This Paraw Bibi Shrine is one of the most impressive and popular sites of pilgrimage in the country. It is located in western Turkmenistan approximately 20 kilometers northwest of Gizilarbat in the village of Paraw. The actual shrine is set some 100 meters up a rocky mountainside overlooking the village and consists of a white mausoleum-like structure (described in historical sources as a mosque). Next to the shrine is an adjoining chamber with an outside entrance.
At the foot of the mountain is a large one-story building which serves as a guest house (mihmanhana, mihman jayi). A roofed platform (bassirma) located nearby the guest house serves as a place where pilgrims congregate and have meals. Near the guest house and adjacent to the village are the remains of the town Ferava/Afraw dating from the ninth century.
Sources indicate that the town originated as an Arab border fortress (rabat) directed against the Oghuz and developed into an important town on the road leading to Khorezm. Among the ruins of the town are the remains of a shrine-mausoleum to a Paraw Ata dating from the twelfth century. Turkmen anti-religious specialists such as Ataev (1989) note that the mountain shrine has long been active and considered it an important shrine contributing to harmful beliefs among the population.
According to legends recorded in Soviet literature, Paraw Bibi was a beautiful and virtuous maiden who was the object of jealousy of many women. During a period of infidel military threat a jealous woman wanted to turn Paraw Bibi over to the invaders in exchange for promises from the enemy not to carry out the attack. Upon hearing this, Paraw Bibi cursed the woman causing her to turn into black stone. Soon thereafter, while on the mountainside, Paraw Bibi saw the enemy party approaching.
With this she realized the hopelessness of her situation and ordered the mountain to split open so that she might enter into it, thus preserving her purity and virtue. After the miraculous event the locals were commanded by God to build a shrine to Paraw Bibi at the site where she opened the mountain. They believed, because of her bravery and refusal to submit, Paraw Bibi was a true hero (batir) who had been blessed by the holy breath of the prophets.
Ataev also describes how, in the final decades of the Soviet era, pilgrims came from all over western Turkmenistan to the shrine seeking fertility and a cure for insanity. He also writes that in and around the complex were many “miracle working” stones and impressions of Paraw Bibi’s hands and knees left in stone. One stone is said to be a watermelon that Paraw Bibi had been about to eat.
According to legend, at the moment when Paraw Bibi was to cut the melon the enemies attacked and thus she threw it down in haste. At that moment it turned into stone. Ataev notes that a watermelon-shaped stone said to be that same stone from the time of Paraw Bibi was used by pilgrims as a “detector of sin.” It was placed on the thumbs of two people; if the stone rotates no sin had been committed by those balancing it.
While visiting the shrine in April 1995 we filmed the site, rites being performed, and interviewed numerous pilgrims. We were struck by the large number of visitors (approximately 100 in the course of an hour) at the complex and by the intense activity and rather festive atmosphere. While there were male visitors, the majority of those present were girls and young women (ages 5 – 30). As numerous young women explained, Paraw Bibijan was a beautiful maiden whose virtue, purity, and courage were unmatched.
Furthermore, she was a devout Muslim who never failed to perform her Islamic duties. In the moments when attack was imminent and at great risk Paraw Bibi performed her prayers; and due to her “burning with faith” she left behind the impressions of her knees and hands in the rock. They also told of the legend of the melon and demonstrated how “stones from the time of Paraw Bibi” or “stones seen by Paraw Bibi” may be used in predicting the future and detecting sin. Inside the shrine itself we met with several mothers (with their infant children) and young women who showed us the many dozens of votive offerings brought by visitors, including hundreds of cloth strips, miniature cradles, and large quilt curtains sewn by women hoping for children.
Leading out of the main chamber into the mountain is a niche-cave through which Paraw Bibi is said to have entered into the mountain and it is here where young women recite prayers to the spirit of Paraw Bibi. The young women also pointed out the adjoining chamber known as Paraw Bibi’s bath house to which she is said to visit each Friday to comb her hair and bathe; it too contains numerous objects and offerings. Outside the shrine, along the path, we also saw a small overhang under which Paraw Bibi is said to have hidden from the raiders for seven days; it is believed that crawling into the space will result in fertility.
Elements of the legend of Paraw Bibi are evident in other legends concerning numerous other “Turkmen” saints and heroines and are not limited to one specific region. The transformation of a melon into stone at the moment when one is about to cut it and at the moment when the hero(ine) catches sight of an approaching enemy, the splitting of rock by and the disappearance of the heroine into a mountainside or cave never to return, as well as the indentations and impressions left in rock by the hero are all fairly common to legends concerning figures associated with holy sites.
The sites of these types of saints generally lack a tomb or burial place and thus are atypical owluya; consequently there are no cemeteries. Furthermore, the figures to whom the sites are dedicated are usually ahistorical and are placed in a mythical setting where the struggle between Islam and non-Islamic forces are simplified and clearly discerned.