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History of Almaty


Semi-nomadic peoples have long lived in the northern foothills of the Zailysky Alatau. The remains of a Sak settlement dated to around the 7th to 3rd century BC has been uncovered beneath part of the modern city. With the development of trade routes under the Karakhanids from the 10th century, urban development in this area was promoted. The settlement of Almatu grew and developed as a station along the Silk Road. The sacking of the place by the Mongols in the 13th century, and subsequent depredations at the hands of the Timurids and Dzhungars, meant that it was not to recover any importance until the arrival of the Russians.

The Tsarist government decided to construct a fort near the site of the old settlement, to protect the area from the ambitions of the Kokand Khanate. The Zailysky Fort was completed in 1854, but renamed Verny ('Loyal') the next year, presumably as a statement of the desired attitude of the place towards the Tsar. The fortress was founded on territory in the mountain foothills where once the settlement of Almatau (Apple Mountain) or Almata (rich in apples) had stood, before Tamerlane destroyed it back in the 14th Century. The city of Alma-Ata developed around the new fort over the course of time.

Fort Verniy was built on the assumption that the Russian troops, brought in by the Kazakh Khan in order to help defend the country against marauding tribes from the east and southwest, could best accomplish their mission with the construction of a string of forts in the Land of Seven Rivers-the name given to the region between Lake Balkhash and the Tien Shan, and which is still in use today: it translates as Zhetisu in Kazakh, and Semirechye in Russian.

Siberian Cossacks settled in two neighbourhoods, the Bolshaya Almatinskaya Stanitsa and Malaya Almatinskaya Stanitsa, close to the fortress. Both were built in grid patterns and centred on churches. Tatars, many of them from Semipalatinsk, formed a Tatar suburb and occupied themselves with trading. In 1857, the first water mill was built next to the wooden houses of the inhabitants of this strip of land. The following year, the first brewery was put into operation, and in 1860 the first post office and hospital were opened. At the time around 5,000 people lived here in 677 houses, of which only one was built of stone.

Verniy's first baptism of fire in its original function as an outpost against warring neighbours came in 1860, when a large host of the Khan of Kokand poured into the Land of Seven Rivers. The 700 soldiers who occupied Fort Verniy marched forward to meet the enemy, and defeated the khan's 21,000-strong army. A monument commemorating the battle can still be seen in the present-day village of Uzynaghash.

After that, the outpost's development continued in a peaceful manner. In 1865, Igor Redko, a settler from the governorate of Voronezh, brought a sampling of the Aport apple with him and thereby laid the foundation of the city's subsequent fame. On 11 April 1867, Fort Verniy was granted city rights. It became the centre of the Semirechye voyevodstvo (province) and the area's entire governorate moved to it. A new town was laid out, following the grid pattern of the Bolshaya Almatinskaya Stanitsa, and settled by a new influx of immigrants, mostly peasants from Voronezh.

Of course, uncontrolled growth of the city now had to come to an end. A committee for urban development was established to draft a settlement plan. Within the year, it was decided to extend the city's construction sites towards the south and the west of the Greater Stanitsa. The streets were to be almost 35 metres wide and supplemented with squares and parks. At first 11 of these squares were designed, five of which were designated as marketplaces: a vegetable market, a hay market, a wood market, a horse market and a row of inns. In December 1874, 33 lampposts with stearin (beeswax) candles were erected on the squares.

By 1879 the number of Verniy's inhabitants had grown to more than 18,000 and the lack of organisation became noticeable, so it was decided to give names to the first 43 streets. The names indicated their function, such as Barracks Street, Court House Street, (river) Bank Street, etc.

At this stage, the city's architecture consisted of so-called razryady, or "grades". The first grade consisted of the most splendid buildings such as the military governor's house with its gallery of columns, the farm and home of the Bishop of Turkestan, the officers' mess, the boys' and girls gymnasiums (schools), the cathedral, the regional printing house and others. These buildings were in the area between Court House Street (now Kaldayakova Street), Commerce Street (Zhybek Zholy or Silk Road Street), Serigopolskaya Street (Tulebayeva Street) and Commander Street (Bogenbay Batyr Street). The second grade, bordered on the east by the Lesser Almatinka River and on the west by Barracks Street (now Panfilova Street), consisted of the less impressive houses belonging to officials, officers and traders. The third grade covered rest of the city. Here, in mud huts and holes in the earth, poverty reigned.

On 28 May 1887, a major earthquake struck, flattening almost all of the brick buildings of the young town. A strong earthquake razed 1,798 of its buildings to the ground. Only one building remained standing, and it can still be visited today: it is found at 51 Gogol Street, on the corner of Pushkin Street. The wooden dwellings of the Bolshaya and Malaya stanitsas were rather less badly affected, and thereafter wood for a time became the preferred construction material. The wooden constructions of architect Andrei Pavlovich Zenkov were particularly fine: his Vosnesensky ('Ascension') Cathedral dominated the city skyline when it was built in 1907, and is still one of the tallest wooden constructions in the world. The cathedral, and several other wooden structures built by Zenkov, survived a second severe earthquake, which struck the town on 22 December 1910.

Two other very fine examples of Zenkov's architecture can be seen on Zenkova Street, to the east of the cathedral: still in the park is the old officers' mess, built in 1908-today it harbours the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments; and not far from the Green Bazaar on Zhybek Zholy Street is the attractive Dom Tkanyey, the textile market. Zenkov was also responsible for the expansion of the broad north-south main streets.

Unfortunately, because of the earthquake only archive documents now show how Fort Verniy looked during its founding phase. The remnants of the fortress rampart stretching to the Lesser Almatinka and a barracks built of fir tree trunks can now be seen only on Zhetisu Street. Both are rather hidden, but the city government is planning a restoration, and Almaty is to get an open-air museum of its time as Fort Verniy.

Right from its foundation Verniy took special care with its greenery, which was meticulously planned from the start. After the first year, two large boulevards were constructed-these can be recognized today by the old, dense lines of trees that still flank them. The first one is the Sophia Allee, now called Pushkin Street, and the second, the road to Tashkent, is now Raimbeka Avenue. Planting in the main city garden started in the same year. Today called Central Park, the garden offers shelter to thousands of Almaty's inhabitants looking for cool shade in summer. In the 1870s, a church park was laid out, today's Panfilov Park. In 1892, master forester Eduard Baum took the initiative for the planting of a large forest-park. Today, the place is named after its creator: Roscha Bauma-Little Baum Forest. General Kolpakovsky, the governor of Verniy at the time of master builder Zenkov's period, ordered that each inhabitant who planted a tree should be paid one gryvennik, but also that illegal logging should be punished with a public flogging. One is still inclined to thank the governor for that during hot summer days.

Given the high risk of earthquakes, a meteorological and seismic station was opened in Verniy in the early 20th Century. A department of the Geographical Society was founded, which started exploring and mapping the area. By 1913, the population had grown to 40,000. Some of the cottages and houses built in the Russian style during this period can still be seen in the area between Bogenbay Batyr Street, Kabanbay Batyr Street and Kasteyev Street, as well as in the eastern part of the city to the south of the Cultural Park, though as modernisation speeds up these are disappearing fast.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the town was a place of exile, its best-known outcast being Leon Trotsky.

In 1921, the new Soviet authorities renamed the place Alma-Ata ('Father of the Apple'), a Kazakh-language version of the pre-Tsarist name of the town. The capital of the republic was moved here, from Kyzylorda, in 1929. This act, coupled with the opening the following year of the Turkestan-Siberian (TurkSib) Railway, which gave Almaty a rail connection to Moscow, provided a major spur to urban development and brought big growth. From then on, there was no way to stem population growth. From 1926 to 1939, Alma-Ata increased from 45,000 inhabitants to 222,000. During this period, the city's infrastructure was enlarged, with 30 new industrial complexes and bus and tramway lines. Alma-Ata expanded vigorously towards the north and west. In the centre of the city, splendid stone buildings with two to four stories replaced old wooden houses. The main post office, railway station Almaty-2, numerous government buildings, scientific institutes and various theatres are examples of construction dating from the period of Soviet development in the late 1920s and 1930s. The beautiful, recently restored building of the Opera and Ballet Theatre was completed in 1941, during the earlv months of World War II.

