The Turkmen art discussed in this chapter dates from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, and the way of life described here pertains to the Turkmen who lived during that period. The Turkmen have a long history in Central Asia, but little is known about their early history because they did not keep written records. Although the Central Asian Turkmen still exist and some still live nomadic lives, most have permanently settled in and around the country of Turkmenistan. The Turkmen were historically pastoral nomads and herders of sheep. The people known as Turkmen are in fact made up of more than two dozen major tribal groups, and were documented as living in Central Asia as early as the ninth century. With the advent of Islam in Central Asia, the Turkmen people converted, combining Sunni Islam with elements of their pre-Islamic faith, known broadly as Shamanism.
For most of their history the Central Asian Turkmen were politically independent, largely existing outside the control of ruling dynasties. Despite this, the Turkmen played a significant role in shaping the cultural, political, and economic landscape of Central Asia. Turkmen herdsmen frequently provided transport and security for the caravans traveling from one city to another with valuable merchandise. Meat, cheese, wool, and leather from the Turkmen flocks found their way to towns and cities, and prized Turkmen horses were traded across Central Asia. The Turkmen were also warriors and occasionally plundered other areas for supplies and trophies.