The ethnogenesis of the Kazakh people is complex. It draws its origins from the Turkic peoples and medieval Mongolian tribes, among which the Argyns, the Doulats, the Naïmans, the Djalayirs, the Khazars and the Karlouks, as well as the Coumans; other peoples took part in the formation of the Kazakh people, like the Huns, the Sarmatians, the Sakas and the Scythians, who lived on the territories included between Siberia and the Black Sea between the 5th and the 13th centuries. The Kazakh Khanate, the first political emanation of the Kazakh people, was only really formed in the 15th century. Under Russian domination from the XVIIIth century, Kazakhs are integrated in the XXth century in the USSR, which had a considerable impact on them, imposing them in particular linguistic and cultural transformations, but also affecting their demography (see famine of 1932-1933 in Kazakhstan). Independent Kazakhstan, whose ethnic Kazakhs make up the majority of the Kazakh people, has been pursuing a policy of reviving Kazakh traditions since 1991 and has repatriated part of the Kazakh diaspora to its territory.
Kazakh culture, of Turkish origin, has been influenced by Islam (the majority religion among Kazakhs), then by Russian culture and Sovietism. Although this specificity tends to erode nowadays, the structure of the society is clan-based, and most Kazakhs belong to one of the three jüz.
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The Kazakhs had other names: they were known as Kirghiz or Kirghiz-Kazakhs (or Kirghiz-Kaïssaks) by the Russians in the 18th century, then as Kazaki around 1920.
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In French, various spellings of the name “Kazakh” are encountered:
In France, “Kazakhs” is also the official designation of all the inhabitants of Kazakhstan, whatever their origin. This designation is nevertheless ambiguous and the gentilé “Kazakhstanais” is sometimes preferred to it.
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Kazakhs (Turkish people of Central Asia) cannot be confused with Cossacks (populations of essentially Slavic origin). It seems however that the two names of these two horsemen people have a common origin and would come from Turkish.
There are several competing theories as to the meaning of this term:
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There are few sources on the origin or formation of the Kazakhs. The main sources are the oral legends of this people and the observations and records of Russian emissaries and officials who traveled among the Kazakhs in the 18th century.
Since ancient times, the ethnic map of the territory of what is now Kazakhstan has had a variable form, the tribes and peoples composing it have had various origins and have left their traces in the ethnogenesis of the present Kazakhs. The northern steppe strip of Central Asia has historically witnessed one of the earliest forms of civilization in the world: the nomadic pastoral economy. One of the most significant findings of the Neolithic period in the Central Asian region was the domestication of the horse. Bronze Age remains of the Andronovo culture, which dates from the 12th – 18th centuries B.C., can be seen here.
The first written testimonies about the peoples who occupied the territory of present-day Kazakhstan date back to the 1st millennium BC. Herodotus, in his Histories, describes the Sakas (VII – III centuries BC, Scythians) and recalls their neighborhood with the Achaemenids, but also their struggle with the Persian invaders, in particular the kings Cyrus the Great and Darius I. Tomyris, queen of the Massagetas (Southern Sakas), put an end to the reign of Cyrus in 530 BC.
From the 2nd century B.C. to the present day, the Wusun and Kangju peoples played a key role in this region. Around 160 B.C., Wusun migrated from northeastern Turkestan to the lands of Sakas in Jetyssou. It was around this time, on the lower and middle course of the Syr Darya, that the Kangju state was formed. These peoples have left their traces in the ethnogenesis of Kazakhs, and their names can still be found today among the tribes of the Great Juz, for example, the Kanly and Sary-usyn clans.
From the 2nd – 1st centuries BC, Xiongnu Turkic peoples settled on the territory of Kazakhstan from the northern steppes to China. According to the writings of the Chinese historian Sima Qian, a radical change in the general situation in Central Asia occurred during the period of the Warring Kingdoms, i.e. between 403 and 221 BC. This change is related to the formation of the first nomadic empire in Central Asia, which was created by the alliance of the Xiongnus or Huns. The first historical written mention of the Xiongnus dates back to the end of the 3rd century BC, when this people dramatically marched into China. From the 3rd century BC to the present day, their attacks on China intensified, leading the Chinese emperors to build the Great Wall.
In about 51, the Xiongnu empire was divided into two parts: the southern Xiongnu recognized Chinese sovereignty, and the northern Xiongnu retained their independence, but were driven back into Central Asia. Eventually, this group of Xiongnu formed their own state, and by 376 had expanded to the borders of the Roman Empire; Western sources refer to them as “Huns. The hypothesis that the Huns originated at least in part from the Xiongnu of Central Asia is controversial, but nevertheless seems to be well-founded.
