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Festivals & Holidays

Turkmenistan has a great number of holidays, though the country largely continues to work as normal during most of them.

1 January - New Year
12 January - Remembrance Day (Battle of Geok-Depe)
19 February - Flag Day (President’s Birthday)
8 March - Women’s Day
21 March - Navrus (spring festival);
April (first Sunday) Drop of Water is a Grain of Gold Day
April (last Sunday) Horse Day
9 May - Victory Day
18 May - Day of Revival & Unity
19 May - Magtymguly Poetry Day
May (last Sunday) - Carpet Day
August (second Sunday) - Melon Holiday
6 October - Remembrance Day (1948 Earthquake)
27 & 28 October - Independence Day
November (first Saturday) - Health Day
November (last Sunday) - Harvest Festival
7 December - Good Neighbourliness Day
12 December - Neutrality Day

Turkmenistan has a large number of public holidays, many though celebrated on Sundays in order not to disrupt the working week. Most are creations of President Niyazov and form part of his nation-building project for the young state of Turkmenistan. Holidays celebrate the independence of the country, significant dates (such as the UN General Assembly resolution granting Turkmenistan its status of permanent neutrality), the most famous symbols and products of Turkmenistan (its horses, carpets and even melons) and the achievements of key groups of workers, from singers to employees of the oil and gas sector. Some Islamic festivals, such as the end of Ramadan, and pre-Islamic ones, such as the spring festival, are also commemorated.

All these Turkmen holidays are celebrated through special programmes on state-run Turkmen television and news broadcasts incorporating the texts of holiday messages from the president. But in many cases, there is not a great deal in which the foreign tourist can get involved. The most prestigious of the state concerts held to mark the events, often in the Ruhyyet Palace or Olympic Stadium in Ashgabat, involve an invited audience, whose role is to applaud and wave Turkmen flags. With most of the audience having been instructed to attend, provision is not usually made for visitors actually wanting to come. But these concerts, which feature songs and dramatic sketches, often either in praise of President Niyazov or using the texts of his poetry as lyrics, are of interest as a graphic visual demonstration of the personality-driven focus of the Turkmen regime. Securing attendance at smaller concerts outside Ashgabat is usually easier, as is getting to see the parades usually held in the capital around the Flag Day, Independence Day and Neutrality Day holidays. These major holidays also frequently include public firework displays, as well as other cultural events, including concerts of Turkmen pop music. But many of the smaller newly created holidays have not really generated any resonance in the lives of most Turkmens, and pass unnoticed by most people.

The holiday calendar

1 January: New Year's Day Restaurants hold sumptuous ticket-only events on New Year's Eve, with dancing and party games, fuelled by sweet sparkling wine. The trees in town centres are decorated with tinsel, and kids let off firecrackers in the streets. Shops decorate their windows with fake snow.

12 January: Memorial Day Commemorates the Turkmens killed at the battle of Geok Depe in 1881. Each year President leads a memorial service at the Geok Depe Mosque.

19 February: Flag Day Commemorates the adoption of Turkmenistan's new state flag in 1992. The flag is rather attractive: a crescent moon and five stars on a green background, with a vertical red strip decorated with five carpet motifs, each representing one of the five regions of Turkmenistan. In 1997, two crossed olive branches were added to the base of this vertical strip, to symbolise Turkmenistan's foreign policy of permanent neutrality. The date 19 February has another significance; it is also President Niyazov's birthday.

20-22 March: National Spring Holiday Based around the vernal equinox, the spring holiday, known as Novruz Bayrain, is celebrated across Central Asia as the time of the arrival of spring, and in Iran as the start of the new year. One Turkmen tradition associated with Novruz Bay ram is the preparation of a caramel-coloured paste known as semeni, made from sprouted wheat and flour. Turkmen families believe that if you leave a dish of newly prepared semeni overnight, the handprint of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, may be visible on the surface of the food in the morning. But not every Turkmen family is able to make semeni. One Turkmen friend told me that the first time his paternal grandmother tried to make the dish, her oven blew up. On the second occasion, her mother-in-law fell ill. On the third, she herself fell ill. Thereafter, she paid heed to the bad omens and stopped trying to make the stuff. The family now receive their supplies from his mother's side. In 2003 Niyazov announced that he was moving Women's Day, previously celebrated in Turkmenistan as elsewhere on 8 March, to link it up with the spring holiday, which henceforward would be celebrated over three days.

First Sunday in April: Drop of Water - Grain of Gold Day This holiday, named from a traditional Turkmen proverb, is the occasion for an annual message from the president about the importance of the effective management of Turkmenistan's water reserves.

Last Sunday in April: Holiday of the Turkmen Horse Celebrates the famous Ahal Tekke horses of Turkmenistan. The main focus of the day is, predictably enough, horse races, held at tracks in all the regional capitals.

8-9 May: Remembrance and Victory Days One of the few Turkmen holidays which maintains a Soviet-era tradition. Many Turkьens were killed in what is still referred to as the Great Patriotic War, and 8 May is marked by the laying of wreaths at war memorials as well as by family visits to the graves of those who died. This public holiday is also the focus of a developing personality cult around President Niyazov's father, Atamurat, killed in World War II.

