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Ethnic Turkmens are a large majority of the people of Turkmenistan. The 1995 census figures recorded that Turkmens comprised around 77% of the population. Uzbeks made up 9.2%, and Russians 6.7% (down from 9.5% in the 1989 census). Other significant communities included Kazakhs, Ukrainians, Armenians, Azeris and Tatars. Since 1995, the proportion of ethnic Turkmens has certainly increased further, through a combination of a high birth rate among the ethnic Turkmen group, and out-migration of other communities in response to the government's Turkmenisation policies.

President Niyazov, while stressing the importance of friendship and harmony between ethnic groups, closely identifies the state of Turkmenistan with the Turkmen people. The Turkmen language is the medium of education and government, non-Turkmen cultural outlets are now rarities, and few senior government posts arc held by non-Turkmens. Significant non-Turkmen minorities remain, however, in the main towns, and Dashoguz and Lebap regions have large ethnic Uzbek populations.

Turkmen people

According to Ruhnama, the Turkmens originated from Oguz Han, who had six sons, each of whom had four sons of their own. From these 24 boys originated 24 clans, from which all of the Oguz people of the world are descended. While Turkic tribes had started to arrive in this part of Central Asia from around the 5th century, historians believe that there was a major westwards migration of Oguz tribes from the area of present-day Mongolia in the 10th century. Most historians believe that they were displaced nomadic horse-breeding clans who, in the 10th century, drifted into the oases around the Karakum desert (and into Persia, Syria and Anatolia) from the foothills of the Altay Mountains in the wake of the Seljuq Turks. One of the new homes of the Oguz was the region of the Aral Sea and Syr Darya Basin.

The use of the word 'Turkmen' began to appear around this time, possibly to distinguish those Oguz tribes which had accepted Islam. From this area emerged the Seljuks, who expanded their territories southwestwards in the 11th century, forming a great empire. The Oguz peoples moving into the area at this time were the ancestors of the modern Turkmen.

The Turkmens are a tribal people. The main tribes include the Tekke, based around the Ahal, Tejen and Merv oases; the Ersari, along the Amu Darya; the Yomud, in the western Balkan Region and Khorezm Oasis; the Goklen, in the far southwest; and the Sarik and Salor, in the southern part of the Merv Oasis and along the Murgab River. Historically, divisions between the tribes have been strong. Visiting in the 1860s, the Hungarian traveller Arminius Vambery found for example that the Yomud lived 'in an inveterate and irreconcilable enmity with the Goklen' while the Sarik were at that time in hostile relations with almost everybody else. The 18th-century Turkmen poet Magtymguly stressed the need for unity among the Turkmen tribes, better to withstand external aggression, and this theme has been taken up strongly by Niyazov's government. Tribal background remains important in many spheres of life, from patronage networks to determining marriage partners, though is not necessarily a decisive factor. Differences between the tribes are reflected in styles of dress, carpet designs, dialect and, many Turkmens will claim, even in personal character.

Turkmen men are easily recognisable in their huge, shaggy sheepskin hats (telpek), either white (for special occasions) or black with thick ringlets resembling dreadlocks, worn year-round on top of a skullcap, even on the hottest days. As one Turkmen explained it, they’d rather suffer the heat of their own heads than that of the sun. Traditional dress consists of baggy trousers tucked into knee-length boots, and white shirts under the kneelength khalat, a cherry-red cotton jacket. Older men wear a long, belted coat.

Turkmen women wear heavy, ankle-length velvet or silk dresses, the favourite colours being wine reds and maroons, with colourful trousers underneath. A woman’s hair is always tied back and concealed under a colourful scarf. Older women often wear a khalat thrown over their heads as protection from the sun’s rays.

The Turkmen shared the nomad’s affinity for Sufism, which is strongly represented in Turkmenistan alongside the cult of sheikhs (holy men), amulets, shrines and pilgrimage. The Turkmen language (also called Turkmen) is closest to Azeri. Interestingly, there was a Turkmen literary language as early as the mid-18th century.

Turkmen remain nomadic at heart, if not still in practice, and carry themselves in a simple yet dignified manner that reflects their rural lifestyle. Nomadic rules, including the treatment of guests, still dominate home life. Turkmen are guided spiritually by a unique form of Central Asian animism.

Holiday breaks are thus used for pilgrimage time. Women in particular use these pilgrimages as an opportunity to take a break from their home life, and you may see caravans of women on buses, headed to places like Parau Bibi. Women who live outside Turkmenistan’s towns are generally homemakers and mothers, and men the breadwinners. The oldest woman in the household, however, wields the most authority in decision making.