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Volume 47, Number 3May/June 1996

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Manas At 1000

The Rebirth of Kyrgyzstan

I know who Manas is. My mom and my grandparents tell me his stories. He is the hero of Kyrgyzstan. He fought against bad people. He lived in a yurt. It had to be hard, because I've stayed in yurts too. In my school they don't tell us anything about him. But I know.

Ruta, age 9, daughter of a Kyrgyz mother, living in Moscow

Written by Ewa Wasilewska
Photographed by Hermine Dreyfuss

To the many peoples of Central Asia's five newly independent states, the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union was one of the great historical events in generations. But citizens of one of those five countries—the remote, landlocked Kyrgyz Republic— will probably remember even more fondly the reassertion of their national identity in an international festival held last August, four years after independence.

Invoking the unity of the past to guide a wobbly-legged future, the young nation staged "Manas 1000," a week-long international fair that commemorated the millennial of the semi-legendary founder-hero of Kyrgyzstan—who is also the protagonist of one of the world's great pieces of oral literature, The Epic of Manas.

The 4.5 million people of Kyrgyzstan live in the crisp-air valleys and on the high steppes of the western ranges of the Tien Shan, the "Heavenly Mountains." They were spared the worst of the ecological devastation that the drive to establish heavy industry in the former Soviet Union brought to other areas, but they face considerable economic problems—many of them related to the painful uncoupling of their new national economy from that of Russia (See Aramco World, July/August 1995). But Kyrgyzstan has preserved its unique spirit and the ideals of its past, and now it is earnestly going about the creation—or re-creation—of the democratic, multiethnic Kyrgyz state that is a central feature of The Epic of Manas.

Communist ideology abhorred nationalism as a divisive force, and the Soviet government did its best to expunge ethnic traditions and native languages from schools and public life throughout the USSR. In Kyrgyzstan, especially in the 1930's, 40's and 50's, most of The Epic of Manas was eliminated from school curricula, and certain "official" parts of it were reinterpreted to undermine Kyrgyz nationalism: Manas's unification of diverse tribes was compared to the unification of different nations under communism, for example. References to Manas, or to the epic itself, as symbols of the Kyrgyz nation were forbidden. Several times in those decades, Kyrgyz authorities proposed a celebration in honor of Manas; each time the Soviets turned down the "nationalistic" request.

But people cling to their history all the more strongly when it is threatened. Among the Kyrgyz, The Epic of Manas and its professional recounters, the manaschis, still found devoted listeners as they always had, but now mainly in informal settings. The Kyrgyz dreamt that one day their hero would prevail again.

Professor Omuraliyev Dyuyshek, the architect and director of Manas Ayil, the "Manas village" that last year recreated a nomad yurt encampment on the Manas 1000 fairgrounds, says he had actually been working on the celebration for 10 years. "I knew that during the Soviet period I had no chance of seeing it accepted," he says, "but I kept working. Then, after independence, suddenly I realized that I could do it.... All those years of dreaming and working paid off. I won. I got my dream."

For the Kyrgyz people had kept theirs. Throughout the Soviet period, each Kyrgyz considered it a matter of national responsibility to tell the Manas story to his or her children, and the epic survived that era just as it survived the Mongol invasion of the 12th to 14th centuries. Ashenbekov Mamatkari, a construction worker at Manas Ayil, demonstrated that, like many Kyrgyz, he could recite verses from the epic. Those who gathered around him to hear his impromptu performance were visibly moved and proud that one of their own, with otherwise little education, could represent the country so eloquently.

The decision to hold an elaborate international festival in a young and cash-strapped nation is not one to be made lightly. When the government was forced to choose between the $5-million tab for Manas 1000 and the wages of its employees—and chose to suspend the paychecks and pay for the festival—Manas 1000 lost some of its glitter, particularly among the Kyrgyz Republic's 22-percent Russian minority population.

For Pavel, a Russian taxi driver working the route between Bishkek, the capital, and the fairgrounds, "Manas is not a hero [for us Russians]. He is a legend."

But Aleksander, a teacher from Russia who plans to remain in the Kyrgyz Republic "because of the landscape and the people, who are calm and helpful," says, "I read the whole Epic [of Manas] Because I wanted to learn about this Kyrgyz hero. Now I can see that these celebrations, although very costly, are of the utmost importance for the country...[to] unify the people and bring the different ethnic groups together."

Although The Epic of Manas is the most celebrated narrative of Turkic cultures, few people outside academia have heard of it. While The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Mahabharata have all been studied and read around the world, the Kyrgyz epic has been almost entirely overlooked. Yet The Epic of Manas, whose longest single version consists of more than half a million lines of verse—and whose total length is estimated at over one million lines—is by far the most elaborate epic known in literature, and the most extensive. The Iliad and The Odyssey together contain only 28,000 lines; the Mahabharata comprises about 100,000 couplets.

