The Kyrgyz People of Central Asia:

A Brief History

    "In the dim past there were once kirk kiz--forty maidens--who came with child by a red dog (in other versions, by the foam of Issyk-kul, the Warm Lake); from these have descended the various Kirghiz tribes." --Edward Murray: `With the Nomads of Central Asia,' The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. LXIX, No. one, January 1936

Kyrgyz musicians, Osh.

    "The name Kyrgyz derives from the Turkic kyrk plus yz, meaning `40 clans.'" --Martha Brill Olcott: Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan: Country Studies, Department of the Army, 1997

   One summer day in 1999, my interpreter, Guljeke Asanova, and I stopped for lunch at a `national cafe' in Bishkek. It was essentially a yurta set up to serve traditional Kyrgyz food. (The tables, of course, weren't from the nomadic past--nor was the bust of Lenin.) "I feel like I am in village," she said wistfully over spicy noodles (laghman), and then offered a friendly warning: "Kyrgyz are very patient people," she said. "Very patient. But do not push us! When we reach breaking point..." she trailed off, then added assertively: "We are barbarians! We cannot help it. It's in our genes." From viewpoints both Russian and Chinese, the Turkic-Mongol Kyrgyz, along with all the formerly nomadic peoples of Central Asia, are indeed barbarians.

Kyrgyz map.

   Their national epic, Manas, celebrates heroic deeds of a fierce mounted warrior culture: "a manifesto from our forefathers," observes renowned Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov. Other accounts of them suggest a gentle pastoral people. But as Stuart Legg writes in The Barbarians of Asia (Dorset Press, New York, 1970), the shepherd and warrior have been one and the same in Central Asia since Scythian times (circa 700 B.C.): "War went hand in hand with pastoralism as an integral part of steppe life: and its objectives were nearly always those of dispossession, displacement, plunder." In Far Eastern Beginnings (the Viking Press, New York, 1976), Olivia Vlahos writes: "Sixty years or so ago, the Kyrgyz, known to the Russians as Black Kyrgyz, were awesome raiders. Even neighbors and close kinsmen, the Kazakhs of the lower steppes, for instance, were not exempt from their depradations...The Kyrgyz acknowledged no hereditary aristocracy. Clans were not ranked as among the Kazakhs or among the Mongols: fame and honor followed personal achievement and certain qualities of character. The man of extensive and industrious kin, of many herds and a personality at once forceful and spiritual, of good counsel and common sense--such a man was sure to enjoy lasting reputation and influence among his peers."

   The first record of the Kyrgyz was made by Chinese chroniclers, who commended their skill as fighters and traders. (Kyrgyz acrobats and jugglers also merited Chinese praise.) The Kyrgyz may have been among the `barbarians' whose incursions, in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C., prompted the Chinese to build the original Great Wall. "In the T'ang (618-907 A.D.) annals," writes Ms. Vlahos, "the Kyrgyz are described as tall, red of face and of hair, green of eye. Black hair, adds the chronicler, was considered an evil omen among them..." In 1992, more than a millennium later, American journalist Georgie Anne Geyer was told by Kyrgyz historian Tynchtikbek Tchorev: "The natural Kyrgyz had blue eyes, fair hair...with European and Mongol features."

   The ancestral home of the Kyrgyz is believed to be in southern Siberia around the upper Yenisei river. Like most of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia, their history is one of extensive migration, both for better grazing and in defensive or offensive movement against, or in reaction to, competing tribespeople. In 840 A.D., the Kyrgyz were on the offensive: they swept down into central Mongolia and destroyed the Uighur Khanate on the Orkhon River. Less than a century later, the Kyrgyz were violently routed from the same region by the Khitan Khanate. Gradual Kyrgyz movement into present-day Kyrgyzstan likely followed such retreats, though just when is subject of conjecture. Some sources suggest the Kyrgyz may have come there as early as the 10th century, while others say as late as the 17th.

Kyrgyz flag.

   The Kyrgyz may have been well entrenched in the Tien Shan mountains by the advent of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century: "While the Kyrgyz of the Yenesi courted the Mongols," writes Ms. Vlahos, "the Kyrgyz of the Tien Shan stood them off and successfully, too. Kyrgyz began to fight for their identity so fiercely that they came in time to be known as `the wild lions of Mogulistan.'" After the epoch of Genghis Khan and his heirs, alongside whom many Kyrgyz fought in alliance, the Kyrgyz would contend with the armies of Tamerlane (14th century) and, in the 17th century, invading Kalmuks. In the 18th century, the Kyrgyz came under the Uzbek Kokand Khanate, and by this time Islam was widespread among them. Ostensibly Sunni Muslims, it is often observed that Islam has rarely been as fervent among the Kyrgyz as among some of their more settled Turkic kinsmen. Elements of pre-Islamic Kyrgyz religion--shamanic, animistic and totemic--never entirely disappeared.

Great Seal of the Kyrgyz Republic.

   In 1876, czarist Russian troops defeated the Kokand Khanate and occupied northern Kyrgyzstan. "The last determined stand of any folk in Central Asia against the advancing Russian conquest was made by the Kyrgyz of the Alai Valley, under the famous woman Kurban-Jan-Datka, known as the `Empress of Alai,'" wrote Anna Louise Strong in 1930 (The Road to the Grey Pamir). In belated appreciation, an image of the Empress now appears on a Kyrgyz bank note.

   The late 19th century saw extensive Russian and Ukrainian immigration into northern Kyrgyzstan. A 1916 rebellion against Slavic domination was met with harsh reprisals; a third of the Kyrgyz population fled to China. Soviet domination followed, and in 1924 present-day Kyrgyzstan was designated the Kara-Kyrgyz [`Black Kyrgyz'] Autonomous Region. Soviet pressure to collectivize and settle the nomadic Kyrgyz changed the cultural landscape of their mountainous land as Stalin offered it official Republic status in 1936.

'Kyrgyz native costumes'- Soviet stamp, 1963.

   "The Kyrgyz Socialist Republic," writes Martha Brill Olcott, "was until 1990 one of the poorest, quietest, and most conservative of all the Soviet republics." While Independence in 1991 brought hope, it did not, in many respects, change things: "Of all these troubled nations," Collin Thubron writes of the Kyrgyz Republic in The Lost Heart of Asia, "this was the most remote: an Alpine sanctuary of less than four and a half million people."