Odyssey Illustrated History of Kazakhstan: Introduction

This is the full introduction from Odyssey’s November 2014 title An Illustrated History of Kazakhstan: Asia’s Heartland in Context [ISBN 9789622178526] by Jeremy Tredinnick.

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The Golden Man was discovered during excavation of a large kurgan (burial mound) in the Issyk Region near Almaty in 1969 and is dated to the 4-3rd C BCE

Telling the “story” of Kazakhstan through the ages illustrates its many significant roles in human history: it served as a fulcrum for early human migration throughout Eurasia and the wider world; it was one of the most important centres of bronze metallurgy during the Bronze Age; its steppes were the crucible for Iron Age nomadic warrior societies that would change the world order; and its southern cities were vital links along the many trade routes of the classical Silk Road of antiquity.

In more recent times, the territory of modern-day Kazakhstan was home to successive waves of Turkic peoples who subsequently spread out to occupy vast regions and new countries stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to eastern Siberia; it was a vital central portion of the great Mongol Empire; and was seen by Imperial Russia as intrinsic to its empire-building plans. As a republic of the Soviet Union, the Kazakh territory suffered many atrocities but none more heinous than the use of its eastern steppe as a testing site for hundreds of atomic bombs during the Cold War – a period of appalling suffering for its people that left a traumatic legacy that lingers on, and which led directly to Kazakhstan becoming one of the leading voices in the global movement for nuclear disarmament.

Today, as a relatively young and dynamic nation Kazakhstan is mirroring the significance of its past: its natural resources are exported to a number of neighbouring countries, it has become a hugely important strategic partner for all the major world powers, it is a regional leader and role model within Central Asia, and is a pioneering member country on a new “Silk Road” of intercontinental overland trade. The future looks promising, but as Kazakhstan drives towards modernization and progress, it is fully aware of the importance of understanding and learning from its past, in order to ensure old mistakes are not made anew, and to maintain the myriad cultural links that, through time and across continents, have been woven together to form the rich fabric of Kazakhstan’s society today.

This book represents an opportunity to bring together the discoveries and conclusions of a variety of academics from a range of disciplines that span epochs, each chapter detailing a significant period in the history of Kazakhstan and the broader Central Asia region, but together providing a balanced and comprehensive chronicle of human existence stretching from hundreds of thousands of years ago until the modern day. In the process, we hope to dispel a few myths, put right some common but erroneous preconceptions, and present some little-known but fascinating nuggets of information that will help the reader to appreciate more fully this complex but richly rewarding part of the world.

For example, in the early chapters we learn of the significance a changing climate had on the initial movement of man’s evolutionary ancestors, then humans themselves, as the Eurasian landmass dried out and humid, swampy savannahs were replaced by sweeping grasslands more conducive to Stone Age man. Human cultures in the Stone Age and Bronze Age were defined by their environments, and when that changed they were forced to either adapt or migrate, a process that rewarded creativity (imagine the huge advantage the early metallurgists had with their copper and bronze tools), created interaction between communal groups and allowed new cultures to blossom.

The origins of the horse-borne nomadic warrior tribes that emerged during the Iron Age has been debated for centuries, but new archaeological evidence is beginning to unravel the mystery, shedding light on the vital role played by the broad Eurasian forest-steppe belt, across which tribes spread and communicated in both directions. The earliest known “Scythian” burial mound, or kurgan, is Arzhan, situated in Russian Siberia’s Tuva Republic beside a tributary of the Yenisei River and dating to the ninth or early eighth century BCE. Kazakhstan’s earliest excavated kurgan is located at the Shilikty burial complex in the Zaysan region of East Kazakhstan and is dated 810-750 BCE, but kurgan sites far to the west in the Pontic Steppe date from about a century later, leading to the conclusion that the epicentre of the equestrian warrior elite societies was in the Tuvan and Altai region, from where it spread out – albeit swiftly – as far as the Black Sea and Crimea.

Cultural exchange – and to a degree a blending of bloodlines – took place throughout northern Eurasia during the Bronze and Iron Ages. A common and often visceral argument throughout Central Asia and the many ethnic groups that populate the region is the ethnic root of their predecessor tribes and states. Were they Mongoloid or Caucasian? Modern genetics is helping to clear up some of these issues, but frankly the question is moot, given the nature of Central Asia’s human interaction over the last half-dozen millennia, characterized as it was by massive migrations, tribal movements and conquering armies.