Furthermore, The Epic of Manas seems to be the only epic to have survived for as long as a millennium in oral form before its first significant fragments were put down on paper, in the 19th century. Now there are roughly 65 recorded versions of the three main parts of the epic, known respectively as "Manas," "Semetey" (the name of Manas's son) and "Seytek" (his grandson). Other fragments and episodes, recorded from the recitations of 47 different narrators, are considered complementary works.

To the people of Kyrgyzstan and those of Turkic origin throughout Eurasia, The Epic of Manas represents a revered narrative of a people that, in spite of hardships, survived, preserved its identity and unified in the name of a great leader. In his opening address at Manas 1000, the Kyrgyz Republic's president, physicist Askar Akayev, called the epic "our historical chronicle, spiritual foundation, cultural reality and scientific background." For many centuries, he said, "it has been our pride, our strength and our hope. The spirit of our nation is forever encoded in this epic... Every one of us carries a piece of it in his or her heart."

Vasily Radlov, the 19th-century founder of Central Asian ethnography, wrote that "the Kyrgyz...sing about their emotions and dreams, about those ideals which are of the highest value for every member of their society." Over the centuries, those ideals have adapted to a variety of political, economic and social orders. Thus, the Kyrgyz reader of the epic can always find passages in it whose contents lie close to his heart, and reflect the spirit of the times.

For the majority Muslims of Kyrgyzstan, the epic's link to the heart may be the knowledge that Manas was born into their faith, and that it was through him that Islam was disseminated. For women, it may be the epic's depiction of the wise, brave and independent women of the steppe, such as Kanikey, the hero's best-loved wife. For others, Manas is a symbol of love of the land, of freedom, national independence and interethnic unity. Finally, for scholars and lovers of world literature, The Epic of Manas is a unique "encyclopedia of the steppe," filled with the customs, traditions, facts and dreams of a region whose claim to historical attention has long been overshadowed by the Chinese and Mediterranean civilizations that it bridged.

As with other great epics, there is much dispute and conjecture about whether the events in the tale actually happened, and whether Manas himself was a historical character. Scholars agree that The Epic of Manas combines fact with legend, but there is disagreement about when the epic was composed and just what actual events it reflects. The majority of researchers agree that there are three historical "layers": one represents traditions of the 9th and 10th centuries, a time following the overthrow of the Uygur state; one reflects the 15th to 17th centuries, dominated by the Kyrgyz's battles with the Mongol Kalmyks; and the third dates from the 19th century.

Some Turkic scholars, however, suggest that the origin of the epic lies as far back as the first millennium BC. They hold that The Epic of Manas is a local version of an Indo-Aryan creation myth, in which the first human is known, in Sanskrit, as Manu. According to these scholars, a later historical "layer" of the epic, from sometime at the end of the first millennium of our era, echoes the Indo-Aryan metaphorical struggle between good and evil in its accounts of Muslims fighting polytheists—fire-worshipers, adherents of local shamanistic traditions, and others.

A fragment of support for the Indo-Aryan origins of the epic lies in ninth-century Chinese sources which describe the Kyrgyz as people with red hair, fair skin and blue-green eyes—not Turkic characteristics. However, the epic itself describes Manas as having "eyelashes smooth and star-like eyes," in Walter Mays's translation—terms that could refer to Asian features.

These metaphors, typical of those that recur throughout the epic, are strengthened by the supposed origin of Manas's name. In some Altaic tribes, tradition stipulated that an individual's name should be chosen by the tribe as a whole, because his fate was in some way encoded in it. Underlining the enormous importance of Manas's destiny and mission, the epic tells that a wise old man, the dervish Berdike, selected Manas' name with these words (again in Mays's translation):

At its beginning stands letter "M"
As in Mohammed's most blessed name!
In the middle stands letter "N,"
That means Nabi [prophet]—prophetic men.
Then at its end stands the letter "S"
This is the tail of a Lion, no less!
What name do these three consonants make?
From these three letters the sounds we take,
Reading them out we get "MaNaS."

In other parts of the epic, however, it is said that "manas" had been used as a battle-cry at some time before the hero himself was born. Nonetheless, Manas is the only person among the Kyrgyz who has ever carried the name—according to Kyrgyz tradition, the greatest tribute his people could pay.

For the Kyrgyz people, then, Manas is more than a legend: He is a historical ruler who put the Kyrgyz tribes on the map. Standing at her vegetable stall in a Bishkek market, a vendor says, "I learned about Manas from my grandfather. In school [in the Soviet period], they told us he was just a legend. Now I know that he was real, because only a real leader could bring all of us together after one thousand years." Yet another vendor, Suyumkan Bayasheva, comments that "both before and now, Manas has unified his people so the rest of the world would know that [Kyrgyzstan] exists."

The largest number of places associated with The Epic of Manas are in the Talas River valley, in northwest Kyrgyzstan, where Manas was born and where his power centered. Here is what the Kyrgyz regard as Manas's mausoleum—though an inscription appears to dedicate the carved-stone tomb to a Chagatay princess of the early 14th century. Not far away stands a pillar to which Akkula, Manas's beloved horse, is said to have been tethered; nearby is the Manas spring and the black stone Manas used to strike sparks to light his campfire.

Although its historicity may be disputed, The Epic of Manas itself is a cultural treasure, and we owe its preservation primarily to generations of tellers of the tale, the manaschis. The first of them was one of the 40 companions of Manas, a warrior named Yrchy, who mourned the death of his hero in songs of lamentation. These songs were sung by various Kyrgyz singers until the 15th century, when a legendary singer named Toktogul collected many of them into the first of the numerous versions of The Epic of Manas which exist today. The Kyrgyz believe that the content of the epic was expanded in the 18th century by yet another legendary figure, Nouruz. Many other manaschis contributed to the creative process, each in his own time, and their names have been preserved in association with the various versions of the tale.

A master manaschi, however, is more than a reciter of memorized verse. He or she is expected to follow the main plot and retain the epic's literary forms but, beyond that, is free to embellish. Thus a good manaschi adds details, explains phenomena in the story and responds to listeners' comments—much as do other tellers of traditional oral epics in the Middle East and Turkic lands (See Aramco World, January /February 1996).

As a chala, or apprentice, a student manaschi observes his mentor, memorizes passages that are the mentor's specialties, and tries to mimic his expressions and styles of relating particularly spectacular episodes. The chala may then perform from memory, though without much creative interpretation. Young performers at this level contribute a great deal to the popularization of the epic.

More respected, however, are the chinigi, or master manaschis. It is they who draw crowds for performances that bring out their beginning-to-end knowledge of the epic, and that offer individual interpretations.

The highest class of Manas narrators is the chon manaschi, the great artist-storyteller, the one who creates new versions of many events in the epic while still reciting and singing an enormous number of lines from numerous traditional renditions. Among those who hold this rare title, Sagymbai Orozbakov and Sayakbay Karalayev are regarded as Kyrgyzstan's most famous manaschis, and it is from their mouths that the greatest number of lines of the epic have been recorded, in the finest and most poetic style.

The time, dedication, work and understanding required to become a chon manaschi are willing undertaken, for the work is a spiritual calling. One modern manaschi, Seydena Moldoke Kizi, says she was called to the profession in a dream; she eventually left her village to travel to the places made famous by Manas to "feel" them.

Today, some of the most popular manaschis, such as Jusup Mamai and Urkash Mambetaliyev, are often called to perform not in the villages—where traditionally they have had their most dedicated audiences—but in the cities, where they share their talents with urbanites and scholars. Many others, however, continue to breathe life into the epic in camps, settlements and villages in Kyrgyzstan's broad steppe and high mountains. Wherever they go, they are met with the utmost respect and even love as living repositories of the memory of Kyrgyzstan.

At the fairgrounds of Manas 1000 in August, it was obvious that Kyrgyzstan and Manas are inseparable. One cannot be understood without the other.

Until the very last minute before opening, workers and artisans were putting finishing touches on the fair's monuments and structures. The arrival on August 25 of international delegations began a week of high emotion. Theaters opened shows glorifying Manas and his contemporaries. Flowers surrounded new monuments ready for dedication ceremonies. Exhibits about Manas and the preservation of the epic welcomed visitors in several languages. A concurrent symposium on The Epic of Manas brought specialists from more than 20 countries to Bishkek's Great Symphony Hall. In one unforgettable moment, President Akayev formally thanked the great chon manaschi Jusup Mamai for preserving the spirit of the Kyrgyz past for the country's future.

Other ceremonies involved the heads of all six Turkic states—Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey—and official representatives from dozens of other foreign countries. For a few hours, the beautiful pavements of the Manas village, patterned after Kyrgyz weavings, were crowded with people intoxicated by the heady mix of history, independence and hope.

In Talas, 400 kilometers (250 miles) west, hundreds of costumed performers reenacted The Epic of Manas, complete with trick-riding horsemen and dancers in breathtakingly elaborate costumes. At the climax of the performance, when Manas's victory over the forces of evil was complete, many in the audience wept. The moment was truly the spiritual rebirth of a nation, after a millennium of foreign influence and occupation.

Kenesh Osmanova, a woman in that emotional audience, described Manas's values this way. "Manas's purpose was to stop people from fighting and to make them work together in order to establish a better future for all. He wanted to unite people and build a world in which disputes among various tribes would become a memory of the past." That is the message that the Kyrgyz want to send the world through The Epic of Manas. They hope that the traditional date of Manas's birth, August 28, will become a special day in the world calendar, a day of peace among the united tribes of all the earth.

Dr. Ewa Wasilewska teaches at the University of Utah, and has carried out anthropological or archeological fieldwork in the Middle East, Central Asia and her native Poland. This article was researched with the help of an IREX travel grant.

Hermine Dreyfuss has photographed extensively in Kyrgyzstan and other parts of Central Asia. She has curated a traveling exhibit of Kyrgyz art, artifacts and photographs that will open in Colorado Springs in early 1997.

This article appeared on pages 6-13 of the May/June 1996 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1996 images.