The Tamga
August 2005

European Russia became aware of Turkmen carpet art not long after the empire's expansion across Siberia and then south into Central Asia. The first instance was a folio (1879) compiled by N. E. Simakov, the product of a typical Russian "scientific" expedition into new colonial territory -- comprised of engineers, an hydrographer, botanists, a geologist, a zoologist, an art historian, and two painters -- which among other things included the artists' rendition of Turkmen carpets as observed in Samarcand. (Thus demonstrating that they were in trade in Central Asia at that time.) Accompanying text characterized the Turkmen carpet as having "designs [which are] almost heraldic arms". 1 Figure 1 reproduces a tent band illustration from the folio.

Figure 1.

Another document made the same point, only in the context of Central Asia: "..the tamga and presentations of their hereditary knowledge of the divisions of families and tribes." 2

In this particular folk art, one possible ingredient could well be the tamga: "...the symbol of a subclan...a group of families affiliated by blood...whose livestock, whether reindeer, horses, or dromedaries, are marked by this symbol. The tamga also appears on various belongings, as well as on the graves of deceased members of the clan." 3 The history of this matter is rather deep; tamga are listed in an 11th century compilation 4 of the main Oghuz clans, the mother lode of the Turks including the modern Turkmen, who loosely may be viewed as the Oghuz who stayed behind in western Central Asia. 5

Tamga also had official use. The Novgorod Chronicle of 1251 worried: "Evil news came from Russia, that the Tatars desired the tamga and tithe on Novgorod," payment 6 of customs tax certified via a seal on merchandise. (Subsequently to enter the Russian language as tamozhnya.) Modern era Kazaks, progeny of these Turko-Mongol overlords of southern Russia, used the tamga. Some scholars say it appeared on their yurts. (Figure 2)

Figure 2.

Potentates also employed the markings. Baber -- the last of the Timurid rulers in Central Asia -- mentioned a local beg who had his name inscribed on the tamga (royal seal) and the sikka (coinage). 7 The Mongol khan Kuyuk's seal survives on a letter to the Pope. 8 A device of wavy lines below three dots forming a triangle, alleged to have been Timour's seal, is well known. 9 Others are known. (Figure 3)

Figure 3.

Worth noticing in somewhat the same vein is that one Yacoub Artin studied western Asia coats of arms, drawing upon various 19th century sources having to do with the wesm, Arabic for an identifying mark, and mentioned its presence in wool carpets. 10 Western and Central Asian royal seals and coats of arms, however, probably are best viewed as separate from their latter day Turkmen equivalents, albeit the functions are the same and the symbols similar. Together they well may suggest a common, old source.

An early modern era compilation of Oghuz clan brands is that of Abul Ghazi Bahadur Khan, 17th century ruler of Khiva. 11 Accompanying text gives the brands a somewhat narrow function: "..each of which has a distinctive brand (alama, sima) on its animals by which it is known from the others." Abul Ghazi also names the ongons, the totemic bird of each clan, almost always a raptor, per Figure 4.

Figure 4.

While the earlier Russian carpet literature cited the tamga as inherited marks of tribal and family subdivisions as elements of design, it did so in a less than thorough manner. In Soviet period literature Moshkova (1946) spoke of clan ongons (not quite accurately termed "eagles") and put them into the gols of Turkmen carpet design. "Here are known the marks of families (tamga) and heraldics known of several tribes ... in the designs of primary principal motifs of medallions of Turkmen rugs ..." 12

To see anything therein resembling birds of prey, however, requires a major effort of the imagination. Indeed, recognizable feathered creatures, such as those in some asmalyk, favored by Moshkova, resemble domestic fowl. (Two ongon are quail.)

The clan association also appears in the posthumous (1970) Moshkova piece. An accurate albeit clunky rendition of the text would be: "Elements of heraldic meaning. Here come together designs (tamga) of clan connotation and heraldic meaning of certain tribes, being condensed to principal carpet medallions of the Turkmen..." 13 That is, within the gols. The gol/tamga link has become standard in western writings about Turkmen carpets. "Carpet design is based on tribal emblems, so-called tamgas." 14 But there clearly is a difference between the ongon and the tamga; the latter are brands.

A good deal has been said about the tamga in considerable detail; a statement much closer to their home, one with an interesting twist, appears in Tikonovich, 1930. 15

"Concerning symbolic ornament it is possible to regard the tagma, i.e., seals or brands, so as to know the tribal ownership of 'household animals, articles of every day home life, accoutrements, arms, even people'...And the tagma, like ornamental forms, as such, can be divided into separate groups --- daily homelife articles, herdsmen's implements, and latterly up to the Arabs (which led to) tracings of the marks "elpp" from the Arabic alphabet, [thus] its adaptation since the Turkmens do not have their own the distant past [they] naturally hied to the copying of such images which were larger aspects in the everyday life of the nomad." The Tikonovich description, its speculation about an Arabic alphabet source, and the curious spelling, tagma, in turn, is based on an exposition by G. Karpov, 1929. 16

That tamgas owe a debt to the Arab alphabet as a result of the 7th/8th century Arab incursion into Central Asia seems to require evidence, not offered. The contention ignores matters such as the then whereabouts of the Oghuz (east of the Arab sphere), the rather prompt ebbing of the Arab tide, the correspondence of some Timurid (16th c.) fabric patterns with some motifs used in Turkmen carpet design, and the 8th century Koshno-Tsaidan and Orkhon Turkic inscriptions, the first Turkic writing.

The Karpov material is, nevertheless, most interesting. He lists the Abul Gazi Oghuz clans, illustrates the there depicted tamga somewhat differently, and records the "meaning" of each. (Figure 5.) There is considerable exposition concerning shepherd crooks as they appear in brands and in livestock ear-notching. The attempt to show a relationship of some Turkmen tamga with those of the Golden Horde in order to link the Oghuz with the Mongols is not unreasonable: tamgas on coins of Batu, Bereke , and Mangu do resemble those of Turkmens. 17

Figure 5.

Figure 6.

Figure 7.

Figure 8.

The gist of the Karpov message is : (1) there is no information on Tekke tamgas; (2) tamgas are still (1920's) in use by some families for livestock -- among both Atabei Yomuds and Saryks, who in particular have "preserved family brands"; and (3) the tamga continues to be used by coastal Caspian Yomuds, along with Saryks and Salors. Although household objects are cited -- these would include woven items -- as having been marked, no examples are given. The message is that to a limited degree the practice continued here and there in the 1920's at the family level. Figure 6 portrays tribes, families, and marks per Karpov.

Although the prospects of the tamga still being present in late 19th to early 20th century carpets and carpet-related products are slim, it might be useful to look more than casually at Yomud wedding camel trappings, door surrounds, interior storage items such as spoon or spindle bags, and tent bands. A caution here is that it must be remembered that Yomud tent bands were in the export market as chair back covers, and family identifiers may not appear on such commercial products.

The photo (courtesy Caroline Jones and HALI magazine) of a shirt (looking good to be Bukhara Arabachi) appearing in Figure 7 bears a motif quite like the tamga at the far end of those illustrated in Figure 8, taken from Felkersham (as is Figure 3, both unsourced). It is easy to make too much of such correspondences and hard to overlook them!

The argument for the ongon within the gol does not appear to be strong. The argument for the tamga within a gol even weaker. Best to look for the tamga nowadays and best to think that the ongon lies in the past, where Moschova thought it was.

1 Simakov, N. E., L'Art de L'Asie Centrale, St. Petersburg, 1883, Sheet 4.
2 Felkersham, Baron A., Starye Gody, oktyabr' - dekabry, Starinye kover Srednei Azii, 1914, p. 88.
3Czaplicka, M. A., The Turks of Central Asia, London, 1918, p. 42.
4 Al Kashgari, Mahmud, Compendium of the Turkic Dialects, ed. Dankoff and Kelly, Sources of Oriental Languages and Literatures, 7, Turkish Sources, Part I, Harvard University, 1982, pp. 40-41.
5 Peter Golden, Rutgers University, in conversation, somewhat reluctantly, a number of years ago.
6 The Chronicle of Novgorod (1016 - 1471), trans. Mitchell, Robert and Forbes, Nevill, Camden Third Series, Vol. xxv, London, 1914, p. 95.
7 Memoires of Baber, trans. Leyden, John and Erskine, William, Vol. 1, p. 305.
8 Pelliot, P., Revue de l'Orient Chretien, Vol. 23, 1922-23, pp. 2-30.
9 Felkersham, Baron A., op. cit., p. 88, p. 95.
10 Yacoub Artin (Pacha), Contribution a l'Etude du Blason en Orient, London, 1902, p. 188 ff.
11 The chart appearing as Figure 4 is taken from Kononov, A. N., Rodoslovnaia Turkmen, USSR Academy of Science, Moscow and Leningrad, 1958, pp. 53-54.
12 Moshkova, V. G., Plemennye 'goli', v turkmenskikh kovrakh, sovetskakya etnografiya, Moscow and Leningrad, 1946, pp. 160-61.
13 Moshkova, V. B., Kovry narodnov Crednei Azii, kontsa 19 -- nachala 20 vv., Tashkent, 1970. p. 43.
14 For example, Brodsky, Boris, The Art Treasures from Moscow Museums, Moscow, 1980, p. 325.
15 Tikhonovich, V., "Kul'tura ornamenta turkmenskogo kovra", Turkmenovedenie , Apl/May, 1930, p. 27.
16 Karpov, G., Turkmenovedei, #3/4, 1929, "Tagma".
17 Lane-Poole, Stanley, Catalogue of Oriental Coins in the British Museum, Vol. VI, The Coins of the Mongols, p. 65.