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Volume 54, Number 3May/June 2003

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The Soul of Kazakhstan

Written by Alma Kunanbay
Photographed by Wayne Eastep

Kazakhstan, situated in the geographic center of Eurasia, has been well known since the times of the Silk Roads. Today, just as in that distant epoch, it combines features that are remarkable for their contrasts: East and West, modernism and archaism, impetuous youth and the staid wisdom of ancestors. Even its geography is full of contrasts: The perpetually snow-capped mountains adjoin the Great Steppe; the regions of rivers and picturesque lakes—the so-called "eyes of the earth"—are surrounded by neighboring desert. Such variety and contrast gives rise to die possibility of sensing such fundamental cultural ideas as eternity and beauty. However, only a deep familiarity with Kazakh nomadic civilization allows one to go beyond sensing to understanding how these fundamental ideas are philosophically thought out, formulated and artistically realized in traditional Kazakh culture.

National independence begins with the reawakening of ethnic self-awareness within the framework of both local and world culture. Kazakhs, as bearers of the knowledge of their own heritage, are once again entering the arena of world history, and they are worthy of the interest and attention of the world's mainstream cultures. Kazakhs can enter the modern, global cultural conversation as equals.

The art and culture of a nomadic society are more than art and culture in their contemporary meanings. Rather, they are the means that assure preservation of the fabric of the society.

To comprehend that art, it is necessary to recognize the specific characteristics of the traditional culture as a whole. If it is true that a land and its people are inseparable, and if it is true that nature determines nearly all aspects of a people's culture—from the type of economy that develops, to dwellings, clothing, food and even the character of the people who inhabit the land—then those axioms are especially true in a nomadic society.

To understand a country means to comprehend it as an organic whole; thus, in order to feel its soul, you cannot divorce the soul from the land. One glance at the map of Kazakhstan on page 20, or at these photographs, is enough to understand one essential point about the geography of this Central Asian country: how enormous it is. The world's ninth largest nation, Kazakhstan occupies an area five times the size of France and almost four times the size of Texas. It stretches about 3000 kilometers (1875 mi) from the Altai Mountains in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west, and about 2000 kilometers (1250 mi) from the southern Ural Mountains in the north to the Tien Shan Mountains in the south. It covers 2.71 million square kilometers (1.05 million sq mi). For its size, its population is small: only 16.8 million people, roughly 50 percent of whom are ethnic Kazakhs and 35 percent Russians; the balance are German, Ukrainian, Uzbek, Tatar, Korean, Uighur and a variety of other ethnicities.

This sprawling landscape is fantastically diverse. It includes almost every geographic feature known to humankind except an exit to the open sea. Most importantly, this diverse geography determines the country's natural conditions and thereby its economy and culture.

The dominant theme in Kazakhstan's geography is not the soaring mountains or plunging valleys, not its rich forests or dappled lakes, not its broad rivers or arid deserts; it is the all-important, all-encompassing steppe. The steppe zone stretches more than 2200 kilometers (1375 mi) from the northern part of the Caspian depression to the foothills of the Altai Mountains. The steppe is at times dusty and dry, at times snow- and ice-covered, then suddenly fragrant and full of the enchanting sounds and colors of spring. The steppe, which at a fleeting glance seems empty, constitutes a truly unique symbiosis of plant, animal and human life. The steppe demands contemplation, feeling and acclimation; then it opens up to you and gives you strength, and does not let you go.

The history of civilization in Kazakhstan goes as far back as the Iron Age. The earliest finds of archeologists indicate settlements in the steppe in the Neolithic and Late Neolithic periods (8000-2000 BC). Stone implements from this era have been found during excavations in central and eastern Kazakhstan, as well as in the west, on the Mangyshlak Peninsula that protrudes into the Caspian Sea. These finds, made along rivers and lakes and in the foothills of mountains, attest to a predominantly settled way of life.

