Text ©copyright by Kate Fitz Gibbon
This article appeared first in Ornament magazine's Volume 22 Number 3, Spring 1999 issue. For more information regarding this exceptional magazine, please contact Ornament, Inc., P.O. Box 2349, San Marcos, CA 92079, tel:760-599-0222, email firstname.lastname@example.org
The most graceful and elegant jewelry in the whole of Asia’s heartland, the most unique and fully realized style of ornament, is that of the Turkoman. For centuries these nomad warriors and herdsmen have chosen independence over comfort. They have forsworn cities and the trappings of civilization, yet they have created an art of great sophistication, sobriety and restraint.
The ancestors of today’s Turkomans arrived in Central Asia about the 5th century AD, when descriptions of Turks living in southern Central Asia appear in Chinese sources. By the 6th century, Turks were testing the mettle of their sedentary neighbors along the borders of China, Persia and Byzantium. One of the largest waves of Turkic peoples arrived with the armies of Chengiz Khan, and traveled almost to the borders of Europe. As a result of the fluidity of political alliance within the steppe, many of the tribal confederations formed at this time were based as much on political convenience as on cultural heritage. The Turkoman cultural identity was formed after centuries of living in close proximity on the steppe. There is no Turkoman race, but there is a Turkoman language, and a well defined ethnicity that separates them from other Turkic language groups in the same geographical area like the Uzbek, the Kirgiz and the Kazakh.
While some of these Turkic peoples became settled, others continued to practice pastoral nomadism until the beginning of the 20th century. The Central Asian Turkoman lived in the harsh deserts south and west of the oases of Bokhara and Samarkand. They raised horses, bred karakul sheep, and made themselves useful as mercenary armies, and highly annoying as caravan robbers and slave traders. Although many were forced to move from pastoralism to agriculture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Turkoman kept close ties to nomadism, and their cultural identification was with an idealized steppe life.
Pastoralist Turkomans lived in lattice work dwellings called yurts, in groups ranging from a few families to thousands of tents. Each tribe developed sophisticated textile arts that were suited to a nomadic lifestyle; their household goods could be folded up and loaded onto a camel and taken to the next camping ground. As with textiles, the many different styles of jewelry express the taste and preferences of a certain tribe. The Turkoman have few material possessions, but what they have is beautifully ornamented by their own hands. Makers of art, surrounded by art, they are born connoisseurs.
Silver pendant-like ornaments, plaques, beads, rings and bracelets make up the components of Turkoman jewelry. Only the poorest could not afford silver, and these used gelit, an extremely low silver content white metal. Turkoman silversmiths learned their art as apprentices under a master craftsman. In the largest settlements, smiths were organized into guilds, and worked in the bazaar. Every large encampment included a smith who worked in his home, making horse trappings, belts, knives and sheath fittings as well as jewelry and ornaments.
The craftsman’s tools were simple. Silver was melted in a small clay hearth, the fire was fanned by a hand bellows, and thin silver plates were poured out. The lines of the pattern were chased, engraved with gouges, or hammered in with punches. Silver wire was drawn and corded, gently hammered into engraved notches and soldered. Gold plates were heated and mixed with about six times the amount of mercury to form a gold amalgam with a very low melting point. The surface to be gilded was amalgamated with quicksilver and nitric acid and the alloy was applied to the surface with a copper brush, then heated, so the mercury could evaporate. Craftsmen cut silver wire into tiny pieces, then heated them on a plate with holes drilled in it. The molten silver fell into a bowl filled with cold water and hardened, and the granulates were soldered onto the base jewelry.
The most common form of decoration was with incised lines: gilding was used to accentuate and define the lines. Solid gold is never found as the primary metal of old Turkoman jewelry. Fret work was used to decorate the borders of larger jewelry elements; the outlines of the various ornaments were sometimes quite elaborate. Settings of carnelian stone or red glass were oval or round, and most were raised. Only Caspian Sea area Turkomans such as the Yomud tribe used other colors of stone or glass. Yomud jewelry was further distinguished by its use of thin gilded silver repousse plaques soldered on top of a plain silver base.
Turkoman silversmiths made sophisticated use of these limited techniques. The incised lines define the surface into planes, into negative and positive space. These lines are so lively that many shapes are reminiscent of figural forms. There are forms that look vaguely like flowers, or birds, or that seem like pieces of animals, horns or swishing tails. The lines are so highly abstracted that we see, not the flower, but growth - not the animal, but its movement and its strength. A person from outside of Turkoman culture is likely to respond to one of their massive pectoral pieces simply as sculpture.
Many types of Turkoman jewelry carried meanings related to their history as a warrior people and to the pastoralist tradition. Some ornaments had homeopathic properties, some sympathetic magic, some made reference to pre-Islamic notions of totemic spirits. Throughout a Turkoman’s life, there were periods in which a person was particularly vulnerable to harm, and other times when it was possible to partake of another’s good fortune. Many types of ornament served to protect as much as to decorate the household and the human form.
Amuletic material from Turkoman culture often does not include the type of written prayers and mosque images found in talismanic material from Islamic areas. Instead there are ram’s horns, snakes and a variety of triangular shapes. During the period in which Soviet scholarship sought to minimize the role of Islam, this lack of overtly Islamic content was used to support the hypothesis that Turkoman folk culture was based on long forgotten Zoroastrian or shamanist belief systems. Perhaps it is more useful to consider the long tradition of highly abstract art on the steppe, in which formal considerations of line are more important than representation, and totemic animals take precedence over the human form - and to look at what is meaningful to the Turkomans today.
Turkomans say that they are Muslim. Like many Muslims, they may or may not follow all of the injunctions of Islam. They include both Muslim prayers and rituals associated with folk belief in the same ceremonies. If the informant is a man, he may say quite truthfully that rituals are women’s business. Men are out in the world: they deal with urban culture in the bazaar. Women are the repositories of folk culture and folk belief, they are the healers, and it is they who confront birth, sickness and death. Their costume, their art and their magic, best reflect the Turkoman response to these challenges.
The first weeks after birth were by far the most dangerous part of a Turkoman’s life. Without knowledge of hygiene, in terribly rough conditions in the steppe, many children and their mothers died in childbirth or soon after. Until a child had lived for forty days, he was considered a borderline person, too delicate to be part of normal family life. After this time, he was given a ritual bath (which included 40 grains of wheat and 40 bits of ram’s droppings) and was considered past the greatest danger, but his clothing continued to be ornamented with talismanic material of all kinds.
All children are protected by the triangular talismans called doga. These are squares of cloth, folded over into triangular shape, sometimes enclosing a piece of paper on which prayers had been written. Salt, camel hair, seeds, earth and other substances are also found in doga. These triangles are sewn onto cap and clothing. Silver doga in triangular shape are quite common. A child’s talismans expressed the family’s wishes for good fortune. If the boy child was to be a courageous warrior, a small silver sabre was sewn to his clothes. A miniature adze and tiny axe, symbolized hard work and industriousness. The best known boy’s ornament is the aq yaih. This was made of silver in a great variety of shapes, but all included two half circles side by side, representing a bow, within the pattern. Children also wore anklets and handmade necklaces of glass, metal and few silver beads.
When a girl reached the age of nine to twelve years she was considered marriageable, and her costume and jewelry changed. She wore a cloth cap decorated with embroidery and small silver plaques. Among certain tribes a dome shaped ornament called a qopba sat on the top. White owl feathers were fixed to the hole at the top of the qopba when the girl was betrothed.
Traditionally, amulets made of cloth, leather and silver are sewn to both the front and back of clothes, and attached to the hair and headdress or cap of young women. At times they are worn on a string plaited from black and white threads and tied around the neck. Numerous small silver discs are sewn to the cap and robes of young girls. The use of silver plaques is reminiscent of a spirit protective of young brides and their children, who appeared as a young woman dressed in red, wearing masses of silver jewelry.
