BETWEEN KOPET DAG AND CASPIAN SEA
In 1874, the Turkmens of Cheleken Island leased for a long period their lands to the Nobel Brothers Oil Production Association for commercial oil production. And it was exactly one hundred years later that the first museum exposition dedicated to the history of development of the oil industry of Turkmenistan was opened in the city of Nebitdag (modern Balkanabat, the administrative center of Balkan province). This was just a temporary exhibition at that time, but two years later, in 1976, it grew into a full-fledged local history museum located in a small one-story building adapted for its needs. It was at that time that the museum collection began to take shape, consisting of ethnographic items, paintings by famous artists, historical photographs and exhibits reflecting the natural wealth of the coastal area.
The city of Balkanabat is inextricably linked with the oil industry. It was founded in 1933 at the foot of the Great Balkan ridge, when many deposits were explored in the area and oil production began. In a short period, the western region of Turkmenistan became the flagship of the economy of the young republic due to development of the oil refining and chemical industries. It would be an exaggeration to say that a small provincial museum was popular. In the old days, local history was not at all among the state priorities, and truly global political changes were needed to change the situation.
A social feeling such as patriotism has ceased to be an abstraction in independent Turkmenistan, as it got a qualitatively new content. Pride for the achievements and culture of their people, love and affection for their native land were expressed in the large-scale construction of new museum buildings in all provinces of Turkmenistan. It was something that was not there throughout the entire 20th century. Balkanabat was no exception. The current white marble building was opened on the eve of the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of independence, October 10, 2011. It was erected in accordance with modern requirements for such facilities.
This new building became an important link in the formation of the architectural ensemble of the center of Balkanabat. The museum building has massive forms, an expressive silhouette and artistic decor on the main facade. The outer walls are lined with white marble, the columns and ramp – with grey granite, and the plinth – with mosaic. Two bronze reliefs to the left and right of the entrance represent plots from the history and culture of Balkan province, and a couple of decorative panels on the blank sections of the walls feature carpet rosettes (gels) inherent in this region.
The exposition area of the museum occupies over three thousand square meters. The three-storey building has six halls. The very first one that welcomes visitors is dedicated to the present day: cultural life, achievements of the economy and industry of the province over the years of independence. Videos are played on a huge monitor in the center of the hall. In showcases and on podiums, one can see the entire line of products manufactured in Balkan province, and there are visual diagrams of industrial growth rates and certificates of honor from local enterprises on the stands.
Other halls are dedicated to the world of nature, archaeology, ethnography, fine arts and temporary exhibitions. A tour of the hall of nature begins with the demonstration of herbariums of rare endemic plants of Balkan province. In particular, one can see the fruits and leaves of an amazing and mysterious plant that grows only in the mountains of the South-Western Kopet Dag. This is the Turkmen mandrake, the medicinal properties of which are known far beyond the borders of the country. The first mandrake nursery was established on the territory of the Syunt-Khasardag Reserve.
Khazar is another large nature reserve of this province. Three dioramas display the fauna of the sea, mountains and sands, while the stands display the photographs of exotic natural monuments located in places that not every tourist can visit. There are also genuine objects of natural origin, such as, for example, giant ammonites and fossilized traces of the ancient ancestors of camels. They were found half a century ago in the tracts of Guyavurli and Aktoba in the Western Kopetdag, and this is the only object of its kind in the world.
The ethnographic hall begins with a large diorama presenting the life of the Turkmens of the Yomud tribe of the 19th century. A traditional Turkmen yurt stands in the center of the hall. Just a century ago, it was the main type of dwelling of the local population. A carpet-curtain (ensi) hangs above the entrance to the Balkan yurt. Such an element of decoration of a nomadic house was noted only among the Turkmens, and now this type of carpet is a rarity. The interior of the yurt with authentic household items is well shown in the museum. There are sacks – wall-mounted carpet bags for storing things, floor pile carpets and felt mats.
The ethnography hall ends with a large diorama dedicated to the life of the Caspian fishermen. Once upon a time, this was the main source of income for coastal residents. Most of the population was engaged in fishing. In addition to fish and caviar, people traded unsurpassed sturgeon glue. There was a lot of different fish in the Caspian Sea, especially in the mouths of the Etrek, Gurgen, Garasuv rivers. These were mainly sturgeon, huge beluga, stellate sturgeon and even salmon.