Kazakhstan's many petroglyphs also belong to the Neolithic era. Their number and quality is comparable to those from the greatest sites of the art of ancient humans. Among them are scenes of hunts and tribal campaigns and depictions of sorcerers, beasts, dragons, stags, deer, horsemen, chariots, priestesses and amazons remarkable for their expressiveness of detail—as well as symbolic maps of the world.

A significant number of the ancient caravan routes that linked China with the countries of the Near East and Europe, collectively known today as the Silk Roads, crossed Central Asia at various times from the third century BC all the way to the 19th century of our era. The routes served as the main arteries between East and West for trade that included not only silk, spices, jewels and medicinal plants, but also cultural values, technological ideas and religions. The writing systems of various peoples, their traditions, customs, cuisines and even their fashions were thus diffused across Asia and beyond, and there was a time when Turkic clothing and music—and even the yurt—were fashionable at the court of the Chinese emperor.

All along the Silk Roads, towns and cities developed in whose noisy and colorful markets the din of dozens of languages could be heard. Archeologists in Kazakhstan continue to discover today coins, statues, vases, textiles, decorations and other artifacts that originated in India, Byzantium, Persia and China. And today, from the musical instruments of the peoples of the Silk Roads, the sounds of ancient Central Asian instruments can still be heard. The oldest of these, the bowed string instrument called the qïl qobïz that was once used by Kazakh shamans, is the ancestor of the European violin.

One of the most far-reaching phenomena in the history of civilization—comparable even to humans' journeys into space—occurred in the steppes of Central Asia more than 2000 years ago. That event was the domestication of the horse. News of this development was brought to the Chinese emperor's court by his envoy. This royal courtier, who had spent 13 years among the nomads, told the emperor of "the celestial horses of the nomads."

The first Kazakh state emerged in the 15th and 16th centuries, on the ruins of the Mongol empire. What made it unique were its nomadic aspects and its social structure. Early Kazakh society, organized on a tripartite principle, was separated into three hordes: the Great Horde, Middle Horde and Lesser Horde, each of which had territorial and socioeco-nomic demarcations and was further divided into tribes and clans. A proverb states: "Give the Great Horde a staff in its hands and place it over the herd; give the Middle Horde a pen in its hand and send it to a dispute; give the Lesser Horde a pike in its hand and send it into battle." A complex economy assuring the wealth of the entire people emerged in the south under the Great Horde; central Kazakhstan under the Middle Horde came to be known for the astute political activities of its representatives; and western Kazakhstan, the territory of the Lesser Horde, was marked by endless boundary wars.

In each horde, a khan was selected on democratic principles from the ranks of the most talented warriors and politicians. Selection culminated with an installation ritual in which the khan was seated on a white felt rug that represented justice and the pure and holy Upper World. The khans did not have autocratic powers, since tribes that disagreed with their policies could simply migrate to neighboring territories, and only symbolized—rather than embodying—the highest authority. Under this system of government, an important role was played by the khan's advisers, who skillfully exercised authority through eloquent speech and the art of debate.

In the colonial era, the great natural wealth of raw materials in the Kazakh lands attracted the Russian Empire. Kazakhstan, in addition, represented a tremendous market for Russian manufactured goods, offered "empty" territories for expansion, and lay on the route to the wealth of Samarkand and Bukhara and further to the India of legend. All of Russia's military, diplomatic and scholarly resources, under the tsars and under the Bolsheviks, were brought to bear in single-minded fashion on the subjugation of the steppe. Kazakhs paid an immeasurably high price to survive the century of colonial rule until they achieved independence again in 1991.

Due to a consistent policy of forced resettlement of Slavs and people of other ethnic groups to steppe territories, the percentage of Kazakhs in the population of their own homeland fell from 75 percent in 1900 to 29.8 percent in 1959. Only in 1976 did the ethnic Kazakh population regain the level of 5.6 million recorded during the 1916 census.

