by David Tyson (No.1, 1997)

[ ] Introduction[1]
Hindsight and recent research have demonstrated that Soviet and Western observers misunderstood or ignored some of the most fundamental and resilient aspects of Islamic religious practice in the Soviet Union. Soviet scholarship in the field, ever bound by its ideological constraints, aimed to reduce Islamic belief and practice to out and out superstition and survivals of primitive pre-Islamic times. And although work done by Soviet specialists did provide information about the existence and ethnographic "make-up" of many popular Islamic beliefs and practices, the rigid approaches inherent in Soviet research left little possibility for broad analysis. Much of the research carried out by Western specialists, on the other hand, took direction from the Sovietology tradition and therefore was generally oriented to uncovering signs of anti-Soviet or politicized Islamic activity. Furthermore, specialists from non-Soviet-bloc countries were denied meaningful access to the Islamic areas and could only attempt to interpret and analyze the work of their Soviet counterparts. Thus the subject of Islam as it was practiced by the majority of Soviet Central Asian Muslims basically remained untouched by non-Soviet interpretive frameworks.
In this article I will provide a glimpse into Islam in Central Asia and more specifically highlight the fundamental traits and aspects of shrine-centered religious practice in Turkmenistan. In doing so, I hope to shed some light on some of the processes that are at the core of Islam in Turkmenistan. I also plan to demonstrate that shrine pilgrimage (zïyarat) and the beliefs underlying it have played fundamental roles not only in shaping Islam in Turkmenistan (and by extension throughout Central Asia) but also in creating and sustaining communal identity in the region up to the present day.
The shrine complex has long been prominent on the Islamic landscape and its significance has been noted by many scholars.[2] With few exceptions, however, specialists have given little attention to shrine-centered religious activity in the context of Central Asia.[3] A look into current Central Asian Islamic practice coupled with a knowledge of religious behavior in the region from a historical perspective provides ample evidence that shrines have long been critical focal points of Islam among the Turkmen.
What follows is based on a review of literature on shrines in Turkmenistan and associated activities. Aside from offering a brief analysis of some of the most pertinent aspects of the literature, I will provide information gathered during research visits to Turkmenistan in 1993-1995.[4]
The Origins of Islam among the Turkmen and the "Holy Tribes"
Recent research into the Islamization of parts of the former Soviet Union (DeWeese, 1994 and forthcoming) provides useful paradigms for understanding how conversion, communal identity, and saint status may be closely linked concepts critical to the origins and development of shrines among the Turkmen. One aspect of this paradigm suggests that Muslim "holy men" (Sufi shaykhs) emerged as key players in conversion due in part to their knowledge of Inner Asian pre-Islamic ("religious") traditions and their ability to convey Islam's power and meaning in ways understandable, recognizable, and meaningful to local populations. The conversion of these communities to Islam, as stressed in subsequent oral conversion narratives, was often acknowledged as the genesis of the community itself -- its re-formation or re-definition in Islamic terms. The prominence of ancestor worship in Turkmen religious traditions apparently provided fertile soil for Islamic conversion and converter to take on indigenous "religious" meaning. One of the most visible indicators of this is the status of tribal or communal progenitor often ascribed to figures believed to be Islamicizers among the Turkmen. The burial sites of these Muslim founding fathers became then a focal point of veneration and were accompanied by a sort of "Muslim shamanism" -- ancestral spirits came to be identified with the companions of the "saint-progenitor" and the burial sites (real or imagined) took on the qualities of shrines where vital concerns (both spiritual and otherwise) could be addressed. These shrines thus emerged not only as sites where sacred power was localized but as nexus points where Islam and the traditions of pre-Islamic times joined and developed -- here local communities dealt with Islam and accepted it as their own. Perhaps most importantly, as later developments would show, the holy sites became part and parcel of daily life, accessible to all members of the community.
Beside venerating sites of ancestral Islamicizers, communities in Central Asia adopted saints with other qualifications, and a variety of personages considered to have spiritual, intellectual, or physical power acquired saintly status. Thus the purported burial sites of, or places otherwise connected with, stock Islamic saints (Ali, Solomon, etc.), local rulers, learned scholars, warriors, as well as pre-Islamic figures have become shrines. As with the progenitor-ancestor saint, the communities which appropriated these well-known personages often considered them to be exclusively "theirs" even though they may have acknowledged their having a greater significance outside their community. This exclusiveness again was due the saint's purported activity in a certain locale or community and more often than not his role in the founding or sustaining of that community.
Literature on the subject shows that shrine complexes throughout the Islamic world may serve as, especially in rural areas, localized, communally run entities to which other religious institutions such as mosques, etc. are often attached. Pilgrimage to the sites brings with it then an impetus for religious communication and many times social and economic exchange (McChesney 1991). Furthermore, the specific local nature of the site acts to contribute to the creation or at least definition of communal identity and its concomitant boundaries; in Turkmenistan the results of these often ongoing processes may be observed today.
Numerous agents have molded and influenced the development of shrine based religious activity in the Central Asian states of the former USSR. While it is safe to say that Russian colonial and then Soviet rule have been the most foreign and overtly powerful forces to confront Central Asian society, there were and are several important characteristics inherent in the Central Asian, and more specifically, Turkmen tradition that have made shrine pilgrimage in Turkmenistan what it is today.
An initial but enduring characteristic evident in Turkmen shrine activity has been the mark left by the pre-Islamic traditions, including ancestor worship and shamanism mentioned above. While there are other rituals, customs, and traits connected with Turkmen shrines that can be traced back to a host of other pre-Islamic traditions, it is the legacy of ancestor veneration which seems to underlie the most fundamental and critical aspects of the Turkmen tradition. It is also this tradition which provides the most noticeable and perhaps most relevant links with the past.
The Turkmen possess one of the most well-defined tribal structures in Central Asia. While they do claim a mythical ancestor, Oghuz Khan, who serves as the progenitor of the majority of existing Turkmen tribes, Turkmen (tribal) history is replete with intertribal enmity and instances of "non-Turkmen" tribes becoming part of the larger tribal structure. Although the advent of Soviet power did much to mitigate the exclusivity of tribal identity, it continues to manifest itself and be relevant in Turkmenistan, especially in rural areas.
Within the Turkmen tribal structure, there are a number of tribes and groups that do not trace their genealogy back to Oghuz Khan and were labeled by pre-Soviet era (mostly Russian) scholars as "non-Turkmen" tribes.[5] These include tribes and lineages appearing to have their ethnic origins among either ancient local Iranian peoples or Turkic groups believed to pre-date the coming of the Oghuz. The majority of these communities have long inhabited compact areas on the desert fringe either along the Amudarya River or in and along the Kopetdag Mountains.[6] Studies show that these groups have also come down through the centuries as sedentary agriculturists and did not engage in nomadic stock breeding like other more well-known and larger Turkmen tribes.
Another type of "non-Turkmen" lineage group, labeled by Soviet scholars as "holy groups" or "honor groups," are known by the Turkmen designation öwlat or öwlät.[7] Turkmen tradition generally recognizes six öwlat groups in the following order according to perceived holiness and power: Khoja, Seyit, Shïkh, Magtïm, Ata, and Müjewür. All six groups trace their lineage to one of three of the first four caliphs of Islam (and by extension to Prophet Muhammad).[8] To those knowledgeable about general Islamic history, the concept of the sacred lineage (as embodied in the Sayyid and Sharif groups) is a familiar one as such groups are prominent elements in Islamic social and political history. It is apparent, however, that the role and significance of the groups in Turkmen society varied greatly from those of their counterparts in other parts of the Islamic world.
Studies conducted by Soviet ethnographers show that while the accepted and popular reasons for the öwlats' sacred character are their perceived Arab origins and their genealogical links to Muhammad, other less obvious and less cited reasons have to do with more recent processes and events. The research into the groups' genealogical history demonstrates invariably that individual Sufi figures, the majority of whom lived anywhere from the fourteenth to seventeenth century, are noted as links in the groups' genealogical structures (Demidov 1976; Basilov 1975). Perhaps more importantly, it is usually these figures whom researchers consider to be the first in the genealogies to be actual historic personages who lived and were active in areas inhabited by Turkmen. For example, the öwlat group Ata possesses a structure of several lineages, all of which have as their progenitor Gözli Ata (or Hasan Ata), who Demidov (1976) claims lived in the fourteenth century. According to the group's oral history and genealogical documents, Gözli Ata came from the town of Turkistan, a center of Sufi teaching and activity, to western Turkmenistan to settle among the Turkmen and carry on his teachings. Legend portrays Gözli Ata to be an especially powerful saint, outdoing other saints in competitions of miracle performance and thus winning over large numbers of adherents.
It is apparent from this research that öwlat groups have origins traceable to a Sufi founding-father who either converted a community or was integral in giving it a Muslim identity. The fact that these groups consider themselves to be closely tied to sources of holiness and power is interesting in itself, but it is more significant that this sacred character is understood by the members of virtually all other Turkmen tribes. While sources show that some Turkmen tribes and communities did not consider specific öwlat groups or lineages to be "genuine" öwlats, the principle of the öwlat, its sacred origins, and by extension its potential power, were all accepted as fact (although in many cases grudgingly and with resentment) by the other Turkmen tribes.
