Making up about 2% of the population, Iranian Turkmen are descended from the nomadic Turkic tribes that once ruled Iran, they arrived very early on, in the XI century. They live in the northeast of the country, especially around Gorgan and Gonbad-e Kavus. Traditionally Turkmens are nomads and extremely proud of their warrior past: until recently, they were greatly feared around Gorgan and Damghan for the ferocity with which they swept down to pillage caravans and villages. They speak their own Turkic language. Unlike the other Turkic groups, they are Sunni.
The Turkmen were traditionally divided into two groups whose lifestyle was governed by their geographic environment. The Sarwa, nomad herders, lived in the steppes of Khorasan and the present Republic of Turkmenistan, moving each year with their herds across vast distances in regions unsuitable for agriculture. The Somir, on the other hand, were semi-nomadic agriculturalists who lived between Gorgan and the forests of the Alborz, in Mazanderan Province, where they grew mainly wheat. While the Somir would strive to better their social status and become nomadic herders, it was not uncommon for financially ruined Sarwa families to settle down and become farmers, or even to make for the Caspian coast and work as fishermen. The closure of the frontier with Soviet Russia in 1928 suddenly cut off the traditional migration routes and profoundly modified the way of life of the Sarwa. Today, the Turkoman are mostly sedentary and have become agriculturalists and fishermen.
Turkmen people have a truly extraordinary range of facial features, from Asiatic (Kazakh-Mongolian) to startlingly blue-eyed Caucasian. Their clans are predominantly Sunni-Muslim and speak their own Turkic dialects. Turkmen women have little patience with black chadors, favouring heavy, full-length dresses in bright colours over trousers and shawls with floral designs. Some older men wear white turbanlike headscarves but once-iconic telpek hats of shaggy sheepskin are pretty rare these days, as are traditional yurt-style nomad-tents called oy.
The Turkmen towns and villages such as Bandar-e Torkaman and Ashuradeh are pretty sleepy places but the Thursday market at Aq Qaleh is worth hunting out; all make a great place to meet Turkmen Iranians, unwind and experience their famous hospitality.