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Sketches of Central Asia - "Amongst the Turkomans"

Arminius Vambery travelled through Central Asia in the mid 19th century, the author of one of most vivid and detailed accounts of life among the Turkmen as well as the oasis kingdoms of Turkestan.

A Hungarian linghist, he was fluent in the Turkish langauage and disguised as a learned and important man from Constantinople, he journeyed throughout Turkestan recording all that he saw and encountered...

I have chosen to reproduce parts of this text in an effort to illustrate the nature of life, aside from the myth and misunderstandings that pervade, at this late date, our very distanced view.

13th April
Struck with astonishment and surprise at the strange social relations, amongst which I was to-day living for the first time, I was sitting in the early morning hours upon one and the same carpet with Khandjan, my hospitable host, listening with eager attention to his descriptions of Turkoman life and manners. He was one of the most influential chiefs amongst the nomads, by nature an upright man, and anxious to make me acquainted with the faults as well as the merits of his countrymen; for being firmly convinced of my Turkish and semi-official character, he
  hoped to gain, through my position with the Sultan, on whom the whole Sunnitish world relies, assistance against Russians and Persians. He spoke with zeal, without betraying it outwardly; and after having given me his first lesson he rose, to show me, as he said, his house and court-yard, or in our phraseology, to make me acquainted with the ladies of the family. This is a very especial mark of distinction among Asiatic nations; however, a man supposed to be an agent of the Sultan, well deserves such an attention; and accordingly I endeavoured, by my attitude in sitting, my whole niien and carriage, to show myself worthy of it.

"He was one of the most influential chiefs amongst the nomads, by nature an upright man, and anxious to make me acquainted with the faults as well as the merits of his countrymen;..."
After a few minutes I heard a strange clattering and clinking, the curtain of the tent was raised, and there entered a whole crowd of women, girls and children, who, headed by a corpulent and tolerably old matron, walked towards the place where I was sitting. They were evidently as much struck as myself by the scene; looking timidly around, the young women cast down their eyes, whilst the children clung with evident signs of fear to the clothes of their parents. Khandjan introduced the matron to me as his mother.
She was about sixty years old, in the primitive costume of a long, red silk garment, and wearing across her chest, to the right and left, several large as well as small silver sheaths, in which as
  many talismans of great virtue were preserved; some even were inlaid with precious stones, as were also a considerable number of armlets, necklaces and anklets,-the heirlooms of the family through several generations, and, to judge from their appearance, bearing the traces of high antiquity. The other women and children were likewise arrayed in ornaments of a similar kind, varying, however, with the wearer's rank and position in the favour of their lord and master. The clothes themselves are often torn and dirty, and are looked upon as quite a matter of secondary importance; but a Turkoman lady is not fashionably dressed, unless she carries about her person one or two pounds of silver in ornaments.

"........but a Turkoman lady is not fashionably dressed, unless she carries about her person one or two pounds of silver in ornaments."
The old lady was the first to extend her wrinkled hands for the customary greeting, the others followed, and, after the young girls and children had embraced me,-for such is the rule of the bon ton,-all squatted down around me in a semicircle and began to question me about my health, welfare, and happy arrival. Each one addressed me three or four times on the same subject. I had to return just as many answers; and not in Europe alone does it happen that a circle of ladies may perplex and embarrass an inexperienced Solomon: even in the desert of Central Asia the like may occur.

Everywhere among the nomad people of the Mohomedan East the women lose more and more their moral and physical attributes, the older they grow. During my first interview I was

  obliged to reply to the most delicate questions of the younger portion; whilst the elder ones conversed on religion, politics, and the domestic relations of the neighbouring tribes. I had to guard against exhibiting surprise at the manner of either of them; the younger women I succeeded. in inspiring with awe for my strict virtue as a Mollah, and the elderly ones received an ample share of blessings. Several men, neighbours and relatives, arrived during this visit, but they caused no disturbance or discomposure among the ladies, who enjoy, as I have often had the opportunity of observing, a certain respect, although they are exclusively the working class of the community. And indeed the Turkoman women deserve such, for nowhere in the East have I met with their equals in exemplary virtue, devotion to their families, and indefatigable industry.

"And indeed the Turkoman women deserve such, for nowhere in the East have I met with their equals in exemplary virtue, devotion to their families, and indefatigable industry. "
This visit lasted nearly an hour, and towards the end of it I had to write several talismans, in return for which the women presented me with sundry small gifts, their own handwork. The old lady came several times afterwards to visit me; once I even accompanied her to the tumulus which is raised over the remains of her husband, in order to pray for the soul of the departed. The good understanding between us two struck even the nomads: however, at present the reason for it is sufficiently clear to me. In the first instance a certain foreign look in my   appearance, as well as the halo of piety which surrounded me,
had attracted her, at the same time that I was ever ready to lend a patient ear to her conversations; listening attentively to her discourses on the short-comings of the Persian female slaves in her household, on the want of skill in the women of the present day, in weaving carpets, preparing felt, &c., interspersing now and then an observation of my own, as if I had been accustomed to these subjects from my youth and took an especial interest in all the details of a nomad household.