The Scythians (and Saka) are now considered to have been mainly Europoid (Caucasian) in feature, but with a progressive mingling of Mongoloid traits the farther east they lived, until by central Mongolia the nomadic tribes were purely Asiatic. Repeated forced migrations and invasions by tribes from the east – starting with the Wusun in the second century BCE – has resulted in a genetic mix that today shows incredible diversity in facial type throughout Central Asia, and this can only be a good thing in the modern world of multiracialism and multiculturalism.

What is most relevant from the Scythian period is not ethnicity but cultural connectivity – environmental conditions were the main driver for cultural and societal development, and thus it was that the steppes and mountain foothills from the Black Sea to Lake Baikal and from the Siberian taiga forests to the Tien Shan became home to tribal groups who were otherwise unrelated but who followed a remarkably similar way of life and were therefore grouped together as though they were a single entity by the contemporary states that bordered their lands, such as the Achaemenids, the Greeks and the Zhou dynasties of China.

The Scythians’ shared way of life was based on nomadic pastoralism – the breeding of livestock, in particular horses and sheep, but also goats, cattle and camels – that required frequent movement to new pastureland. The term “nomad” is one that is often misinterpreted, thought to mean that its proponents simply wandered the land looking for good grazing. This could not be further from the truth: the true nomads of Central Asia had well-organized and seasonally determined patterns of movement that took them from rich summer pastures to winter camps, where they hunkered down to survive the extremes of that season.

Each tribe used its own traditional pastures and camps, moving along well-known migratory routes between them, and they would defend these lands vigorously from encroachment. Depending on a group’s geographical location, nomadism could involve moving great distances across flat steppe, or making much shorter journeys between high alpine meadows and lower piedmonts (in the mountain regions of Tien Shan or the Altai), a form known as vertical nomadism.

Other false perceptions regarding the Central Asian nomads include the idea that their way of life represented merely a stage of human development between hunter-gatherer societies and the sedentary agriculturalists that followed. This has been categorically disproven; as Sören Stark and Karen Rubinson write in their introduction to Nomads and Networks: “On the contrary, nomadism should be seen as a highly sophisticated subsistence strategy that coexisted as an alternative to the sedentary cultures of agricultural and urban societies.”

Ongoing archaeological exploration and greater research into ancient literature has also shown that the nomads were not the uncouth barbarians so often depicted, but in fact operated under a highly developed socio-political system, did in fact practise some agriculture where conditions merited it, and created an artistic tradition – the Scytho-Siberian animalistic style – that produced some of the most refined and beautiful metalwork of the age.

The relationship between nomadic groups and the sedentary communities and urban dwellers along the ancient trading routes was also far more complex than many imagine. Interaction between the towns and cities and the nomadic warrior clans could of course be violent, but more often it was based on mutual trading of goods, or on an overlord-vassal basis, whereby the nomads ensured peace and safety from attack in return for tributes in the form of both essential goods and luxury items. It was a symbiotic association for many centuries, especially during the golden period of the Silk Road, when southern Kazakhstan boasted dozens of major trading centres, from caravanserais and small towns to large, opulent cities.

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Crop of one of the 12 specially produced maps in the Odyssey Illustrated History of Kazakhstan

The significance of the ancient cities in the territory of southern Kazakhstan should not be overlooked. Long thought of as a region full of nomadic tribes but devoid of any noteworthy settled civilization, only in recent decades has it become fully clear just how important the trading routes of the northern Tien Shan and the banks of the Syr Darya were to the merchant caravans that plied their wares between East and West. Cities such as Taraz, Ispidzhab, Otrar, Sauran and Yangikent were major hubs of commerce and civilization, rivalling the power and influence of more globally renowned cities like Samarkand and Bukhara. The era of the Turkic Khaganate and the Karakhanids (6th-13th centuries CE) was their heyday, when cities boomed under the protection of nomadic federations and everyone profited from the immense trade passing through Central Asia between the Mediterranean, northern Europe, the subcontinent and dynastic China.


