE MOTHERLAND BEGINS
In the 20th century, when museums were built on all continents, Ashgabat was unlucky. It is not that museums weren’t built in the Turkmen capital, but they were located in the random premises, except for the tiny building erected for the Transcaspian Regional Museum and Library in 1902, i.e. exactly 120 years ago. It was badly damaged during the earthquake, after which the museum shuttled between small restructured buildings for another half a century. It was only at the end of the century, on November 12, 1998, that Turkmenistan opened the current monumental building of the State Museum which accommodates many collections in a spacious storage.
Turkish architect Dzhan Onay designed an original project that combines modern forms with traditional motifs and images. A long esplanade leads to the main entrance, covered by multi-columned galleries to the left and right. And at the very beginning of the main entrance, there is a pair of gilded sculptures of winged horses installed on the columns. However, these are not ancient Greek Pegasuses – symbols of poetic inspiration, these are those legendary celestial horses believed to be the distant ancestors of the Akhal-Teke horse breed.
Entering the museum building, one gets into a huge three-tiered atrium, where five high pillars support the dome. Each pillar also consists of five ribbed columns, lined with red-brown Finnish granite with bronze bases and caps. The sun’s rays pass through the transparent roof and stained-glass windows of the domed tholobate, filling the entire atrium with natural light during the day. The interiors of the halls are decorated with granite, precious wood panels, gilded stucco cornices and consoles, openwork metal bars and stained glass windows. In the basement of the building, there are storage facilities and well-equipped restoration workshops. The museum research fellows work in comfortable rooms. They have an archive and a library at their disposal with a large collection of specialized literature.
For almost a quarter of a century, the State Museum of Turkmenistan has been hospitably open to anyone interested in the history, archeology, ethnography of the Turkmens, the natural resources of the country, its flora and fauna. It all began in 1897, when the local telegraph mechanic and amateur entomologist, Konstantin Anger, wrote a letter to the head of the Transcaspian region, General Alexei Kuropatkin, offering to start compiling collections for the future zoological museum. The initiative was immediately supported, and two years later, through the efforts of Anger and other similar enthusiasts, a small local history museum was established. Other than a rich entomological collection, it had household items of Turkmens gathered for the All-Russian Exhibition of 1896 in Nizhny Novgorod.
When zoologist and taxidermist Stanislav Bilkevich joined the museum, the original collections were replenished with ornithological, ichthyological, herpetological, botanical and mineralogical collections. The museum began to work closely with prominent Russian scientists of that time, such as entomologist Andrei Semenov-Tyan-Shansky, ornithologist Nikolai Zarudny, academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences Nikolai Nasonov.
The spacious halls of the current museum accommodate both a giant carpet, covering 266 square meters and weighing one ton, and thousands of other large and small items ranging from microscopic figurines of a stone lion and a golden goitered gazelle made about five thousand years ago in ancient Margiana to a space alien – meteorite, one of the largest in the world that landed near the city of Kunya-Urgench.
The most popular part of the museum exposition – the archeology and history halls – is located on the first floor of the central building. Here one can witness what little has survived from the primitive world. In Turkmenistan, thanks to the tireless search of several generations of archaeologists in the 20th century, it was possible to discover ancient cultures unknown to the world science – from the Caspian Mesolithic (XII–VI millennium BC) to the settlements of the first farmers of the Neolithic era. The showcases display stone tools (graters, mortars with pestles, flint scrapers) and jewelry (shell necklaces).
The section of ancient Margiana is perhaps the most impressive in this hall. It presents the most important finds of the expedition led for forty years by the outstanding archaeologist, Academician Victor Sarianidi. These are mysterious ritual items and very thin ceramic and metal utensils, as well as bronze and silver seals with mysterious signs. Jewelry made of silver, gold and semi-precious stones amaze with their elegance and taste. Three years ago, many items from the treasures of Margiana were taken to Germany and displayed at a traveling exhibition in the largest museums in Berlin, Hamburg and Mannheim.
