ALTERNATE NAMES: Qoraqolpoqlar
LOCATION: Uzbekistan (territory of Karakalpakistan); Kazakstan; Russia; Turkmenistan
LANGUAGES: Karakalpak; Russian
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)
The Karakalpaks (who call themselves Qoraqolpoqlar ) are a people of Central Asia. They lived within the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union until it was dissolved in 1991. Today their territory is within independent Uzbekistan.
The Karakalpaks' ancestors originally came from the Irtysh River areas in southern Siberia. They settled in their current home-land in the tenth and eleventh centuries AD . The Qipchoq people they encountered referred to the newcomers as "Karakalpaks" (black hats) supposedly because they wore black wool or felt hats. The Karakalpaks' culture has been influenced by their harsh desert and steppe existence. It has also been affected by invaders such as the Mongols, Timurids, Kalmyks, Khorezmian Uzbeks, and Russians. The Russians colonized the Karakalpaks during the second half of the nineteenth century.
The Karakalpak homeland, Karakalpakistan (Qoraqolpoqiston), lies in the northwestern part of Uzbekistan. It occupies nearly 40 percent of Uzbekistan's total territory. Until recently, the major feature of its landscape was the Aral Sea. Today, however, the sea is drying up at a rapid rate due to irrigation methods.
About 2.3 million people live in the Karakalpakistan region. Of these, approximately 350,000 are Karakalpaks. Other Karakalpak people live in the surrounding countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan.
The Karakalpak language is part of the Turkic language family. It is related to such languages as Turkish, Kazak, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Uzbek. There was no written form of the Karakalpak language until the 1920s. Today it is written in a modified Cyrillic alphabet (the alphabet used by Russians, Serbs, and Bulgarians). Newspapers, magazines, and books are printed in the Karakalpak language.
Russian remains an important second language for educated Karakalpaks.
Folklore is divided into lyrical tales and epic poems ( zhyr and dostan ). There are tales about boys, such as Tarzshi and Aldarkose, whom everybody tries to outsmart. But the boys always manage to come out on top. There are also tales about animals, such as the cunning fox who can trick just about anyone and anything. Other tales involve wolves, tigers, and, occasionally, even God himself.
The epics are almost always about historical events and heroic figures. Epic heroes often turn out to be women. In Kyrk Qiz (The Forty Maidens) , the heroine Gulaim defends her homeland from invading Kalmyks. Maspatsha is the story of Aiparshir, a woman of great beauty and tremendous courage.
The Karakalpaks are Sunni Muslims. In addition, they have long been influenced by Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, religious practice and teaching played a minor role in the lives of most Karakalpaks. More recently, however, faith in Soviet communist ideals has given way to faith in the doctrines of the Muslim religion.
Many Karakalpaks have also held onto some religious beliefs that are not formally included in the Muslim religion. These often are about the natural world. They relate to saints or patrons (guardians) who watch out for herds, fishermen, farmers, and so forth. Many people believe that each type of herd or flock has its own patron.
Four major secular (nonreligious) holidays are celebrated by the Karakalpaks, together with their fellow Uzbeks. Novruz (New Day) marks the beginning of spring, on March 20 or 21. The holiday is celebrated with festivals, contests, game playing, and especially feasting. Schoolchildren celebrate with their teachers and put on skits. The favorite food for this holiday is sumalak , made from young wheat plants. It takes about twenty-four hours to prepare this sweet, tasty pudding. Sumalak parties are always part of the Novruz festivities.
Victory Day celebrations, commemorating the end of World War II (1939–45), take place on May 9. There are military parades that include veterans of World War II. Uzbekistan Independence Day, September 1, has been celebrated since 1991. This day is marked by parades, speeches, and festive events throughout Uzbekistan. Constitution Day, December 8, is another new holiday. It marks the creation of the Uzbekistan constitution in 1992. Businesses and other work-places are closed on that day. Most people simply stay home and relax.
Parents with a newborn baby visit relatives constantly for the first few months to introduce their infant into the family. Boys undergo circumcision at approximately age five. It is marked by a big celebration known as the sunnat toi.
