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2024  N1-2(227-228)
The fate of Magtymguly is amazing and unique. He happened to be born and live in a brutal century, when the tyranny of the Persian monarch Nadir Shah was replaced by the power of Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Durrani. Although the Turkmen freemen were formally part of the Khiva Khanate, continuous wars and uprisings ravaged and devastated the country, and the capital city of Khiva could not recover for a long time from the defeat inflicted by the Iranian conquerors. In the bloodless and devastated region, famine began. “Villages and arable lands were deserted, lakes turned into swamps overgrown with reeds, wild animals replaced people,” the Khorezm historian Shirmuhammed Munis recalled those harsh years. The fiercest battles between different ethnic groups were fought for the Khiva throne. The Turkmens of Khorezm and Khorasan, tired of endless disasters, were in despair. The country was in chaos. It was only towards the end of Magtymguly’s life that relative order was established, when the energetic Muhammad Amin-inak from the Kungrat clan won the internecine struggle and founded a new ruling dynasty.
The advancement of Turkmen tribes from the steppes to the oases became noticeable at the beginning of the 18th century. It became permanent in the second half of the century, strengthening the desire of nomads for agriculture and rooting themselves in the developed territories. This process, very important for historical progress, was not smooth. It was marked by violence, skirmishes and bloodshed. It was at that time that the voice of the one who found the words to express the most secret, centuries-old dreams of his people swept across the expanses of the Turkmen land.
Magtymguly was the contemporary of famous Frenchmen Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and Beaumarchais; Germans Lessing, Goethe and Schiller; Scottish poet Robert Burns; American Benjamin Franklin; Italian Carlo Gozzi; Lithuanian Donelaitis; Ukrainian Grigory Skovoroda; Russian classics Lomonosov and Derzhavin; Armenian Sayat-Nova. But they are all the pinnacle of the Western, Christian tradition. And in the literary heritage of the Muslim world of the 18th century, there is only one figure - Turkmen Magtymguly Fraghi. Of course, he had great predecessors such as Yunus Emre, Saadi, Hafiz, Nasimi, Jami, Navoi, Fuzuli. And even in his time, many Turkic and Iranian-speaking poets left their mark, yet the philosophical poetry and lyrics reached their highest peak only in Magtymguly’s works.
It was already in his lifetime that he became famous among his people, who had long loved and knew how to appreciate the songs of Bakhshi, but their passion and love for Magtymguly were special. The tragedy of life of Turkmens, their aspirations and thoughts, sorrows and dreams were for the first time ever reflected in his poems with such liveliness, fulness and respect. These poems were preserved, alas, not in manuscripts, but thanks to the oral tradition - the memory of Bakhshi, the performers of songs on his verses. It is only they who are a source of information about the author himself. Everything we know about his life, including dates of birth and death, is taken from his poems. They tell us about Magtymguly’s family, his mentors, friends, education, probable travels and, of course, his views. A whole science has emerged – Magtymguly studies, but it has not yet got a single proven autograph of the master, or a single written testimony from his contemporaries. There are only poems and numerous folk legends recorded many years later.
In the 18th century, there still existed a blind wall of ignorance between the West and the East. Interpenetration of reliable messages, ideas and knowledge began in the following century. It was only in 1842 that the first news about Magtymguly reached the West. This was facilitated by Polish poet Alexander Chodzko, who translated three of his poems into English and published three of his poems in London, providing his comments and an article about him. In Russia, they learned about the Turkmen genius only thirty years later, when Iranian scholar and Turkologist Fyodor Bakulin, who worked as the Russian consul in Astrabad (the modern Iranian city of Gorgan), published his note “Songs of Turkmens and their poet Magtymguly” in the “Izvestia of the Caucasian Department of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society” along with translation of his two poems. Five years later, the book “On the way to Persia and its Caspian provinces” with new translations of Magtymguly’s verses by traveller Pavel Ogorodnikov was published in St. Petersburg, and two years later twenty-one poems translated into German were published in Leipzig. The translations were made by Hungarian orientalist and polyglot Arminius Vambery, who visited the Astrabad Turkmens before Bakulin.