Various stone products make a special category of Margian finds. Their purpose is totally incomprehensible, and scientists from many countries are still racking their brains over this puzzle. Before the start of the pandemic in 2020, St. Petersburg specialists from the Institute of the History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences worked at the museum under the leadership of Dr. Natalia Skakun. They carefully studied three groups of these stone items – the so-called miniature columns, massive disks and scepters (staves).
The next hall exhibits magnificent examples of Hellenistic art discovered in the middle of the last century during the excavations of the Parthian fortresses of Nisa that are now inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. A large collection of rhytons – about two-thousand-year old horn-shaped vessels for ritual libations – is naturally the main attraction here. The rhytons were most likely bright in their original form, with gilded wings and painted sculptural finishing in the form of animals or human figures. The rims of rhytons were decorated with inserts of colored stones and glass paste.
Such fragile and absolutely unique items require special care of museum workers. It is no coincidence that a few years ago experts from Italy were involved in their conservation. They worked as part of the Turkmen-Italian archaeological expedition to Nisa led by Dr. Carlo Lippolis.
The archeological area of the museum ends with the hall of the Middle Ages. It is totally dominated by the art of the Seljuk period that was undoubtedly the most striking phenomenon in the Islamic world of the 11th–12th centuries.
Moving to the next section of the museum complex, one gets into the hall of nature. An impressive collection of minerals and fossils collected in the territory of Turkmenistan over the years is unlikely to leave anyone indifferent. One cannot ignore such a paleontological rarity as the skull of an ancient elephant, whose fragments were discovered in 2008 on the coast of the Khazar Peninsula in the Eastern Caspian. The museum specialists reconstructed the skull of this prehistoric animal from artificial materials, but authentic fossilized parts were perfectly fit into it.
The botanical collection of the museum in the form of herbariums presents samples of endemic Red Book plants, such as Turkmen juniper, black saxaul, ephedra, mandrake. The fauna of Turkmenistan is also fully represented. There are many large dioramas in the hall. The natural habitat of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, as well as fish, birds, insects and other organisms is recreated behind the glass. It is now only in the museum that one can see the disappeared animals – for example cheetah and tiger.
The excursion finishes in the ethnography hall. The exposition begins with models of cold and firearms used by the Turkmens. In a separate display case, there is a mannequin of a warrior with a spear, wearing protective armor of the 17th–19th centuries. This painstaking work was carried out by the team of the restoration workshop. After thorough cleaning, chain armor, a shield, bracers and edged weapons sparkle like new. The hall also has original and reconstructed old oil mills and a water-lifting mechanism. There is also the traditional Turkmen yurt with all the accessories of interior decoration. All elements of external design and household items used in the 19th–20th centuries are authentic.
A life-size horse mannequin is a perfect highlight of this hall. It is covered with a complete set of horse equipment made of silver with gilding and semi-precious stones. The dioramas authentically show scenes from rural life. Passing by the expositions of the blacksmith and jewelry workshops, one can literally hear the sound of a hammer on an anvil. Jewelry art occupies a special place in Turkmen culture. The museum’s funds keep the largest and most diverse collection of Turkmen silver jewelry. The exposition presents the entire line of products of local jewelers. National clothes, samples of original hand embroidery and, of course, the famous Turkmen carpets, traditional weaving and dyeing workshops are displayed nearby.
“We are actively exploring the Internet nowadays, Museum Director Meretgeldy Charyev says. We hold international online conferences and exchange correspondence with colleagues from other countries. The website of the museum offers news and presents exhibitions, information about the history of the formation of not only our but also other museums of Turkmenistan, downloadable publications of researchers. One can also take advantage of a virtual tour of the halls in 3D format with the effect of personal presence.”
Despite the fact that the quarantine restrictions of the past two years have brought a pause to the regular rhythm of the museum’s life, its employees are mastering new forms of work and making plans for the future. After all, everyone understands that a museum is not just a collection of artifacts and natural rarities. First of all, this is an island of knowledge about the country, without which the concept of Motherland will be incomplete.