Much evidence of some of modern-day Kyrgyzstan's earliest settlers, the warrior tribes of the Saka - or Scythians - has been found in the Issyk-Kul region, and a variety of rich bronze and gold artefacts have been recovered from their circular burial mounds. The Scythians occupied the region between about the 6th century BC and the 5th century AD. Before them, Neolithic settlers left their mark on the region, most notably at Cholpon-Ata, where a large number of petroglyphs and settlement remains from around 1000 BC to the 6th century AD, and later, can still be seen.
Although the general trend until recently has been a drop of the lake's surface level, it would appear that Issyk-Kul was some 8m lower than its present level in medieval times, as remains of settlements have been found beneath its surface at this level. The Russian explorer Pyotr Semyonov Tyan-Shansky believed that a 'Kyrgyz Atlantis' might be discovered beneath the lake's waters. In 1857, some locals showed him some ruins in the water at Kara-Bulun cape, where the Tyup and Jergalan rivers divide and since then other underwater ruins have been found at various locations around the lake, The submerged city of Chigu in the Tyup gulf at the lake's eastern end has revealed artefacts that date back to the 2nd century BC. Chigu, referred to by the Chinese as 'the City of the Red Valley', was the capital of the state of Usun, and is presumed to have disappeared beneath the water in the 1st century AD.
There are at least 10 documented settlements currently under the waters of the lake and treasure hunters have long scoured the lake for flooded trinkets attributed to everyone from Christian monks to Chinggis (Genghis) Khan.
Ancient legend points to St Matthew being buried close to the lake's shore at an Orthodox monastery, and some archaeologists believe that this would have been at the northwest shore of the lake, near to the settlement of Toru Aygyr, where the present-day tourist settlement of Ulan is located. A medieval bath complex was excavated here 50 years ago by a Kyrgyz archaeologist, along with many pieces of ceramics.
Later theories concerning this shifted their attention further east: Vladimir Ploskikh, a Kyrgyz archaeologist, believes that he has found remains of the monastery in which St Matthew was buried at Svetly Mys, on the northeast coast of the lake, although he admits that his hypothesis remains unproven.
Arabian chronicles make mention of many ancient settlements in the Issyk-Kul region, relating that the towns along the southern shore of the lake were celebrated for their riches and were populated by a large number of people. Of these towns, in the 8th century BC the major one was Barskhan, which roughly corresponds to present-day Barskoon, at the mouth of the river of the same name. This is mentioned in the works of the philosopher Biruni, who wrote that the residents of the town knew the secrets of iron alloys, which were only known to the Chinese at the time. All of these towns, it is believed, were later destroyed and inundated following an earthquake.
Because of its geographical position and obvious resources, Issyk-Kul became an important staging point along the more northern sections of the ancient Silk Road. Several routes use to ply its shores and one of the prime routes to the West led across the 4,284m Bedel Pass from China, before descending to the lake near present-day Barskoon. The lake was coveted by the Chinese for centuries, but they were never successful in conquering it and, despite its distance from St Petersburg, the Tsarist capital, it would be the Russians rather than the Chinese who would eventually colonise it.
Long before this, however, the lake's resources and mild climate were utilised by both Mongol and Turkic nomadic armies, who would often winter on its shores. Tamerlane is reputed to have banished captured Tartars to an island fortress that has long since vanished beneath the surface, probably as a result of earthquake activity.
Whether or is not this is true is uncertain, but whatever the precise history of the lake, washed-up fragments of pottery and brick bear witness to extensive periods of settlement here in the past.
The Kyrgyz people migrated in the 10th to 15th centuries from the Yenisey river basin in Siberia, and in all probability arrived by way of Issyk-Kul. This high basin would be a natural stopover for any caravan or conquering army as well.
Some historians believe that the lake was the point of origin for the Black Death that devastated Asia and Europe during the 14th century. These same historians believe that the plague began at a Nestorian Christian community at the northeast end of the lake in 1338 (while others say that it originated in the Gobi desert). Archaeological excavations have revealed extraordinarily high death rates for 1338 and 1339, and memorial stones attribute these deaths to plague, which has led some scholars to conclude that the 14th-century pandemic may well have originated here. From its origin at the lake, the plague spread westwards as merchants unwittingly transmitted the disease by transporting infested vermin along with their goods.
Following the decline of the Silk Road, the lake languished in obscurity for centuries and remained virtually unknown to the Western world until the 19th century, when Russian explorers like Pyotr Semyonov Tyan-Shansky ventured into the area to send back reports. At that time it was thought that the Chui River was the outflow of the lake, but Semyonov Tyan-Shansky proved that, although it would have had an outflow to the river at earlier times, this was no longer the case, despite it flowing within 4km of the western end of the lake. Another Russian explorer following in Tyan-Shansky's footprints, the scientist and geographer Nikolai Przhevalsky, died of typhoid in the town that then, as now, was known as Karakol but which, in the later Tsarist and Soviet era, was named after him.