The major rite of passage in adulthood is marriage. The wedding ceremony, called the kelin toi, symbolizes the joining of families and the continuation of family lines. The kelin toi is marked by feasts, dances, music, and speeches that continue for days. The festivities take place at various locations belonging to both of the families.
Death is marked by ritual outpourings of grief at the home of the person who has died. Mourners come to share their sympathy with the bereaved family. A clergyman ( mullah) leads a procession of mourners to the cemetery. The closest relatives perform the burial after prayers are said.
When one person approaches another, the one who is approaching offers the first greeting. (This custom is typical of many Central Asian peoples.) Usually, the greeting is Assalomu alaikum! ("Peace be with you!" in a dialect of Arabic). The person being greeted responds, Valaikum assalom! (And may peace be with you, too!). Then men shake hands. They use either one or two hands, depending on their degree of closeness. Women typically hug one another. A rapid series of questions about one another's health and family usually follows.
Respect for older people is taken very seriously in Central Asia. This is true even between people who differ in age by only a few years. A younger person usually bows slightly. One may also cover the lower part of one's chest with one's right hand as a sign of respect.
When visiting, Karakalpaks always bring presents or food. Neighbors constantly visit with one another to chat and snack.
Dating is rare among the Karakalpaks, except for those living in large cities such as Nukus. Marriages are often arranged.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, economic conditions have deteriorated for most Karakalpaks. Few people are able to buy more than basic necessities.
The traditional Karakalpak dwelling is a dome-shaped tent known as a yurt . A yurt has a wooden frame; huge pieces of felt cloth are thrown over the frame and then carefully arranged.
Some European-style furniture is found in Karakalpak homes. However, most people relax and sleep on thick, dense quilts called kurpas . Kurpas are often placed on raised platforms that are built into the room. The family sits on these platforms for meals and recreation, such as watching television. Kurpas are easily moved and stored. Large wooden cabinets known as sandals are used for storage.
Karakalpak families are usually large, with four to ten children. Most women prefer to have four or five. Households of extended families (parents and children plus other relatives) are common. A family of four generations may live in a single home. A group of families descended from a common male ancestor is called a koshe. Several koshe make up an uru , a kind of clan.
Girls marry early, usually as young as sixteen years of age. Marriages are arranged through consenting sets of parents. A woman is given a dowry (gifts and money for her new married life) by her parents. She is also presented with bride gifts by the groom's parents. The new wife moves in with her husband's family.
Women do most of the cooking, cleaning, and child care. Men are usually responsible for buying groceries, preparing certain feast dishes, and doing home repairs, especially electrical work or carpentry.
Polygyny (marrying more than one woman) is illegal, but some men do it secretly. On the whole, though, it is rare; it is very expensive to have more than one family.
Karakalpaks often wear a mix of traditional and Western-style clothing. Women wear the kiimeshek, a long capelike dress with a head covering. Older women wear white, and younger women wear red. Tunic-like shirts and baggy trousers are also worn.
A man's typical summer outfit consists of loose trousers and a koilek . This is a long, loose white shirt with an open collar and no buttons.
Some type of hat or head covering is almost always worn because of the extreme temperatures and strong sunlight. Men wear silk or cotton embroidered skullcaps (duppi). They also wear the thick wool hats (qoraqolpoq) , from which the Karakalpak got their name. Women wear long cotton or woolen scarves (rumol) that cover their heads, ears, backs, and shoulders.
Grain is a staple food of the Karakalpak diet, especially rice, sorghum, barley, and millet. From these grains, tasty breads, noodles, and dumplings are made.
Fruits and vegetables include onions, carrots, plums, pears, grapes, apricots, and all kinds of melons and squashes. Pumpkin is often used in turnovers known as samsa . Milk products include yogurt, butter, cream, and cheeses.
Boiled beef, mutton, and smoked horse-meat are among the favorite meats. Beef and mutton are ingredients in palov, a Central Asian favorite. Palov recipes use rice, meat, carrots, garlic, steamed quinces (a kind of fruit), and mutton tail fat ( dumba ).