The Southwestern Kopet Dag, the river valleys of Etrek, Sumbar and Gorgan, the Turkmensakhra steppe and the Misrian plain with the ruins of ancient Dehistan are the poet’s homeland, the cradle he glorified. There lived mainly Turkmens of the Geoklen tribe, who in the 16th century switched to sedentary life, which significantly increased the overall level of their development. Living relationships with the southern neighbours also had a positive impact. The influence of Iranian life, culture and language seeped through them, and knowledge of Farsi opened access to the rich literature of the Islamic world.
Magtymguly’s ancestors inherited fertile lands with enough water for farming. Mulberry trees were grown there for silkworms, and the population engaged in hand silk weaving and various crafts. The great poet grew up in this fertile land, where green mountains neighbour bald hills that turn into desert. Such a contrasting nature would leave no one indifferent, especially the mind and heart of the poet. Magtymguly spent his childhood in his native village of Hadzhigovshan on Etrek, in the Songudag and Gyzylbair mountains, but he also knew the city. The Iranian cities of Gombede-Kavus, Gorgan, Bojnurd, where many Turkmen live today, were the closest to his native places.
The cultural landscape of these places differs from what it was three hundred years ago. But even then, there stood a 53-meter brick tower topped with a cone in the center of Gombede Kavus – the most monumental structure in this entire area that was built at the beginning of the 11th century, which is now included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. According to the inscription on this structure, this so-called palace of eternity was built a thousand years ago. Nevertheless, it looks surprisingly modern. Magtymguly could see another similar monument – a tower erected under the Timurids with a ribbed tent in an open field - near the city of Tus on the road to Mashhad. This tower is known as Mil-e Ahangan.
Judging by the abundance of impressions, again reflected in poetry, our poet did not sit still. While traveling in Turkmen and foreign lands, he saw luxury and wretchedness, wealth and poverty, greatness and insignificance that lived side by side and often together, both in cities and in villages. His primary education was given to him by his father Dovletmamed Azadi, who himself was an extraordinary personality. There has been preserved his extensive didactic poem “Azadi’s Sermon”, which was recently published in Russian translation. The father’s language is much more archaic than his son’s, but it was Azadi who laid the ground on which Magtymguly’s innovative art grew. This innovation is based on combining traditions of medieval book culture with folk speech. In essence, he did the same thing that Pushkin did later for Russian literature.
Azadi taught at a local mekdepe - a rural primary school. At his insistence and patronage, his son continued his studies at a madrasah, a mid-level religious school. At first, it was the Idris-baba madrasah in the village of Gyzylayak on the banks of the Amu Darya River, near the modern town of Halach. It has partially survived to this day in the form of an ordinary provincial building covered with a dome, of which there are many in Lebap province. The young poet was sincerely eager to study to join the ranks of like-minded people. But disappointment was not long in coming. Those people turned out to be completely different from the kind of people the poet dreamt of. And soon, the mudarris (teacher) passed away. The madrasah was closed, and Magtymguly went to Bukhara.
In Bukhara, he entered the Kukeldash madrasah, the largest in Central Asia. It is part of the ensemble of Lyabi-Khauz Square. It is one of the most expressive architectural monuments of the 16th century. Bukhara brought the poet the rarest luck in life. He met a man who had an extremely beneficial influence on his worldview. It was the Syrian Turkmen, Nury Kazim, who was invited to Kukeldash as a teacher. They shared a thirst for knowledge, bookish and non-bookish, and an insatiable desire to understand the meaning of existence and do good. Like-minded people shared a passion for learning things about real life, and this apparently explains the fact that a year later they left this vaunted institution “to associate themselves with common people.”
Magtymguly together with Nury Kazim went to Afghanistan, where the enlightened monarch and poet Ahmed Durrani reigned. The poet was perhaps also motivated by the desire to find out something about the fate of his older brothers, Abdullah and Mamedsapa, who went missing in the years of struggle with Nadir Shah, during the campaign of the Turkmen detachment led by Chovdur Khan. It cannot be ruled out that the travellers got to Kashmir, and then moved back and, at the end of the journey, ended up in the city of Turkestan that boasted a khanaka (Sufi monastery) and the madrasah of the great sheikh of Sufism, Khoja Ahmed Yasawi.
From there, they went to Khiva to continue their studies at the most prestigious madrasah of Shirgazi Khan that became alma mater for Magtymguly. It was there that he mastered systematic knowledge and wrote a lot. It was a period of his creative take-off. This madrasah was erected in 1719–1726, opposite the mausoleum of Pakhlavan-Mahmud in the center of Ichan-kalam, surrounded by the fortress walls of the inner part of Khiva. Contemporaries called the madrasah of Shirgazi Khan “Maskan-i Fazilan” (Abode for Scientists). Magtymguly did not have time to finish his studies. News of his father’s death forced him to leave the capital ahead of time. Having said goodbye to his teachers and comrades, he hastily returned home after three happy years.
In later life, he had to go along quite many paths and roads, but his impressions of what he saw are not descriptions of specific places but enthusiastic emotions, often hyperboles and metaphors that should hardly be taken literally. We can only guess where exactly he went and what he saw, but we know exactly what he could not pass by indifferently. First of all, these are the ruins of ancient Dehistan, which is also called Mashad-Misrian – a large medieval city located about a hundred kilometers from his native village. We know Magtymguly’s nostalgic lines about Dehistan, composed during a long period away from his homeland. Misrian was a major center of the Khorezmshah-Anushteginid state, which stood on the Silk Road. It was ruined at the beginning of the 13th century as a result of the Mongol invasion. Its swollen fortress walls are still visible even now. There are two round minarets and the recently reconstructed portal of the cathedral mosque. There is also a shrine that is popular among pilgrims – a memorial mosque in the Mashad-ata cemetery with a mihrab (an arched niche), which, judging by the style of decoration, was created in the 10th century.
Considering Magtymguly’s commitment to the philosophy of Sufism, it can be assumed with a high degree of probability that he visited other shrines associated with the names of Sufi sheikhs. They stretch in a chain in the mountains and foothills of Kopet Dag from the Sumbar valley to the Serakh oasis in the east. They are also found in Merv and Kunya-Urgench. The closest to his home were those located along Sumbar, near the village of Makhtum-kala, where his relatives lived – the Geoklens of the Gerkez clan. These are small domed mausoleums of the 14th–16th centuries called Shikh-Ovezberdy and Makhtum-myazzem – rural monuments built of baked brick and well preserved to this day, simple in composition and modest in design. Two more similar ones are located a little further, in the upper reaches of Sumbar, such as Shikh-Attar Veli, standing under the shade of an old plane tree, and a similar mausoleum of Seyit Necepi, 10 kilometers away, rising above the river, of which only an underground crypt has survived.
Mentally turning to Pirs – patron saints and intercessors – Magtymguly asked, why is this world structured this way? Why is it so easy for external enemies to set Turkmens against each other? Where is the way out of the labyrinth of hatred and anger? “World, you are treacherous and vile! – the poet exclaimed bitterly. How to end discord among my people, I am tormented in my thoughts...” While wandering along the long and dusty roads of the Fatherland, he was drawn to places where the voices of his ancestors came from, and these were the shrines to which pilgrims from all over the Turkmen land came every day, year after year, century after century. Seyit Jamal-ad-Din, Myalik-azhdar, Meana-baba, Saragt-baba, Khoja Yusup Hamadani and many others – all these places were seen by the one who spoke on behalf of his silent people, that genius whose poetic verses still excite the hearts of people today.
Magtymguly finished his earthly path in his native places. He was buried next to his father, in the Garry-molla cemetery near the village of Aktokay, close to Etrek. In 1999, a memorial was erected over their graves, consisting of four high pylons that are connected by arches and support a dome. Architect Annamuhammed Niazi managed by means of modern architecture to embody the spirit of local tradition, coming from the “palace of eternity”, the thousand-year-old Kavus Tower. And this stone flower, soaring to the sky, has also turned into a place of pilgrimage for everyone who holds dear the word by Magtymguly.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005