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Geok Tepe - witness account

Sacred Horses: Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy by [Jonathan Maslow]

...I was at least able to satisfy my curiosity about the battle of Geok Tepe with a little help from the 1882 account of the British traveler Edmund O'Donovan. O'Donovan just "happened" to be only a few kilometers from Geok Tepe when the Russians inflicted the coup de grace to Turkmen independence in 1879, and watched the entire encounter through field glasses from a rise in the Kopet-Dag foothills. O'Donovan identifies himself as "special correspondent" of the London Daily News, but reading between the lines of his travels, it is pretty clear he was a British spy. A good one, by all odds: First he cozied up to the Russian military leadership and traveled with their expeditionary forces as they crossed the Caspian Sea from Baku. Then he managed to cross the lines and win the trust of the Teke chieftain Makdum Kuli Khan, the loser in the conflict.

At the time, the British were closely monitoring czarist Russia's advance into Central Asia from their imperial outposts in India and Afghanistan, which borders Turkmenistan in the south, across the Hindu Kush. The Russians had been slowly incorporating the area then known as Turkestan as the final act of an almost sacred mission to control the entire empire of their former Mongol masters. Russian— really Muscovy—expansion had been more or less continuous ever since the great Asian warrior Tamerlane had attacked and defeated Tok-tamysh's Golden Horde in 1391, thereby allowing the self-styled Czar Ivan III to renounce Muscovy allegiance to the Tartars. His son, Ivan the Terrible, went from repudiation to aggressive action, initiating Russia's four-hundred-year drive into the nomadic heartlands.

With the breakup of the Mongol empire, the numerous Turkic tribes of the steppes reemerged from under the Mongol yoke to fight each other and resume their constant attempts to plunder and despoil their neighbors. The Turkmen were apparently unremitting in this regard, and the Tekes were the worst of all. Their chief occupation consisted of making chappows, or plundering raids, for cattle, horses, and slaves on anyone within range of their swift, durable horses. Every Teke tribesman kept at least one horse for this purpose, and was always armed with a scimitar and rifle. When they weren't raiding on their own account, the Teke hired themselves out to the local khans as mercenaries, and received payment according to the number of flayed heads of the khan's enemies they delivered to his feet. There was one reward set for bringing in eight heads, another for ten heads, and still another for twenty heads. For delivering forty heads, you received a silk robe with gold threads.

O'Donovan notes that the settled agriculture practiced in the region resembled a kind of military-farming cultural complex, where the peasants went into the fields every day armed to the teeth to fend off raiders. Every village pasture, wheat, or barley field had a brick tower with a wall and mounted guards kept watch for the approach of raiders. At the first signs of a chappow party approaching, they herded their animals under the wall and went up into the tower to defend themselves. In modern lams such an economy emphasized redistribution over productivity, with results Reaganauts could have predicted: The Turkmenistan that O'Donovan describes was a decimated land of abandoned irrigation systems, cities and towns in ruin, and a declining, impoverished population.

This ceaseless internecine hostility, of course, made the Russian conquest far easier than it would have been had the nomads united. The Russians could even justifiably call it "pacification." O'Donovan relates, for instance, that when the Russian forces reached the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea, they found two Turkmen tribes, the Yamuts and the Tekes, allied to resist them. But as soon as the Russians defeated the Yamuts, they showed the utmost eagerness to serve the Russian invaders against their Teke brethren. Two thousand irregular Yamut cavalry signed up, delighted at the chance the Russian invasion provided for paying off old scores against their traditional enemies. "Private feuds," says O'Donovan, "are at all times more powerful among the nomads than even national interests."

In the Turkmen tongue "geok" originally meant "the color of the sky." Today it more commonly means "blue" or "green," the desert people making no great distinction between colors that are, after all, more significant to littoral types. Tepe is an earth mound. Turkmenistan is heavily pockmarked with such mounds, either by the natural drifting of sand or by sand's covering over some abandoned brickwork. As far as O'Donovan could tell, the tepe in question was indeed a sand-buried ruin of an older village, while the geok supposedly referred to the cerulean color of the tepe when seen from a distance. To O'Donovan it looked yellowish-orange. In any case, as he points out, the battle didn't take place at Geok Tepe, but at a Russian-built fortress called Yengi Sheher four or five miles away, where the entire population of fifty thousand to sixty thousand Teke kibitkas covered the ground within the rectangular brick walls.

On January 9, 1879, the whole Teke cavalry force made a lightning sortie against the Russian entrenchments thrown up in front of the gates of the fortress about a thousand yards away. However, the Teke plans had been compromised and the Russians were ready. Only two breech-loading field pieces and several prisoners fell into the hands of the besieged Tekes, who did not know how to use the former and cut the throats of the latter. Russian reinforcements, rushed to the front, set up their field pieces two thousand yards from the town, and shelled it continuously for twelve days.

Meanwhile, a large body of Teke cavalry left its stronghold to act as a reserve. It was then, as O'Donovan tells the tale, that the old Turkmen habit of rustling and banditry entered the picture. The khan of Kuchan, "thinking the moment a favourable one for doing a stroke of business on his own account, while the Tekes were occupied with the defense of their stronghold, sent out a chappow of a hundred horsemen to seize whatever grain, cattle, or horses, they could find in the outlying Turcoman [sic] villages." The Teke reserve cavalry turned its attention to ambushing the Kuchan raiders. This was the type of fighting at which the nomads were really expert, and not a single man of the Kuchan escaped alive. However, with the Teke forces divided, and the Russians entrenched around Yengi Sheher with artillery, short work was made of the siege.

O'Donovan deemed it unsafe to cross open ground, where he could have been taken by either Russian scouting parties or Teke cavalry, so he kept to the slopes of the mountain chain, towering six thousand feet over the Teke plain about twelve miles from Ceok Tepe. On January 24, a heavy cannonade commenced against the northwestern and southeastern portions of the town. O'Donovan went on, "I could plainly see, by the smoke of the guns and the movements of the combatants, that the attack had begun in earnest, and I watched its results with intense anxiety." The Russians concentrated their assault line against the southern wall of the fortifications, and after a desperate conflict it became clear that they had mined the gate and broken through. Further resistance by the wild Tekes was hopeless. A crowd of horsemen began to ride in confusion from the other side of the town, and spread in flight over the plain. The Russians made no effort to pursue them. Immediately afterward "a mass of fugitives of every class showed that the town was being abandoned by its inhabitants," streaming with their cattle and effects toward the Persian frontier. "The Turcoman fortress had fallen, and all was over with the Akhal Tekes."