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The Kazakh Khanate

The Kazakh story starts with the Uzbeks, a group of Islamised Mongols named after leader (Uzbek), who were left in control of most of the Kazakh steppe as the Golden Horde disintegrated in the 15th century. In 1468 an internal feud split the Uzbeks into two groups. Those who ended up south of the Syr-Darya ruled from Bukhara as the Shaybanid dynasty and ultimately gave their name to modern Uzbekistan. Those who stayed north remained nomadic and became the Kazakhs.

Thus, the Kazakh nation as such, with a statehood of its own, did not take shape until the 15th and 16th centuries. At first there emerged three major tribal confederations (hordes or zhuzy, and clans, only). Some historians link their origins to the presence of three major landscape forms, whereas others trace them back to political factors such as the division of the territory under the heirs of Genghis Khan.

The Senior Horde, which united the tribes of the Alban, Uysun, Daoulat, Zhalayr, Kang- Li, Su-An, Sgrely, Oshakht, Ysty and Shahprashty, and their 32 clans, occupied the area between the Syr Darya and Semirechye. The Middle Horde inhabited central and northern Kazakhstan and included the major tribes of Argyn, Kerei, Kongrat, Kypchak, Nayman and Ouak with their 40 clans. The Junior Horde was settled downstream along the Syr Darya, on the banks of the Aral Sea and in the Caspian Depression. To it belonged the tribes of the Alimulek, Bayuly and Zhetiru with 25 clans.

From the middle of the 15th Century these three hordes became known as "Kazakhs", a Turkic word designating them as "free" or "independent" people. This term's background possibly reveals the events that preceded the establishment of the Kazakh Khanate: in 1450 two scions of Genghis Khan, Zhanibek Abusayid and Kerei (also spelt Girei), and their adherents disassociated themselves from the Khanate of Abulkhair, centred in present-day Uzbekistan, after having refused him allegiance. In neighbouring Mongolistan they were well received by Yesen Buga Khan, and were granted fertile places to dwell in the Chuy plains. In 1465-67, following Yesen Buga Khan's death, they proclaimed the Kazakh Khanate, and thereby, according to tradition, laid the foundation for the first formation of a Kazakh state. Numerous followers of the Uzbek ulus (tribe) adhered to their new state, which resulted in the Khanate's expansion towards the north with the inclusion of the Kypchak, Nayman, Kang-Li and Kerei tribes.

A little later, under Burunduk Khan, fighting broke out over the cities in the south, with Suzak, Sygnak and Sauran being taken from the Sheybanids (descendants of Batu) and incorporated into the Kazakh Khanate.

Under Janibek's son Kasym Khan, the Kazakh Khanate in the early 16th century expanded to a considerable size. Kasym Khan also instituted the first Kazakh legal code in 1520. The capital of the Khanate was established at Yassi, today's Turkestan, a centre of spiritual power and authority because of the presence there of the Mausoleum of Khodja Ahmed Yassaui.

During the 16th century the nomadic peoples of the Kazakh Khanate evolved a secondary level of allegiance, into one of three zhuzes (hordes): territorial-based tribal groupings with which Kazakhs today still identify. The territory of each zhuz incorporated both summer and winter pastures. The lands of the Great Zhuz lay in the Zhetisu, those of the Middle Zhuz to the north, and the territories of the Junior Zhuz further west, beyond the Aral Sea. Each was ruled by a khan and comprised a number of clans whose leaders held the title axial, bi or batyr. Disputes were settled within each zhuz by bis, arbiters who were appointed out of respect for their wisdom and wise judgement.

External threats exposed the weaknesses of the decentralised character of the zhuz-based structure, as the Kazakh Khanate found itself facing a series of aggressors. The threat from the south was to prove the least severe. In the early 16th century, Abulkhair Khans grandson Mohammed Shaybani succeeded in unifying Uzbek groups into the Shaybanid Empire, centred on Samarkand. He moved against the Kazakh Khanate, but was defeated by Kasym Khan in 1510. Following his death, his empire was eventually to break up into the Khanates of Kokand, Bukhara and Khiva.