Turkmen literature began to develop only in the 15th century, although its roots stretch back more than a millennium prior to the writings of the early Turkic peoples. Since that time, many talented poets and writers have continued to find their voice through the ever-changing political and sociolinguistic climate of Turkmenistan.
The Turkmen are descended from an ancient people known as the Oghuz Turks. The earliest written sources in the Turkic Uyghur language date to the 7th century AD, and it was these literary developments some 1300 years ago which set the precedent for Turkmen literature.
Turkic literature flourished in the 5th-17th centuries, with one of the key figures of the Turkic-Oghuz branch being the 13th-century poet Emre Yunus. At that time, the borders of modern Central Asian states were not yet formed and the southeastern corner of modern Turkmenistan was part of the historical region of Khorasan, now in Iran. Literature specific to the Turkmen language emerged in the 15th century, during which time one of the oldest literary works of Turkmenistan, a religious poem called Rownak-ul-Islam, was first published.
Literary critics assert that local literature did not emerge as a Turkmenistan tradition until the 18th century, at which time the works of Magtymguly Pyragy, the famed Turkmen poet and philosopher now regarded as the Father of Turkmen Literature, set a new precedent in the literary realm. Magtymguly Pyragy wrote most of his works in the form of folk songs. He is known for abandoning the Arabic style of poetry in favor of the so-called syllabic system, where the focus is not on the stress but on the number of syllables in each word of the line. In total, the beloved Turkmen poet wrote over 800 poems, many of which have survived to our day thanks to their popularity among the bakhshi (traveling musician-storytellers) who often recounted them in oral form.
The fame of Magtymguly Pyragy spread throughout Central Asia. His works were filled with scientific knowledge and references to other literary sources, and in his poems Pyrgay often expressed the common desire of all Turkmen tribes for unification. Many vernacular expressions used in his works evolved into proverbs and sayings in the Turkmen language, and his written works were combined into a collection which is now considered a national treasure and the pinnacle of literary skill in Turkmenistan.
In the 19th century, a slew of local writers and poets began creating their works in the Turkmen language. Among them was Shabende, whose famed stories and novels centered around brave folk heroes, and Mollanepes, author of the novel "Zore ve Takhir" which exposed the treachery of the courtiers and shahs. The poems of Mollanepes are likewise distinguished for their rich vocabulary and colorful character descriptions.
Other poets of the first half of the 19th century, most notably Zelili, Seydi and Kemine, used lyrical form to highlight social issues and to speak of the unification of the Turkmen tribes and their ongoing struggle for freedom. Zelili exposed extortioners and condemned the cruelty of the rulers toward the common people. Mid-19th century poets Zynkhari, Bailly, Dosmyammet, Ashyki, Allaguly, Allazy, Khusup Khodja and Garaoglan were once well-known, but regrettably their written works have been lost and their poems are now preserved only in memory.
The first printed editions of Turkmen literature were not produced until the 19th century. Up to that time, children were taught the now-extinct Chagatai Turkic language in schools, yet in actuality most of the traditionally nomadic population remained illiterate. The Turkmen language in its modern form developed at the beginning of the 20th century based on the Tekin dialect of Turkmen. Around this time, a Russian-Turkmen dictionary and a grammar book of the Turkmen language were also published.
After Russian rule was established in the land in the late 1800s, many literary works were preserved solely through the songs of the bakhshi and other musicians who performed to the accompaniment of the dutar (lute) and gidzhak (a type of violin). During the Soviet era, Turkmenistan was declared a socialist republic and its literature was thus expected to correspond to the ideologies of communism. In the 1930s, a large group of literary critics was sent to the country to study the heritage of Turkmen literature and to train new writers. The most famous Turkmen Soviet literary figure was the poet Berdi Kerbabayev, who advocated for Soviet-style moral norms and an abandonment of the old way of life. In addition to his own novellas and short stories, Kerbabayev is known for translating the works of classic Russian authors such as Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Tolstoy and Gorky into the Turkmen language.
In the 20th century, new topics appeared in Turkmen literature as Bishare Mohammet Gilich, Molla Durdi and others dedicated their works to criticism of the ignorant Muslim clergy, traditional lifestyles and newfangled educational ideas. Other common literary themes of that time were the emancipation of women and the construction of a canal in the Karakum Desert. The first Soviet Turkmen poet was Molla Murt, who glorified socialism as he conveyed his thoughts in plain language to the people. Agakhan Durdyev also stood out with several poems, including "Shock Wave of Workers", "Gurban", "In the Sea of Dreams", "Beauty in the Claws of an Eagle" and "Meret".
After the collapse of the USSR and the independence of Turkmenistan, literary trends in the country underwent another seismic change as the focus of authors shifted to descriptions of the individual, their personalities and feelings. Today, several modern authors in Turkmenistan, most notably Orazguly Annayev, Gurbannazar Orazgulyev and Gurbaniaz Dashgynov, are known not only in Turkmenistan but also abroad.