As I cross the Kopet Dagh range that separates Iran from Turkmenistan, my spirits begin to lighten. Behind me in Iran lies the land of the chador, while ahead promises the land of the horse.
As I enter Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan, I am dazzled by the unequivocal and spectacular display of its equestrian culture, in which other local traditions of carpet and jewelry-making, poetry and music find their themes and raison d’etre.
The ethereal-looking, long-backed, swan-necked (some might say more critically: ewe-necked) Akhal Teke is faithfully reproduced in bronze all over the city. In front of the Chamber of Commerce he appears ridden by a traditionally dressed Turkmen man and woman, harnessed and jeweled with silver “Alagayysh” ornaments very similar to what women still wear today, but which used to serve as armor to the horses during battle. The horse appears gilt and winged in the semblance of Pegasus at the entrance of a national museum. He prances in anonymous glory around the top of a fountain. Famous racehorse and sire Polotni has his own statue that stands by the City Hippodrome like that of a national benefactor.
Giant monitors in the city’s center show the Akhal Teke at various stages of life—at pasture, as a main participant during traditional festivities, or demonstrating his athletic abilities at international events.
As if this wasn’t enough, the Akhal Teke has his own ministry and by then, of course, I can’t help supposing that an Akhal Teke sits behind the ministerial desk.
At the end of a well honored life the Akhal Teke, whether famous or not, may be buried in the horse cemetery in the desert outside the capital, his head and neck wrapped in a white sheet, a formal prayer recited over his body. If the horse is notorious a monument may mark his burial spot.
The Horse As National Hero
For all the somewhat kitsch magnificence of Ashgabat, sprung from Turkmenistan’s vast reserves of natural gas, the city seems better for it and exudes a kind of dreamlike charm. Its white marble and gold, its cupolas, neo-classical pediments and colonnades, colossal doorways, fountains and fancy memorial edifices set in lavishly irrigated gardens, all outrageously lit up at night, seem inspired by Jonathan Swift’s tale of the land of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels with one essential difference: The Turkmen’s great devotion to their horses bears no resemblance to the fearsomeness of the vile Yahoos.
According to local testimonies, horses dragged people from under the rubble during the 1948 earthquake that is said to have killed upwards of 170,000. Gratitude and admiration is regularly expressed through such stories of equine intelligence and friendship towards human beings.
In the Ruhnama, a political and cultural guide to the people of Turkmenistan written by the former life-long president Saparmurat Niyazov, the Akhal Teke represented at the center of the state emblem by the national champion Yanardag is “a model of endurance, beauty and purity.” He embodies the very spirit of Turkmenistan and is a symbol of cultural and political unity in a multi-tribal society that has only fairly recently regained its independence on Oct. 21, 1991.
A Breed On The Edge
The Akhal Teke’s dominant presence is all the more significant and precious to Turkmen people since they almost lost their beloved horses under Russian rule. In an effort to stifle all opposition, Russian policy separated Turkmen from their horses between 1881 and 1930. The Russians considered the horses as a main tool of rebellion.
But what the Turkmen remember most bitterly during the obliteration of their national identity is the shameful butchering of Akhal Teke horses to feed the Russian people in the 1960s and 70s.
Still today, it is not uncommon for a Turkmen to ask a foreigner if he or she eats horsemeat. A denial is received with an audible sigh of approval and followed by the rejoinder: “For us, to eat horse meat is no better than cannibalism.”
Having sacrilegiously been turned into steak, the Akhal Teke is now back as a principal player in a kind of coded cultural restitution dictated by the government.
The enforcement of enduring, self-declared untarnished Turkmen culture, among other things, obliges young women to wear long braids to university, whether real or fake, and long red velvet dresses. Male students wear traditional Turkmen caps on their heads. Despite the requirement of such “cultural” rules, the love and pride in the horse seems to endure unforced.
A Culture Of Horse Breeders
The modern Akhal Teke is, however, only the latest avatar of the ancient Turkmen horse that was bred across the whole country by many tribes. At the foot of the Kopet Dagh mountains, the Akhal oasis, a strip of land stretching approximately between Kizir Arva to the west and Ashgabat to the east, is considered today as the best horse breeding area in the country because is has more water and, consequently, more forage than land north of it taken over by the KaraKum desert.
Here, by the small Chuli river that runs full and fast in this end of March between its cradle of trees, and where the emerald green hills are dotted with sheep and goat herds guarded by their large Alabai sheep dogs, Teke tribes bred a horse reputed to be taller, braver, swifter than other Turkmen breeds and also characterized by a particular golden coat.
Katia Kolesorikova’s breeding farm, Aladje, is located 40 minutes outside of Ashgabat. With 14 horses, including foals, it’s typical of the larger private breeding establishments found in Turkmenistan, which generally have no more than 20 horses. Other private Turkmen owners nowadays can afford no more than one or two horses.