LOCATION: Kazakstan; China; Uzbekistan; Turkmenistan; Tajikistan.
POPULATION: More than 8 million
LANGUAGES: Kazak; Russian
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)
For centuries the Kazak people were nomads. They have traditionally divided themselves into three territorial zhüz (tribal unions, or hordes): Greater, Central, and Lesser. The Greater Horde occupied much of what is now southern Kazakstan. The Central Horde occupied the northern and eastern parts of modern Kazakstan. The Lesser Horde occupied the land between the Ural and Volga Rivers.
Since the Kazaks were nomads, during the 1800s it was possible for large numbers of Slavic settlers to move into and seize the land inhabited by the Kazaks. Many of these were ethnic Russians. Eventually, the modern land of Kazakstan became part of the Soviet Union. Kazakstan became an independent nation in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. It changed its name from Kazakhstan to Kazakstan (dropping the h ) in 1996.
The Kazak homeland covers more than 1 million square miles (2.6 million square kilometers). Approximately 80 percent of the area consists of long plains and plateaus. Strong winds often sweep through these flat lands. The only mountains are the Tien Shan and Altai ranges in the southeast and east.
The climate in Kazakstan varies greatly. Some areas become bitterly cold in the winter and intensely hot during the summer. The massive Kara Kum Desert ("black sand") occupies much of central Kazakstan. It is the world's fourth largest desert. Much of it extends into other nations of Central Asia.
There are presently between 8 and 9 million Kazaks. About 80 percent live in Kazakstan, with the others living in China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Kazaks make up only 42 percent of the population in Kazakstan. Ethnic Russians make up about 38 percent of the population. The remainder are Germans, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, and Tatars (ethnic group living in Russia).
Kazak is a central Turkic language. Modern Kazak has many words borrowed from Russian, Arabic, Persian, and other languages. There are three primary dialects that correspond to the three historic Kazak hordes. Written Kazak, which dates back only to the late nineteenth century, is based on the dialect of the Central Horde.
Examples of the Kazak language include words for traditional occupations, like balykshi (fisher) and eginshi (grain-grower). Words for animals that played an important part in the traditional way of life include at or jïlqï (horse), qazaqi qoy (fat-tailed sheep), ayïr tüye (Bactrian camel), and yeshki (goat).
A traditional Kazak greeting that is still sometimes used in rural areas literally translates as: "Are your livestock and your soul still healthy?" A traditional Kazak wish for good fortune is literally translated as: "May God give you one thousand sheep with lambs, eighty camels, and eight married sons."
Oral tradition forms the basis of Kazak folklore. Over the centuries, sagas were passed down by memory from one generation to the next. Most of the stories are heroic epics where the batir (warrior) and his trusty horse save the clan and its livestock from danger. There are also stories about Alash, the legendary first Kazak.
The most famous heroic stories are Koblandy-Batir , Er Sain , and Er Targyn , all of which are from the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The most famous poetic epics are Kozy Korpesh–Bain Sulu and Aiman–Sholpan . The most famous Kazak love story is Kiz-Jhibek , which contains historic information about Kazak betrothal and marriage customs and ceremonies.
The folklore of the "White Swan" explains the creation of the Kazak people. One version tells of an orphan shepherd who dreamed one night of a white swan coming from the sky singing and dancing before him. The next day, his dream came true. Unfortunately, a windstorm appeared from nowhere and scattered all his sheep. The swan rescued him and helped him find his sheep. To the shepherd's surprise, the swan turned into a beautiful lady. The two were married, and together produced a number of children who became the first Kazaks. A similar story tells of a general who was rescued in the desert by a white swan. It turned into a beautiful lady. They married and had a son who grew up, married, and had three sons—the ancestors of the three largest tribes of Kazak.
Most Kazaks are Sunni Muslim. The Kazaks were introduced to Islam through contact with the Tatars. Tatars traditionally were not as conservative as other Muslim peoples.
Because the Kazaks were wanderers who depended on livestock for their survival, animals were at the core of the ancient Kazak religion. Until the mid-1800s, elements of this ancient animist belief system (including shamanism and ancestor worship) were still widely practiced among many Kazak Muslims.
The Republic of Kazakstan celebrates the following national holidays: New Year's Day (January 1), International Women's Day (March 8), Nawruz (the day of the spring equinox around March 21), May Day (May 1), Victory Day (May 9), Independence Day (October 25), and Democracy Day (December 16). To celebrate Nawruz, families will take kuji, a meal made of seven ingredients including beef, barley, wheat, and milk products.
