The theme of the Kyrgyz people's thousand-year-old national epic is their struggle for unity and independence. That theme is echoed daily in the newspapers of the four-year-old Kyrgyz Republic.
Of the five Central Asian republics that were once part of the Soviet Union, predominantly Muslim Kyrgyzstan, independent since 1991, has the oldest and most explicit democratic tradition, the most stable social balance—and one of the few heads of state who did not rise through the former political system. In 1993, it became the first of the five to abandon the ruble and establish its own currency—the som—and is now laboring to make the difficult transition to a market economy.
Although its economic infrastructure and strong industrial base are still largely oriented to the needs of the former USSR, extensive natural resources that include mineral wealth, hydroelectric power and fertile soil offer promise for further development and future prosperity.
But Kyrgyzstan's natural beauty may prove its greatest asset. Steppes, mountains, desert, glaciers, river valleys, lakes and forests offer spectacularly varied terrain; Pobeda Peak, in the Tien Shan range, is one of the world's highest mountains, and Issyk Kul, in the northeast, is the world's second-largest mountain lake. Opportunities abound for mountaineering, skiing, white-water rafting, hunting and birding.
As it creates itself, the Kyrgyz Republic taps roots whose depth gives its diverse people an indomitable cultural strength: two millennia of history for confidence and, for unity, 11 centuries of Islam.
Turkish photographer Ergun Çağatay has traveled extensively in the Central Asian republics and Mongolia in the last three years.