The wood of the dagdan tree is used to make especially powerful amulets. Because the wood is quite hard, demons cannot penetrate it. Some wooden amulets are said to have been passed down through ten generations. An elaborate mutiple-horned shaped silver ornament is also called a dagdan. Several silver dagdan may be combined in a necklace, or sewn to clothing. Larger ones are worn as pectorals.
The time in which the Turkoman woman is considered a bride dates from her wedding to the time when she has borne her first children. The amount of jewelry worn daily during this period is extraordinary. There are several reasons why this is the time when a woman is most ornamented. Her wedding is a celebratory, festive time, and she needs to be dressed in her best. The wedding is an opportunity to display the gifts presented by her new husband and his family. Her bride price can bankrupt her new husband; Turkoman women are economic assets because of their ability to generate income through carpet weaving, and her jewelry is the family’s bank account. Lastly, in the time prior to the birth of her children she is especially in need of blessings and good fortune. Her jewelry is full of propitious symbols, and certain ornaments carry specific protective and talismanic values.
The origin of the high headdress worn by married Turkoman women is obscure, but ceramic figurines from the 4th century AD already represent women wearing a high, crown-like headdress. In the period of Mongol hegemony, an extremely high headdress decorated with many golden ornaments became widespread throughout Central Asia. The headdress is the most complex and varied element of Turkoman costume. The basketry or wooden framework for the headdress is the borik. The borik is wrapped in silk, and a scarf drapes down the back. This frame forms the base for attaching many different types of pendants. The sinsileh, an ornament composed of silver plaques joined together with chains, is common to many Turkoman tribes, and sits at the top of the high headdress. The ram’s horn top of the sinsileh is a dominant motif in many types of Turkoman jewelry. Ram’s horns are associated with many childbearing rituals. For example, childless women made miniature cradles, complete with little stick dolls, and carried them to saint’s graves where they hung them upon the ram’s horns that decorated the tomb. The manlayik consists of rectangular silver plaque elements joined by chains. It is attached to the headdress beneath the sinsileh with sharp, heavy hooks. A variant called the ildergich is worn in the same place, but the plaques have a curvilinear or floral shape.
Less widely distributed among the Turkoman is the egme, a very large, crown like convex headdress worn primarily by the Tekke. A silver and coral or glass beaded cloth ornament which frames the face above the forehead is worn instead by many Ersari Turkoman women.
Temple pendants called tenechir hang on either side of the headdress. They have a number of shapes, most often that of an elongated triangle topped with ram’s horns. Hooked earrings are worn either in the ear or attached into the cloth of the headdress near the ear. The basic earring forms are pear-shaped hooked pendants, hoops with scalloped or triangular plaques at the base, and long drops with a ball pendants and false granulation. While these ornaments have a relatively fixed position on the headdress, smaller decorative elements - pendants, beads and coins - may be added if the family budget allows it.
On formal occasions the false-sleeved chyrpy robe hangs over the top of the headdress at a rakish angle, and may be pulled over the face if a woman feels shy. Chyrpy were the most richly ornamented garment owned by the Turkoman. The silk base material was heavily embroidered, usually in an overall pattern of floral designs. Chyrpy made since around the 1940’s are full-sleeved, and in theory they could be worn with the hands through the sleeves, but the ends of the sleeves are usually joined with a strip of embroidery or braid.
The Chakr and Khatap Turkomans who live in the lower reaches of the Amu Darya wear a distinctive low headdress with a moon shaped plaque attached to the inside of a wooden frame. The front of the frame is decorated with smaller jewelry elements. Gold washes are never used in Khatap jewelry, and their ornaments are decorated with curvilinear, overtly floral designs that are not found on the more familiar Tekke or Yomud jewelry.
The Turkoman woman’s costume of shift dress with embroidered trim is ornamented with massive pectoral ornaments. One of the largest is the bukav, a stiff circular collar with gilt and carnelian ornament that supports a large fret worked plaque, gilt and studded with carnelian, and hung with numerous small pendants and bells. The term gonjok refers both to an elongated hexagonal breastplate and to the diamond shaped pendants with a cruciform design that are worn as pectorals or sewn to the collar of the Turkoman robe.
The tumar is a large triangular shaped ornament with an elongated capsule called a bozbend at its base. It is often studded with carnelian, and hung with multiple smaller pendants of chains with bells or tear shaped drops. Another ornament with the name of bozbend has a circular form.
Among the mid size pendants and ornaments are the gol chakah, a gigantic collar stud found especially among the Yomud and other Caspian area tribes. There are many varieties of smaller pectoral ornaments; silver clasps with a loop at the neck opening, silver bells, and large, elegant silver beads , most often in ball shape with a band circling the middle, which are sometimes faceted, sometimes incised with pattern.
The Turkoman wear a variety of plait ornaments behind the head and on the back - the best known of these are the large, heart shaped asyk. These are worn only by married women, and are a gift to the bride from the parents of the groom. From the age of puberty, a young woman wears her hair in four braids. When she marries, her hair is braided into two thick braids on her back, and the asyk and other braid ornaments are hung on them. Sachmondjuk are braid ornaments composed of tiers of beads and plaques joined by chain or strung on thick black silk or cotton. Each vertical arrangement is attached to a braid.
The classic Tekke Turkoman bracelets are extremely heavy, made of two plates of silver filled with pitch. They can extend from the wrist all the way to the elbow, up to 20 centimeters long. The two to five banded sections into which bracelets are divided are called qoshmah. A self respecting Tekke woman would hesitate to wear a bracelet of a single band. Numerous examples of cut down old Turkoman multiple band bracelets have made their way to the West, a concession to Western style. Other tribal groups more commonly wear single band bracelets. The Khatap Turkoman bracelet has a long, cuff-like shape. Curvilinear and floral designs are incised on to the heavy silver. Goklan Turkoman bracelets are not gilded, but they are otherwise very similar to Tekke material, although the Goklan prefer red glass to carnelian.
Yuzik are rings, sometimes executed in plain silver, but most often with a carnelian bezel. Antique rings sometimes have a strong horned shape in double or quadrilateral form.
After her first children are born, the recently married Turkoman woman continues to wear much of her wedding jewelry, though the high headdress must be a considerable inconvenience while doing chores. Gradually, she reduces the amount of jewelry, and finally dispenses with it entirely except for special occasions. The elderly Turkoman matriarch rules the household. She makes the decisions on the household economy, supervises the weaving work of the younger women, and has a great deal to say about the raising of young children. She will be trusted to doctor the family, and to conduct any rites and rituals needed for the preservation of family health and harmony.
The older woman also wears the least jewelry. Often she is without any ornament except a cloth or leather doga. On special occasions she wears a heykal. The heykal is a flat, folded leather envelope, decorated with a silver plaque on the front flap, and smaller silver plaques on the thick, leather strap. It has been said that these pouches are for keeping Korans, but the traditional cloth book bag is used by the Turkoman for that purpose. It would only be possible to carry prayers and keys and very small or very narrow items in these heykal. It is more likely that, like other container-like jewelry items, the shape of the container has come to represent the filled vessel.
Turkoman men wore rings, and occasionally ornamented belts, but the most common talismanic ornament worn by grown men is the bazuband, an ornament adapted from an urban tradition. Bazuband are usually made up of three silver pieces joined together by a string or chain, and are tied under the clothing about the upper arm.
The horse is the primary status symbol among the Turkoman. The horse was an indispensable tool for the Turkoman warrior and his getaway vehicle in his days as a desert marauder and slave stealer. Today, horses are trained for buzkashi, a polo-like game played with a headless goat for a ball. Horses wore bridle and trappings heavily ornamented with silver and gold washed plaques, made in the same manner and style as women’s jewelry.
Copyright © Kate Fitz Gibbon