Profile: Turkmenistan - The Land of Horse Heaven
Turkmenistan is widely regarded as one of the more corrupt and repressive nations of Central Asia; called by the New York Times “the North Korea of the former Soviet Union”. But not for oppression of its horses. In Turkmenistan, the odds are almost 100% that they are Akhal-Teke horses, the national breed that goes back to prehistoric times.
The Akhal-Teke is claimed to be the earliest domesticated breed of horse. Alexander the Great’s favorite battle charger Bucephalus (honored on a gold coin), which Alexander named a city after, was an Akhal-Teke. Alexander praised the Akhal-Teke for its hardiness, speed and stamina. See the Embassy of Turkmenistan’s website for an official description of the horse’s status.
- President Saparmurat Niyazov’s favorite horse, Yanardag (Fire Mountain), is at the center of Turkmenistan’s national emblem (“The Turkmen state coat of arms bears the image of Yanardag, an Akhal-Teke that won first place at a Moscow horse show in 1999.” –‘Turkmenistan Marks Akhal-Teke Racehorse Day’, by Dzhumguly Annayev, April 2011), and was shown on the reverse of the 2005 50-manat bill.
- Issue #1 of the Turkmenistan Airlines (Türkmenhowaýollary) new in-flight magazine, Lachyn (Falcon), showcased the Akhal-Teke horse.
- Turkmenistan has issued several postage stamps since 1992 showing Akhal-Teke horses, naturally including Yanardag.
- Turkmenistan’s first banknotes in 1993 had a security watermark in the paper of a rearing Akhal-Teke.
- There is a government website devoted to Akhal-Teke horses.
- When a horse dies, it is buried in a formal funeral.
- Turkmenistan is the only Islamic nation where it is officially forbidden to eat horse meat. (Several sources say that it’s banned in their Constitution, although I cannot find any mention of eating horse meat there. However, there are many references to the Turkmen aversion to eating horsemeat, in contrast to neighboring Islamic Kazakhstan, where horsemeat is considered a delicacy.)
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.’ (‘Turkmenistan: Land of the Akhal Teke’, by Stephanie Sears.)
- In 2002, on the tenth anniversary of independence (October 21, 1991, actually; just two months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union), the government erected the golden Statue of the Ten (Akhal-Teke) Horses in Ashgabat (“City of Love”), the capital. (Akhal-Tekes come in all colors, but the most prized thoroughbreds are “golden with a metallic sheen”, with black manes and tails.)
- In 2004, Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, opened a $20 million dollar luxury air-conditioned horse spa with a swimming pool and medical facilities.
To digress, Niyazov had a fondness for golden statues. In 1998 he had the Neutrality Arch, a 246-foot tall monument commemorating Turkmenistan’s neutrality in world politics, erected in downtown Ashgabat, with a 39-foot tall golden statue of himself placed on the top, on a rotating pedestal so that he would always face the sun. The statue was illuminated at night. Smaller golden statues of Niyazov were set up throughout Ashgabat and in every city in Turkmenistan.
In 2010, after Niyazov’s death, Turkmenistan’s second president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, had the Neutrality Arch taken down, moved closer to the Statue of the Ten Horses in Ashgabat’s Independence Park, with a slightly smaller statue (36 feet instead of 39 feet) and improvements; at the same time removing the smaller statues. “‘It’s going to be exactly the same as before, only more beautiful,’ said a workman guarding the site on Friday. ‘It will have a fountain underneath and a restaurant on the top, and yes, it’s going to revolve and have a statue of the first President.’” – ‘The Telegraph’, 24 May 2011. The new site is also on higher ground, so while the old complex was only 246 feet high, the new one will reach 290 feet and be visible throughout Ashgabat. The new Arch was reopened on December 12, 2012.
The opening ceremony was attended by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, government officials, public representatives, who laid flowers at the monument.
According to official information, the parameters of the structure symbolically reflect the historical date of December 12, 1995. The total height of the Monument of Neutrality is 95 meters, including a 12 meter high sculpture of the first President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov on top of the monument.
The multilevel structure is decorated with bronze bas-reliefs with gilt, depicting the important events from different historical periods of the Turkmen state - from ancient times to the era of independence. It displays images of the founder of the nation – Oguz Khan Turkmen and his six sons, the image of carpet patterns, ancient monuments, images of the Turkmen riders on Akhalteke horses, and various scenes from the life of Turkmens.
Inside the building is the Museum of neutrality, which consists of three halls. The museum’s exhibition depicts the country's ongoing domestic and foreign policies and important events in the modern era.
Residents and visitors of Ashgabat can view the sights of the white marble capital city from two viewing platforms, as well as a panoramic elevator, which is the main axis of the Monument of neutrality.
Flagpoles with the flags of the United Nations member countries encircle the monument. There are cascading fountains, decorative gazebos and cafes in the adjoining parkland.
(‘Monument of Neutrality inaugurated in Turkmenistan’, 12 January 2013.)
Berdymukhamedov does not share Niyazov’s penchant for golden statues of himself, but he loves Akhal-Teke horses as much as the next Turkman. As the President, he has his own prize stud farm. To quote an ‘Inquirer News’ article of April 30, 2012,
Berdymukhamedov, 54, has written a book about horses [Akhal-Teke Horses; Our Pride and Glory] that was published in a print-run of many thousands [in Turkmen, English, French, and Russian editions] and once posed on his favourite steeds for a calendar.
The former dentist [he was the personal dentist of Niyazov, who appointed him Minister of Health in 1997, from which position he rose to Deputy Prime Minister in 2001] took over the leadership of the energy-rich state in 2007 after the death of the eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, who renamed months and days of the week in honour of himself and his family.
Being a professional dentist apparently also qualifies Berdymukhamedov to perform cancer surgery, according to ‘Turkmenistan President Carries Out Cancer Surgery’ in The Telegraph, 22 July 2009. He was re-elected President in 2012, with 97% of the vote, topping the 89% he got in 2007.
The world's greatest mandatory equine beauty contest
More importantly, in 2011 Berdymukhamedov proclaimed an annual horse beauty contest to be held on the Day of the Turkmen Race Horse, one holiday of Niyazov’s that is genuinely popular. Even so, attendance at the horse races is mandatory (hardly necessary).
Ashgabat’s popular Hippodrome is active all year round, although since Turkmenistan is a Muslim nation, there is no legal gambling. The winning jockey of each race gets a car, and the winning horse gets a carpet for its stall. Last year,
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov awarded ‘the most beautiful horse of the year’ prize to a thoroughbred stallion called Khan of the Eagles, which beat the nine other finalists decked in traditional bridles.
The leader then pulled off his jacket and leapt onto a horse to ride a victory circuit of the racecourse outside Ashgabat to cheers from the crowd. (Ibid.)
The same judges who pick the most beautiful horse also present prizes for artwork (ceramics, paintings, sculpture, and tapestry) depicting the Akhal-Teke. This year the beauty contest is being expanded into an International Horse Exhibition, including theatrical performances, expositions, a horse marathon, and a scientific conference (“Winged horses of the epoch of might and happiness”).
The Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Turkmenistan would like to express our greetings and compliments and gratefully acknowledge that the first International Fair, dedicated to the Holiday of Turkmen Horse will be held on 26-28 April 2013 in Ashgabat city, Turkmenistan. The Organizers of this event are the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Turkmenistan and the State Horse-breeding Association ‘Turkmenatlary.’ [more]
Turkmenistan’s Nurana Ay travel agency is offering two six-day packaged holiday tours to the “Holiday of Akhal-Teke Horses”.
If this year is like the last two, the horse beauty contest will be publicized during the preceding week by essays and poetry glorifying horses in Neutral Turkmenistan, the official government newspaper. Look for news in English in late April on the Embassy of Turkmenistan website.
Hmmm. Nothing mentions the presence of equine Fursuiters at the horse beauty contest. Furry fandom may be missing something here – if any Fursuiters have Akhal-Teke Fursuits. Or, what if someone enters a painting of anthropomorphic Akhal-Tekes in the art contest?
Would this be received enthusiastically, or as blasphemy?
Public holidays in Turkmenistan fall into three main categories: (a) holidays commemorating historical events (the defense of the Geok Teppe fortress in 1881, World War II in 1941-45) and landmarks since the declaration of Turkmenistan's independence in 1991 (Independence Day, Neutrality Day, State Flag Day, Day of Revival and Unity); (b) traditional and religious holidays revived since independence (Nowruz Bayram, Kurban Bayram, Oraza Bayram); and (c) new holidays introduced to honor and reinforce cultural traditions of the Turkmen people (harvest, water conservation, folk singers, Turkmen carpets, and the Turkmen racing horse). […] • Last Sunday in April – Turkmen Racing Horse Festival. (Wikipedia; CC-BY-SA)