Russian exploration arrived relatively late on the scene, but there had always been greater contact with the East: the Chinese traveller Jan Chan Tzan is reported to have reached the lake in around 128BC, while the first written account of the lake comes from another Chinese adventurer, Suan Zsan. The first written record of its name comes from an anonymous Tajik work The Boundaries of the World from East to West from AD982, which also accurately estimated the size of the lake.
The first Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian settlers came to the east end of the lake in 1868. Karakol town was founded the next year, followed in the 1870s by Tup, Teploklyuchenka (Ak-Suu), Ananyevo, Pokrovka (now Kyzyl-Suu) and a string of others, many of whose Cossack names have stuck. Large numbers of Dungans and Uyghurs arrived in the 1870s and '80s following the suppression of Muslim uprisings in China's Shaanxi, Gansu and Xinjiang provinces. At that time local Kyrgyz and Kazakhs were still mostly nomadic.
During the Soviet period the eastern end of the lake was utilised as a base for testing submarine and torpedo technology for the Soviet navy. As the lake's waters were slightly salty and never froze, they were ideal for replicating the maritime conditions in which the Soviet fleet would normally be deployed. Even better was the lake's isolation, far from Europe and the prying eyes of the West. Throughout the late Soviet period Lake Issyk-Kul was strictly off-limits for non-Soviet citizens, although during this same period the lake was developed as a holiday destination for citizens of the USSR, and many sanatoria were opened up along the lake's shores, particularly in the north at resorts like Cholpon-Ata.
In 1991 Russian President Boris Yeltsin asked that it be continued but Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev shut down the whole thing, ordering it to be converted to peaceful pursuits. These days the most secretive thing in the lake is the mysterious jekai, a Kyrgyz version of the Loch Ness monster. Jokes about the 'Kyrgyz navy' refer to a fleet of some 40 ageing naval cutters, now mothballed at Koy-Sary or decommissioned and hauling goods and tourists up and down the lake.
Because of its natural beauty, clean air and pleasant summer climate, the lake was considered to be one of the top leisure spots in the whole of the USSR. It was particularly popular with holidaying cosmonauts, and Yuri Gagarin journeyed here for well-earned rest and recuperation after his pioneering space mission in 1961 and there is a monument to him in the Barskoon valley. The lake's popularity even extended to Soviet leaders: Leonid Brezhnev himself had a dacha built here at the lake's north shore.
Following Kyrgyzstan's independence in 1991, the holiday industry swiftly plummeted into decline as Russians stopped visiting, and many of the lake's sanatoria were boarded up and abandoned. In recent times, there has been a turnaround of fortunes, with domestic tourists visiting the lake's shores in larger numbers, along with visitors from Kazakhstan, especially ethnic Russians, who make the trip over the mountains from Almaty to take advantage of the relative low prices and - for Kazakh citizens at least - a Kyrgyz visa-free regime.
As a result of this renewed interest some of the former sanatoria have been taken into private ownership and refurbished, and new hotels, especially small B&Bs, are being established. Since the late 1990s an increasing number of travellers from Western Europe and North America have been arriving in the region. On the whole, these come mostly to hike in the valleys southeast of the lake close to Karakol, or to visit the lake en route to the peaks of the Central Tien Shan. The administrative centre of Karakol has subsequently developed as the major centre for the outdoor pursuits and adventure tourism favoured by Western visitors, while Cholpon-Ata retains the crown for domestic tourism and the Kazakh beach set.
THE LEGEND OF HOW THE KYRGYZ PEOPLE CAME TO ISSYK KUL
Long ago when the world was covered in forests, grasses and rivers, there lived a Kyrgyz tribe on the banks of the Yenisei river. They were in constant battle with neighbouring tribes, diplomatic efforts bearing no fruit. One day a beautiful bird appeared to the Kyrgyz declaring 'there will be a disaster!' It was the day they were burying a leader, Kul-choo. As they stood quietly remembering the dead man, a great noise erupted and they looked up only to find themselves helpless victims of their enemies; everybody was killed.
Unknown to their enemies, two children, a girl and a boy, had been out in the woods picking berries and mushrooms. When they returned to the carnage they ran away in horror and eventually, desperate for food, came across the camp of their enemies. An old woman gave them food but others recognised them as Kyrgyz and ordered her to kill them. Reluctantly she took the children off into the woods, planning to throw them over a cliff. To the crying children she pleaded, 'forgive me, please!', blearing a voice she looked up to see a beautiful white cow with black eyes, her udders full of milk. Her calves had been killed by humans and she reasoned with the old woman to give her the children, promising to take them far away. She took them to Issyk Kul where she raised them until they were old enough to marry. Their two sons were the firstborn of two Kyrgyz tribes.