The role that öwlat groups came to assume in Turkmen society is fairly complex and little is known about their early development. Generally it can be said that all acknowledged öwlat members, be they male or female, adult or child, were shown an extraordinary degree of respect and deference. Non-öwlat members, when addressing individual males from an öwlat (even young boys) would use terms such as ishan aga while females would be addressed using the honorific totam.[9] Furthermore, Turkmen society had the öwlat and non-öwlat as one of its basic divisions into which all Turkmen fell.[10] Öwlat property was inviolable and this proved to be extraordinarily beneficial to the öwlats' economic standing, especially in light of the otherwise hostile environment of raiding and plundering which often characterized Turkmen tribal relations.
Aside from displaying an attitude of deference and adhering to policies of inviolability toward the öwlats, non-öwlat tribes sought to have öwlat members settle among them, or at least in close proximity.[11] Historic patterns of öwlat settlement reflect this with many öwlat groups dispersed throughout all inhabited areas of Turkmenistan. There are also cases of fairly large-scale öwlat migrations, often in conjunction with the movements of non-öwlat tribes who either encouraged or forced öwlat members to move with them. The reasons for this need on the part of non-öwlat Turkmen to have öwlat members close by and accessible were manifold. The inviolable nature of the öwlat and their status as non-tribal Turkmen allowed them, in principle, to act outside and above the realm of Turkmen tribal politics. Thus öwlat members were sought as mediators in disputes occurring both within Turkmen tribes and among them. In fact, it may be argued that the öwlats acted as "buffers" between Turkmen tribes not only due to their physical location between often hostile Turkmen tribes but also through the groups' abilities to mediate and prevent violence.
The importance of the öwlats to Turkmen society was, as may be expected, not limited to such political and economic realms. These were simply outgrowths, albeit perhaps calculated, of other more fundamental and profound qualities inherent to the öwlats. For instance, in many areas inhabited by Turkmen it was considered almost mandatory for öwlat representatives to bless and officiate at festivities, the spring planting and fall harvest, religious gatherings, and life-cycle events. Non-öwlat communities and families would also seek out the advice and council of öwlat elders prior to undertakings such as marriage, the movement from one pasture to the next, and other social and economic ventures. Another important role performed by specific öwlat members was that of spiritual guide and healer. Both pre-revolutionary material and Soviet-era anti-religious literature stress these functions and provide numerous examples; especially accounts of how öwlat members crafted talismans, were seen as possessing the knowledge and power to cure sickness and mental disorder, and could assist in the making and breaking of "spells."
The close relationship between the non-öwlats and öwlat communities has resulted in a some confusion about the öwlats' place among other Turkmen tribes. It is apparent that over time certain öwlat groups have become assimilated into the tribal structure of some non-öwlat tribes. The origins of the assimilation may vary and are difficult to trace; however, there are some non-öwlat tribes that have öwlat clans. For example the Nohurlï tribe of southern Turkmenistan has among its lineage groups two separate Khoja öwlat-clans. Perhaps the most common practice was one where non-öwlat communities came to "adopt," through the relationships noted above, öwlat families and larger communities as their own. It is common to find small öwlat lineage groups interspersed among larger non-öwlat tribes and referred to as being possessed by the larger tribe, i.e. the Teke's öwlat, the Yomut's Khojas, while the term öwlatsïz ("without öwlat") was used (often contemptuously) to refer to communities that did not have an ongoing relationship with öwlat members.
The acknowledged sacred character of the öwlat, while certainly relevant for those living, was just as significant for the community with respect to the deceased. And it is here that the öwlat and the concept of öwlat status play fundamental roles in defining what constitutes a shrine in the Turkmen tradition.
Virtually all Turkmen cemeteries have a gonambashï, a "head of the cemetery," who is to be the first buried and around whom are to be buried all others of the community. Soviet ethnographers tell us that the gonambashï should be a respected figure of the community who possessed some kind of power (intellectual, physical, etc.) or otherwise demonstrated some skill that set him apart from ordinary people. Thus, as generally claimed by Soviet research on the subject, the identity of the gonambashï preserved by local tradition is connected with his being a religious official or figure such as a judge, mulla, or ishan.[12] The belief was that the powers and skills of the gonambashï would continue to serve both the ancestors in the world of the dead and living members of the community.
It should not be surprising then, if communities had as their cemetery's gonambashï an influential öwlat member who had a relationship with that community; in fact, most relevant research either states or implies this practice. In standard Turkmen and in many Turkmen dialects the word for cemetery is gonamchïlïk. Other words cited in dictionaries and used by Soviet specialists in Turkmen religious practice include öwlüyä, mazarlïk, and gabrïstan. It is apparent, however, that there are nuances distinguishing the terms which Soviet linguists and other scholars have never, for some reason, fully elaborated upon, namely the usage of öwlüyä as compared to the other terms. Much of the Soviet-era anti-religious literature in Turkmen, when referring to pilgrimage and shrine activity, uses the words öwlüyä and keramatlï er. The meaning of keramatlï er and what it implies are fairly clear --"miraculous place" or "place where miracles occur"-- and is not confused with other terms. Öwlüyä, on the other hand, as described by informants (and as noted in the literature) may refer to a number of things such as "saint," "burial place of a saint" or "cemetery."[13] The most common usage of the term, however, apparently incorporates all the usages noted above ("saint," "burial place of a saint," "cemetery," and "miraculous place") and refers to the shrine, or burial place, of a holy figure to which one may make a pilgrimage when the need arises and at which miraculous intercession may emanate, occur, or be accessed. Informants noted furthermore that pilgrimages were made only to öwlüyä (or keramatlï er) and not to gonamchïlïk (as females and young children were not permitted to enter gonamchïlïk -- "ordinary" cemeteries). Turkmen knowledgeable about local traditional religious belief also made the further distinction that the saint for which the öwlüyä was/is named was an öwlat member. Thus, when asked the difference between the terms öwlüyä and gonamchïlïk several informants stated outright that a gonamchïlïk was a cemetery having a non-öwlat member as its gonambashï while an öwlüyä was a cemetery having as its gonambashï a member of an öwlat (and therefore a place of pilgrimage). In most cases when I did not inquire specifically as to the distinction between the terms, these differences were at least implied.[14]
It is apparent from my preliminary research that according to Turkmen tradition in at least some areas and among at least some communities the criteria cited in making a burial place (and cemetery) an öwlüyä (and therefore a holy site and place of pilgrimage) consisted in part of the öwlat status of the gonambashï. While this criterion is by no means universal and is not known today to all Turkmen, the fact of its existence is consistent with an apparent trend in the overall development of Islam in Turkmenistan, the öwlats, and what has come to constitute the Turkmen' understanding of holiness and power. In other words, this distinction, like other aspects underpinning the Turkmen concept of the sacred, has not so much been blurred as modified and suggests the localization and "popularization" of the sacred on a large scale. Perhaps then, the once critical öwlat status -- the defining aspect of holiness, which itself grew out of the (still largely unexplored and thus hypothetical) popularization of Sufism[15] (the "mass transferal" of sacred status to a collective genealogical lineage) -- in a sense expanded to encompass a variety of non-öwlat figures to whom öwlat status may or may not have been ascribed. The results of these developments are apparently noticable today and underlie our (as opposed to the Turkmen's) confusion as to what currently constitutes an öwlüyä and distinguishes it from an "ordinary" cemetery.
The Turkmen as Muslims: the Shrine Complex and its Fate in the Soviet Period
Thanks in part to accounts of pre-twentieth century foreign travelers and of more "orthodox" Muslims, the religiosity of Turkmen has long been seen as rather dubious. Soviet specialists, as well as their Western counterparts, have also perpetuated and popularized this notion by portraying the Turkmen as, and indeed accusing them of being, "ignorant, wayward" Muslims, "Muslim only in name," or "half Muslim." The tradition is evident in some of the earliest sources on the Turkmen and their ancestors, the Oghuz, and developed from the pen of Muslim (Arab and Persian) historians and travelers. Indeed, during the time of these early accounts (ca. tenth century) the Oghuz were hostile to the Arab military forces and had only begun to be exposed to Islam. In the tenth century Persian work, the Hudud al-Alam, the author notes the Ghuz (Oghuz) to venerate whatever is "good or wonderful" and to show great deference to healers (Hudud al-Alam: 100). Ibn Fadlan, in notes from his travels, provides a decidedly negative assessment of Oghuz custom and emphasizes their hostility toward Islam (Materialy po istorii turkmen i turkmenii 1939: 159-164). While such accounts were indeed written prior to the Islamization of the Oghuz and concern groups located outside of the boundries of present-day Turkmenistan, later portrayals do nothing but sustain this reputation. For example, the famous ninteenth-century orientalist and traveler Arminius Vambery (1970: 312) offers a succinct synopsis of the Turkmen and their relationship to Islam which has continued to affect and color scholarship to the present day:
"Many usages, which are prohibited to the Islamite, and which the Mollahs make the object of violent attack, exist in all their ancient originality; and the changes effected by Islam, not only amongst the Turkomans, but amongst all the nomads of Middle Asia, were rather confined to the external forms of the religion previously existing. What they before found in the Sun, fire, and other phenomena of nature, they saw now in Allah-Mohammed: the nomad is ever the same, now as two thousand years ago; nor is it possible for any change to take place in him till he exchanges his light tent for a substantial house; in other words, till he has ceased to be a nomad."
Thus, while perceptions concerning the Turkmen's "pseudo-Muslim" character stemmed from an early hostility to Islam on the part of Oghuz tribal leaders, they were sustained by stereotypes connected with the Turkmen's non-urban and non-sedentary traditions -- traditions which have long been seen as inherently un-Islamic by many orientalists and some Muslims alike. The practice of shrine worship and the "shamanism-like" behavior that often accompanied pilgrimage were some of the most visible elements feeding the perceptions, and therefore became commonly cited "evidence" for the perceived infidel underpinnings inherent in Turkmen religious belief and practice. This is especially ironic in light of the fact that Arab historians (Golden 1992: 211-213) link the genesis of the Turkmen as a people (their "breaking off" from those tribesmen who remained known by the name Oghuz/Ghuz) with their willingness to accept Islam (or at least their willingness to follow their leaders who accepted Islam). Thus, in spite of the Turkmen's perceived origins as Muslims and Islam's constant fundamental role in sustaining and regeneration of Turkmen identity, and in spite of their steadfast adherence to and professing of Islam, specialists and observers alike continued to portray the religious practices of the Turkmen as superficially Islamic and the Turkmen themselves as poor examples of Muslims.
Soviet scholarship as well attempted to portray Islam as practiced by the Turkmen as essentially a primitive pre-Islamic tradition dressed over in Islamic garb, and the official attitudes toward and study of holy sites developed within the larger ideological frameworks connected with the policies of forced atheism. Major sites with some historic, or more often, architectural significance were at the very least "sanitized" and turned into state-run tourist sites or museums which, in many cases, were designed to combat religious behavior through atheist enlightenment. Others were effectively shut down due to renovation and restoration. The vast majority of sites, however, experienced a range of fates and depended more on the atheistic fervor or apathy of local government officials. Some were destroyed outright, by bulldozers, communist youth organizations, and so on, while others were declared "off limits" and fenced off with barbed wire. Control over popular sites was tight and it was common for informants to act as visitors and monitor sites by reporting the license plate number of vehicles ferrying pilgrims. Some local governments even tried to ward off visitation by posting signs which alleged that the area was unsanitary and that disease was present. Finally, a percentage was basically ignored by the authorities.
It is apparent from interviews with Turkmen who experienced the last decades of Soviet rule and witnessed anti-religious activity aimed at holy sites, that government policy, or at least the enforcement of policy, was not always uniform and had a variety of effects. For example, sanction upon those engaged in shrine visitation varied according to age and especially job status. Party officials, party members, and members of the state apparatus had the most to lose if found to be engaged in religious behavior deemed detrimental to society. Therefore these people, who were most often middle-aged males, generally refrained from openly visiting holy sites. Others, such as school teachers, members of the local industrial-agricultural management, and others visible in the local community also could be punished. Common sanctions for these people included the loss of one's job or the benefits and perks which came with the position's status. Another more common punishment consisted of the "recanting" of religious beliefs at local komsomol or party meetings. The majority of the population, however, apparently did not suffer a great deal if caught simply visiting shrines. They too might have been forced to renounce their "transgressions" or to attend atheist meetings (a sort of believers anonymous) and while this might have caused some embarrassment the perceived benefits of visitation apparently often outweighed potential sanctions.
The accounts given by shrine visitors during our visits from 1993-1995 speak of a proud tradition of pilgrimage that was persistent in the final decades of the Soviet era. Informants, while perhaps prone to some exaggeration, describe how large numbers of people (especially rural women, farmers and other blue collar workers) visited holy sites under the cover of darkness and during the day. Although they acknowledge the penalties for engaging in such behavior, and while they stress that most pilgrimages were conducted discreetly without fanfare, most informants claim that the strength of the pilgrimage tradition (as both a local/tribal and a national tradition) coupled with the perceived power and protection offered by the saints and holy sites themselves were the main factors in continued visitation. Such people maintain that shrine-based activity was a habitual and important undertaking, critical to both their spiritual and physical well-being. The rather constant attention given to the "evils" of holy sites on the part of Soviet (Turkmen) mass media, Party organizations, anti-religious groups, and academia also point to shrine based activity as part and parcel of many Turkmen's day-to-day lives in both the spiritual and "mundane" realms.
While social status and one's vulnerability to punishment undoubtedly did influence a potential pilgrim's decision to visit or not visit shrines, it was the state's willingness and ability to enforce anti-religious policy that perhaps had the greatest effect on visitation to holy sites. A review of official policy toward religion and interviews with Turkmen provide ample evidence that enforcement of policy and the willingness to punish offenders came in fits and spurts and hinged on a number of often local factors. For example, many Turkmen scholars-workers in the field of what was formerly known as scientific atheism now assert that efforts to eradicate religiosity depended on district (formerly raion, now etrap) officials. While orders and calls to strengthen atheistic upbringing did usually come from the top and such upbringing was an often cited objective in all propaganda, the actual implementation of policy, with a few notable exceptions, was left up to these low level officials. Such officials, more often than not, had been born and raised in the community which they served and usually had strong familial ties with large segments of the community. And although they were educated in Soviet schools and usually were proponents of Party ideals, they also had to contend with the pressures coming out of local tradition and identity which often militated against Soviet ideals and policy. Aside from being part of local tradition, shrines and holy sites were immersed in sensibilities and feelings that Soviet atheistic teachings were never quite able to refute or eradicate. Part of the lore which continues to sustain belief in holy sites emanates from the very nature of their origins -- their being abodes of miraculous power, a power which served to maintain health and well-being and ward off destructive forces. Stories abound of how officials attempting to harm or destroy holy sites met with misfortune -- car accidents, paralysis, untimely death, etc. -- and anti-religious propaganda concerning shrines commonly included such accounts (and their refutations) as a means to unmask the "false nature" of the sites. Undoubtedly, the supernatural aura of the shrines and all that it implied, combined with the pressures stemming from their being rooted in local communal traditions, served to dissuade many officials from displaying more initiative than necessary to combat these religious "survivals of the past."
To claim, however, that Soviet policies toward shrines were somehow benign and that they were often circumvented would not contribute to an accurate portrayal of Soviet-era shrine-based activity or the overall context in which it should be placed. We only have to recall the very successful measures employed by the Soviets to eradicate mosques, madrasas, learned clergy, and a whole host of other critical religious institutions and behavior. This rooting out of Islam had deep and lasting effects on shrine pilgrimage, perhaps the most important of which was the eradication of the sites as local and regional "intellectual centers" of teaching, discussion, and discourse. Aside from the activities associated with pilgrimage itself, it is clear from what we know of the functions and significance of holy sites that shrine complexes of pre-Soviet Central Asia often included mosques and Sufi hostels (khanaqah) and commonly were supported by the well-known Islamic institution of endowment (waqf). The enormous economic, social, and political potential that shrines had in Central Asia has recently been demonstrated by McChesney (1991) and, while primary sources on the waqf and shrines as they existed in pre-Soviet Turkmenistan are scarce, secondary sources and the studies done by Soviet historians and ethnographers provide evidence that the waqf and shrine traditions were similar to those in other parts of Central Asia. From this information it is apparent as well that "Turkmen" shrines had clear links with Sufi activity and in fact served as venues for the transmission of local traditions connected both with Sufism and communal history. While perhaps ignorant of the real significance of shrine pilgrimage and its associated activities, the Soviets were aware of the "threats" posed by mosques and other institutions characterizing "high Islam." Therefore, while sometimes leaving the actual shrines to remain, the Soviets usually physically destroyed accompanying mosques, khanaqahs, and other buildings and persecuted those attending these institutions. With these people then went the knowledge and traditions that so characterized and energized pre-Soviet shrine-based activity.[16]
The anti-religious efforts that were so successful in the years when the Soviets consolidated power in Central Asia (late 1920s-1940s) continued into the final decades of Soviet rule. Aside from the outright destruction of shrines, intense anti-religious ideological campaigns, secular Soviet education, and near criminalization of much religious activity, authorities in Turkmenistan from the 1960s right up to the very end of Soviet power fought against a host of "crimes" closely connected with shrine-based activity. One type of activity consisted of practices and rituals connected with healing, the production of talismans, and other "supernatural" phenomena occurring at shrines with the aid of specific individuals. Anti-religious propaganda and press reports from the 1960s into the 1990s are replete with articles "unmasking" the misdeeds of "charlatan holy men" and "unofficial" mullas who allegedly preyed on "ignorant victims" lacking proper atheistic attitudes and upbringing who came to the shrines in search of aid. Described with terms such as "sorcerers," "witch doctors," and "social parasites," these alleged villains often were members of an öwlat lineage, worked as shrine custodians, and were said to be descendants of saints for whom shrines had been erected. The links between this type of activity and the öwlat tradition described above coupled with activities associated with shrine visitation (the securing of health, prosperity, etc.) are obvious. While it is not clear how many such individuals or percentage of them were caught and punished, the accounts presented in the literature and the stories told by people we met suggest that Soviet power was fairly successful in ridding shrines of their caretaker-holy men through imprisonment and other sanctions.[17] Therefore, while Soviet authorities may not have been successful at persecuting the pilgrims themselves, they did have more success at both eliminating individuals whom segments of the population sought out during pilgrimage and persecuting those who played an important role in the physical maintenance of the shrines and in the preservation and transmission of any formal intellectual tradition that may have existed at the shrine.[18] Therefore, it was the eradication of such individuals which contributed to the damage sustained by the collective memories and other religious traditions of local communities.[19]
As noted, the majority of those attacked in the early Soviet period were recognized Muslim officials or functionaries -- imams, mullas, Sufi leaders and adepts, village elders, öwlat lineage heads, etc. -- those who clearly exercised influence in the community and possessed knowledge passed down in a "formal" manner be it at the home, mosque, madrasa, or khanaqah. In the later Soviet period, after World War Two, the victims of (anti-religious) persecution were the "charlatan healers," "religious parasites," and "self appointed mullas" who in many cases worked at or were closely associated with shrines. Virtually all of these perceived enemies, all of these victims, were men. While the Soviets clearly recognized the influence Central Asian women had in the family and in keeping alive religious traditions, they did not see them as committed instigators diametrically opposed to Soviet rule. In fact, Soviet literature usually portrayed Soviet Muslim women as ignorant and oppressed victims of Islamic traditionalism who would gladly throw off the yoke of Islam when properly educated and confronted with the "freedom" of Sovietization. Therefore the programs and policies directed at women were more subtle and usually did not involve extreme measures. In terms of religious activity especially, women were seen, compared to men, as "small-fry" too numerous and too insignificant to prosecute. Instead, the extensive measures employed by the Soviets -- a universal "Soviet" education system, the efforts to get women out of the home and into jobs, atheist indoctrination, and other acts of Sovietization and modernization -- would, in the eyes of the planners, result in a remolding of the Central Asian woman's consciousness and the eradication of antiquated beliefs and traditions. Because of this treatment and lack of scrutiny, Turkmen women (as well as all Central Asian Muslim women) by default became to a large degree the bearers of numerous Islamic traditions and behavior. In the case of shrine activity today, especially specific aspects associated with actual rituals and veneration, Turkmen women are seen as the chief participants. In fact, many scholars and specialists as well as laymen in Turkmenistan see much of shrine-based activity as a distinctly female realm; only with Turkmenistan's independence and the revival of Turkmen traditions have males become more vocal in acknowledging the legitimacy of the shrine legacy and become more involved in pilgrimage activities.
While Soviet scholarship and propaganda vigorously struggled against shrine-based religious activity and produced volumes of articles, books, and other materials dedicated to its eradication, it is precisely these types of materials which serve as some of the most important sources for the identification and research of holy sites. A number of Soviet specialists made their careers producing such writings and devoted much time, effort, and research to topics connected to holy sites. In the case of Turkmenistan, the most prominent of these is Sergei Demidov who has written several important monographs (Demidov 1976, 1978, 1988) about öwlat groups and holy sites plus many dozens of book and newspaper articles.[20] In his efforts to combat shrine veneration Demidov employed his excellent knowledge of Turkmen language and culture and conducted in-depth research both on-site in villages and at shrines as well as in libraries and archives. His works therefore provide rich ethnographic information and historical background as well as important data as to typologies and the location of holy sites in Turkmenistan.
What is evident from the research of Demidov and other Soviet specialists is that activity connected with holy sites was one of the several fundamental aspects of Islamic practice[21] in Turkmenistan (and Central Asia) in the Soviet period.[22] It's pervasiveness and enduring character evidently were of major concern to Party ideologues and the effort to enlighten believers and eradicate the pilgrimage tradition rivaled that of any other directed against Islamic practice in the post-War years in terms of energy and resources expended.
A survey of existing Soviet sources and results of our field research reveal a typology of holy sites in Turkmenistan with several groups and sub-groups. A first group consists of those sites centered around natural objects or formations: springs, caves, unusual rock formations, trees, etc.[23] Shrines constructed at the believed burial site of personages (saints, martyrs, leaders, etc.) make up another group. A third classification concerns holy sites located at places where important events were to have occurred (the place where a saint prayed, set foot, or rested; the site where a hero died or disappeared, etc.). By no means are these classifications mutually exclusive; in fact, many shrine complexes in Turkmenistan are made up from a combination of types.
Below I will offer several examples of holy sites and shrine complexes that are representative of those in Turkmenistan. All of them were visited by myself (in many cases, with a colleague) in 1993-1995.[24]

Examples of Holy Sities in Turkmenistan and Activities Associated with them

Paraw Bibi: This site is one of the most impressive. It is located in western Turkmenistan approximately 20 kilometers northwest of Gïzïlarbat in the village of Paraw. The actual shrine is set some 100 meters up a rocky mountainside overlooking the village and consists of a white mausoleum-like structure (described in historical sources as a mosque). Next to the shrine is an adjoining chamber with an outside entrance. At the foot of the mountain is a large one-story building which serves as a guest house (mïhmanhana, mïhman jayï). A roofed platform (bassïrma) located nearby the guest house serves as a place where pilgrims congregate and have meals.
Near the guest house and adjacent to the village are the remains of the town Ferava/Afraw dating from the ninth century. Sources (Materialy po istorii turkmen i turkmenii 1939: 176, 201) indicate that the town originated as an Arab border fortress (rabat) directed against the Oghuz and developed into an important town on the road leading to Khorezm. Among the ruins of the town are the remains of a shrine-mausoleum to a Paraw Ata dating from the twelfth century.
Turkmen anti-religious specialists such as Ataev (1989) note that the mountain shrine has long been active and considered it an important shrine contributing to harmful beliefs among the population. According to legends recorded in Soviet literature, Paraw Bibi was a beautiful and virtuous maiden who was the object of jealousy of many women. During a period of infidel military threat a jealous woman wanted to turn Paraw Bibi over to the invaders in exchange for promises from the enemy not to carry out the attack. Upon hearing this, Paraw Bibi cursed the woman causing her to turn into black stone. Soon thereafter, while on the mountainside, Paraw Bibi saw the enemy party approaching. With this she realized the hopelessness of her situation and ordered the mountain to split open so that she might enter into it, thus preserving her purity and virtue. After the miraculous event the locals were commanded by God to build a shrine to Paraw Bibi at the site where she opened the mountain. They believed, because of her bravery and refusal to submit, Paraw Bibi was a true hero (batïr) who had been blessed by the holy breath of the prophets.
Ataev also describes how, in the final decades of the Soviet era, pilgrims came from all over western Turkmenistan to the shrine seeking fertility and a cure for insanity. He also writes that in and around the complex were many "miracle working" stones and impressions of Paraw Bibi's hands and knees left in stone. One stone is said to be a watermelon that Paraw Bibi had been about to eat. According to legend, at the moment when Paraw Bibi was to cut the melon the enemies attacked and thus she threw it down in haste. At that moment it turned into stone. Ataev notes that a watermelon-shaped stone said to be that same stone from the time of Paraw Bibi was used by pilgrims as a "detector of sin." It was placed on the thumbs of two people; if the stone rotates no sin had been committed by those balancing it.
While visiting the shrine in April 1995 we filmed the site, rites being performed, and interviewed numerous pilgrims. We were struck by the large number of visitors (approximately 100 in the course of an hour) at the complex and by the intense activity and rather festive atmosphere. While there were male visitors, the majority of those present were girls and young women (ages 5 - 30). As numerous young women explained, Paraw Bibijan[25] was a beautiful maiden whose virtue, purity, and courage were unmatched. Furthermore, she was a devout Muslim who never failed to perform her Islamic duties. In the moments when attack[26] was imminent and at great risk Paraw Bibi performed her prayers; and due to her "burning with faith" she left behind the impressions of her knees and hands in the rock. They also told of the legend of the melon and demonstrated how "stones from the time of Paraw Bibi" or "stones seen by Paraw Bibi" may be used in predicting the future and detecting sin. Inside the shrine itself we met with several mothers (with their infant children) and young women who showed us the many dozens of votive offerings brought by visitors, including hundreds of cloth strips, miniature cradles, and large quilt curtains sewn by women hoping for children.[27] Leading out of the main chamber into the mountain is a niche-cave through which Paraw Bibi is said to have entered into the mountain and it is here where young women recite prayers to the spirit of Paraw Bibi.[28] The young women also pointed out the adjoining chamber known as Paraw Bibi's bath house to which she is said to visit each Friday to comb her hair and bathe; it too contains numerous objects and offerings. Outside the shrine, along the path, we also saw a small overhang under which Paraw Bibi is said to have hidden from the raiders for seven days; it is believed that crawling into the space will result in fertility.[29]
At the guest house and roofed picnic area located at the foot of the path leading up to the shrine, we discussed with a group of young people from the nearby town Gïzïlarbat the significance of the shrine, the personage of Paraw Bibi, and the meaning they attached to her and pilgrimage to her shrine. They explained that they were all members of the Gïzïlarbat Paraw Bibi Youth Club. They had chosen Paraw Bibi as the club's namesake because she "is an example for all young Muslim women to follow" as her bravery and steadfast conviction in the face of death coupled with her purity, honor, and unwavering performance of Islamic duties make her worthy of emulation. Some of the club's mentors included older women who told of how pilgrimage to the site was constant in the Soviet era in spite of the possible punishments. They explained that they understood such pilgrimage to have even more significance now and to be a sort of patriotic duty in this era of freedom and independence.
Elements of the legend of Paraw Bibi are evident in other legends concerning numerous other "Turkmen" saints and heroines and are not limited to one specific region. The transformation of a melon into stone at the moment when one is about to cut it and at the moment when the hero(ine) catches sight of an approaching enemy, the splitting of rock by and the disappearance of the heroine into a mountainside or cave never to return, as well as the indentations and impressions left in rock by the hero are all fairly common to legends concerning figures associated with holy sites. The sites of these types of saints generally lack a tomb or burial place and thus are atypical öwlüyä; consequently there are no cemeteries. Furthermore, the figures to whom the sites are dedicated are usually ahistorical and are placed in a mythical setting where the struggle between Islam and non-Islamic forces are simplified and clearly discerned.
Khoja Yusup Baba (Hemedanï) is a large complex located in southeastern Turkmenistan near the city of Bairam Alï and on the territory of the ancient city-state of Merv. The shrine complex contains basic features that make it not unlike other saints' shrines in the Islamic world.
Khoja Yusuf Hamadani is a well known figure in Islamic history and is credited as the first in a line of Sufi masters from which evolved the Naqshbandi and Yasavi lineages, the two most important Sufi traditions in Central Asia. Accounts portray Hamadani as an exemplary Muslim, pious and unpretentious, devoted to Islamic scholarship and deeply inspired in his work of propagating Islam (Algar 1976: 131-132; Zhukovskii 1894: 169-173). He was well traveled but was most active in Mawarannahr (Transoxiana) and Khorasan. After his death (1140), his body was interred in Merv, presumably at the site carrying his name.
In the Soviet period the mosque at Khoja Yusup Baba was designated as one of the four official-legal mosques in all of Turkmenistan. The site had also long been declared an official architectural monument. These designations entailed the constant presence of state officials, informants, tourists, scholars and restorators. In spite of Soviet efforts to tightly control and co-opt it, anti-religious activists continuously noted the complex's very negative influence among the population. Popular belief asserted that two pilgrimages to Khoja Yusup Baba would equal one to Mecca. Demidov (1978: 154) noted that the shrine had a caretaker-imam, Atanepes Ishan, who had "no religious training."
In three trips to the shrine (1993-1995) I met on each occasion a man born and raised in the northeastern province of Dashhowuz who had come on a pilgrimage to the shrine several years before and stayed on as the caretaker-imam after he was made well by the power and miracles (gudrat we keramat) of Khoja Yusup Baba. He was a laborer and farmer by trade who had learned most of what he knew about Islam from pilgrims visiting during his tenure at the site. He had learned, for example, the Arabic script, how to pray, and conduct the various ceremonies and blessings connected with visitation by groups of pilgrims. The site consisted of recently restored buildings: a mosque, large guest house, a cooking and eating area, a roofed but open tomb, and a group of smaller adjoining rooms and small buildings used for specific purposes (meditation; for those seeking a cure for physical ailments; for young brides desiring fertility; and for those having mental disorders).
The caretaker was overjoyed at my visits and especially happy to find out that I knew a little of the history of Khoja Yusup Baba and that it coincided with what he had heard.[30] During all my visits I also saw large groups of pilgrims, who in many cases had been bused in from neighboring villages. From what I observed, a group pilgrimage could last several hours to one or two days. The visitors brought the food and the animals to be slaughtered. After greeting, the caretaker offered an initial blessing and the group broke up with women and children going to the tomb or off to prepare the lodging and cooking areas. Many of the men, on the other hand, went to sit together with the caretaker. Others saw to the livestock to be slaughtered. Some individuals, both men and women, went in the guest house to rest and sleep. The guest house was well maintained and had enough bedding, plates and utensils, and cradles to accommodate dozens of visitors.[31]
Actual pilgrimage to the tomb itself was usually done in small groups and consisted of circumambulating (from right to left) the wall surrounding the tomb three times. During the trips around the tomb, most of the people would repeatedly touch the wall with both hands and bring their hands to their face. Some would kiss the wall. After everyone completed the circling, the caretaker would come over next to the group at the tomb. There they would squat while the caretaker recited a blessing. Upon the completion of the blessing individuals gave the caretaker offerings of money. While most of the visitors then would go back to the guest house area to make preparations for the meal, others went off to other parts of the complex. Around the complex is a large cemetery and running throughout it, behind the complex, are narrow foot paths. It was common for women especially to go along these paths to a well said to contain holy medicinal water. Aside from drinking the water, the women would tie on small strips of cloth on to the branches of the bushes or small trees that lined the paths leading to the well. As pilgrims explained, the strips (sometimes called älem)[32] signify one's prayer or wish to the saint. Aside from attaching strips of cloth, many pilgrims also set up two old bricks on the ground in the form of an upside-down "V" for similar reasons. Thus, behind the complex there are hundreds and even thousands of such "tie-ons" and brick configurations. Another commonly seen object on the ground along the path is miniature imitation cradles made from sticks and cloth. These are set up by women hoping for Khoja Yusup Baba's aid in becoming fertile.
In the complex itself individuals may visit the various rooms and areas noted above and utilize them for their specific purposes. Pilgrims explained that people with mental problems should sit in one corner room and wait for a miracle from the power of Khoja Yusup Baba. Those with sick children should go with the child to a specific area and there leave behind an article of the child's clothing or other belonging. In doing so the ailment would leave the child and remain with the object. Thus, here it is possible to see piles of infants' socks, sweaters, shirts, head coverings, combs, toys, and pacifiers. Another common practice involves the pilgrims' placing in specific places items which, after a period of time, will become blessed by the power of Khoja Yusup Baba. Numerous pilgrims offered me such "good luck charms" as gifts: combs, knives, metal objects, etc. Another commonly dispensed item was salt which is said to have been blessed by the spirit of Khoja Yusup Baba.
Baba Gambar: Some Soviet ethnographers present the figure of Baba Gambar as a clear example of how a pre-Islamic shaman deity was transformed into an Islamic saint (Basilov 1970: 55-68).[33] According to stock Islamic legend, Ganbar was the stableman of Ali and caretaker of his horse, Duldul. Among the Kyrgyz he is the patron (pir) of horse breeders while in Turkmen legends he is seen as the patron of musicians and the creator of the first dutar (traditional two-stringed instrument common to Central Asia). Versions of the legend current in Turkmenistan describe the devil as helping Gambar in the creation of the dutar and affirm its music was so sweet that it caused animals fall in a state of melancholy and stop eating. When Duldul appears to Ali to be ill and underfed, Ali questions Gambar but Gambar evades answering. Later Ali spies Gambar playing the dutar to a saddened Duldul. Ali confronts Gambar; upon this Gambar commands the earth to swallow him up and flees underground to Mecca and Medina saying that the two will meet on judgment day.[34]
There is more than one shrine to Baba Gambar in Central Asia. The largest and most widely known is located in southeastern Turkmenistan near the Murgap river some 120 kilometers south of Marï (ancient Merv). While there is a tomb located in the shrine, some elder Turkmen claim that he is not buried at the site and that he in fact never died. They explain that the site is the place where he entered into the earth. Soviet-era sources tell us that the site was very active in the Soviet period and that its major significance had to do with the fact that budding musicians (bagshï) came to the site to spend prolonged periods in order to receive a blessing (pata) from Baba Gambar and with it the necessary musical skills.
During our visit in 1995 we saw that aside from the shrine-mausoleum itself the site consisted of a chile agach (see below) and a tree in a fenced off plot said to be unique in that its leaves are in the shape of dutar tuning pegs. It was also claimed that the tree grew from Baba Gambar's original dutar and that its roots led to the underground passageway through which Baba Gambar fled. A large cemetery surrounds the shrine and across a nearby stream is a large guest house and sitting area where musicians practice and play the dutar. The pilgrims on the day of our visit had come from Marï and they explained that they often come to relax and congregate with other musicians. They also said that young musicians still come to receive Baba Gambar's blessing and that accomplished players make the pilgrimage to perform for inspiration and in honor of their patron.
Hazret(i) Alï: This site is located some dozen kilometers southwest of Ashgabat near the village of Bagïr and the archeological site of Nusai (Nisa), the ancient capital of the Parthian state. Demidov (1988: 93-94) writes that in local accounts residents of Nisa conducted mass prayers at the site (before the coming of Islam). I visited this holy place numerous times during 1993-1995. It is located on a sloping plain at the foothills of the Kopetdag and consists of a small clay mosque, a tomb-shrine,[35] a burial plot with no structure, and a guest house. Integral to the site as well are several small boulders. The small mosque, referred to as namazga (place of prayer), is considered a place where Ali prayed when he was in the region propagating Islam. Impressions in the rocks and boulders at the site are said to have come from Ali's hands and from the hooves of his horse, Duldul. On one larger boulder, where pilgrims believe Ali lay and rested, is an indentation loosely fitting the form left by someone in a fetal-like position.
One object that is part of the complex and a standard element of holy sites in specific areas of Turkmenistan is the chile agach or chile agajï (tree of the chile).[36] Throughout Central Asia the concept of chilla/chille/chile signifies a specific forty-day period connected with various events and periods of the year.[37] Demidov, citing this tradition, describes the chile as an ancient concept which manifests itself as negative force after one breaks a taboo concerning new mothers or the care for newborns (under forty days old). Inappropriate behavior in this period thus may result in sickness for the child or mother.[38]
While the chile agach at some holy sights may actually be a tree[39], the majority of chile agach we saw were constructed out of wood (planks, dried out pieces of trees, etc.) and took the form of either a large tripod, post-like structure with an overhang, or a sort of doorway-threshold. In some cases they were large and easily passed through; others were constructed low to the ground and one would have to crawl in order to pass. While details concerning the power and purpose of the chile agach differed according to site and informant, central to all accounts was its ability to promote fertility and rid individuals of ailments and sickness, especially those affecting very young children and new mothers. Another feature offered by the chile agach was its protection (for babies) from the evil eye and other negative forces. Thus young mothers would pass through the structure carrying their infants as both healing and preventive measure. Attached to these pieces of wood one can find multitudes of the cloth tie-on strips, articles of clothing, and toys. As in the case of specific rooms at the Hemedanï complex, it is believed that an ailment will remain with the object left on the chile agach.
A middle-aged woman who lives in the village nearby and who comes to Hazret Alï on a regular basis to take care of the site and facilitate pilgrimage graciously showed us around, explained some of the rituals and the significance of some of the objects, and introduced us to a family of Turkmen pilgrims. It turned out that the family was from Ashgabat and that they had long been making visits to the site. Two of the family members, teenage daughters, explained that they hoped that the visit would assist them to enter into the city's pedagogical institute. All the members stressed that visits to the site resulted in better health and the easing of other problems and pressures.
On one of my visits to Hazret Alï I met a lone young Kurdish man who explained that he was having trouble in life and was trying to "find his place." He had been at the site for three days and planned to stay several more until he felt better. He mentioned that he had visited the site since childhood and knew of its benefit to the body and soul. He said that during his visits he spent much of the time resting and praying in the namazga. He said he also made a point to circumambulate around the burial sites and chile agach, as well as lie in the impression left by Ali.
Khoja Älem Baba is an excellent example of a typical small "local" öwlüyä that apparently serves the population of one specific collective farm village (clan lineage).[40] Located not far from the Kopetdag Mountains near the town Kaka (some 130 kilometers east and south of Ashgabat), Khoja Älem Baba is the gonambashï of the village cemetery and undoubtedly attained such status, in part, because of his being of an öwlat lineage.[41] The tomb is housed in a clay mausoleum consisting of two chambers: an entrance way or sitting area and the tomb chamber. The tomb itself and its chamber are adorned with dozens of objects; apparently these items consist of both votive offerings and objects considered to be connected with Khoja Älem Baba: horns at the tomb's head, coins and paper money, metal objects, jewelry, various types of cloth and fabric draped over the tomb, stones in uncommon shapes, as well as a small wooden frame-like structure to which cloth and articles of clothing are attached. It is clear from the care given to the shrine and number of objects inside that the site is very significant to the local population and is visited on a regular basis.
While time did not permit us to speak with locals knowledgeable about the figure Khoja Älem Baba during our visit to the site in May 1995, residents of a neighboring village recalled that Khoja Älem Baba was said to have been an Arab and was considered instrumental in the local population's conversion to Islam. They also mentioned that they had never actually been to the shrine because Khoja Älem Baba "was not theirs" (i.e. not their ancestor and part of their local tradition).
Sites such as Khoja Älem Baba are evidently the most common in Turkmenistan and probably number in the hundreds and perhaps there are over a thousand. Indeed, it appears that Turkmen tradition stipulated that each community possess an öwlüyä and thus have access to the power and protection it provided. Leading Soviet ethnographers stress little more than the tradition's links to Sufism, the "cult of ancestors," and, in many cases, totemism. While the figures to which the shrines are dedicated are usually strictly local saints whose significance is limited to members of a specific locale or lineage, they typify the concept of öwlüyä as it has developed in Turkmenistan and as a whole serve the spiritual needs of the largest number of Turkmen on an every-day basis.[42]

The Special Role of the Hudaiyoli

While the rituals and practices connected with veneration and prayer are central to pilgrimage, another defining aspect of the act is the preparation of the memorial meal at the site. Among the Turkmen, like many other Muslim peoples, the concept of sadaka and kurban (offering and sacrifice) are considered exemplary Islamic practices. While both these terms are current in the Turkmen language, there is a more common term used in reference to the ceremony of the giving of a meal at shrines -- hudaiyolï ("the path of God"). Depending on the context, the hudaiyolï may signify the memorial meal and gathering conducted by individual families (in their homes) on prescribed days after a relative's death; it also may be given after the favorable outcome of a specific event: a loved-one's recovery from an illness, a son's return from the army, or a young person's graduation. All involve the inviting of friends and relatives, the slaughtering of an animal(s), and the preparation of a meal as an expression of honor for the deceased or, in the case of the successful outcome, thanks to God.[43] In the case of shrine and pilgrimage the hudaiyolï is conducted at the site in the name of the saint to whom the shrine has been erected.[44] Indeed, the standard set-up at shrines includes the guest house and a cooking area complete with hearths, cooking caldrons, and utensils. Those we interviewed explained that the hudaiyolï is usually given during a pilgrimage when one is requesting assistance from a saint or after one has conducted a pilgrimage to request a saint's intercession and assistance and the outcome had been favorable.[45] Pilgrims also noted as well that there did not have to be a specific reason and that such a meal was given simply to honor the saint and further cement the bonds between the individual or community and the saint.[46] In another case, at a large site (Ismamut Ata) in Turkmenistan's northeastern Dashhowuz province, we witnessed a mass hudaiyolï just prior to the spring (cotton) planting. As the caretaker explained, each spring on the first day of planting and each fall just prior to the harvest, members of entire state farms come on their tractors and trucks to gain the blessing of the saint in their endeavor. The meals themselves (rice pilaf -- a traditional Central Asian dish) and the actual visit are very short, usually lasting only twenty minutes to a half hour and are staggered by hour and day so to allow each state farm group to come separately.
While the meals prepared at the shrines are usually prepared by one group or party, pilgrims stress that the offering of such food to other visitors (who did not come with food) is a sogap ish (a good deed that will be rewarded by God) and results in greater blessing and sure acceptance (of the memorial meal) by the saint. It is also common for pilgrims, upon their return home, to pass out any remaining food to neighbors and relatives who did not make the trip. Aside from the idea that the food is blessed, the consuming of the food signifies that the person eating it made the pilgrimage "in his heart."

The Concept of Pilgrimage vis-a-vis the State and Official Islam

Today in an independent Turkmenistan in the midst of a cultural revival the concept of zïyarat has received official government sanction and the practice has flourished.[47] In the Turkmen media, and indeed in the opinions of many Turkmen, it is part of the larger tradition and concept known as hatïra which literally means "respect" and "honor" but is often used in a more specific sense and refers to honoring and paying respect to one's ancestors, especially victims of war, natural disasters, etc. Thus zïyarat has been officially acknowledged by Turkmenistan's president Saparmïrat Nïyazov (Türkmenbashï) as an expression of patriotism and an integral part of being Turkmen.[48] And while this recognition does not mean that all Turkmen take part in pilgrimage or give credence to the total complex of belief and behavior connected with it, the recognition reflects society's awareness that the tradition is "sacred" and part and parcel of Turkmen identity. During our visits to Turkmenistan we met numerous individuals who did not acknowledge (at least in our presence) shrines and saints as sources of power to heal, fulfill prayers, etc. Almost without exception, however, even these people displayed the accepted signs of reverence when passing a cemetery in a car or while present at a shrine. They also invariably spoke of the sites with respect and deference couching their explanation in terms of proper courtesy and "Turkmen" behavior.
