The bright walls of this Turkmen mosque in Jargalan have been painted by a local artist, Sharaf Khan. The stacked-ram’s-horn motif is common in the mosques of the area. In earlier times, rams’ pelts were used as prayer mats during shamanistic rituals, and today the animal is still spiritually revered amongst the Turkmen. Dual arrows rise from the mihrab (the niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca) and behind the akhoun (preacher), symbolising the Tree of Life – the bridge between Earth and Heaven in Turkmen mythology.
Jargalan is one of a small group of Turkmen villages in remote northeastern Iran. Some 30,000 Turkmen escaped russification by fleeing south into Iranian territory during the early twentieth century, and that region is now a sanctuary of traditional culture. The practice of wall painting may be unprecedented among Turkmen in general, but in Jargalan traditional design motifs predominate amongst the trappings of village life: on the felt mats upon which men pray, in the amulets women wear, on the gravestones above their dearly departed and on the roofs over their heads. It is feasible that forty years ago a few innovators would have started painting these bright talismanic designs on the walls of their homes; the trend quickly caught on, and today the houses and mosques of Jargalan are painted with a rich poetry that, to the uninitiated, merely looks like colourful swirls, spirals and zigzags. Once familiar with the vocabulary, however, these seemingly abstract patterns are revealed to contain nomadic and animistic significance that is still in common currency amongst the Sunni Muslim confederation of Turkmen tribes, and which hails as far back as prehistoric Mongolia.