Today Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Poles, Germans, Chechens, Koreans and representatives of almost 100 other ethnic groups live in Kazakhstan in addition to the republic's indigenous population. According to 1991 statistics, the world population of ethnic Kazakhs numbers about 14 million. Of these, about 6.8 million live in Kazakhstan, 1.7 million live in the other former republics of the Soviet Union, and 5.5 million live in other countries.

Yurt, as the name of a dwelling, entered world usage through Russian. In Kazakh, the word zhurt literally means "community, family, relatives" or "people." The dwelling itself is referred to as kiyiz üy, which means "home made of felt"; or qara üy, "large home"; or qazaqï üy, "Kazakh home."

Nomadic life would be impossible without a transportable dwelling, of course. One of the early models is described by Herodotus, "the father of history," in his account of the campaign of the Scythians against the Persian armies of Darius in the fifth century BC. He mentions felt dwellings set on huge carts, one of the types known historically in Western Eurasia, including in parts of what is today Kazakhstan. Herodotus's description is echoed in the "felt Turkic carts" described by Friar William of Rubruck, envoy of France's King Louis IX from 1252 to 1254, who traveled the Kazakh steppes on his way to Karakorum, the Mongolian capital of Genghis Khan.

A cart capable of carrying a felt home was nine meters (30') wide and was pulled by 33 pairs of oxen. Such cumbersome constructions were probably very comfortable, but not very convenient, given the slow pace at which they must have traveled. Nonetheless, smaller versions of this type of dwelling survived among some groups until the beginning of the 20th century.

Some scholars believe that a genuine revolution occurred in the middle of the first millennium of our era with the development of the collapsible yurt with its folding lattice wall. This is basically the ingenious structure still in use, in several variations, today. In Kazakhstan there are two kinds: the Kazakh and the Kalmyk yurt. The latter is distinguished by its conical roof, similar to the American Indian teepee, created by the straight poles used to support the shangïraq, or roof-hole frame; in form, this is closer to the Mongol type of yurt. The Turkic and the later Kazakh yurt has a hemispherical roof.

Every single item in the traditional yurt had not only a function but great symbolic importance as well. Thus the world of people and the world of objects were bound inseparably in the yurt and by the yurt. The yurt was not just a place of residence, but a home full of life—a place of daily work and rest, of festivities and holidays, of socializing and the taking of meals.

Today the yurt remains the basic dwelling of the few remaining nomadic or herding groups of Kazakhstan and is indispensable as a summer dwelling in agricultural areas. But in urban life, interestingly, many of the symbols of the ancient nomadic dwelling are preserved. Thus in many modern homes and apartments, in the room used for entertaining guests, a table is placed in the space farthest from the entrance. The head place at that table is still referred to—just as centuries ago—as the tör, or place of honor, and it is richly decorated and reserved for honored guests.

In traditional daily life, even the ordinary Kazakh did not know an unadorned space. Everything around him, beginning with the interior appointments of his yurt, was decorated or "ornamented" by his own or a family member's skilled hands. To adorn something in this manner is to domesticate it—to make it part of one's own cultural universe. Thus, all craft works—from the simplest vessel to a fine blanket, from a horse's harness to items of jewelry—are not only serviceable items of daily life, but also art.

Ornamentation is not simply decoration. It is a special language, and knowing that language opens a door to the nomad's world of art. A dictionary of Kazakh ornamentation would occupy many pages. Among the motifs are cosmic symbols such as the sun, the stars and the crescent moon; geometrical elements such as the triangle, the diamond, the cross and the prehistoric swastika; zoomorphic figurations such as a ram's horn, a bird's wing or beak and a camel's footprint or eye; and botanical representations such as a flower, a leaf or a sprout. All of these elements can be combined in complex constructs that have a philosophical essence and can be read by cognoscenti like an open book.