During the war years, many large Soviet enterprises as well as cultural and scientific institutes were moved to Almaty, among other places, in an evacuation from European sections of the Soviet Union designed to place them out of reach of the invading German army. Tens of thousands of workers followed the enterprises and in spite of the war Alma- Ata witnessed significant growth. Almost the entire Alma-Ata 1 district, with its rings of terraced houses surrounding industrial sites, originates from this period. For many years following the war, Alma-Ata continued to grow. Former Volga Germans found their new home here, as well as Uygurs from western China, and Koreans who had been evacuated mostly in 1937-38, but some also during World War II and the Korean war. These, and the many Kazakhs who migrated from the countryside gave Alma-Ata the official status of a million-plus city in 1982. The city's uncontrolled growth after the war is reflected in the mix in architecture, with two- to four-storey residential buildings from the 1950s and 1960s in some places and the typical high residential complexes, the so-called mikrorayons, from the 1970s and 1980s. The latter have often been decorated with oriental ornamentation to liven up their facades, while many of the former have been urgently razed.

Mass housing construction came in the 1950s, and accelerated in subsequent decades. Apartment blocks became taller: five storeys, then seven, nine and 12, often constructed using prefabricated concrete panels. In the late 1970s and ’80s Kazakhstan’s leader Dinmukhamed Kunaev, an ally of Brezhnev and the only Central Asian member of the Soviet Politburo, managed to steer lots of money southeast from Moscow to transform Alma-Ata into a worthy Soviet republican capital. He supported a programme of the construction of grand new buildings in an effort to transform the city. The Hotel Kazakhstan and Arasan Baths are among the products of this period.

In 1991 Almaty was the venue for the meeting where the USSR was finally pronounced dead, when all five Central Asian republics, plus Azerbaijan, Armenia and Moldova, joined the Commonwealth of Independent States founded by Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Following independence, the city's name was altered again, amended in 1993 by the Supreme Council of Kazakhstan from Alma-Ata to Almaty, to reflect more closely the historical name of the original Silk Road settlement. In 1995, a presidential decree announced that the capital of Kazakhstan would be transferred to Akmola, far to the north. A further decree in 1997 declared Akmola (now Astana) the capital, effective as from 10 December of that year. A parallel decree on the status of Almaty emphasised though that the government intended the former capital to continue to develop, as a financial, business and research centre. Recent government focus has been on developing Almaty as a regional financial centre, to serve the whole of central Asia.

The move of the capital to the north did nothing to dent the construction boom in Almaty, though the fallout from the credit squeeze resulting from the US sub-prime mortgage crisis striking in 2007 was been felt in this city as elsewhere. Business centres and modern hotels nonetheless continue to sprout across the urban landscape, and the planned Marriott will top the tallest building in central Asia. Apartment blocks continue to be built, but detached housing is a more important component of the new housing mix than in post-war Soviet times. This includes luxury gated developments in suburbs such as Gorny Gigant, at the foot of the mountains, serving the new Kazakhstani elite, and unplanned developments constructed by new Kazakh migrants from rural areas, such as around the suburb of Shanyrak. Almaty may no longer be Kazakhstan's capital, but it remains by far its most important urban centre and a highlight of any trip to Kazakhstan.

Almaty has the most vibrant cultural life in Kazakhstan, and in this respect it is still very much the capital. It owes its cultural riches to its history, not least because of the numerous cultural institutions the Soviet Union removed here during World War II, but also because many artists remained in the southern sun after the war-this is why the city boasts such a large number of universities, academies and music schools. A plethora of theatres, the opera, concert halls, galleries, libraries, numerous revamped cinemas and a developing alternative scene all combine to create a city with something for every taste.

Almaty presents itself to visitors as the most cosmopolitan and modern metropolis in Central Asia, a rare location in the centre of Eurasia where you can use your credit card without any problem, find hotels in every price category, enjoy a shimmering night life, watch new skyscraper skylines compete with the inspirational mountainscape.