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The Turcoman Tribes (1882)

Report of Edmond O'Donovan
(Special Correspondent to the Daily News)

Migrations of Tribes
The Turcoman Tekke tribes of Merv has two tribes the Toktamish, on the eastern bank of the river , and the Otamish ,on the western. The Toktamish is the most numerous and also the senior tribe, but its precedence is purely honorary. Kouchid Khan ,who commanded the whole nation during its migration to Merv,and in the subsequent war with Persia was hereditary chief of the Toktamish. On his death ,his son Baba Khan succeeded to the headship of the Toktamish tribe only. His personal character was not sufficiently distinguished for the Turkomans to continue his father's authority in him, and the Otamish Khan successful asserted a claim to equality. Kouchid Khan's mame is still potent among the people of Mery, and their new fortress bears his name. The Toktamish and Otamish tribes are subdivided into four sections, with sub chiefs over each, and still further into twenty-four yaps or clans. The following table will indicate at a glance the divisions and subdivisions of the Tekkes east and west of the Murgab.

1) Toktamish [east] .............................2) Otamish [west]

Yazi Youssub


Kaksal Bukeri

Ark Karadje









Sultan Aziz




Ak Dasheyuk

Kara Dasheyuk




Hadji Sufi

Kou Sagur

Aladja Guz

Other Turkomans bordering upon the Merv territory are classed as follows by the Merv Tekkes:

3) Yelkamish [south]

Yalatan Saruk

Penj-deh Saruk

4) Salor

5) Ersari

6) Iliat







These names may have some philological value, so I have taken pains to ascertain them as accurately as possible. In Merv itself the distinction between the clans is kept up with the utmost formality. Personally I never could discover the difference between them, but the Turkomans had no difficulty in telling to what clan a man belonged at first sight, On asking once how to distinguish the wearers, a native pointed out that a peculiar way of knotting the sash and wearing the hat always indicated a member of the Sultan Aziz clan, a peculiar tie of the sword belt one of the Burkoz, and other minute points of the dress the members of the other clans. My eye could never be sufficiently trained to tell a man's clan at first sight by the cock of his hat, or the tie of his sash: but my Turcoman friends never erred in the matter, which is a somewhat important one in their society. The present unhabitants of Merv are comparatively recent immigrants, and indeed the whole Turkoman population of these countries has been only a short time in its present seats. I endeavored during my stay in Merv to collect all the information I could on the history of these nomads, which is naturally very obscure, owing to the unsettled nature of their lives. One tribe succeeds another easily among the nomads, and the population of a district is often completely changed in the course of a few years and as there is no written history of these movements, it only by the utmost diligence in cross-examining the most intelligent natives, and then comparing their statements careful, that anything like an accurate notion of them can be formed, Like most uncivilized nations, the Turcomans can lay but little claim to accuracy in their stories of past events, and chronological exactness they pay scarcely; any attention to.

During the reign of Nadir Shah, who was himself of pure Turcoman blood, the whole of Turkestan as far as Bokhara and Khiva acknowledged his sovereignty. From an 18th century painting

However, I had frequent opportunities of consulting the most intelligent elders of Mery, many of who had taken an active part in the events of the last half-century, and remembered them vividly, while they also recollected clearly the traditions of older movements that had been handed down by their fathers. From all that I could learn thus, it appears that the country now occupied by the Mery and Akhal Tekkes was peopled a hundred and fifty years ago (from 1881)by a settled Turkish population of the same race as the present inhabitants of Bokhara. The name Turcoman is confined to the nomads, as distinct from the settled branches of the same race, who are styled Turks distinctly, in Central Asia. When used here the latter name is not to be confounded with the Osmanli Turks of Stambol, who parted from the parent stock several hundred years ago, and have been since separated from their kinsmen in Central Asia by the interposition of Persia. During the reign of Nadir Shah, who was himself of pure Turcoman blood, the whole of Turkestan as far as Bokhara and Khiva acknowledged his sovereignty. The then Turkish population of Mery merely acknowledged his suzerainty by a tribute analogous to some of the old feudal tenures in Europe, I believe by the present of a nut or some fruit on stated occasions. On the death of Nadir, the Persian monarchy rapidly decayed. Afghanistan fell away, and the nomad Turcomans of Khiva poured into Persian Turkestan on the north-east, while Bokhara attacked it from another quarter. About a hundred and thirty years ago (counting from 1881), the Tekkes, the Saruk and the Salor Turcomans commenced their invasion. The Akhal Tekkes then got possession of the territory which they still occupy, though not with its exact present boundaries. In fact the war with Persia has been practically continuous since, and it is only within the last seventy years that Askabad was taken by the Akhal Tekkes.

