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The Turkmen (Türkmen or Түркмен, plural Türkmenler or Түркменлер) are a Turkic people located primarily in the Central Asian states of Turkmenistanmarker, Afghanistanmarker, northern Iraq and in northeastern Iranmarker. They speak the Turkmen language, which is classified as a part of the Western Oghuz branch of the Turkic languages family together with Turkish, Azerbaijani, Qashqai, Gagauz and Salar.


Originally, all Turkic tribes that were not part of the Turkic dynastic mythological system (for example, Uigurs, Karluks, Kalaches and a number of other tribes) were designated "Turkmens". Only later did this word come to refer to a specific ethnonym. The etymology of the term derives from Türk plus the Sogdian affix of similarity -myn ,-men, and means "resembling a Türk" or "co-Türk" . A prominent Turkic scholar Mahmud Kashgari also mentions the etymology Türk manand (like Turks). The language and ethnicity of the Turkmen were much influenced by their migration to the west. Kashgari calls the Karluks Turkmen as well, but the first time the etymology Turkmen was used was by Makdisi in the second half of the 10th-century AD. Like Kashgari, he wrote that the Karluks and Oghuz Turks were called Turkmen. Modern scholars agree that the element -man/-men acts as an intensifier, and have translated the word as "pure Turk" or "most Turk-like of the Turks" . Among Muslim chroniclers such as Ibn Kathir the etymology was attributed to the mass conversion of two hundred thousand households in AH 349 (971 CE), causing them to be named Turk Iman, which is a combination of "Turk" and "Iman" إيمان (faith, belief), meaning "believing Turks", with the term later dropping the hard-to-pronounce hamza .

Historically, all of the Western or Oghuz Turks have been called Türkmen or derisive Turkoman; however, today the terms are usually restricted to two Turkic groups: the Turkmen people of Turkmenistanmarker and adjacent parts of Central Asia, and the Turkomans of Iraq and Syria.

During the Ottoman period these nomads were known by the names of Türkmen and Yörük or Yürük (Türkic "Nomad", other phonetic variations include Iirk, Iyierk, Hiirk, Hirkan, Hircanae, Hyrkan, Hyrcanae, the last four known from the Greek annals) . These names were generally used to describe their nomadic way of life, rather than their ethnic origin. However, these terms were often used interchangeably by foreigners. At the same time, various other exoethnonym words were used for these nomads, such as 'Konar-göçer', 'Göçebe', 'Göçer-yörük', Göçerler, and 'Göçer-evliler'. The most common one among these was 'Konar-göçer' - nomadic Turcoman Turks. All of these words are found in Ottoman archival documents and carry only the meaning of 'nomad'.

The modern Turkmen people descend, at least in part, from the Oghuz Turks of Transoxiana, the western portion of Turkestan, a region that largely corresponds to much of Central Asia as far east as Xinjiang. Oghuz tribes had moved westward from the Altay mountainsmarker in the 7th-century CE, through the Siberianmarker steppes, and settled in this region. They also penetrated as far west as the Volga basin and the Balkans. These early Turkmens are believed to have mixed with native Sogdian peoples and lived as pastoral nomads until the Russian conquest of the 19th-century..


Major Ethnic Groups of Iran
Signs of advanced settlements have been found throughout Turkmenistan including the Djeitun settlement where neolithic buildings have been excavated and dated to the 7th millennium BCE. By 2000 BCE, various Ancient Iranian peoples began to settle throughout the region as indicated by the finds at the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex. Notable early tribes included the nomadic Massagatae and Scythians. The Achaemenid Empire annexed the area by the 4th century BCE and then lost control of the region following the invasion of Alexander the Great, whose Hellenistic influence had an impact upon the area and some remnants have survived in the form of a planned city which was discovered following excavations at Antiocheia (Mervmarker). The Parni invaded the region as the Parthian Empire was established until it too fractured as a result of tribal invasions stemming from the north. Ephthalites, Huns, and Göktürks came in a long parade of invasions. Finally, the Sassanid Empire based in Persiamarker ruled the area prior to the coming of the Muslim Arabs during the Umayyad Caliphate by 716 CE. The majority of the inhabitants were converted to Islam as the region grew in prominence. Next came the Oghuz Turks, who imparted their language upon the local population. A tribe of the Oghuz, the Seljuks, established a Turko-Iranian culture that culminated in the Khwarezmid Empire by the 12th century. Mongol hordes led by Genghis Khan conquered the area between 1219 to 1221 and devastated many of the cities which led to a rapid decline of the remaining Iranian urban population.

The Turkmen largely survived the Mongol period due to their semi-nomadic life-style and became traders along the Caspianmarker, which led to contacts with Eastern Europe. Following the decline of the Mongols, Tamerlane conquered the area and his Timurid Empire would rule, until it too fractured, as the Safavids, Uzbeks, and Khanate of Khivamarker all contested the area. The expanding Russian Empiremarker took notice of Turkmenistan's extensive cotton industry, during the reign of Peter the Great, and invaded the area. Following the decisive Battle of Geok-Tepemarker in January 1881, Turkmenistan became a part of the Russian Empire. After the Russian Revolution, Sovietmarker control was established by 1921 as Turkmenistan was transformed from a medieval Islamic region to a largely secularized republic within a totalitarian state. By 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan achieved independence as well, but remained dominated by a one-party system of government led by the authoritarian regime of President Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in December 2006.


Turkmen (Latin: Türkmençe, Cyrillic: Түркменче) is the name of the language of the titular nation of Turkmenistanmarker. It is spoken by over 3,600,000 people in Turkmenistanmarker, and by roughly 3,000,000 people in other countries, including Iranmarker, Afghanistanmarker, and Russia. Up to 50% of native speakers in Turkmenistan also claim a good knowledge of Russian, a legacy of the Russian Empiremarker and Soviet Unionmarker.

Turkmen is not a literary language in Iran and Afghanistan, where many Turkmen tend towards bilingualism, usually conversant in the local dialects of Persian. Variations of the Perso-Arabic script are, however, used in Iran.

Genetic evidence

A Turkmen man of Central Asia in traditional clothes, around 1905–1915.
Genetic studies on Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) restriction polymorphism confirmed that Turkmen were characterized by the presence of European mtDNA lineages, similar to the Eastern Iranian populations, but strong northern Mongoloid genetic component observed in Turkmens and Eastern Iranian populations with the frequencies of about 20%.. Phenotype diversity can be discerned amongst the Turkmen, who exhibit full continuum between northern Mongoloid and Mediterraneanmarker Caucasoid physical types. This most likely indicates an ancestral combination of Iranian groups and Turco-Mongol that the modern Turkmen have inherited and which appears to correspond to the historical record which indicates that various Iranian tribes existed in the region prior to the migration of Turkic tribes who are believed to have merged with the local population and imparted their language and created something of a hybrid Turko-Iranian culture.

Culture and society

Nomadic heritage

Turkmen Ersari main carpet, mid-19th century
The Turkmen were mainly a nomadic people for most of their history and they were not settled in cities and towns until the advent of the Soviet system of government, which severely restricted freedom of movement and collectivized nomadic herdsmen by the 1930s. Many pre-Soviet cultural traits have survived in Turkmen society however and have recently undergone a kind of revival.

Turkmen lifestyle was heavily invested in horsemanship and as a prominent horse culture, Turkmen horse-breeding was an ages old tradition. In spite of changes prompted by the Soviet period, a tribe in southern Turkmenistan has remained very well known for their horses, the Akhal-Teke desert horse - and the horse breeding tradition has returned to its previous prominence in recent years.

Many tribal customs still survive among modern Turkmen. Unique to Turkmen culture is kalim which is a groom's "dowry", that can be quite expensive and often results in the widely practiced tradition of bridal kidnapping. In something of a modern parallel, President Saparmurat Niyazov introduced a state enforced "kalim", wherein all foreigners are required to pay a sum of no less than $50,000 to marry a Turkmen woman.

Other customs include the consultation of tribal elders, whose advice is often eagerly sought and respected. Many Turkmen still live in extended families where various generations can be found under the same roof, especially in rural areas.

The music of the nomadic and rural Turkmen people reflects rich oral traditions, where epics such as Koroglu are usually sung by itinerant bards. These itinerant singers are called bakshy; they also act as healers and magicians and sing either a cappella or with instruments such as the two-stringed lute called dutar.

Society today

Since Turkmenistan's independence in 1991, a cultural revival has taken place with the return of a moderate form of Islam and celebration of Novruz (an Iranianmarker tradition) or New Year's Day.

Turkmen can be divided into various social classes including the urban intelligentsia and workers whose role in society is different from that of the rural peasantry. Secularism and atheism remain prominent for many Turkmen intellectuals who favor moderate social changes and often view extreme religiousity and cultural revival with some measure of distrust.

Self-proclaimed President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov was largely responsible for many of the changes that have taken place in modern Turkmen society. Mimicking the Turkish reformist policies of Atatürk in Turkeymarker, Niyazov made nationalism an important element in Turkmenistan, while contacts with Turkmen in neighboring Iran and Afghanistan have increased. Significant changes to the names of the cities as well as calendar reform were introduced by President Niyazov as well. The calendar reform resulted in renaming months and days of the week from Persian or European-derived words into purely Turkmen ones, some of them eponymously related to the president or his family. The policy was reversed in 2008.

The five traditional carpet designs that form motifs in the country's state emblem and flag represent the five major tribes or houses. These Turkmen tribes in traditional order are Teke (Tekke), Yomut (Yomud), Arsary (Ersary), Chowdur (Choudur), and Saryk (Saryq). The Salyr (Salor), a tribe that declined as a result of military defeat before the modern period, are not represented, nor are several smaller tribes or subtribes.

Turkmen in Iran and Afghanistan

Turkmen in Iran and Afghanistan remain very conservative in comparison to their brethren in Turkmenistan. Islam plays a much more prominent role in Iran and Afghanistan where Turkmen follow many traditional Islamic practices that many Turkmen in Turkmenistan have abandoned as a result of decades of Soviet rule. In addition, many Turkmen in Iran and Afghanistan have remained at least semi-nomadic and traditionally work in agriculture/animal husbandry and the production of carpets.

Demographics and population distribution

A Turkmen girl and baby from Afghanistan
The Turkmen people of Central Asia live in:
  • Turkmenistanmarker, where some 85% of the population of 5,042,920 people (July 2006 est.), are ethnic Turkmen. In addition, an estimated 1,200 Turkmen refugees from northern Afghanistan currently reside in Turkmenistan due to the ravages of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and factional fighting in Afghanistan which saw the rise and fall of the Taliban.

  • Pakistanmarker As of 2005, as per official Pakistani census and UN estimates, there remain approximately 60,000 Turkmen refugees in Pakistanmarker, largely in the North-West Frontier Provincemarker, Balochistanmarker and in the country's urban centres of Lahoremarker, Islamabadmarker and Karachimarker. The actual numbers could be up to 250,000 as many have avoided being counted for fear of being deported and have intermixed into Pakistan's cosmopolitan social dynamic. A few hundred Turkmen and Kyrgyz refugee families living in Pakistan were given asylum in Turkey in the 1980s.

There are also scattered communities of Turkmens in Russian province of Stavropolmarker and elsewhere in the Caucasus, descending from the tribes who emigrated from Turkmenistanmarker in 18th century and call themselves "Trukhmens".

Age structure: 0–14 years: 35.7% (male 909,113; female 860,128),15–64 years: 60.2% (male 1,462,198; female 1,516,836),65 years and over: 4.1% (male 78,119; female 125,687) (2005 est.)

Population growth rate is 1.82% (2005 est.)

See also



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