18 May: The Day of Revival, Unity and the Poetry of Magtymguly The date 18 May was celebrated as the Day of Revival and Unity until 1999, marking the anniversary of the adoption, in 1992, of the constitudon of the new state of Turkmenistan. In 2000, in an attempt at rationalising the spiralling number of holiday events, Niyazov combined this holiday with the annual celebration of the 18th-century Turkmen poet Magtymguly, which had up to then been held on the following day. The science-fiction author Brian Aldiss includes a fictional account of Magtymguly Day celebrations in his novel Somewhere East of Life. But the reality of the day is more low key than that of Aldiss's fiction, centring on the laying of flowers at the various monuments to Magtymguly around the country.

Last Sunday in May: Carpet Day An exhibition of carpets and carpet-making, coupled with an open-air concert, is usually organised at the back of the Carpet Museum in Ashgabat.

Third Sunday in July: Grain Day A celebration of the wheat harvest, greeted with great fanfare if the annual production target is deemed to have been met.

Second Sunday in August: Melon Day In 2003 this event was marked by a melon-themed exhibition at Independence Park in Ashgabat, to which visitors were greeted by small girls dressed in inflatable melon and watermelon outfits. The following year, less eccentrically, the centrepiece of the celebrations was a music concert.

Second Saturday in September: Day of the Employees of the Oil and Gas, Energy and Geological Industries First commemorated in 2003, a holiday devoted to Turkmenistan's largest exports earner. State-organised events are focused on the main centres of the industry, such as Balkanabat.

Second Sunday in September: Day of the Turkmen Bagshy On the heels of the oil workers come the folk singers. Musical performances are the order of the day.

October 6: Remembrance Day for those killed in the Ashgabat earthquake of 1948 Wreaths are laid at the earthquake monuments in Ashgabat and Gypjak. The Turkmen government holds a sacrificial meal at the Gypjak Mosque.

October 27-28: Independence Day The anniversary of the independence of the young state of Turkmenistan is the most important date on the government's calendar: such an important day, in fact, that it lasts 48 hours. There is usually a parade in Ashgabat, watched over by the president, in which a display of Turkmenistan's (mostly Soviet-era) military hardware is followed by a procession involving Ahal Tekke horses, employees of various state organisations and brightly coloured dancers. There are concerts, plays, an annual song competition and fireworks.

First Saturday in November: Health Day Usually marked by government officials walking the Health Paths in Ashgabat and other Turkmen cities.

Last Sunday in November: Good Neighbourliness and Harvest Days Good Neighbourliness Day is an event intended to reinforce the Turkmen tradition of support for neighbours. The focus of this day, which until 2002 was celebrated on the first Sunday in December, is the sharing of food with one's neighbours. In 2003, Niyazov amalgamated this holiday with Harvest Day at the end of November.

December 12: Neutrality Day A holiday commemorating the anniversary of the 1995 United Nations General Assembly resolution granting Turkmenistan its status of permanent neutrality. As from 2003, Neutrality Day has been combined with the Day of Student Youth, moved from its earlier slot of 17 November.

ISLAMIC HOLDAYS

Turkmenistan also commemorates some key Muslim holy days, whose dates are set by the lunar calendar. These are as follows.

Kurban Bayratn (Eid ul-Adha) This Muslim festival marks the willingness of Ibrahim to obey the word of Allah by agreeing to sacrifice his son. Allah spared the boy, and allowed Ibrahim to sacrifice a lamb instead. In Turkmenistan, families sacrifice a sheep, arranging for most of the mutton to be distributed to the poor. The boiled mutton is often used to make the dish dograma. The family themselves will eat the dograma as a soup. But they will also arrange for little parcels of the dried mixture of mutton, bread and onion used to make the dish to be sent to the needy, as well as to their neighbours and relatives. The Kurban Bayram celebration is the most colourful in Turkmenistan, and is held over three days, starting 70 days after the end of Ramadan. Aspects of the celebration in Turkmenistan draw from a pre-Islamic tradition. These include jumping over fire, which seems to hint at Zoroastrianism. The most visible feature of the Kurban Bayram holiday for the visitor to Turkmenistan is, however, the tradition of 'swinging away sins'. Across Turkmenistan, you will see large metal frames, often in open spaces on the edges of settlements. During Kurban Bayram a swing, usually little more complex than a plank of wood, is suspended from these frames, and youngsters ride on the swings, by tradition losing one sin with every swing. Courting couples face each other on the swings, an action which can be taken as a betrothal. Foreign visitors will be enthusiastically welcomed on to the swings, usually by small children who will be only too keen to propel you ever higher. This can turn into an extreme sport to rival anything dreamt up by adventure travel companies, so is not to be attempted lightly.

Oraza Bayram (Eid ul-Fitr) The holiday marking the end of the month of Ramadan. liars and restaurants remain open throughout the day during Ramadan, and business visitors will often still be offered tea and coffee at meetings by their hosts. Rates of observance of the daylight Ramadan fast are however on the increase in Turkmenistan. The night between the 26th and 27th days of Ramadan is known as Gadyr Gijesy (Omnipotence Night), when by recent tradition President Niyazov orders the release of many petty criminals from Turkmenistan's jails. In 2002, Niyazov wrote a poem to commemorate the action. It was called Taking Oneself Home.


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