'Yurts' near the vicinity of Merv, early 20th century. The permanent nature of these dwellings is not insignificant, as similar villages of such sedentary Turkmen was noted by O'Donovan in his book, "The Merv Oasis". Photograph, SM Dudin

Still, whatever variations the Persian boundaries may have undergone, the Akhal Tekkes have remained pretty steadily in the territory they seized on after Nadir Shah's death, and which has now past under Russian sway with its inhabitants. Their brethren, the present inhabitants of Merv, had a more chequered history, While the Akhal Tekkes were establishing themselves along the northeastern slopes of the Kopet Dag mountains, the former settled around the great swamps in which the Tejend is lost. The abundance of water no doubt made this appear at first almost desirable territory, but the unhealthy nature of the soil proved a serious drawback. Then the waters did not rise as usual, and for three years in succession there were severe droughts. The Tekkes consequently determined to abandon their abodes by the Tejend swamps, and about the year 1834 they moved into the Persian territory at Sarakhs. They held possession of Sarakhs and the adjoining territory, nearly as far south as Seistan, for about twenty-one years, or until shortly after the accession of the present Shah of Persia. While the Tekkes were occupying the western part of Turkestan, other nomad tribes were pouring into the East of their settlements. These were the Ersari who settled and remained along the banks of the Oxus at and about Charjui, pronounced Charjow, and the Salors and Saruks, who pushed on to the Murgab. After their arrival there, Mery itself was destroyed, and its Turkish inhabitants almost exterminated by the power of Bokhara. The Bokharan conqueror , Begge Jan captured then the city of Merv, being third historical city that had existed under the name, after a prolonged resistance, and utterly destroyed it. Seven hundred thousand persons are said to have perished during the siege and subsequent slaughter, and though the numbers are doubtless exaggerated some. what, it is evident from the ruins that remain that a dense population must then have occupied the oasis, and have been utterly swept away.

An animal market scene outside Merv, early 20th century. Photographed by SM Dudin

The Bokharans did not occupy the conquered country, and the Salor and Saruk Turcomans found no resistance there when they moved their aladjaks close to the ruins of Merv. The fall of Merv took place nearly a century ago (from 1881), and from that time until the advent of the present Shah to the throne of Persia the Salors and Saruks remained in undisturbed possession of its territory. About twenty-six years ago,(from 1881) however, a general movement took place among the Turcoman tribes, The Persians attacked the Turcoman possessors of Sarakhs, and, after a vigorous campaign, compelled them to abandon their settlements. Seventy thousand houses are said to have been destroyed in this campaign. The dispossessed tribe in turn attacked their kindred tribe, the Saruks, and after several combats drove them out of Merv to positions further south on the Murgab, which they still occupy, at Yulatan and Penj-deh, higher up the river. The Tekkes were not left long in undisputed possession of the Merv oasis. The Persians, flushed with the success of their campaign against the Turcomans of Sarakhs, believed they could easily follow them to their new abodes, and bring Merv itself again under their sway. The Saruks, who had been expelled from their settlements by the Tekkes made common cause with the Persians, and three years after the Tekke occupation of Merv the present Shah attempted the conquest of the oasis. But the fortune had changed. The Tekkes defended their new settlement with a vigour which appalled the Persians who expected an easy victory from their artillery over enemy whom they had already driven from their frontiers. Kouchid Khan managed the campaign against the Shah and his Turcoman allies with consummate energy. After a three months' harassing warfare in the desert, the allied army advanced close to Merv but only to he totally routed in a pitched battle there. The entire Persian train of thirty-six pieces of artillery fell into the hands of the nomads, and the routed army fled in utter confusion to Meshed. For weeks the victorious nomads were engaged in gathering the arms and other spoils thrown away by the flying troops of the Shah, and the captured Persian guns still ornament the ramparts of Merv. A number of officers of high rank were made prisoners, and had to be ransomed afterwards at enormous prices. Some of the ransoms were as high as six or seven thousand pounds. Others were left to die in captivity for want of means to meet the extortionate demands of their captors.

A late 19th/early 20th century photograph depicting an elder of the Tekke tribe, with a Russian miliatry medal on his chapan. It is unclear whether he earned it from the Russians or perhps it is captured booty.

The Saruks of Penj-deh still continue inveterate in their hostility to the present inhabitants of Merv but they are unable to gratify their feelings in any effectual way than by plundering raids, which the Merv Tekkes are not slow in reciprocating. Those of the Saruks who inhabit the districts nearest to Merv, which are irrigated by canals from the Bent-i-Yolatun, have partially given up their enmity towards their neighbors; but the clans higher up the river, towards the Afghan frontier, are still irreconciable with their foes.

The Salors, whose settlements lie between the Saruks and Merv, have submitted absolutely to the latter, and are treated by the Merv Khans as subjects. These Salors, however, are but a small part of the Salor tribe, which is scattered all over Turkestan. Some of them are found among the Saruks close to Herat, and a still larger number among the Ersari,
the Salors in Merv only number seven hundred families, and are associated with the Otamish tribe of Tekkes.

As for the Ersari Turcomans, their long separation from and other Tekkes has well-high obliterated any feeling about their common origin. They depend rather on Bokhara ,and frequently cross the desert to raid on the Merv Tekkes. In numbers they are by no means equal to the latter. A well-informed Turcoman, who had been much among them, estimated their numbers at seventy thousands. I have endeavored to give the history of the Tekkes, as I learned it from the older men among the tribes, but I do not pretend to vouch for its accuracy. In the absence of better evidence, it may be of some use in throwing light upon the vicissitudes of the tribes now inhabiting the almost terra incognita of Central Asia.