The hajj is just getting under way in Mecca, but for Turkmen pilgrims, their country's homegrown version of one of the Five Pillars of Islam has been going on for weeks.
Fears of swine flu led the Turkmen government to ban its citizens from participating in this year's hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia that every able-bodied Muslim is required to make during his or her lifetime if able to afford it.
In its stead, according to the Turkmen state news agency, the Turkmen government answered calls by "elders and faithful" by launching the country's first official internal pilgrimage on the eve of the hajj.
A resolution authorized by Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov paved the way for the inaugural pilgrimage, in which an official delegation of elders and pilgrims originally chosen to make the hajj will travel by plane, train, and automobile to 38 "holy" sites within Turkmenistan.
Many of the 38 sites chosen for the inaugural Turkmen pilgrimage, which began on November 11 and is set to finish on November 29, are indeed impressive and religiously significant, but a number of sites simply have little, if anything, to do with religion. Local Landmarks
The Paraw Bibi mosque, which is among the sites and is located in the western Balkan Province, has long been visited by religious pilgrims.
The eastern city of Mary also has newer sites, such as this mosque opened earlier this year.
The mosque stands on the site where Paraw Bibi is said to have disappeared forever into the mountains. According to legend, Paraw Bibi was a pious Muslim and for centuries she has been a patron saint of pregnant women and children.
"According to one of the legends, the local governor's daughter was named Paraw. When the enemy was about to conquer the fortress, she wanted to escape with her servants and one of these servants was a traitor and revealed where they were hiding," Turkmen writer Ashyrguly Bayri says.
"To prevent being captured she went to the mountains, and they say the mountains opened up and hid her inside."
Another site, the Kutlug-Temir minaret, is the tallest minaret in Central Asia and is located in the northern city of Urgench (formerly Gurganj), the ancient capital of the Khwarezmian Empire (1077-1231).
Thirty kilometers to the west of the Silk Route city of Merv (now called Mary) lies the Talkhatan Baba, a mosque built in the 11th century to commemorate Sufi saints.
Members of the delegation this week planted pine trees in a park near the grave of Talkhatan Baba (1020-1095), a saint who, the Turkmen news agency noted, "devoted his life to serve the God."
The Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, also located near Mary, is all that remains of a larger religious complex dating back to the 12th century. The mausoleum itself, however, is dedicated to Seljuk ruler Ahmad Sanjar, a political rather than a religious figure.
The ancient ruins of Nisa was the capital of the Parthian Empire (third century B.C. to third century A.D.). But the site, located a short drive from the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, was long past its glory by the time Islam made its way into Central Asia in the early 8th century.
'Why Spend All That Money?'
Considering the sites' sometimes questionable relation to religion, do the people of Turkmenistan accept local pilgrimage sites as an acceptable substitution for Mecca?
The answer is "yes" a woman who says she has made the hajj abroad tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.
"Inside this country we have famous places you can visit where great people are buried -- more than you can count," she says. "If in Saudi Arabia people go to Mecca, then here in our country we have the '360 site,'" where 360 defenders of northern Turkmenistan were killed by Mongol invaders.
Pilgrims making the hajj this year will take precautions against the flu.
The woman adds that even pilgrims making the hajj express surprise that Turkmen would "spend all that money" and make the trip to Mecca when there is an abundance of pilgrimage sites in Turkmenistan.
"The [Turkmen] people who went to Mecca spent a lot of money and they didn't need to spend that so much, the [Turkmen] state doesn't need to spend so much money," she says. "It's better to make the pilgrimage inside the country. We could develop those sites and people from outside the country would come here to make pilgrimage."
The woman says that she and some family members traveled to Iran once to visit pilgrimage sites and found the Iranian sites to be crowded to the point where "one could not even take a step."
She concedes, however, that Iranian sites were more popular for pilgrims and added that the sites in Turkmenistan were certainly not "on the same level" as Mecca.Saving The State Money
At times, the Turkmen pilgrimage appears intended to serve the government's interests in ways that go beyond its stated intention.
The Turkmen state news agency, for example, reported in announcing the government-led project that while "taking a pilgrimage to the holy places the faithful will see the grandiose changes that have taken place in the ancient Turkmen land in the epoch of New Revival.
"They will see and tell about them to their fellow villagers, neighbors, relatives and friends. New factories, roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, cultural centers, and stadiums -- all of these vivid symbols of the epoch of New Revival, a result of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's policy aimed at increasing the welfare of the Turkmen people."
Considering that the Turkmen state usually pays to send a group of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, the internal pilgrimage could presumably improve the welfare of the state budget as well.
Every year at the end of Ramadan the Turkmen government pays for some 200 pilgrims to make the hajj, exactly the number of seats on one airplane. This year, those selected to go to Mecca will instead be participating in the Turkmen pilgrimage, keeping any money they spend inside the country.
Saudi Arabia gives every a country a quota for pilgrims wanting to make the hajj (1,000 people for every million of a country's Muslim population), and 200 to 300 of Turkmenistan's Muslims usually make the trip to Mecca using their own money.
This year, however, the fear of exposure to swine flu has led the government to advise citizens against paying their own way to circumvent the ban and traveling to Mecca.
According to an official at the Saudi Embassy in Turkmenistan who spoke to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service on condition of anonymity, it appears Turkmen Muslims are abiding by the government's wishes.
"This year we are very, very sad because our embassy has given visas only for foreigners living in Ashgabat -- Turkish, Iranian, and so on -- but no one from Turkmenistan," the official said.
Turkmen writer Amanmyrat Bugaev also laments the loss of an opportunity for Turkmen to make the hajj.
As wonderful as the pilgrimage sites in Turkmenistan may be, Bugaev says, they cannot replace the hajj, one of the Five Pillars of Islam that is incumbent on every Muslim.
"I believe in God, and greatly respect traditions of Islam and I cannot understand why the hajj is replaced with the pilgrimage to the holy and historical sites in the country," he says.RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazliyeva contributed to this report