LOCATION: Kyrgyzstan; China
POPULATION: 2.5 million
LANGUAGES: Kyrgyz; Russian; English
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)
The Kyrgyz people were nomads throughout much of their history, initially living in the region of south-central Russia between the Yenesei River and Lake Baikal about 2,000 years ago. The ancestors of the modern Kyrgyz were probably not Turks, like most people in the area are. The ancestors of the Kyrgyz exhibited European-like features (such as fair skin, green eyes, and red hair). At some time between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, they settled in the Tien Shan Mountains.
In modern times, the Kyrgyz people have seen much of their land taken by Russians as the Russian empire spread east. From 1917 to 1991, the Kyrgyz lived in the Soviet Union as residents of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kyrgyz people became independent and created their own country.
Since 1991, Kyrgyzstan has been led by an elected president and parliamentary form of government. The government has concentrated on elevating the status of Kyrgyz culture in Kyrgyzstan without alienating persons of other ethnic backgrounds (a citizen of Kyrgyzstan does not need to be Kyrgyz). However, there have been conflicts between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, as well as periodic clashes between Kyrgyz and Tajiks along the border with Tajikistan.
There are approximately 2.5 million Kyrgyz living throughout the former Soviet Union, about 88 percent of them in Kyrgyzstan. Ethnic Kyrgyz constitute slightly more than half of the population of Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is located in Central Asia, along the western range of the Tien Shan Mountains. The boundaries with neighboring countries (Kazakstan, China, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) run along mountain ranges, and about 85 percent of Kyrgyzstan itself is mountainous.
The largest mountain lake, Issyk-Kul, is located high in the mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan. Many Kyrgyz fishing villages are located around the edge of the lake.
Most Kyrgyz people speak the Kyrgyz language, which is a distinct Turkic language with Mongol influences. Although the Kyrgyz language is spoken in the home, most Kyrgyz also speak Russian, which is the language of business and commerce. English is the third language of communication.
The Kyrgyz people have many proverbs and sayings related to horses, such as: "A horse is a person's wind."
The telling of epic oral tales dates back about 1,000 years among the Kyrgyz people. One of the most famous epics tells the saga of Manas, the father of the Kyrgyz people; his son Semetey; and his grandson Seytek. The entire poem is incredibly long (about twice as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey combined). It can take up to three weeks to recite and was not written down until the 1920s. In the epic, the forty Kyrgyz tribes strive for freedom and unity. Under the leadership of Manas, the Kyrgyz people who were the slaves of various tribes are gathered as a nation. Manas is believed to be buried at a small mausoleum near the town of Talas, in western Kyrgyzstan near the border with Kazakstan.
Horses figured prominently in the traditional spiritual beliefs of the early Kyrgyz. It was believed that a horse carried the spirit of a dead person to a higher world. Most Kyrgyz today are followers of Islam (Sunni Muslim), but many ancient traditions persist.
Since the eighth century AD , Islam has been the dominant religion in the Fergana River Valley in southwest Kyrgyzstan. Even so, it did not gain a strong presence among all the Kyrgyz until the nineteenth century.
The Kyrgyz are generally more secular (nonreligious) in daily life than some of the other peoples in the area. Kyrgyzstan also has a large population of non-Muslims. The government has made no moves to use Islamic law.
New Year's Day (January 1) and Orthodox Christmas (January 7) are official holidays in Kyrgyzstan. The spring equinox (around March 21) is called Nawruz and is an important holiday among the Kyrgyz people because it marks the start of the Muslim new year. Kurban Ait (Remembrance Day, June 13) and Independence Day (August 31) are also official Kyrgyzstan holidays.
Kyrgyz rites of passage include large birthday parties with many friends and relatives. These feasts often last five or six hours. Celebrations are held for a birth, for a baby's fortieth day of life, for the first day of school, and for school graduation.
A wedding serves to honor the married couple and assemble an extended family or clan. Traditionally, marriages were arranged by the parents, and a dowry payment was expected. Many modern Kyrgyz young people want to influence the selection of their spouse.
Kyrgyz women typically greet one another with handshakes or hugs. Male-female relations among the Kyrgyz are less formal and less rigid than among their neighbors, the Uzbeks or Tajiks. Men and women eat together and share some household tasks.
Like many other peoples of Central Asia, the Kyrgyz are very hospitable. Kyrgyz often honor their guests by serving them a cooked sheep's head.
The traditional Kyrgyz home is a yurt or yurta— a round, felt-covered structure built upon a collapsible wooden frame. Most Kyrgyz today live in individual permanent homes, but about 40,000 Kyrgyz still live in yurts. The arched opening of a yurta is called the tundruk . The flag of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan features a tundruk.
Life in the city has some challenges. There is a lack of housing, and public transportation does not run on schedule. In Bishkek, for example, evening bus service is not reliable. There are taxis in the city, but people looking for a ride will often stop a private car and pay the driver because it is cheaper than using a taxi.
Women in Kyrgyz society still perform the bulk of household chores. Women in the cities are encouraged to be professionals as well as mothers. Both men and women may marry more than one spouse. It is more common for a man to have more than one wife. A husband must provide each wife with her own separate house, and must support her children. In order for a woman to have multiple husbands, she must have substantial wealth or influence.
Kyrgyz families are large, with an average of four to six children. In the capital city of Bishkek, families are slightly smaller. In the countryside, it is common for three generations to live together. As many as ten to twelve people may share a home during the cold months. It is very important to the Kyrgyz to know about ancestors. Some people are able to recount their ancestors as far back as seven generations or 200 years.
Traditional everyday clothes were made of wool, felt, and fur. Ornate silks were, and still are, used for special occasions and ceremonies. By the 1990s, cotton denim and other fabrics had become popular for everyday wear.
Headgear figures prominently in Kyrgyz culture. During the Soviet era, women were prohibited from wearing their large traditional hats, which were a symbol of Kyrgyz culture. There is also a traditional hat proudly worn by men as a symbol of Kyrgyz culture, the ak-kalpak (white hat).
Because many Kyrgyz live in areas with little rain, the variety of crops grown depends on irrigation from the mountains. Sugar beets and cereal grains are the main crops. Livestock are an important source of food, with sheep, goats, cattle, and horses most common. Pigs, bees, and rabbits are also raised.
Examples of traditional Kyrgyz food include manti (mutton dumplings), irikat (a type of pasta salad made with noodles, carrots, and radishes), and koumiss (fermented mare's milk).
A great Kyrgyz delicacy reserved especially for guests is a combination plate of fresh sliced sheep liver and slices of sheep tail fat. It is often boiled and salted and tastes far more delicious than it sounds.
At the breakfast table, one often finds bountiful amounts of yogurt, heavy cream, butter, and honey served with bread and tea. Dairy products are an essential part of Kyrgyz life.
For the most part, Kyrgyz people have been influenced by Russian culture. Most Kyrgyz cannot speak or understand their own native language very well, except for people living in rural areas. Most high school and university instruction is in Russian. Although this is slowly beginning to change, rural Kyrgyz (who are less likely to learn Russian) have a hard time competing at the national level on university entrance exams.
Parents tend to favor a broad education for their children. It is often not possible for parents to send their children to universities and technical schools because education is not free in independent Kyrgyzstan. When Kyrgyzstan was part of the former Soviet Union (1917–91), university education was free.
The kyiak and komuz are traditional musical instruments used by the Kyrgyz. The kyiak resembles a violin and is played with a bow but has only two strings. The three-stringed komuz is the favorite folk instrument among the Kyrgyz.
The Kyrgyz have several titles of honor that are given to various musical performers. A jïrchiï is a singer-poet, whereas an akin is a professional poet and musician-composer. The jïrchiï is primarily a performer of known music, while the akin is a composer who plays original compositions as well as traditional music.
A special performer called a manaschï performs the famous saga of Manas (see Folklore section). There are also several types of Kyrgyz songs, such as maktoo (eulogies), sanat and nasiyat (songs with a moral), and kordoo (social protest tunes).
Work hours vary. Most often work runs from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM . Mills and factories operate on a relay system, with shifts set up by the management. Retail shops are usually open from 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM , with an afternoon lunch period. Department stores, bookstores, and other shops usually open according to the hours set by government offices. Bazaars (street markets) are open from 6:00 AM until 7:00 or 8:00 PM .
Equestrian sports (sports with horses) are very popular among the Kyrgyz. Racing and wrestling on horseback are especially enjoyed. Wrestling on horseback for a goat's carcass, called ulak tartysh or kok boru, is a common game among the Kyrgyz. ( Kok boru means "gray wolf.") The game may have its origin in ancient times, when herds of cattle grazed in the steppes (plains) and mountains and were exposed to the threat of attack by wolves. Shepherds would chase after a wolf on horseback and beat it with sticks and whips, and then try to snatch the dead carcass away from each other for fun.
Kok boru was later replaced with ulak tartysh, played with a goat's carcass on a field measuring about 328 yards by 164 yards (300 meters by 150 meters). The two goals are at opposite ends of the field. A goat carcass, usually weighing 60 to 90 pounds (30 to 40 kilograms), is placed in the center of the field. Each game lasts fifteen minutes. The object is to seize the goat carcass while on horseback and get it to the goal of the other team. Players may pick up the carcass from any place within the limits of the field, take it from opponents, pass or toss it to teammates, carry it on the horse's side, or suspend it between the horse's legs.
Falconry (the sport of hunting with trained falcons) while on horseback is another part of Kyrgyz culture that has been practiced for centuries. In addition to falcons, golden eagles are also trained for the sport. Jumby atmai is a game that involves shooting at a target while galloping on horseback. Tyin enmei is a contest to pick up coins from the ground while riding at full speed on horseback.
The capital city, Bishkek, has large parks, public gardens, shady avenues, and botanical gardens enjoyed by people traveling on foot. Opera, ballet, and national folklore groups are also popular forms of entertainment. The most popular form of relaxation for city dwellers is to spend a weekend at a country cottage. Tens of thousands of these cottages are located on the outskirts of Bishkek. There are no bars or shows in Bishkek, so the city becomes quiet after 11:00 PM .
The Kyrgyz are best known for crafting utensils, clothes, equipment, and other items used in everyday life and making them beautiful. Many articles are made of felt: carpets (shirdak and alakiyiz), bags for keeping dishes (alk-kup), and woven patterned strips of carpet sewn together into bags or rugs (bashtyk) . Ornate leather dishes called keter are also made.
After years of life under the Soviet system (1917–91), the transition to a market economy is a difficult undertaking for the Kyrgyz. The poor service and uninspired work ethic that were results of the Soviet era will take a long time to change. Alcoholism and public drunkenness are now a visible social problem, partly because of rising unemployment.
Allworth, Edward, ed. Central Asia: 130 Years of Russian Dominance, A Historical Overview. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.
Çagatay, Ergun. "Kyrgyzstan: A First Look." Aramco World (Houston: Aramco Services Company) 46, no. 4 (1995): 10–21.
Geography Department. Kyrgyzstan. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1993.
Thomas, Paul. The Central Asian States—Tajikstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1992.