People Group Profile: The Turkmen

There are about 7 million Turkmen worldwide, mostly living in Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Traditionally they are a nomadic people. They trace their descent from the Oghuz tribe from Mongolia, and have been in Central Asia since the 10th century AD. Until the Russian conquest of the area, the Turkmen were known and feared for their raiding parties, attacking caravans and taking slaves to be sold at the slave markets of Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand or Merv.

Since the Turkmen tribes were only united into one nation-state in the 20th century, tribal and clan identity is still strong. The major tribes are Tekke, Ersary, Yomud, Göklen, Salor, Saryk, and Chowdor.

Turkmen Culture

The Turkmen language belongs to the Oghuz group of Turkic languages and is closer to Turkish and Azeri than to Uzbek or Kazakh. Each Turkmen tribe speaks a different dialect, but they are able to understand each other, typically by using the Tekke dialect which is the official language of Turkmenistan. The Turkmen have a strong tradition of oral literature, which survives today.

Turkmen hospitality is lavish. A visitor will be offered green tea and food before being allowed to explain why he has come. When guests are invited for a meal, the tablecloth (spread on the floor) will be covered in bowls of salad, fruit, biscuits, nuts and dried fruit. The quantity of food reflects the amount of respect the host has for the guest.

Turkmen dress smartly, the men in suits, often with a tie and very clean shoes, the ladies with long, colorful dresses. To look untidy in public would bring shame on a Turkmen.

Turkmen carpets are famed throughout the world, but many people do not realize their origin, because they are traditionally known as Bukharan, or Afghan rugs. Carpets were traditionally made on horizontal looms by the women, who memorized the designs. Each tribe has its own design. Today some carpets are still made in this way; however most are made on upright looms in state-owned factories.

Family Life

Family Structure
Traditional Turkmen households consist of a male head, his wife, and their sons with their wives and children. A man leaves his father’s household and begins his own household when he is between 30 and 40 years old. By this time he will usually be married with his own children. Once his household is established, he will marry off his daughters in order of their age. The youngest son must stay with his parents, to look after them in their old age. Turkmen society has great respect for old age.

Traditional Turkmen families practice arranged marriages, ensuring a match between the correct tribes. A father receives a bride price for each daughter, in camels, sheep or cash. He must also pay a small amount of money to the groom’s family for bringing up their son. This is known as “milk rights”.

Women in Family Life
Once a girl is married, she must totally identify herself with her new family. In traditional households, women cover their heads and eat separately from the men, especially when guests are present. A wife is expected to produce a child in the first year. If after some years she has not, this can lead to family tension, even divorce.

Every Turkmen’s name has a meaning, often based on the day that the child was born; if it is a holiday, a boy may be called Bayram, which is the Turkmen word for a religious holiday. Girls’ names often reflect the desire to have sons, especially when there are already older sisters: a common name is Ogulgerek, which means “need-a-boy”.

Religious life

During the 70 years of Communism, many mosques and other places of worship were closed. Since independence in 1991, Islam is openly practiced again and is becoming more prominent. The Turkmen belong to the Hanafi School of Sunni Islam. However, today Islam is as much a matter of identity as of belief. Most people know little or nothing about their Islamic religion, nor in fact any religion. Many Turkmen practice “Folk Islam”, incorporating traditional beliefs such as the “evil eye” with orthodox Islam.

Contact with Christianity

Before their contact with Islam, some of the Turkmen’s ancestors may have been Christians. Cross-like symbols can be seen in some traditional Turkmen designs, and some scholars believe that the carpet pattern of the Tekke tribe depicts the Christian symbol of three crosses.

Christianity is seen by many Turkmen as the Russian religion, and Jesus as the Russian God. During Soviet rule, local churches consisted entirely of Russians and some Armenians. Recently Turkmen have been added to their number, and an indigenous Turkmen Christian movement has begun to flourish. In 1990 there were 5 reported Christian Turkmen; by 1999 this had grown to 300. Currently, in 2007, this number has grown to about 1,200.

The influence of Western culture and growing materialism is distracting people’s attention from religion. However, most Turkmen are still open to talk about spiritual matters, and Turkmen believers are diligently sharing their faith with friends and family. In the emerging Turkmen church there is a need for leadership training, and adequate materials in Turkmen. There is much to be done to help it reach maturity, as it struggles not only to stand firm against outside opposition and active persecution, but also to understand internal stresses. These include relationships with fellow Russian believers, denominational issues, and a lack of experience and training. The New Testament has been translated, and work on the Old Testament is expected to be completed by 2011. There are still thousands of Turkmen who need to hear the gospel of Jesus.

This people group profile is taken with minor edits from People International, an interdenominational Christian mission founded in 1979. Visit them on the web at www.gopeople.org.

Pray for the Turkmen

Learn more about the peoples of the former Soviet Union

Kazakhs :: Kyrgyz :: Muslims of Moscow :: Tatar :: Turkmen :: Uzbek