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The Kazakhs

The Kazakhs were nomadic horseback pastoralists until the 1920s; indeed the name Kazakh is said to mean ‘free warrior’ or ‘steppe roamer’.  Most Kazakhs have Mongolian facial features, similar to the Kyrgyz. Most wear Western or Russian clothes, but you may see women – particularly on special occasions – in long dresses with stand-up collars or brightly decorated velvet waistcoats and heavy jewellery. On similar occasions men may sport baggy shirts and trousers, sleeveless jackets and wool or cotton robes. This outfit may be topped with either a skullcap or a high, tasselled felt hat resembling nothing so much as an elf’s hat.

Kazakh literature is based around heroic epics, many of which concern themselves with the 16th-century clashes between the Kazakhs and Kalmucks, and the heroic batyr (warriors) of that age. Apart from various equestrian sports, a favourite Kazakh pastime is aitys, which involves two people boasting about their own town, region or clan while running down the other’s, in verses full of puns and allusions to Kazakh culture. The person who fails to find a witty comeback loses.

Kazakhs adhere rather loosely to Islam. Reasons for this include the Kazakhs’ location on the fringe of the Muslim world and their traditionally nomadic lifestyle, which never sat well with central religious authority. Their earliest contacts with the religion, from the 16th century, came courtesy of wandering Sufi dervishes or ascetics. Many were not converted until the 19th century, and shamanism apparently coexisted with Islam even after conversion.

Having a longer history of Russian influence than other Central Asian peoples, and with international influences now flooding in thanks to Kazakhstan’s free-market economy and oil wealth, Kazakhs – in the cities at least – are probably Central Asia’s most cosmopolitan people. The women appear the most confident and least restricted by tradition in Central Asia – though the custom of bride-stealing (with or without her collusion) has not altogether disappeared in rural areas and the more Kazakh-dominated towns in Kazakhstan’s south. The 10 or so million Kazakhs have only recently become a majority in ‘their’ country, Kazakhstan.

To this day family and ancestry remain crucial to Kazakhs. ‘What zhuz do you belong to?’ is a common opening question. Most ethnic Kazakhs are members of one of the three zhuzes (the name literally means 'hundred'), broad tribal groupings: the Great Zhuz predominating in the southeast, including Almaty, the Middle Zhuz further north, including Astana, and the Junior Zhuz to the west. Within each zhuz are a number of tribes, known as taipa. Each taipa in turn comprises a number of clans, ru. It is important for each Kazakh to know their family tree back for seven generations on the male line. President Nazarbaev once described the knowledge of genealogy for the steppe Kazakh as akin to the compass for the sailor: a device which fixes their position. By tradition, marriage between individuals related over seven generations was forbidden. Traditional positions of authority included the hi, a wise man appointed to the role of arbiter by virtue of the respect he held in the community, and the batyr, or warrior. The heroic deeds of many Kazakh batyrs in their fights against their Dzhungar adversaries are commemorated in equestrian statues appearing right across Kazakhstan.

Two groups, considered to represent a steppe nobility, or 'white bone' (in contrast to the 'black bone' of ordinary Kazakhs), lay outside the system of zhuzes. The Tore, who traditionally bore the title of sultan, traced their lineage back to Genghis Khan himself. The Khodja were descendants of Arabian missionaries who had brought Islam to the area, and carried a spiritual authority. A less exalted group outside the zhuzes was the Tolengit, descendants of Dzhungar captives

The exact origins of the Kazakhs themselves are a muddle of fact, possibility and conjecture, based largely on oral history and legend. My favourite story is of a beautiful white steppe goose that turned into a princess and gave birth to the first Kazakh - kaz is Turkish for goose, ак means white. The most popular legend is of Alash, whose three sons established each of three Kazakh hordes.

Historians agree that the Kazakh people did not form until the mid-fifteenth century, when the great-grandsons of Genghis Khan, Janibek and Kerei, moved with their supporters to the western part of the Seven Rivers region of Kazakhstan. Their numbers increased over the years and the territory they controlled expanded. The name Kazakh came into use around this time, possibly derived from the Turkish word qaz, to wander - more likely, I must admit, than white goose. By the end of the fifteenth century the Kazakh khanate encompassed all of the area that is Kazakhstan today.