The Kazak also celebrate religious holidays. December 10 (Islamic calendar) is the Corban Festival. The word corban in Arabic means "sacrificial offering." When the day comes, the Kazak kill oxen or sheep as a sacrifice, entertain guests, and present gifts to their friends or relatives.
The Festival of Fast-Breaking (Lesser Bairam) is the day ending the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. According to Islamic tradition, in September (Islamic calendar) every year, every adult Kazak should abstain from food and drink from daybreak to sunset. The beginning and the end of the month of fast depend on the new moon being visible. When the fast is broken, there are festive activities in a lively atmosphere.
Kazaks typically have large birthday parties with many relatives and friends. Celebrations are held for a birth, a baby's fortieth day of life, the first day of school, and graduation. Voting and driving privileges are granted at eighteen years of age.
Weddings are very important in Kazak society, not only for honoring the married couple, but also as an event to assemble an extended family or clan. The traditional wedding is called the toi . In the past, arranged marriages were common. The payment of kalym (a dowry) was expected upon betrothal.
When a person dies, the horse he or she used during his or her lifetime is not allowed to be ridden any longer. The horse tail is cut after the master's death, and the horse is killed one year later as a sacrifice. When nomadic Kazaks migrate to new pasture lands, the hat and clothes of the deceased are put on horseback and moved with the family.
Hospitality is an important part of Kazak culture. A traveler, no matter what his or her nationality, will be put up for the night in any Kazak's home. Proverbs recognize Kazak hospitality. For example, one states: "As long as there are Kazak on the way, you may travel for a year without a cent or a grain in your bag." A host will be offended if a guest does not accept offers of refreshments. Asking a guest questions is considered bad manners. Guests in a Kazak home are allowed to rest and are given fermented mare's milk to drink. The guests sit cross-legged on a felt rug. They must not straighten their legs. It is considered impolite to take off one's shoes or to point.
Long-separated friends usually embrace when meeting again. They talk about the well-being of their livestock first, then the families greet each other.
Kazak men and women are skilled horseback riders; riding therefore plays an important role in their festivals.
At one time, the nomadic Kazaks lived in yurts, cone-shaped tents of white felt stretched over a framework of wooden poles. Yurts are light and easy to assemble, dismantle, and transport. Today, yurts are only used as temporary shelters by shepherds in remote, seasonal pastures.
The modern Kazak home is typically an apartment in the city or a permanent single dwelling in rural areas. To keep their homes clean, Kazaks always remove their shoes upon entering. Kazak interior design emphasizes the use of stucco walls and artwork as well as ornate carpets.
The average urban Kazak family has two children. The typical rural family has three or four. By tradition, every Kazak is supposed to know the names of his or her ancestors going back seven generations.
According to custom, a Kazak woman is supposed to compose her own wedding song before getting married. A popular tradition at weddings, anniversaries, and holidays is the kyz-kuu (girl chase). A kyz-kuu is a lighthearted event in which a man on horseback chases a woman on horseback and tries to catch her in order to steal a kiss. The woman tries to flee. She may even use a small horsewhip to keep the man or his horse away.
Before 1950, wealthy men and nobles were polygynous (had more than one wife). Now they practice monogamy. Men and women share authority in the family. Each spouse performs the tasks required of them to maintain their household. As soon as a young man has grown up and married, he leaves his parents and receives a part of the property from his father. The family property will ultimately be inherited by the youngest son.
In the past, if a husband died, his widow had to marry her brother-in-law or another member of the clan. Although a married woman had no right to ask for divorce, a man was allowed to abandon his wife at any time. Nowadays, according to the new laws, Kazak women are free to marry and to divorce.
Kazaks like to wear boots with a pair of felt stockings in winter. By the late 1990s, some women in rural areas still wore the traditional dress, but most young women and men wore modern, Western-style clothes.
Young people living in towns dress much like school children everywhere, and carry backpacks to school.
A unique Kazak culinary custom is the dastarkhan, a feast for special occasions consisting primarily of meat dishes and dairy products. For a dastarkhan, an entire animal (usually a sheep) is slaughtered. The oldest member of the family gets the honor of carving the head and serving the family. The various parts of the animal symbolize desired traits for those eating them. For example, children are often served the ears as a symbol of being better listeners. Someone who is served the tongue will speak more eloquently. The person who receives the eye should seek wisdom.
