Turkmenistan is a land where the ancient intermingles with the modern. In this sunbaked country you will find ancient ruins amid the remodeled post-Soviet spaces. The capital city of Ashgabat is home to the world’s greatest number of marble buildings in the world. The architecture is unique and styled to demonstrate that this country emerged from its Soviet experience with an aim toward a definitive local identity. Part of that identity is the celebration of an age-old heritage and customs (däp-dessurlary).
One custom flourishing in Turkmenistan today that visitors may witness and even take part in, is shrine pilgrimage (zyýarat). This combines aspects of Islamic worship at sites that are considered to be holy, such as the burial place of a Sufi Teacher or Pir, with pre-Islamic beliefs that see the sacred in natural objects or locations.
Turkmen worship at these sites may best be described as syncretic in nature. That is, in the rituals performed you can see the many layers of history and the combination of Islam and other religions. Girls may visit a site in the hopes of soon being married, couples wish for a child, while individuals may yearn for something more materialistic like a car or a home. Most visit for a particular reason and some just to cleanse their souls through prayer. Many Turkmen try to make the hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for worship according to the tenets of Islam, but trip to local pilgrimage sites are considered to be a substitution for that expensive and difficult to make trip.
These are practices that were discouraged by the state during the Soviet government but nevertheless persisted. Today, Turkmenistan’s leadership encourages zyýarat as a way of expressing religiosity and Turkmen identity (Türkmençilik). When visiting Turkmenistan, be sure to see the sites of the 15th century sufi Seýit Jamaladdin and Paraw Bibi, the mountain cave where a young Turkmen woman hid from enemy invaders. If you can travel afar, the Nohur village located a few hours’ ride outside of Ashgabat is home to the Gyz Bibi cave where descendants of Alexander the Great display respect and reverence to the memory of another young woman.
At any of these sites you will find Turkmen breaking bread together, often sharing a full meal. They will invite all pilgrims, including tourists, to partake. It is a great opportunity to interact with locals and learn a bit more about the culture. Yoluňuz Ak Bolsun! (May Your Path be Pure!).
Note: All photos are taken by Victoria Clement in 2019. There is one article about shrine pilgrimage. A review of it can be found online at: Turkmenistan Shrine Pilgrimage
Author Bio: Victoria Clement is a scholar, historian, and author who has traveled widely in Central Asia and who has lived in Turkmenistan and Russia. Her book, Learning to Become Turkmen: Literacy, Language, and Power, 1914-2014, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2018. She is a former professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA and was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC from 2016 to 2017. She is currently a Regional Analyst at the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, VA where she responsible for the development of curriculum concerning Central Asia.