" I entered the tent of Khandjan after the morning prayer and found here a whole company, listening with the greatest attention to the narrative of a young Turkoman, who was covered with dust and dirt,......."
And, after all, this is the philosophy of life that should guide a traveller everywhere, if he wishes to learn anything. Here, for instance, a pliant demeanour proved of considerable use, since the affection of the old matron towards me contributed in a great measure to render my residence amongst the Turkomans agreeable,-a people, amongst whom not even an Asiatic stranger can move freely, still less an European.

16th April.
I entered the tent of Khandjan after the morning prayer and found here a whole company, listening with the greatest attention to the narrative of a young Turkoman, who was covered with dust and dirt, and whose face bore evident traces of excitement and

  severe hardships. He was describing in a low voice, but in lively colours, a maurading excursion against the Persians of the evening before, in which he had taken part, Whilst he was speaking, the women, servants and slaves (what must have been the thoughts of these latter), squatted down around the circle of listeners, and many a curse was hurled at the slaves, the clanking of the chains on their feet interrupting for a time the general quiet. It struck me as remarkable, that, in proportion as the speaker warmed in describing the obstinate resistance of the unfortunate people, who were fallen on unawares, the indignation of the audience increased at the audacity of the Persians, not to have at once quietly submitted to being plundered.

"...... as the speaker warmed in describing the obstinate resistance of the unfortunate people, who were fallen on unawares, the indignation of the audience increased at the audacity of the Persians, not to have at once quietly submitted to being plundered."
No sooner was the narration of this great feat of arms at an end when all rose to their feet to have a look at the spoils, the sight of which excites in the Turkoman's breast a mixed feeling of envy and pleasure. I followed them likewise, and a terrible picture presented itself to my eyes. Lying down in the middle of the tent were two Persians, looking deadly pale and covered with clotted blood, dirt and dust. A man was busily engaged in putting their broken limbs into fetters, when one of them gave a loud, wild shriek, the rings of the chains being too small for him. The cruel Turkoman was about to fasten them forcibly round his ancles. In a corner sat two young children on the ground, pale and trembling, and looking with sorrowful eyes towards the tortured Persian. The unhappy man was their father; they longed to weep, but dared not; one look of the robber, at whom they stole a glance now and then, with their teeth chattering, was sufficient to suppress their tears.   In another corner a girl, from fifteen to sixteen years old, was crouching, her hair dishevelled and in confusion, her garments torn and almost entirely covered with blood. She groaned and sobbed, covering her face with her hands. Some Turkoman woman, moved either by compassion or curiosity, asked her what ailed her, and where she was wounded. " I am not wounded, she exclaimed, in a plaintive voice, deeply touching. " This blood is the blood of my mother, my only one, and the best and kindest of mothers. Oh! ana djan, ana djan (dear mother)!" Thus she lamented, striking her head against the trellised woodwork of the tent so that it almost tumbled down. They offered her a draught of water, and her tongue became loosened, and she told them how she (of course a valuable prize) had been lifted into the saddle beside the robber, but that her mother, tied to the stirrups, had been obliged to run along on foot.

" And yet no one is struck by the contrast; every one thinks it very natural that the Turkoman should enrich himself with robbery and pillage."
After an hour's running in this manner, she grew so tired that she sank down exhausted every moment. The Turkoman tried to increase her strength by lashing her with his whip, but this was of no avail; and as he did not want to remain behind from his troop he grew in a rage, drew his sword, and in a second struck off her head. The blood spirting up, had covered the daughter, horseman and horse; and, looking at the red spots upon her clothes, the poor girl wept loud and bitterly.
Whilst this was going on in the interior of the tent, outside the various members of the robbers' family were busy inspecting the booty he had brought home. The elder women seized greedily upon one or another utensil for domestic use, whilst the children,
  who were jumping about merrily, were trying on the different garments, now one, now another, and producing shouts of laughter.

Here all was triumph and merriment; not far from it a picture of the deepest grief and misery. And yet no one is struck by the contrast; every one thinks it very natural that the Turkoman should enrich himself with robbery and pillage.

And these terrible social relations exist within scarcely a fortnight's distance from Europe, ravelling by St. Petersburg, Nishnei Novogorod, and Astrakhan!

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