As Muslims, Karakalpaks do not drink alcohol or eat certain foods, especially pork.
The Soviet educational system is still in place. Almost all children receive a high-school education. Some then go on to technical and university training. Karakalpakistan has only one university, located in Nukus. Recently, medresses, schools for higher religious education, have opened in the region.
In the past, Karakalpak bards (performing poets) roamed from village to village, reciting stories and verses. They were accompanied on instruments such as the two-stringed dutar, and the qobyz and ghypzhek , which were played with bows.
Two Karakalpak poets of the nineteenth century—Azhiniaz Kosybai uly and Berdakh Kargabai uly—are among Central Asia's greatest writers. Modern Karakalpak writers have adopted Western literary forms such as novels, short stories, and plays.
Most of the work in Karakalpakistan is agricultural. Almost 70 percent of the population is rural. The only real manufacturing jobs are centered around the cotton industry. These jobs include ginning and baling cotton, and pressing cotton seeds for their oil.
Silk manufacture is also a significant part of the agricultural economy. Farmers feed silkworms mulberry leaves from nearby trees. The worms produce cocoons, which people bring to regional collection centers. Profits depend on the quality of the cocoons.
Farm workers work twelve to fifteen hours a day at harvest time.
Volleyball and soccer are popular at school. Boys also engage in a type of wrestling known as Qurash . It involves grabbing one another on the back of the neck and the thigh. The object is to force the opponent to lose his grip, and thus lose his balance.
Women and girls are rarely, if ever, encouraged to participate in sports.
Movies and television programs are imported from the West, especially action movies and Latin American soap operas. Plays in the theaters, on humorous or historical themes, are popular.
Pop music is important to Karakalpak young people. Iulduz Usmanova is one of the most popular young singers.
Adults entertain themselves by getting together with friends at conversation sessions known as gap, which means "talk." Men and women meet in separate groups, perhaps twice a month. They eat, play games, sing songs, catch up on news, and offer each other advice.
Children enjoy an elaborate game of riddles called askiia . Two children try to out-smart one another with a series of questions about a particular thing. One child starts with a description. The other must ask questions about what is being described.
Karakalpak rugs are narrow and not usually used as floor coverings. They are hung as doorway coverings at the entrance to a yurt (tent). They are also used as wall coverings or saddlebags. Bright blues, yellows, and greens are the main colors.
Jewelry is mostly silver. Blue stones, such as lapis lazuli, and red stones are often added. Necklaces, earrings, and bracelets are the most common kinds of jewelry.
Men specialize as woodworkers (especially carvers) and shoemakers. Some of the most skilled craftsmanship goes into carving house doors and support beams for buildings. Central Asian woodcarving has unique floral (flower) and geometric patterns.
Hobbies among Karakalpak young people include collecting stamps, coins, photos of pop-music stars, records, and tapes. Some young people have pen pals.
The rapid development of agriculture and fisheries in Karakalpakistan during the Soviet period harmed the environment. The water needed for irrigation to grow cotton in Uzbekistan diverted most of the water from the two main rivers that feed the Aral Sea. The sea has decreased in area since 1960. Much of the soil around it is now too salty for growing any crops. In addition, agricultural chemicals have washed into irrigation canals and have been deposited in the sea. Now the region suffers from health problems and economic decline. Statistics show that more than 70 percent of Karakalpaks are in poor health.
Few people have safe drinking water, and not enough food is being produced. Loss of the fisheries industry has led to rising unemployment. Alcoholism and drug addiction (mainly to heroin) are growing problems for the young and middle-aged. Crime has greatly increased since the breakup of the Soviet Union. It ranges from petty theft to organized drug smuggling and Mafia-style murders.
Akiner, Shirin. Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union . London, England: Kegan Paul International, 1983.
Critchlow, James. Nationalism in Uzbekistan: A Soviet Republic's Road to Sovereignty. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991.
Thomas, Paul. The Central Asian States: Tajikstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan . Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1992.
World Travel Guide. Uzbekistan. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/uz/gen.html , 1998
Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: