Many people all over the world, including Turkmens, consider bread an essential and irreplaceable part of the diet. Bread contains numerous nutrients and useful bioactive substances, and many will regard a meal, whether ordinary, everyday fare or a festive dinner with sophisticated dishes and delicacies, as incomplete without bread. No wonder the proverbs state “no bread, no meal” or “no salt – no taste, no bread – no nourishment”…

Archeological evidence suggests that Turkmen people baked chorek – a flat, round loaf, stamped with decorative patterns of dots – in conical clay ovens called in Turkmen tamdyr (or tandyr, tannur, tenir and tandur in neighboring countries) for many centuries.

For Turkmens, bread is not just a simple and essential food, it is something sacred, a building block of life and requires a special reverence, almost worship, similar to that shown to parents and guests. It forms a very important part of the non-religious spiritual tradition of Turkmens. If you are invited to a meal with a Turkmen family, the first food offered is chorek, carefully unwrapped from the camel-wool cloth called sachak in which it has been kept warm. The guest is expected to break off a piece as a sign of acceptance of hospitality and hand it on to his neighbor on the right.

Migrating for centuries across the boundless expanses of one of the harshest and most hostile environments on earth, Turkmens stuck together and helped one another to survive. With their understanding of the challenges and dangers of desert travel gained from their own experience, they would help other travellers, especially those from distant countries, greeting them as honored guests and offering the best, or often all, they had. Bread has always been the most important part of this ritual because it was highly regarded as a sacred symbol of one’s land, of goodness and well-being, of home and a happy family life.

A famous Hungarian researcher and explorer of Central Asia, Arminius Wambery, who visited Turkmenistan in 1885, described in his travel notes how one Turkmen slaughtered the only goat he had for his guests and put on the table the loaf of bread that the family had stored for weeks, which he did not even touch during the meal.

“My guest is more important than my father”, says one Turkmen proverb, and Turkmen people still believe the road to paradise will be open to them if they welcome a stranger, who must have been sent by god, with bread.

Many superstitions surround bread: it should not be turned upside down, should not be stepped on or over, should not be put on the ground and no one is allowed to walk behind a person baking bread. Bread is often used as a protective amulet. Turkmens put a bit of chorek under the pillow of a sick person or a pregnant woman, and into the cradle of a baby. A bit of chorek is given for good luck to a person setting off on a long journey. Many parents still give a small piece of chorek that was baked in the family tamdyr to the son leaving home for his military service. The son must eat this piece and the remaining loaf is cherished until the son’s return.

Bread is a symbol of the warmth of the family hearth, and the family hearth for a Turkmen is the tamdyr, which, because of its shape and significance, was often associated with the heavenly sphere. The tamdyr is as respected as an owliya (holy place) and would never be destroyed, even if old and shabby, or the last lonely reminder of an abandoned settlement, in the same way that a mosque would never be destroyed. Walking past a tamdyr old people always say a prayer.

Built as an oven for baking bread, the tamdyr has always been a symbol of friendliness and unity. In the old days several families would erect one good tamdyr to be looked after between them, and they would decide who would bake bread on which day. When a new sack of flour was opened, the women would give away the first batch of the fresh warm chorek to the neighbors and only after that baked for themselves. If there are many tamdyr in a village it is believed to be a bad sign, an indication of unacceptable individualistic relations among neighbors. Old men say that enemies used to count the number of tamdyr in a settlement to ascertain how united the population was and to decide whether to attack or to stay away.

“The tamdyr and chorek are the masters of the house”, Turkmen people say. On moving to a new house for the first time people carry chorek in their hands and build a tamdyr in the courtyard. Although numerous types of bread can now be bought at a shop or market, from time to time Turkmen mothers still bake chorek in their tamdyr to preserve the warmth and unity of the family for many years to come.

So, if you happen to visit someone in Turkmenistan, be confident that you will be invited to visit their home and share bread with them, because this is the best way for them to show their hospitality…it is there that you will see reflected the true soul of the Turkmen.

text and photo courtesy of Ayan Travel