The diorama shows how a fishing artel dries its nets on the shore next to taymuns – traditional Turkmen boats. Balkan fishermen showed incredible heroism and courage when, in 1936, these small boats sailed four thousand six hundred and fifty-three kilometres from Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi) to Moscow in ninety days. The fishermen performed a real feat that was widely covered in the press, and the whole country learned about the fishermen of the Caspian Sea.
One can also see a diorama reproducing the workshop of a jeweller (zergar). The artistic originality of the art of the Yomud Turkmens was clearly manifested in the art of jewellery. The technology for making jewellery was somewhat different from other regions. For example, the silver surface of the product was not gilded, only individual gold details were soldered onto it. They were made of very finely rolled gold, and then, after stamping, the plate acquired an ornamental relief. A lot of turquoise, colored glass and, of course, carnelian were used in the design of products.
A separate showcase displays decorations worn by Yomud women. Acharbag is probably the most original. This is a small silver box, decorated on the outside with semi-precious stones and stamped gold plates. On the upper part, there are stylized ram’s horns - a totem element, a kind of amulet. Gold pendants in the form of a necklace are on the lower edge. Acharbag is fixed on two wide hangers decorated with gold plates, various stones and chains. Acharbag serves as an amulet - a silver box where they put spells written on a piece of paper, substances (salt, coal, boar hair) that repel evil spirits. All this was supposed to have miraculous magical properties and help people. Western Turkmens also liked to decorate their horses. The Yomud breed of horse, in contrast to the famous Akhal-Teke, is shorter and is kept in the herd. However, these are very frisky, hardy horses.
There are samples of traditional clothing in the ethnography hall. A women’s costume is presented in various forms: robes, dresses, capes and original checkered scarves (charshev), inherent only in the Balkan region. And a large space of the exposition is undoubtedly devoted to Yomud carpets. They stand apart from the rest of the Turkmen carpets in terms of originality of the ornament and manufacturing technique. The Yomud gel, a repetitive basic element of carpet design, cannot be confused with patterns from other tribes. In addition to large floor carpets, there are also other carpet products in the museum, such as chuval bags, prayer mats (namazlyk), sacks mentioned above and curtains (ensi).
And what local museum can do without archaeology? It is worth recalling that the earliest traces of human activity in the territory of modern Turkmenistan were found in Balkan province. In the desert, north of present-day Balkanabat, archaeologists found flint tools of people from the Mesolithic era, that is, people that lived here about ten thousand years ago. These primitive camps were concentrated on the banks of reservoirs and along riverbeds, now covered with sand. There were especially many of them in the Koshoba valley in the Karabogaz zone, not far from the sea. The constant interest of archaeologists is fixed on cave sites in the branches of the Great Balkan ridge. These are the caves of Kailu, Jebel, Dam-Dam-Cheshme, Oglangelin. They were discovered by Academician Aleksey Okladnikov back in the middle of the last century, and since then several generations of scientists have continued his work.
The museum features dioramas that recreate the typical appearance of the caves at the time when people lived there. Thousands of years passed in the history of mankind before the Stone Age was replaced by the Copper-Stone Age and then the Bronze Age. And traces of settlements from the Eneolithic and Bronze Ages were found in Balkan province. The most studied of them is the settlement of Parkhai in the Sumbar Valley, where outstanding Russian archaeologist Igor Khlopin worked for many years. Some of his finds are also kept in the Balkan Museum.
Today, only specialists know about these antiquities, but the monuments of the Middle Ages in the Eastern Caspian region are known to many people. The huge historical and cultural reserve “Ancient Dehistan” has long been a popular tourist destination. The core of this place is the settlement of Misrian with two minarets of pre-Mongolian times and a recently restored arch of the cathedral mosque, as well as a nearby necropolis with a memorial mosque Mashad-Ata. In the last century, Doctor of Historical Sciences Yegen Atagarryev conducted excavations there. His materials also enriched the archaeological collection of the museum.
A visit to the museum would be incomplete without looking into the hall of fine arts. It exhibits paintings, sculptural and graphic works by artists of different generations, including masters of Turkmen painting Muzafar Daneshvar, Gennady Babikov, Yevgenia Adamova, Yakub Annanurov, Niyazmurad Dovodov, Ivan Ilyin, Vladimir Pavlotsky, Aman Amangeldiyev, Kulnazar Bekmuradov, Annadurdy Almamedov, Durdy Bayramov, Yarly Bayramov and others. Many of their paintings are dedicated to this region and its people. Sea and mountain landscapes, still life, genre scenes, portraits have perpetuated the beauty and richness of the Balkan land, its recognizable silhouettes, historical images, glorious names and unforgettable faces.