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Tamgaly Petroglyphs

Kazakhstan boasts more than 1,500 known sites with rock drawings and carvings, called petroglyphs. They are almost always found in places that must have been good campsites for nomadic tribes: in valleys, by springs, in caves. Most of the drawings represent scenes from the lives of a hunting, nomadic community: deer and ibex, sheep, cattle, horses, riders, the carvings give their name to the sites; many of them are clubbed Tamgaly or Tamgaly Tas which means "a rock illustrated with the symbol of a tribe".

There is no lack of such sites in the Land of Seven Rivers, the most important of which ranigaly in Zhambyl Region, some 170 kilometres to the northwest of Almaty. Officially discovered" by archaeologists in 1957, Tamgaly now claims UNESCO status as a World cultural Heritage site.

Situated in a group of hills running north of the line of the Zailysky Alatau, between the Chu and Ile rivers, this is one of the most impressive of the many petroglyph sites in Kazakhstan. There are more than 4000 separate carvings from the Bronze Age and later, in several groups.

The drawings on the almost vertical rock walls are estimated to be about 3,000 years old however, not all artwork dates from the same period. It is assumed that the valley's "artistic- creations" continued well into the first millennium of our era. The drawings testify both to the daily lives and to the spiritual world of the people who used to live here: hunting and herding scenes, divine beings or shamans with sun-shaped heads, rituals, dances, female forms, falconry, ornaments and tribal symbols. In all, the rock walls contain some 4,000 remarkably clear images. The indigenous communities also call the site the Sun Temple. If you visit on a sunny day you will understand this: voices echo strangely between the canyon walls, and looking up, one gets the impression of being under a turquoise orb. Under the hot sun. the senses get blurred and you can imagine yourself flying back in time 3,000 years, when the first humans began their rock art carving.

Sadly, unmistakable signs bring the visitor back to the present: some of the stone images are damaged. It is hard to tolerate the stupidity of our fellow man, some of whom feel they have to leave their own mark as initials on the stone walls. Also, certain cracks in the walls are not the result of major shifts in temperature or other natural phenomena, but recall that this was used as a tank training area in Soviet times!

To get here, take the Bishkek road westwards from Almaty. Some 100km to the west of the capital, 6km beyond the village of Targap, take a road heading north, signposted to 'Kopa'. After 25km you cross over the railway at the small settlement of Kopa. Keep heading northwards for another 39km, until a sign to the left pointing to 'Tanbaly' directs you a few hundred metres down a dirt track to the entrance to the site. A map at the small car park directs you to five numbered petroglyph clusters, located along both sides of a gentle valley, wherever there are outcrops of flat, exposed rock. Your route around the valley is guided by arrows and 'stop' signs; signs bearing little drawings of snakes alert you to one of the potential hazards of the area.

There are more than 4,000 petroglyphs at Tamgaly. While they cover a long period (modern contributions include a horse's head complete with bridle and even an aeroplane), most of the petroglyphs date from the Bronze Age and early Iron Age. The varied images include sun-headed idols, women in childbirth, bull sacrifice, hunting scenes and a big variety of animals, and are best seen in the afternoon when most sunlight reaches them. Rock faces are packed with images of deer, some with distinctive branched antlers, bulls, dogs and hunters. Some are very beautiful, such as a petroglyph featuring an embossed cow design inside a larger cow figure which has been pecked out from the rock.

Most remarkable of all are the 'sun-headed' figures for which Tamgaly is particularly known. These typically consist of humanoid stick-like figures, with huge round heads. One of these has a certain resemblance to an enormous gooseberry. Another head involves a series of concentric circles around a central 'eye', baubles dangling from the circles. A third head consists of circles of dots. Below this third head is a line of little human figures, like bunting, which appear to be captured in mid-dance.

The canyon was a ritual site for nomadic peoples from at least 3000 years ago, and there are also ancient burial mounds here. From the car park, a separate track to the right leads behind a low hillock to some fenced Bronze Age burials. One, for example, features four graves, each lined with large stone slabs, surrounded by an outer ring of stones.

On the way to Tamgaly you can visit the monument to a famous battle against the Zhungars, which is on top of a hill next to Km Stone 38. It is composed of one high block of red granite, and a lower, partly split one of grey granite, which symbolize both nations respectively-the victorious Kazakhs and the Zhungars, finally subdued. A circle of stones with images of the oriental Zodiac surrounds the blocks.