Kipchat helmet and war mask of the 13th C

The coming of Genghis Khan’s hordes at the start of the 13th century heralded rapid and momentous change in Central Asia, but while the destructive power of the Mongol military forces was trumpeted across the world, less well known was the fact that if a city or region’s inhabitants offered no resistance, acquiesced and paid obeisance to the “Unbending Lord”, then Genghis would hold off his plundering troops and forbid pillaging, sometimes even allowing a city’s ruler to remain in power. Such was the case for much of Zhetisu (Semirechye) – although the Syr Darya cities fared much worse, foolishly standing against the all-conquering Mongols.



Statue of a mounted Mongol warrior


The Mongols did much damage, including the incidental destruction of much of the sophisticated agricultural and urban network of southern Kazakhstan over the coming centuries, but they also created the foundation for future states based on the concept of a strong, centralized power. The minting of coins helped to facilitate trade, which continued and remained robust in the region despite the opening of the Maritime Silk Route between Asia and Europe, but a pattern of internecine warfare between a variety of clans and rulers all claiming Genghisid descent took its toll, resulting in the breakaway of two sultans – Kerei and Janibek – from Abulkhair Khan’s “Uzbek” horde in the mid-15th century, and the creation of a new state: the Kazakh Khanate.

As with so many of its predecessors, the Kazakh Khanate was a confederation of many tribes, both Turkic and Mongol, and during the height of its power it controlled almost all of modern-day Kazakhstan’s territory and substantial regions beyond, both north and south. The Kazakhs boasted diplomatic relations with neighbouring states in all directions, from Imperial Russia to Mughal India, from the Qing Dynasty to the Ottoman Empire. However, internal power struggles once again were an affliction, and the ascendancy of the Dzungar Empire in the lands to the immediate east, followed by their invasion of Kazakh territory and the “Years of Great Distress” in the early 18th century, drove the Kazakhs to seek help from the mighty Russian Empire, becoming a vassal state and thereby sealing their doom as an independent nation for more than 200 years to come.

The colonization of Kazakh lands by Imperial Russia initially seemed relatively benign, but its insidious nature and the deliberate corrosion of Kazakh cultural beliefs inevitably led to insurgencies and outright rebellion. These were mercilessly put down by the far stronger Russian forces, but when, at the start of the 20th century, Tsarist Russia imploded and the Communist Soviet Union was born, there was a brief moment of hope that an independent Kazakh republic might also now be possible.

This was not to be; Russian Central Asia was split into Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs), and the Kazakh SSR was to suffer through decades of Soviet “experimentation”, with misguided collectivization schemes that destroyed the traditional Kazakh way of life, forced mass relocations of numerous ethnic groups from every region of Soviet Russia, purges of “undesirables” and the creation of horrific prison labour camps. The infamous “Virgin and Idle Lands Project” that caused the shrinking and virtual destruction of the once mighty Aral Sea is now considered one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters, while the egregious testing of atomic bombs in the eastern Kazakh steppe has been condemned on a global scale.

It is worth noting, however, that despite the deplorable list above, the Soviet era did also allow for a blossoming of Kazakh art, literature and music, while industry, science and education were all developed to a relatively high degree. Thus, when in 1991 an independent Republic of Kazakhstan was finally declared, the country’s immense wealth in natural resources, combined with its multiracial, literate population, gave hope that it could make a successful transition to becoming a sovereign, democratic state.

Kazakhstan’s first decade was a difficult one, with the creation of a free market economy facing many obstacles and pitfalls. However, President Nazarbayev’s strategy of focusing on fast economic progress while maintaining strong centralized power – to ensure political stability – proved to be astute and successful. Substantial foreign investment was attracted to the country’s phenomenal energy and mining sectors, and since the turn of the 21st century its modernization and economic progress has made Kazakhstan one of the world’s fastest developing countries.

Having succeeded in building a strong economy, President Nazarbayev and his government have begun to accelerate the process of democratization that is essential to the country’s aspirations on the global stage. In 2012 the president set out his Kazakhstan-2050 Strategy, designed to make it one of the 30 most advanced nations in the world by the year 2050. This is an ambitious dream, but one that can become reality if the people of Kazakhstan draw strength from their past, learn the lessons of history and fulfil their great potential.


The dome of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan

>> Click here to view book details for An Illustrated History of Kazakhstan: Asia’s Heartland in Context [ISBN 9789622178526] by Jeremy Tredinnick.

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