The next century saw the evolution of the three Kazakh hordes - known as Juzes - which survive to this day. The hordes were defined by geography rather than common ancestry, and gave stability and order to a vast and borderless territory. The Great Horde took the Seven Rivers region, the Middle Horde territory to the north as far as Siberia - using central Kazakhstan as summer pasture - while the Small Horde took the low and dry region west and north of the Aral Sea. Each spoke the same language, and today, despite the thousands of kilometres over which their territory stretches, there are no regional dialects and scarcely any difference in accent. The first question a modern Kazakh still asks of another is what horde he is from. But tribal rivalries have been exaggerated and misunderstood in the West, and while Kazakhs from the same horde feel an automatic affinity for one another, there is no hostility to somebody from one of the others.

'Our people have many epics and legends, oral testimony of historical events, but little physical evidence exists to corroborate them,' Krym said. 'And without this they are only legends.

The finds in the kurgans have radically changed the way in which scholars think about the ancient steppe nomads. Though in the popular imagination of the West they are still regarded as savage barbarians, all the evidence now points to the contrary. Nomad mastery of the horse around 1000 ВС was in itself a great technological leap forward, enabling mankind to travel long distances over short periods of time relatively effortlessly. The first horsemen were the Cimmerians, a mysterious nomadic race from the steppe north of the Caucasus, recruited by the Assyrians as mercenary cavalry as early as the eighth century ВС. The Cimmerians were pushed from the steppe by the Scythians (broadly speaking, anyone who called the steppe, or Sea of Grass, home was considered Scythian by the ancients), and the Golden Man would have been one of their leaders.

The Scythians of early classical antiquity, and their kinsmen the Sarmatians and Alans of late classical times, were an Aryan race of blond, blue-eyed nomads from the Central Asian steppe, who at their zenith roamed from the plains of modern Hungary to those of western, or possibly central China. By the sixth century ВС the Scythians had become one of the most militarily and politically powerful peoples in the world, masters of mobile warfare. Herodotus travelled to the northern shores of the Black Sea in the fifth century ВС to interview the descendants of the Scythians living on the westernmost edge of the nomads' world. He used the term 'barbarian' in his book, The Histories, to describe all non-Greeks who spoke the 'babble' of a foreign tongue. For him, the term had no pejorative meaning.

The Scythians were greatly feared in the ancient world. In the sixth century ВС, after the Persians defeated them in battle, their queen, Tomiris, waited nine years to take a terrible revenge. The Persian emperor, Cyrus II, was tricked into leading an army 200,000 strong into a Scythian ambush. They were slaughtered mercilessly and not a single man survived to take news of the disaster back to the Persian capital. Instead, Queen Tomiris sent back the severed head of Cyrus sown into a leather bag full of blood from his slain warriors: 'Be satiated now with the blood you thirsted for and of which you could never have enough.'

In time, the Scythians - including the Sarmatians and Alans - were driven west by the Usuns, whose culture had prospered for 4,oooyears. They in turn were pushed out by the Huns,Turkic people of different racial stock who looked like Mongols and who are the direct racial ancestors of modern-day Kazakhs. It was to protect themselves from the Huns that the Chinese built the Great Wall. Under their leader Attila (Little Father), the Huns also swept across Central Asia and into Europe, and brought about the collapse of an already shaky Roman empire. But again, they were far from barbaric or primitive - the Huns developed a complex bureaucracy, codified laws, introduced taxes, spread literacy and were the first to develop a feudal land system. Attila's death in AD 453 led to the disintegration of the Hun empire and plunged the steppe into chaos.

To the city dwellers of Athens, and later Rome, the endless waves of attacking horsemen from beyond the known world came to engender terror. The steppe seemed to be an evil cauldron periodically unleashing forces bent on destroying 'civilization' - in time Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns and Mongols swarmed out of the Sea of Grass, overturning everything settled people had created. As the nomads built no great cities or lasting monuments, they were seen as savage and primitive, destroying all and creating nothing. Even today mention of the Mongol army of Genghis Khan suggests mindless slaughter and rapine.

In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins