Monday, November 5, 2007


[WARNING: this post is relatively academic in nature!! J ]

Kazakhstan is a relatively new country, achieving independence only in 1991. One of the fascinating questions (for me, at least) is how people and the government of the country have shifted from accepting a common Soviet identity to a new vision of what it means to be Kazakh. Within a very short space of time, the citizens of the Kazakh SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic) had to re-imagine themselves as citizens of a country that had never before existed in the modern sense of statehood. To complicate the matter even further, ethnic Kazakhs did not even comprise a majority of the citizenry. According to the 1989 Soviet census, the population of the region was about 40% Kazakh and 38% Russian. How, then, would it be possible to create a new Kazakh identity that validated the country’s existence? An obvious solution for the government was to draw upon the history of different groups in the region, and to create historic sites as well as to construct monuments and markers throughout the country. [In case you are wondering, this is an abridged version of a section of my Master’s thesis and will likely show up in the dissertation. It’s definitely a little more readable in this format—omitting such references as “Hooson’s seminal work on effective national territory” and “Agnew’s imperative not to view the state as a container of a homogenous society”. So now you know a large portion of what I do, without all the extraneous verbiage!]

Tamgaly-Tas is a great example of a site established by the government that emphasizes modern-day Kazakhstan’s connection with the far-reaches of history. It is located in the middle of nowhere—as I described in a previous post, it took over an hour to drive between 20 and 30 kilometers to the site. There is also nothing at the site—no souvenir shops, no restaurant, no place to buy anything. The only amenity is what was described to me as a ‘primitive bathroom’. That statement is an exaggeration (the word bathroom suggests that there is some sort of plumbing—which does not apply to a thatched-roof hut with a rough hole cut in the wooden floor. Outhouse is a better word). I do not want to suggest, though, that it was impossible to spend money at the site. When we arrived, we were met by several men on horseback. For about $10, you could take a horseback ride around the site and across the steppe. Kazakhs were historically a nomadic people, and horses have always been an important part of the culture. It is truly a beautiful sight to see someone riding a horse across the steppe—a National Geographic photo brought to life.

As we drove closer to Tamgaly-Tas, I began to understand more about the decision to use brilliant turquoise blue and goldenrod-yellow in the Kazakh flag. It was a beautifully clear day, without a cloud in the sky. The colors perfectly reflected the colors of the flag, from the blue sky to the yellow of the grassland vegetation. Driving across the steppe—on a path that had first been built for the merchants of the Silk Road—it looked as if the sky was reaching down to the ground. When we finally stopped and got off of the bus, the first thing I noticed was the air. It was the first time that I could truly breathe since arriving in Kazakhstan. The air in Almaty is incredibly polluted—so much so that I have developed a (second hand) smoker’s cough. In Tamgaly-Tas, the air was incredibly clean and pure, laced with a faint spice from the grasses—a wonderful scent.

The site at Tamgaly-Tas was established more than 3,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age by the Sakha people—or Scythians. The religion at the time was based on the worship of Mithras, the sun-god. However, this god was replaced by Tengri, the sky-god. The petroglyphs are part of a sacred site, located where the gently rolling plains of the steppe abruptly rise up in a series of low hills that have large areas of exposed slate (perfect for petroglyphs). The inhabitants of the area viewed Tengri as the originator of the universe, to be worshipped by all animals and people. Tengriism was an animist religion, in which shamans played a key role in bridging the gap between the heavens and earth. The petroglyphs at Tamgaly-Tas reflect this religion, depicting both mythical and real animals, the creation of the universe by Tengri, and shamanic ceremonies (including one of the most important, that of sexual relations between the shaman and an animal—usually a bull—which was seen as a sacred and desirable event joining the animal and human worlds. The site is situated so that on key days during the year (vernal and autumnal equinoxes, summer and winter solstices) very specific and sacred areas receive direct sunlight. Ceremonies were held to celebrate these events, and their locations are marked by sacred trees where people still tie white ribbons to mark their prayers.

It was very easy to see why the worship of Tengri might have replaced the worship of Mithras—the sky in the steppe is incredibly vast, and dominates the visual landscape. It seems to be a much more dominant power than the sun, and the light and shadows take on a life of their own. From the top of the escarpment, the steppe fades away into the horizon—very similar to the way the ocean shimmers off unendingly into the distance.

Even after the time of the Sakha people, the site continued to be used for ceremonial purposes. There are several graves from the Andronov period, as well as a burial kurgan (barrow) which would have marked the grave of an important personage within the tribe. The graves are all situated so that the individual’s feet pointed directly to the location of the sunrise at the time of their death. Women were buried facing the steppe, and men faced the sacred sites.

Two thousand years later, these same hills were part of the famed Silk Road. Markers (which have since been reconstructed) at the peak of each hill pointed travelers toward the main road which would eventually take them west to Europe or east to China.

I found it interesting that most people had never heard of Tamgaly-Tas until very recently (the last five or ten years). Although people knew of the existence of Tamgaly-Tas, it was not ‘discovered’ until the middle of the 20th century, when a Russian scholar explored the area. When I asked why the site was discovered so recently—and by a Russian, no less—I was told that the Soviet government did not view these to be appropriate cultural artifacts and preferred to forget their existence. More recently, though, the Kazakh government has cooperated with UNESCO to document and preserve the site. It is now an officially recognized World Heritage Site. In a relatively short space of time, the government has created a popular tourist site that celebrates the long-standing history of those who inhabited the vast steppes of Kazakhstan. Additionally, the site connects Kazakhstan to the Silk Road, even though most of the trade routes were further to the south. [As a note—the Caspian Sea, which borders Kazakhstan to the west, is named for the Silk Road. Caspian is a Persian word for silk, so it is the ‘Silk Sea’.] It was a remarkable opportunity to see such a beautiful place, one that tells so much about both ancient and modern Kazakhstan.

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