3. Culture of Reverence for that which is Perceived as Old

Anything that is old is perceived as venerable, by virtue of having survived and having been around since time immemorial. Venerated items include stone, fossils, pseudo-fossils, ancient sites, and old dead trees. Pilgrimage visits are made to ancient sites in the landscape and to ancient trees to plead for fertility and for healthy children. Depositions and offerings take many forms, but stones in particular are left as part of this process. It is mainly an undertaking made by the women, but some shrines are extremely popular and used as the venue for family picnics and outings.


One might imagine that a stone would require particular qualities to make it worthy of being left as a devotional object at a site perceived as sacred or capable of fulfilling wishes. On the contrary, most of the stones and pebbles deposited are very inconsequential in appearance, and for the most part consist of local pebbles or parts of the broken masonry of the revered building, which is usually a ruin by virtue of its extreme age. The appearance of the depositions are not unlike houses of cards in the manner in which they are stacked or, alternatively, two stones are balanced together to form the sides of a triangle. Often they are just stacked one on top of each other.


Fossils are considered to be special because of their extreme age, and are often left as depositions. In some places they can be seen incorporated into the walls of the building, e.g. at the 11th- to 12th-century shrine and tomb of Zenni Baba.

Figure 2 Figure 3

Figure 2: Shrine of Zenni Baba
Figure 3: Fossil in wall of the shrine


These are stones that have been chosen for deposition because they look like fossils. This may merely mean that they have a pattern or irregularity on the surface that vaguely resembles the perceived idea of a fossil. Some stones are described as dinosaur eggs. Dinosaurs did not roam these parts, but smooth oval stones are interpreted as dinosaur eggs.

Ancient dead trees

Few trees grow in this country, and those that do are short and stunted. The Saxaul tree is the commonest tree and is the main source of wood. Even this fails to grow very tall and it becomes gnarled and stunted as it ages. Most ancient venerated sites have an old dead saxaul tree in the vicinity. These trees themselves are revered objects. They become liberally festooned with rags, each of which represents a plea or prayer. It is sometimes difficult to make out the tree beneath its heavy layer of cloth. Stones and other depositional items are left under the trees. The stones are non-specific in appearance, but some may be fossils or pseudo-fossils. Old, chipped teapots are common items. These are the same as those in current usage and they may contain pebbles, seeds, a button, bead or coin.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Saxaul tree covered in rags

Rags and cradles

Rags are not only left on trees but also at many other sites and places that are perceived as ancient. A white rag is said to represent a plea for a male infant and a coloured rag a wish for a female infant. More poignant still are the offerings that consist of small cribs or cradles.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Crib offering

These are usually home-made from rough pieces of wood, but there is also a thriving trade in selling ready-made ones. The cribs are miniature items, only 200-300mm in length and height. Often they bear cloth scraps to represent bedding, and either a small plastic or handmade doll that may be crudely fashioned from rags. These can represent a plea for a future baby but may also be a prayer for the health of a sickly infant, or a memorial to one that has died. The burial site at the apex of the hill of the 40 Mullahs is particularly venerated as a fertility shrine, and centrally an old metal crib has been festooned with rags and is surrounded by many smaller cribs in various states of decay. Items of baby clothing are sometimes encountered as offerings.

Figure 6

Figure 6: Hill of the 40 Mullahs

Ancient sites, shrines and burial places

Many of the ancient sites in Turkmenistan have mosques and Islamic burial sites in their vicinity dating from the 11th to 12th century, and these are often sites of pilgrimage. The original ruins are associated with their own local traditions and practices harking back to an earlier age and much of this is related to a search for fertility and successful childbearing. The ancient oasis city of Merv has an Islamic shrine and mosque to Sultan Sanjar that is the most frequent site for pilgrimage in Turkmenistan. However, all the ancient ruins on the complex seem to be subject to the deposit of stones. The Greater Gyz Gala House is thought to have been a rich merchant's dwelling, and at its base are seen small triangular arrangements of stones left as supplicatory offerings.

Figure 7 Figure 8

Figure 7: Greater Gyz Gala, Merv
Figure 8: Triangles of stone at base of Greater Gyz Gala

At some sites the depositions are far more extensive, with liberal use of the fallen bricks of the ruins to form offerings. In the cemetery adjoining a ruined mosque, the typical stacking arrangement of the deposited stone is frequently encountered. An old mill-wheel adjacent to a grave is particularly associated with depositions of stone. The hole in the centre of the stone is the mark said to have been left by the hoof of Duldul, the horse of the prophet, Ali, when they both ascended into heaven.

Figure 9 Figure 10

Figure 9: House of cards offerings
Figure 10: Duldul's stone


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Last updated: Wed Jul 29 2009