As in other Islamic countries, more orthodox Islamic elements, and in this case, the state-run official Islamic establishment in Turkmenistan, may look upon the pilgrimage tradition with some consternation. Indeed, the perceived tension between "normative" and "folk" Islam supposedly evident throughout the Islamic world is known by some in Turkmenistan as well. Turkmenistan's chief religious official, however, Kazï Nasrulla ibn Ibadulla, said in our interview with him in April 1995 that the problems the people of Turkmenistan face as Muslims are very basic.[49] While acknowledging that the veneration of saints (in the place of God) and certain rituals carried out at holy sites are not condoned by Islamic teaching, the fact that many Turkmen continue to seek miracles at shrines bothers him little, in the capacity of the chief religious official, as compared with other problems his countrymen currently face. He noted that the respect and honor for one's ancestors and other elements of the zïyarat concept are sanctioned in Islam and quoted a hadith as proof. He said only after the population learns and practices basic Islamic tenets should peripheral issues such as the niceties of pilgrimage be addressed.


The importance of the holy-site tradition to the Muslims of Turkmenistan as it compares to other Islamic beliefs and practices may be debated. However, the role that it played in the population's adoption of and transition to Islam coupled with its significance as one of the few religious traditions that remained viable and accessible to large numbers of Turkmen in the Soviet era indicate that it is central to that which made and makes the Turkmen Muslims. That mosques and madrasas, with their accompanying "formal" functions such as providing venues to carry out Islamic duties and to acquire education and training, are critical in serving the needs of Muslims is not debatable. However, such institutions are literally half the equation. In many Muslim societies, especially those having large rural populations, the role of so-called "popular Islam" and in this case, shrine-based activity, is difficult to exaggerate. This is especially true in the former Soviet Union where such activity was one of the few aspects of Soviet-era Islam that was not completely sanitized and extensively controlled by the state. While other Islamic institutions, were either destroyed outright or deprived of their abilities to function, holy sites continued to provide their client communities with a way to continue to be Muslim. Even if one accepts the "criticism" of Soviet scholars and, increasingly, Western observers and other formally trained Muslims that shrine-based activity in Turkmenistan is a "vulgarized" form of Islamic religiosity, one cannot deny its sustaining role in the Soviet period and its formative one in the era of independence when national and religious aspirations are being recreated and recast.
Written sources coupled with information gleaned from field work demonstrate that holy sites continue to contribute to the definition and delineation of social boundaries and the generation and preservation of communal (and Islamic) identity. From individual pilgrimages undertaken to seek a cure from sickness to the mass hudaiyolï prior to planting and harvesting, and from local shrines limited to serving one lineage or community to widely known and popular sites visited by hundreds of pilgrims weekly, the shrine complex serves fundamental spiritual and cultural needs and defines concepts of power and identity on both the local and national scale. At these sites people not only learn, take part in, and pass down rituals, they learn about and discuss issues of power, piety, virtue, and proper behavior along with other Islamic values and teachings. And although it cannot be said that the sites in the Soviet period were hotbeds of underground Islamic anti-Soviet activity, as had been asserted by some influential Western scholars, the fact that aspects of the pilgrimage tradition generally remained outside the pale of both the Soviet government and the official Islamic establishment provide ample evidence that the pilgrimage tradition may incorporate popular feelings and sensibilities that are largely unknown to outside observers. Now, while there are attempts by the governments of the newly independent states of Central Asia to oversee and co-opt some especially popular sites and while the official religious establishments of these countries are trying to "Islamically sanitize" specific shrines and educate the population in mosques and madrasas, this tradition of the shrines being somehow autonomous local entities persists. Admittedly, while the new "antagonists" are not nearly as opposed to, and brutal toward, shrine worship and pilgrimage, they are keenly aware that shrines continue to provide a forum for popular discussion in an environment where public debate and discourse are usually otherwise closely monitored and tightly controlled. And while all the information we have gathered and activity we have witnessed have been apolitical, one may speculate as to the potential such a religiously-charged forum has.
In many ways then, shrine pilgrimage is a metaphor for the fate of Islam in Turkmenistan and in much of former Soviet Central Asia. It represents an Islam highly influenced by local tradition and sensibilities; one greatly affected by Soviet rule, but also one which has reemerged with new vigor and significance in an era when national and religious aspirations are being rediscovered and recast. Thus, whatever the perception or approach, shrine and pilgrimage in Turkmenistan deserve special attention as focal points for popular Islam and for their role in local and national identity. Their study offers an excellent avenue for providing insights into understanding Turkmen culture and religious belief in both historical and contemporary contexts.


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forthcoming The Yasavi Tradition.
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* The author received an MA in Russian and East European studies and an MA in Central Asian Studies in 1993 from Indiana University, where he is now a PhD candidate in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies. He taught Central Asian culture and languages at Indiana from 1991 to 1996 and has spent nearly two years in Central Asia pursuing ethnographic and linguistic studies.
[1] The spellings of the majority of italicized words are transliterations from standard Turkmen (in the Cyrillic script).
[2] The work on saint veneration, shrines, and sacred places of Goldziher (1971) first published in the late nineteenth century, exemplifies some of the fundamental scholarship on the subject.
[3] Except for the works of Soviet specialists which will be discussed below, there have been virtually no in-depth studies on Soviet Central Asian shrine activity. The only detailed non-Soviet work done on Muslim shrines in Central Asia is McChesney (1991) which focuses on a shrine in northern Afghanistan and presents an excellent study of the history of a shrine and its critical role in the social, political, and economic life of an entire region.
[4] Five trips were made to Turkmenistan and a total of eight months were spent there. On my most recent trip (1995) I accompanied Dr. Devin DeWeese (Indiana University) to conduct field research in Turkmenistan, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan on the shrine and pilgrimage tradition. I am very greatful to Dr. DeWeese for allowing me to take part in his work on the topic and for his constant help and inspiration in conducting my research.
[5] In the Soviet period Turkmen tribal history became a sensitive topic and one fettered by ideological constraints. Soviet scholars generally had to emphasize the ancient unity of Turkmen tribes and thus were precluded from objectively and comprehensively writing about the varying elements making up the Turkmen people.
[6] Soviet ethnographers generally maintain that the tribes and groups in the mountain areas possess features and traditions (with the exception of language) similar to those of the Pamir peoples in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. See, for example, Vasil'eva (1954).
[7] The word öwlat comes from the Arabic walad -- "heir, son, child." In standard Turkmen the word designates "holy group" and does not refer to "descendants" or "generation" as in the languages of other Central Asian peoples.
[8] Four öwlat groups claim Ali, one Osman, and one Abu Bakr. The genealogies often ultimately end with Adam.
[9] The term ishan (from Persian "they") in the Central Asian context gives clear reference to Sufism as ishans were synonymous with Sufi adepts and shaykhs while aga/aka is a form of address used for older males and literally means "uncle" or "older brother." Other forms of address for males include öwlat aga, khoja aga, shïkh aga, etc.
[10] The terms in Turkmen to designate those of non-öwlat origin are garamayak or garachï which may be translated as "commoners" or "common folk."
[11] It was common practice for non-öwlat groups to offer öwlat families special parcels of land and access to all-important sources of water (as well as other privileges). The practice has evidently continued into the present day as anti-religious literature in the Soviet period presented accounts of how öwlat members were recruited by communities and enticed with property and wealth to move and take up residence within a community. For example, see Khaiïdov and M. Tuvakbaeva (1986: 17).
[12] In the cases of older cemeteries, the figure is also often ascribed the status of community head or founder and thought to have been from Arabistan.
[13] In Arabic öwlüyä is the plural of wali "companion, friend (of God), saint."
[14] Roadside signs put up next to cemeteries are of two types in Turkmenistan. On one type it is noted "such and such's gonamchïlïk" (named for the non-öwlat gonambashï) while on the other it is noted as "such and such's öwlüyä" (named for the öwlüyä/öwlat member who is gonambashï).
[15] Demidov (1978) offers some analysis on this hypothesis but describes the process using the the terms "denigration" and "vulgarization" (of Sufism), thus presenting more evidence for the so-called "illegitimacy" of virtually all aspects of present-day Turkmen Islamic belief and activity, especially the öwlat groups and shrine pilgrimage.
[16] It is interesting to note here that many older men we met at shrines spoke not only of the destruction caused by the brutal Soviet anti-religious programs but also of the damage caused by World War Two. A large percentage of the generation of men now in their 50's and 60's -- the age of the men most likely to be engaged in officiating shrine activity and taking care of shrines today -- lost their fathers in World War Two. These men claim that much of the local knowledge of the "intellectual traditions" associated with the shrines died with their fathers. While women kept alive the practices that came with actual pilgrimage, they were not able to pass down the knowledge possessed by their husbands (except for general information connected with legends, etc.).
[17] The vast majority of the caretakers we met said they had been newly appointed (since Turkmenistan's independence in 1991) and that prior to their coming there was no permanent caretaker at the shrine.
[18] Many of the caretakers with whom we met with knew little more than vague legends about their shrine and the individual to which it was dedicated.
[19] Aside from an outright attack on individuals attempting to utilize their status as öwlat members in ways deemed socially harmful by the state, scholarship in Turkmenistan attempted to portray öwlat groups as "ordinary" Turkmen lineage groups whose sacred origins were constructs devised to exploit others. This was not only part of an effort to designed to combat religious belief but also part of a larger attempt by official scholarship to play-down tribal differences and to promote the concept of a unified Turkmen nation.
[20] Much information supplied by Soviet specialists such as Demidov was used by Western Sovietologists and specialists in Soviet Islam, especially in their efforts to portray Central Asia as a hotbed of organized anti-Soviet Islamic activity. The best examples of this are found in Bennigsen (1983, 1985, 1986).
[21] It must be noted that an apparent contradiction of Soviet scholarship and the anti-religious struggle was to "unmask" the pre-Islamic links with such activity and brand it as "un-Islamic" (thus carrying on the tradition as discussed above found in Vambery, etc.) Therefore, shrine pilgrimage was depicted as an ancient survival of the past having dubious links with Islam and as an activity engaged by ignorant folk who were unwitting victims of the inertia of traditionalism (aside from Demidov, see Poliakov: 1992).
[22] Anti-religious literature consistently cites circumcision, Muslim marriages, the offering of blessings, the tradition of slaughtering animals for meals in the name of God, and pilgrimage to holy sites as the most "visible and destructive" "vestiges of the past" in Turkmen society (see for example, Tüliev, 1973: 16-27). Anti-religious literature published in the other Central Asian republics contains similar assertions.
[23] Soviet scholarship (see, for example, the works of Basilov and Demidov) typically asserts that the veneration of these objects dates back millenia and is closely related to animism and other ancient beliefs.
[24] Dr. DeWeese and I have compiled a list of some three hundred holy sites in Turkmenistan, of which I have visited approximately ninety. There are undoubtedly many more.
[25] The affix -jan is common in Turkic languages and denotes affection and endearment.
[26] It is worth noting that the "enemies" (yagï) and "raiders" (garakchï) described in legends at this and many other sites are seen as Iranians or at least coming from Iran. Thus, Kurds are also often portrayed as the attackers.
[27] It is common for visitors to untie the strips of cloth and attach them to their wrists as a means of protection from illness, bad luck, and the evil eye. The strips then must never be taken off of the wrist; they must wear-out and fall off by themselves.
[28] The young women noted there are numerous prayers recited at the shrine like the one below:
Dushmanïng gaharïndan gachan -
One who has escaped the enemy's wrath,
Ulï dagdan gapï achan -
One who has opened a door into a great mountain,
Jenneding törüne gechen -
One who has passed to heaven's place of honor,
Parawbibi senden kömek -
[I ask] of you, Paraw Bibi, assistance.
[29] It is clear that while many of the rituals and activities are designed to assist young brides to become fertile, young women who are not wishing for children conduct the same rites as for other purposes. Thus the various elements of such activity make up a pilgrimage; their completion allows the pilgrim to receive a blessing (pata almak) from Paraw Bibi.
[30] To his great pleasure he was treated to a more in-depth account of who Khoja Yusup Baba was and why he is significant in April 1995 when Dr. Devin DeWeese gave him a great deal of historical information. The caretaker said it was his duty to record in writing what he had heard.
[31] Here, like at most other sites, all such items and materials were donations left by pilgrims. Tradition stipulates that donations made to facilitate pilgrimage are sogap ishler (acts for which reward will be given by God -- Arabic thawab).
[32] The etymology of the term is unclear and little studied; no specialists have used the term in connection with the Arabic word for "banner" (alam). Many Turkmen use the term mata or mata bölegi (cloth or piece of cloth) to describe the strips.
[33] Basilov (1970: 64-65) notes the shrine's existence since the mid 15th century.
[34] Basilov considers the figure of Baba Gambar and the legend of rivalry that existed between him and Ali to reflect a stage in the religious development among the Turkmen when Islam began to absorb and Islamify previous pre-Islamic religious belief and practice. In this case, a pre-Islamic shaman-like figure took on an Islamic identity but acted out a competition and show of power with Ali, a quintessential Islamic figure in Central Asia. Basilov asserts that as time went on the pre-Islamic figures in such legends gradually lost in the competitions and even disappeared in the legends all together, thus signaling a more complete Islamization of the population and their beliefs.
[35] This mausoleum was built between my visits in 1994 and 1995. Prior to 1994 it was a low burial mound surrounded by stones.
[36] It is evident from our findings that the chile agach is particular almost exclusively to areas in central-south Turkmenistan.
[37] These include the hottest and coldest periods of the year as well as the 40-day period after a child's birth. The term may also be used in some areas in connection with adherents of Sufism, namely the period of isolated prayer and meditation.
[38] While numerous informants spoke of the rules regarding chile, possible consequences, and remedies, we have found no written reference to or explanation of the chile agach other than that of Demidov (1988: 77-78).
[39] Tree size, shape, genus in themselves apparently are not what makes a tree or piece(s) of wood a chile agach.
[40] In the case of Turkmenistan and much of former Soviet Central Asia the tremendous changes brought about by Soviet rule and policies such as collectivization did not destroy all elements of traditional living patterns. The majority of collective and state farms -- the basic administrative units created in rural-agricultural areas -- remain largely inhabited by members of one or related lineages, clans, etc.
[41] I have so far been unable to locate any mention of Khoja Älem Baba or his öwlüyä in any written source.
[42] A standard Soviet interpretation of the tradition in its local character is summed up by Ataev (1989: 9, 61): "As clear from Turkmenistan history, religious officials created 'miraculous' places connected with the places inhabited by each Turkmen tribal clan and used their cult [of the holy sites] for their own benefit."
[43] In their analyses of such traditions, many Soviet ethnographers and historians invariably stress only the primitive links with animal sacrifice to both the dead and deities, and in the case of the Turkmen, they invariably discuss the tradition as a vestige ceremony connected with the "cult of ancestors."
[44] In Turkmen, a typical way of explaining the undertaking was: "Biz Shuwlan babanyng yoluna chebish öldürip, hudaiyoly ediäris. " -- We are killing (slaughtering) a young goat in the name of/to Shuwlan Baba (a saint/shrine in southwestern Turkmenistan) and conducting a hudaiyolï.
[45] Many individuals also noted that the meal may also be given after one had promised "in his heart" (without making a pilgrimage) to conduct the hudaiyolï if God or a saint granted his/her wish.
In some cases hudaiyolï are conducted in the home as well. As one elderly women explained to me, the venue of the hudaiyolï is not as important as the intention behind it and the actual act of the offering. Other informants in the city of Ashgabat claimed that hudaiyolï were conducted in homes because they, as members of the Teke tribe, do not make pilgrimages to shrines as much as members of other tribes. Many rural Teke, however, scoffed at this and remarked that the lack of pilgrimage on the part of city-dwellers reflected their loss of tradition and knowledge of turkmenchilik -- "Turkmenness."
[46] Apparently time and other constraints do not always allow for the preparation of a meal during pilgrimage, especially at smaller sites which lack cooking facilities. In such cases pilgrims may bring with them bread and other prepared food items.
[47] Virtually all the sites we had noted on lists compiled prior to our 1995 visit to Turkmenistan have been or are being renovated (or reconstructed) and signs of regular pilgrimage activity are clear. In some cases "new" sites have been (re)discovered. On the whole, this is characteristic in Uzbekistan and southern Kazakstan as well and probably in all of the former republics of Soviet Central Asia. The situation in Uzbekistan is particularly interesting because of the state's eagerness to co-opt shrines and be seen as the chief sponsor of aspects of the traditions connected with the shrines. The state, for example, has taken control of the popular shrines Zangi Ota (Tashkent), Baha ad-Din Naqshband (Bukhara), and Muhammad al-Bukhari (near Samarqand). Many observers see this activity as both simply part of the government's effort to control all elements of Uzbek life and a reflection of its uneasiness with "popular" Islam.
[48] See, for example, "Din ïnsan kalbïnï tämizleyän ulï güychdür," Watan, 20 Sept. 1994, p.2-3. Dozens of articles have been published in popular Turkmen-language newspapers and journals in recent years lauding the pilgrimage tradition and detailing the histories of specific shrines and the figures to which they are dedicated. Such treatments, however, have been careful to refrain from condoning all aspects of belief and practice connected with shrine-based activity, especially healing conducted by holy men, custodians, etc.
[49] He is sometimes referred to in the press as Nasrulla Ibadulla oglï as well. The interview took place in his Dashhowuz office located in one of Turkmenistan's three madrasas. He is an Uzbek by nationality. He graduated from Bukhara's Mir Arab Madrasa and studied in Egypt for four years.

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