Most food comes from livestock. There are a variety of milk products, including cheese, butter, and boiled milk. In spring or summer, the herders pour mare's milk into a leather bag, stir it frequently, and wait for it to ferment. The final product is a semitransparent sour milk wine, a favorite beverage in summer. The Kazak eat a lot of mutton, mostly boiled in water and eaten without silverware. Horse meat is also popular. Kuirdak is a dish prepared from a freshly slaughtered horse, sheep, or cow and consists of the animal's liver, heart, kidneys, and other organs cut into pieces, boiled in oil, and served with onions and pepper.
The Kazak educational system consists of kindergarten (not required), secondary school (eleven years), higher education institute (four to five years), graduate research program (two years), and postgraduate program (three years). There are also three-year colleges for training to become a professional such as a lawyer, pharmacist, or business manager.
In the past, children of Kazaks who practiced nomadism lived in boarding schools in small towns during the school year. Today, most live with their parents in villages and cities during the school year. For those children whose families do not live in a village or town, there are mobile primary schools. The teacher visits the yurt (the cone-shaped tent dwelling) and teaches the children on the spot.
Higher education carries much prestige, and parents strongly encourage children to earn their diplomas. Kazakstan has more than sixty institutions of higher learning.
The ancient Kazak homeland has produced numerous talented musicians and singers. Music is a part of everyday Kazak life. It is played for military expeditions, weddings, funerals, parties, and games. Almost every Kazak knows how to sing and play a musical instrument by ear.
A traditional form of Kazak music is the sazgen, a folk music quintet that includes traditional string and percussion instruments. The most popular folk instrument is the dombra, which has two strings and is played by plucking. Other traditional instruments include the sybyzgy and uran (wind instruments), the dangyra and dabyl (percussion instruments), and the sherter and kobyz (stringed instruments).
The fifteenth-century poetry of Asan Kaigy, and the seventeenth-century poems of Zhyrau and Dosmambet are highly revered among the Kazak people. The founder of modern Kazak literature was the humanist and poet Abai Ibragim Kunanbayev (1845–1904). Prominent Kazak writers during the Soviet years (1917–91) included Zhambyl Zhabaev, Saken Seifullin, Mailin, Ilias Dzansugurov, Sabit Mukanov, and Mukhtar Auezov.
During the Soviet years (1917–91), many Kazaks worked on large, state-run farms growing cotton. A very high birth rate among the Kazaks during the 1980s has led to higher unemployment today. This has caused bitterness among young Kazaks.
Playing soccer is popular among Kazaks in the warmer months, and hockey is popular during the winter. The national sport of Kazakstan is Kazak-style wrestling, which is similar to judo.
In the country, horse racing and other horse events are common. Among the Kazaks living in China, "Snatching the Lamb" (diaoyang) is a popular game played during festivals. A respected elder puts a headless lamb carcass on the grass. Five to eight horsemen, riding their horses at full gallop, try to bend down and grab the lamb with one hand. The winner is the first horseman who brings the lamb to a designated place.
Although the risk of an avalanche is fairly high, skiing in the Tien Shan Mountains is popular. The slopes have received international attention as a future site for expert and world-class skiing. Skiers are flown by helicopter to the tops of slopes, from which they make their descent.
City dwellers often spend the weekends with their families in recreational parks, which can be found in almost any Kazak town. Urban Kazaks frequently go to the movies or watch videos.
A popular Kazak pastime is the itys, a formal or informal competition of wit between two singers. During the itys, each singer plays the dombra (a two-stringed instrument) and cleverly makes up the lyrics as he or she sings. This requires a rich knowledge of the Kazak language. Usually the singer will brag about aspects of his or her hometown or region and make fun of the other person's. The loser is the first person who cannot sing a comeback quickly enough.
In recent years, there has been a revival in Kazak folk art and crafts, including carpet and jewelry making. Collecting stamps and small pins are also popular hobbies.
Since the 1970s, nationalist attitudes among the Kazaks have grown, leading to violence several times. In 1979, Kazaks rioted because there were rumors that the government was going to set aside land for local Germans who wanted to create their own independent region. Suspicion of ethnic Russians increased during the late 1980s because the Soviet Union often gave them preference in leadership positions.
Testing of nuclear bombs in northern Kazakstan in the 1950s weakened the health of many residents. These people and their descendants are often born with deficient immune systems, a condition similar to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Some researchers have estimated that it will take another fifty years for the condition to reverse through intermarriage with people from unaffected families.
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