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Sketches of Central Asia - Marriage

by Arminius Vambery

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. He was fluent in the Turkish langauage, disguised as a learned and important man from Constantinople.

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

Although childhood is of short duration among the Oezbegs, yet a youth does not receive the name of yighid (a mature youth) until his eighteenth year, nor the girl that of kiz (virgin.) before she is sixteen years old. In the country the intercourse between the two sexes is not in the least degree influenced by the Koran. Here, as in Western countries, we see the " rosy play of love " represented with all its joys and sorrows, all its fascination and enthusiasm. At first I felt amazed that the tenderest of feelings should find room in the heart of a man in Central Asia, accustomed as he is from his earliest youth to robbery and murder, and hardened to the tears of widows, orphans and slaves. But I had the opportunity of convincing myself, that love is here more frequently the cause of the most extraordinary adventures than in other Mahomedan countries. The Oezbeg is passionately devoted to music and poetry, and hence it is but natural that his heart should be susceptible to the emotions of love.
When two young people have formed a mutual attachment the secret is entrusted to their parents, and if these make no objections, the young man opens the transaction by despatching two female ambassadors, Soutchi Khatin, to ask them formally for the hand of their daughter. The parents, for the most part, have been previously informed of the demand, and receiving the embassy with honour and distinction, they express their satisfaction at the offer, but refrain from giving any decisive answer. To pronounce a regular straightforward " yes, is contrary to the rules of propriety, and the young man has to interpret, from trivial allusions, whether his suit will be granted or not. The next thing is to talk over the kalim (marriage portion) which the man is ready or able to give for his future wife. The question is always, how many times nine, i.e., how many times nine sheep, cows, camels or horses, or how many times nine ducats, as is the custom in a towni the father is to receive for giving up his daughter.

A Turkmen wedding procession, complete with the covered 'kejebe' or litter in which the bride is seated, mounted on the lead camel in this procession.

The less wealthy give twice nine, the wealthier six times nine, and the Khan alone has to pay nine times nine, for the purchase of his bride. The kalim having been settled, the next question to be considered is one of great importance, the eginbash (present in ornaments) to be presented by the future husband. It consists of eight rings, yuzuk, a semi-tiara (sheghendjin), a tiara (shekergul), a bracelet (bilezik), ear-rings (isirga), nose-rings (arabek), and ornaments for the neck (onguluk). This whole set of ornaments must be presented complete, and not a single article wanting; it is also previously settled, whether it is to consist of gold or silver. No doubt a man in Central Asia has to pay dearly for his wife. The negotiations are generally a protracted business; and finally, when every thing is definitely settled, neighbours and relations are invited to the fatiha toy (feast of promise), which is celebrated for two days in the home of the future bride, and two more in that of the future husband.

The Mollah, or some grey-beard, announces the new arrangement to the guests. He tells them the exact purchase-price for the girl, and when the wedding is to take place, and concludes his short address with a fatiha, after which the festivities begin and are continued for four days.

In entertainments of this kind, called toy, all the guests are assembled in one and the same apartment, but form different groups. The upper part of the room is occupied by the elderly people; the women range themselves along the right side of the wall and the girls and lads sit down in some corner, generally near the musicians and singers. The toy consists not merely in eating and drinking, but there is also music and singing, and above all, horse-racing, which latter forms the chief part of all festivities in Central Asia. Prizes of considerable value are given, and young and old take the most lively interest in the sport. The race-course varies from one to three fersakh in length; on the former only two year olds are admitted, on the latter full-grown strong horses. Two villages are chosen, lying at this distance apart, and whilst the crowd are assembling in one of them, a toy emini, steward, is appointed in the other. It is his duty to see that a fair start is effected, and that horse is proclaimed the winner, who first passes the goal which is fixed at the entrance of the opposite village. The horses are trained for several weeks for the race, and are ridden by young boys, who wear on this occasion short and tight-fitting clothes, very similar to those wore by jockeys in England.

As described by Vambery, the race among the Turkmen for the elusive bride.

The interval between the fatiha toy and the marriage is fixed according to the age of the "promessa." A week before the wedding, the toyluk (food for the wedding) is sent, by the man to the house of his future wife; and consists of meat, flour, rice, fat, sugar and fruit. Soon after, his mother and nearest female relations arrive, who have been invited as guests for several weeks. Two days before the beginning of the festival the future husband mounts his horse, and, surrounded by his friends, all of whom, as well as their horses, are decked out in the gayest colours, goes also to the home of her parents, his father alone remaining behind, not for the sake of taking care of the house, but in order to make all necessary preparations for the due reception of the newly-married couple on their return.

Meanwhile, in the house of the future wife, where the first days of the marriage-feast are celebrated, the greatest bustle and activity prevails. The young girls have to do the cooking, and are fully employed with their gigantic cauldrons. The quantity of food brought together for an Oezbez wedding is as enormous as the appetite of the numerous guests. Whilst the young girls are busy at cooking and baking, the young swains carry on a lively flirtation with them. The galant homme, who is lucky enough to obtain from his beloved a bone or some tit-bit out of the cauldron, regards the gift as a signal sign of favour, but still more lucky is he who gets a few sharp raps with the cooking ladle, the highest of all favours, and appreciated far above the daintiest morsels. Men and women gather round the fire-place in groups, laughing, talking, joking and shrieking, whilst musicians play and sing, and children shout and yell.

A Kazak or Kirghiz bride, taken from a 19th century etching.

These noises are mingled with the bleating of sheep, barking of dogs, neighing of horses and braying of donkeys, while loud above the general hubbub is heard the clown's stentorian voice in coarse sallies of Oezbeg wit and humour. He is the very life of the whole party. His gesticulations, the grimaces with which he accompanies his jests, give rise to continual bursts of laughter. Now he mimics this person or that, now he tells of some droll prank or merry adventure, or whistles like a bird and mews like a cat, and thus he has to continue without interruption, although from sheer exertion the perspiration runs down his face in streams.

It is a strange custom that, for the last few days before his wedding, the young man is not allowed to leave his tent, the young girl and her companions watching it, meanwhile, with looks of the utmost curiosity. It is said that friends and relations sometimes assist in bringing about a secret tete-a-tete, but not until after the marriage ceremony is he permitted to mix with the company. This ceremony takes place at the end of the second day, in the presence of the whole assembly. Each party is represented by two witnesses, to whom the Mollah puts the question, whether the two young people mutually agree as to the marriage. He then proceeds at once to perform the ceremony, when the witnesses of the young girl put in their veto.

From an old Russian postcard, a Kirghiz or Kazak bride mounted on a horse.

They declare (with a feigned reluctance) their unwillingness to give up the treasure entrusted to them, unless the young man should present them with a certain sum of money, or some other present. He finds the demand exorbitant, and now begins a bargaining and haggling, which continues until both parties are satisfied, when the solemn ceremony is at last performed. The Mollah reads aloud the permission of the reis (religious chief,) the witnesses attest on oath, and with significant gestures, the marriage compact, a short prayer is read, and the ceremony is over.

The bride now hands round fruit and a rich cake, and distributes white kerchiefs, garments, or other presents among the Mollahs, grey-beards, and above all, the young men who have acted as witnesses.

The bridegroom now makes his appearance, but is not permitted to approach the company nearer than a few steps from the door, and all having partaken of an enormous repast, the festivities in the bride's home terminate.

A Kirghiz yurt "under construction" in Central Asia, circa 1900

The elderly, as well as the married folk, now take their departure, but the young people remain, and pack the bride and her marriage portion on a sort of carriage, and thus accompanied by her female companions and friends, she sets out for the home of her husband. The journey, called bolush, is protracted as much as possible, and often when the distance is short, one or two long circuits are made, in order to have the opportunity of continuing the amusements on the road. The bride sits in the first carriage with her future sister-in-law, the young men accompany the procession on horseback, and he who can manage to force his way first to the front, riding full gallop, receives from her a handkerchief as the prize. The others try to snatch it from him, he flies and is pursued, and the chase does not cease till he has reached the carriage again. The handkerchiefs thus gained are tied to the horse's head, and preserved a long time as valuable trophies. <In Hungary we find the same practice prevailing at the present day, for the custom of tying coloured handkerchiefs to the heads of the horses at marriage feasts most probably has its origin in this ancient usage.> Whenever the procession passes a village on the route, they are generally stopped, and a toll is demanded. The sister-in-law sitting next the bride distributes cake, and the passage is again free. Amidst continued sport and chaff the bride arrives at the home of her husband, and no sooner does she draw near it, than she wraps her veil around her, changing her merry expression of face to one of the utmost gravity. Her father-in-law lifts her from the carriage, conducts her into the room, and leads her to a tent improvised with curtains and carpets in a corner of the apartment. The husband soon follows her, and for the second time raises her veil in the presence of his father, who compliments his daughter-in-law on her charming appearance, the first sight of which he has to requite with presents. The young couple are left alone, but have to endure for some time the jokes of the noisy crowd assembled outside the tent , who are eager to exhibit on these occasions their slender store of wit and humour. They disperse late at night, and at last all is quiet. .

A Yomud Turkmen wedding procession, complete with the kejebe litter in which the bride is seated.

Among the Turkomans and Kirghis it is customary for newly-married people to be separated for a whole year, after they have lived together for a few days, and although the husband is allowed to make his appearance in the house of his wife, it must be only at night and in the most clandestine manner. In the opinion of the nomads, married life, in its beginning, is made all the more pleasant by acting up to the proverb, "stolen kisses taste the sweetest," and. hence also the belief, that the first born child must always be handsome and vigorous.

The great national festival, called noruz (new year), of the Oezbegs, has been transmitted to them by the Persians, and is celebrated in Central Asia with the same pomp which distinguishes it in Persia, with this only difference, that the Oezbegs have an old and a new noruz. The latter, however, is of no especial importance. There is no lack of amusing games, but it is very remarkable that some have degenerated into the most pernicious gambling. Playing cards (sokti) axe introduced from Russia (without the court cards), but have not yet come into
general use. The favourite game is the Ashik-game (Ahsik-the anklebones of sheep), which is played in the manner of European dice with the four anklebones of a sheep, and with a degree of passionate excitement of which one can form no idea. The upper part of the bone is called tava, the lower altchi, and the two sides yantarap. The player takes these four little bones into the palm of his hand, throws them up and receives half of the stake, if two tava or two altchi, and the whole of the stake, if all four tava or altchi turn up. The advantage to be gained arises entirely from dexterity in throwing; trickery is impossible, since the bones are frequently changed. This game is equally popular with the dweller in settlements as with the nomad; and although apparently a trivial amusement, it not unfrequently happens that the Ashik player, in the heat of his passion, stakes the whole of his possessions, Day, even his wife. Mankind, in fact, are everywhere the same. The refined European makes his offerings at rouge et noir upon the green table; the Oezbeg on the sandy ground with four anklebones.