Pilgrimages in Turkmenistan

"We've Forgotten Much of Our Culture"

Turkmenistan has one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world. Excursions into the countryside – for instance, pilgrimages – offer opportunities to escape the oppressiveness of everyday life. Lennart Lehmann reports

photo: Lennart Lehmann
The tomb of Al Gulshan, the mystic, in a mystic landscape

​​Leili is twenty-three years old and lives with her family in the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat. The country on the Caspian Sea is one of the most rigid dictatorships in the world.

Every sphere of life is controlled by the government of President Saparmurat Turkmenbashi, who named himself "the Great," and subject to his often quite peculiar ideas.

This is also true of religion. Appointed to his post by the president, chief mufti Kakageldi Vepayev was recently relieved from his office due to "private and professional mistakes." He was replaced by twenty-seven-year-old Rovsen Allaberdiyev.

Personality cult reaches into the mosque

The largely indulgent personality cult that Turkmenbashi has allowed to be built around his person reaches into the mosques: the second edition of Ruhnama, a book written by the president that contains his personal vision of Turkmen history and culture, is the main textbook in the schools and universities of the cotton country and must also be laid out in mosques.

Leili's family, together with most of the 4.5 million inhabitants of the country, has endured the dictator's repressive measures since independence was achieved in 1991.

Opportunities to escape the rather oppressive everyday life exist just as it did in the Soviet period: going on excursions to the countryside, such as pilgrimages. Under the Soviets, these practices were persecuted with anti-religious campaigns. Turkmenbashi on the other hand has turned the pilgrimage into a patriotic duty.

It is still early in the morning when Leili and her family head off on a Sunday pilgrimage to the grave of the mystic Ak Gulshan.

Around twenty pilgrims sitting in a Hungarian Ikarus bus ride past magnificent white buildings that are brightly floodlit. Colorful chains of light sparkle. A portrait of the president on every corner. Slogans hang over the streets: "One people, one nation, one Turkmenbashi!," "Ruhnama is the spiritual guide of the Turkmen!"

The men have on dark leather jackets and lean their heads sleepily against the window panes. The women are dressed in plain clothes or long skirts. Leili is wearing jeans under her skirt because it is still cool. She will put on her headscarf when they arrive at the holy sites. Slaughtered lamb, bread, salads fill the trunk of the bus.

Fifty kilometers later Leili stands in front of the cemetery behind the large mosque in Gök Depe. The sun is rising behind the gray mountains. A small chapel stands on the cemetery grounds behind the large mosque.

The dead are jealous

"This is the grave of Ak Gulshan," explains Leili. "He is the cousin of Ak Ishan. Whoever visits Ak Ishan must also visit Ak Gulshan. Otherwise he will be insulted."

Leili lived in Lübeck for one year. She worked and lived "like a German." She was impressed by the determination as well as the easygoing nature of the Germans. She was in a rich country.

When she returned, her friends asked her why she did not marry and stay in Germany. Not many young people in Ashgabat can understand why she wanted to return to her country.

"I don't like much of what I see in Turkmenistan. But I feel at home here," she says. Her parents think she should have married years ago. After all, she is already twenty-three years old. Turkmen women usually marry around the age of twenty.

The chapel of Ak Gulshan is located on historical ground. After the clay fortress walls were demolished in 1881, the army of the Russian czar massacred 15,000 Turkmen who had continued their raids on Russian supply troops in the region.

Soviet-era repression

photo: Lennart Lehmann
The parking lot at Ak Ishan - at the pilgrim site itself, no cameras are allowed

​​Afterwards Turkmenistan became a Russian colony and was connected to the railway network. This forced the nomads to settle down. What remained was Russian contempt, says Leili: "We were not allowed to speak our language. We have forgotten much of our culture."

A new mosque, built by Turkish companies, stands today on the grounds of the former fortress Gök Depe. The pilgrims march past the mosque to Ak Gulshan's mausoleum.

"Ak Gulshan was famous because he could perform miracles." Almost every village and town has its own saint. Mostly they are men, but sometimes women. They are honored as the founders of clans or as enigmatic outsiders. They mediated between feuding groups, blessed seeds and the harvest, healed diseases, counseled those who wished to marry, created talismans, warded off the "evil eye," and helped mentally disoriented people to think clearly again.

