Shrine pilgrimage (ziarat) is one of the strongest features of religious belief among the Turkmens, and is closely associated with the tradition of veneration of ancestors. Almost all Turkmen cemeteries are based around the tomb of a revered figure who, as the gonambashy ('head of the cemetery'), extends his or her positive influence over the cemetery as a whole. Within Turkmen society, there are some 'non-Turkmen' lineage groups, known as owlat, or holy, groups. These groups, of perceived Arab origin, trace their ancestry not to Oguz Han but to the Prophet Mohammed. The owlat lineages usually include a respected Sufi figure. Those cemeteries in which the gonambashy is a well-known Sufi of owlat line tend to be important places of pilgrimage.
But there are a wide variety of shrine pilgrimage sites, and by no means all are located at the place of burial of a well-known Sufi or other respected figure. Some are based around natural objects such as caves or particularly ancient trees, around which legends are woven. In some cases, there is no tomb at these sites. Others are the purported burial sites of major figures of the Islamic world, although these are in many cases known to have been buried elsewhere, or of legendary figures.
Alongside the tomb or mausoleum of the venerated figure, the largest shrine pilgrimage sites include a complex of buildings, including a mosque, a guesthouse for pilgrims, and a covered area for the holding of sacrificial meals. The last, known as hudaiyoly, form an important part of the pilgrimage. They are given as part of the process of making a request to the venerated figure during a pilgrimage, or to give thanks when a previous request was answered positively. They can also be given at home, for example on specific days following a death of a close relative, or to give thanks for a piece of luck or achievement. The offering of part of the sacrificial meal to other visitors to the pilgrimage site is considered particularly praiseworthy, so you may well find that visits to places of shrine pilgrimage include the receipt of a bowl of plov.
Visits to shrine pilgrimage sites involve a complex series of rituals. These differ from site to site, but a common feature is the circling three times of the tomb or mausoleum, while repeatedly touching the tomb with both hands and then holding the hands to the face. At the end of this process, pilgrims often squat down in the company of the caretaker of the site, himself respected as a 'holy man', while the caretaker recites a blessing. The caretaker is usually given a small payment for performing this service. Many sites incorporate a feature known as a chile agach, comprising one or more trees or constructed from pieces of wood, sometimes taking the form of a basic wooden gateway. Passing through this is believed to cure the sick and bring children to the infertile.
Votive offerings are very common. The most widespread are small strips of cloth, usually tied to the branches of a gnarled and ancient tree or chile agach, each signifying a prayer. Two bricks placed on the ground in a small hut shape are another prayer signifier. The nature of the votive offerings gives a good indication that desire for a child is a particularly common prayer: plastic rattles, dummies, and little cribs modelled from cloth are seen at almost every site. An open pair of scissors also represents the wish for a child - the allusion is to the severing of the umbilical cord. The colour of the strip of cloth placed at pilgrimage sites may reflect the desired sex of the child: a white strip reflecting the wish for a boy, a colourful strip for a girl. There are always more white strips than coloured ones. The majority of pilgrims to many of the sites are women. Parau Bibi in particular is strongly dominated by female pilgrims.
At many sites you will see collections of unusually shaped stones, often including fossils such as ammonites, stones which appear to bear the print of a hand or foot, stones which resemble fruits or household items, or simply attractive rounded pebbles. Larger stones are balanced on the thumbs of two pilgrims. Smaller ones are balanced on the thumb and first two fingers of one pilgrim. If the stones gently rotate, it is believed that no sin has been committed. Other unusual traditions include girls rolling down the hill at the Kyrk Molla site, in a bid to promote fertility, and pilgrims staring down into a well at Ak Ishan, in search of the moon.
There are many hundreds of shrine pilgrimage sites across Turkmenistan. But the ten most interesting sites for the casual visitor is as follows:
Ak Ishan, Ahal Region
Malik Baba, Ahal Region
Parau Bibi, Balkan Region
Shibly Baba, Balkan Region
Ismamut Ata, Dashoguz Region
Mausoleum of Nedjmeddin Kubra, Dashoguz Region
Kyrk Molla, Dashoguz Region
Ibrahim Sultan, Dashoguz Region
Kyrk Gyz, Lebap Region
Mausoleum of Mohammed Ibn Zayd, Mary Region