Kazakh ornamentation is one of humanity's oldest codified symbolic systems of shapes and colors. Thus, the color blue is the symbol of the sky; red represents fire, blood or life itself; green is the symbol of vegetation, spring and beginnings; white represents that which is high or celestial; gold is wisdom or knowledge; and so on. In Kazakh decorative arts the primary concept is not the opposition between good and evil, but rather the unity of these seemingly contradictory notions.

The rulers of the Soviet Union established a Union of Artists in Kazakhstan in 1933 and a school of art in 1938. The latter became a "forge of cadres," the alma mater of a new generation of artists and sculptors who continued their education at the art academies of Moscow, Leningrad, Kharkov and other Russian cities, then called "All-Union" centers of art.

There was implied in this redirection of artistic impulses a change of almost incomprehensible proportions: the rapid adaptation of the Kazakhs, nomads at heart, to European art in all its contemporary forms. This was possible because over the centuries traditional folk art, which is deeply philosophical even though predominantly ornamental and symbolic, had already laid the groundwork for a new stage in its own historical development. By using their trained, precise gazes and their steady hands, the master artists of Kazakhstan cultivated new uses of texture, line, color and form.

The natural beauty of their country and the infinite variety of its landscapes became the major theme of many artists. Mountains—the Alatau and Qaratau, spurs of the Tien Shan covered eternally with snow—occupied a significant place in their work, echoing the traditional notion of their sacredness and their value as symbols of eternity, sacred knowledge and the loftiness of the human spirit. The mountains served as a reference point for orientation in life; they gave the starting coordinates for existence. But Kazakh artists' landscapes were rarely just a depiction of nature—at the heart of a canvas, as a rule, was a yurt, gardens, children, animals or scenes of nomadic life.

If you were to ask in what form the soul of the Kazakh people is best expressed, I would not hesitate to respond that it is in traditional Kazakh folk music. All aspects of Kazakh life are permeated with music; it infuses the entire culture. Music is heard on holidays and at gatherings, in ceremonies and rituals, at feasts and in daily life. Musical instruments are an acoustical embodiment of the traditional "three worlds" of the Kazakh spiritual universe: upper, middle, and lower. These levels are represented first in the bowed string instrument called the qïl qobïz, developed by Kazakh shamans known as baqsï, who preserved the idea of creating sound from the friction of two hunting bows.

In addition, the Kazakh "art of the word"—a term for clever, flowery speech loaded with metaphors, proverbs and allegory—struck travelers to the region as brilliant. Belief in the magical power of words, which Kazakhs compare to an arrow, a lance, a blade or even lightning, demanded great attention to pronunciation as well as caution and responsibility in their use.

The zenith of such communication is the musical-poetic contest known as the aytïs—a verbal duel between epic singers, or aqïn, before a large and knowledgeable audience. The language forms in an aytïs are so complex, and the nuances and associations so arcane, that a meaningful translation to another language is virtually impossible. There is a tremendous variety of aytïs within Kazakh poetic culture: qïz ben zhigit aytïsï, for example, is a verbal duel between a girl and boy; din aytïsï is a verbal duel about religion; zhumbaq aytïsï, a verbal duel with riddles; aqïndar aytïsï, a verbal duel between bards; and so on.

Thus the great tradition of expression of the national spirit through music, words and other art forms has remained intact throughout the centuries, and indeed, almost every aspect of Kazakh national culture has been renewed in recent times. Today, the Kazakh people are finding how the ancient truths reflect the spiritual needs of the present.

Wayne Eastep ([email protected]) is a photographer who specializes in world cultures. In the 1980’s, he and his wofe, Patti, lived with al-Murrah Bedouins in Saudi Arabia and produced the prizewinning book Bedouin, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Alma Kunanbay ([email protected]) is a cultural anthropologist and ethnomusicologist specializing in Central Asia. Born on Almaty, she received degrees there and in Moscow and St. Petersburg. She is currently teaching Kazakh language and culture at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

This article appeared on pages 20-33 of the May/June 2003 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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