Names are seldom written on the tombstones buried under the dry grass. Sometimes a verse from the Koran in Arabic. Visitors have laid small pebbles on the low wall encircling the small chapel. Each pebble symbolizes a wish. There are hundreds of pebbles.

Secular wishes for a saint

One of the pilgrims wishes for her sick cousin to become well. Two girls hope that Ak Gulshan will help them gain admission to the university. The low door at the entrance forces everyone to bow before the tomb in the middle of the chapel as they enter the mausoleum.

Led by a cemetery attendant, the pilgrims walk around the burial area three times, men and women together. After a short prayer, they all leave the mausoleum by walking out the door backwards. Then they continue their pilgrimage.

After traveling a few kilometers, the bus makes a right turn, leaving the asphalt road for a narrow clay one. A small blue metal sign gives directions in Arabic. A place that can only be found by those who know where it is, for almost no one can read Arabic. In earlier times, Turkmen were nomads who favored the spoken word over the written.

The Soviets introduced the Cyrillic alphabet and the current government has pushed through a Latin-based script. The road leads past dry shrubs and saline meadows populated by a few camels.

Headscarves, Russian shapkas, and baseball caps

The attendant at the pilgrimage site comes out to greet the arrivals. Cool bags filled with food are lugged into a room furnished with plastic mats that has been assigned to them. In the days before people came by car, one could spend the night.

The new arrivals are handed the meat that other pilgrims are too full to eat. In return, their leftover meat will be given to new pilgrims. Women cut up a lamb and put it in one of the many pots lying around. Preparing the meat is men's work."Men don't trust women," explained Leili with a laugh.

The Mullah then leads the group to the grounds of the mosque. The roof crest of the simple building is decorated with a huge pair of sheep horns. Near the house of God, every pilgrim must squeeze through a symbolic gate made out of branches in order to enter the "holy space." One enters with the right foot first.

Behind the mosque is a small area enclosed by a whitewashed wall. The pilgrims gather around the wall and look at the space inside. Sticks have been hammered into the ground. "They mark where Ak Ishan's body parts were buried after he was killed by his enemies and hacked into pieces," explained the Mullah. He then offered a prayer in Arabic on behalf of everyone present.

Resurrection or sainthood?

According to legend, the forty sons of Ak Ishan committed suicide after their father's death. God offered deceased Ak Ishan the choice of either having all his sons resurrected or to having one of them made a saint. Ak Ishan chose the latter. First, however, the chosen son had to solve a task: to guess the contents of a mysterious box. An ant hurried to his aid and told him that the box was filled with white and black stones. Ever since then ants and people have been friends.

The group scatters behind the mosque. Here and there lie a few strangely shaped stones or pieces of wood wrapped in cloth. Again connected with a wish. There is also a well covered with a thick rug. Leili pokes her head under the rug and looks down the well. You can see the future there, they say. "What did you see?" her cousins ask. Leili giggles.

And then leisure time begins. Eating, drinking tea, chatting, strolling about the grounds, springing from sand dunes. People discuss customs and ignore the fact that President Turkmenbashi has named the months after himself and his family members:

In the month of Sapar you must sacrifice a black sheep. Giving sweets is also good. One should not marry on days connected with the number nine. Nor should one marry in the month of Meret, "the black Meret," or in the month of Bosch. "Bosch means emptiness, and that is a bad omen."

"You'd have to ask the old people"

Again the topic of marriage comes up. Leili forces a laugh. The fasting month is called Orasa in the Turkmen language. One should not travel east on days connected with the number one. Happiness and unhappiness are determined by a mysterious star. The morning star? Opinions vary. It's an invisible star, a black star…. "You'd have to ask the old people."

As evening approaches, everyone gets ready to leave. At the exit everyone is given some salt wrapped in cloth. Several women fill their plastic bottles with water. "It makes you healthy." The Imam is allowed to take an extra lump of salt. Awaiting them in Ashgabat are brightly lit marble palaces and monumental portraits of the Turkmen leader.
But after such a pilgrimage, everything appears in a different light.

Lennart Lehmann

© Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Nancy Joyce

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