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After the fall of the Huns” empire, the Göktürks took their place in the historical arena of Eurasia and founded in the middle of the 6th century one of the largest empires in Asia, stretching from the Black to the Yellow Sea. Originally from Altai, the Göktürks were descendants of the Huns. According to Chinese chronicles, the Göktürks are direct descendants of the Xiongnu, who had settled in the Altai during the barbarian invasions, but this fact is disputed. Chinese historians have drawn a parallel between the customs and traditions of the Xiongnus and the Göktürks, which tends to confirm this. The importance of the Göktürks began to manifest itself when Bumin came to power in 545. In the spring of 552, the Göktürks, allied with the Chinese, carried out a lightning attack against the Ruanruan, thus ending their vassal relationship with them, and giving birth to the Turkish Khaganate. In 603, the Turkish Khaganate was divided into two: the Eastern Turkish Khaganate and the Western Turkish Khaganate. The latter extended over the territory of present-day Kazakhstan, but also over Central Asia, Ciscaucasia, the Crimea, the Urals, and the Volga Valley. The ethnopolitical core of the Khanagat consisted of the “ten arrows” composed of five Nushibi peoples and five Dulo peoples. The Doulo ethnonym is similar to that of the Doulats, who are known today as part of the tribes of the Great Jüz. The Turgesh Khaganate (704-756), which originated from the Turkish Khaganate, was characterized by constant wars with the Chinese, but also by the Muslim conquest of Central Asia.
With the arrival of the Samanids, the sedentary agrarian populations of Central Asia became Islamic during the ninth and tenth centuries, and a great change took place in the culture of the Turks. The old Turkish script was replaced by the Arabic alphabet, many Arabic words were introduced into the lexicon, and society used the Hegira calendar; religious festivals became part of customs, and funerals were performed according to Muslim rites. After its fall, several states competed for the remains of the Khanagat Turgesh: the Oghuz state, the Khanagat Karluk and the Khaganat Kimek. In the middle of the 8th century, a war took place between the Karluks and the Oghuz for the succession of the Turgesh. The Oghuz lost and retreated along the Syr Darya, where they formed the Oghuz state, and the Karluks remained in Jetyssu, where they founded a proto-feudal state, the Karluk Khanagat. The Oghuz peoples have left significant traces for the ethnic history of Kazakhs in the valley of Syr Darya, on the shores of the Aral Sea and north of the Caspian Sea. The Karluks were constantly at war with the Arabs and Samanids, who were waging a “holy war” against the Turks. In 940, after the last Karluk Khagan was overthrown in Balasagun by Satuq Bughra Qara-Khan, the Qarakhanid dynasty took power in Jetyssou. Towards the end of the tenth century, Satuq Bughra Qara-Khan converted to Islam and took the name of Abd al-Karim: the Qarakhanids were the first Turkish dynasty to institute Islam as the state religion.
At the beginning of the 11th century, the Coumans migrated from the Volga valley to the steppes near the Black Sea, driving out the Pechenegues and Torks who lived there. Then they crossed the Dnieper River and reached the lower Danube River, taking over the Pontic steppe from the Danube to the Irtysh (see Coumania). After the Mongol invasion of Batu Europe in 1237, the Coumans ceased to exist as an independent political union, but constituted the largest part of the Turkic population of the Golden Horde, which contributed to the birth of the Kazakhs.
The year 1218 saw the beginning of the invasion of the steppes, and then of Transoxiana, by the alliance of the Turkic peoples Khongirad, Naim and Khitans, from which came Genghis Khan himself, under the leadership of Genghis Khan”s son Djötchi. The Coumans initially opposed Djötchi, but eventually joined him, some voluntarily and others after being defeated. The Turkish steppe came under the rule of the three Mongol ulus, headed by the sons of Genghis Khan. The grandson of Genghis Khan Batu founded the Golden Horde on the lower Volga River. The small group of Mongolian rulers was soon assimilated into the local Turkic peoples.Most of the Horde was composed of Turkic peoples of different origins, especially Coumans, Naimans, Kerait, Khongirad and others. The Pope”s ambassador William of Rubrouck generalized and called them all “Tatars”. A great part of the customs of the Horde described by Rubrouck in 1253 still exist among the Kazakhs today. The laws of nomadic life began to be governed by the Yassa of Genghis Khan adapted to the specificities of the people. Later, the Yassa was also used as a basis for the Kazakh law code “Jeti Jargy” (which means seven codes). During the reign of Özbeg (1313-1341) and his son Djanibeg (1342-1357), the Golden Horde reached its peak. In the early 1320s, Özbeg made Islam the state religion. From 1360 onwards, a series of political changes weakened the Golden Horde, which finally disappeared in 1502.
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Kazakh Khanate (1465-1847)
After the rout of the Golden Horde in 1389 by Tamerlane, it split into two branches: the western branch became the White Horde, stretching between the Volga and the Don, and the eastern branch the Blue Horde, which in turn split, giving rise to, among others, the Nogai Horde between 1426 and 1460 in the lands of present-day western Kazakhstan, and the short-lived Uzbek Khanate (ru) in the Syr Darya valley in 1428. In 1456, dissatisfied with the harsh policies of the Uzbek khan Abu-l-Khayr, the sultans Janibek and Kerei migrated with their clans west of the Syr Darya to Mughalistan, where they formed the Kazakh Khanate in 1465, according to the chronicler Mirza Haidar. The following period helped to consolidate the unity of the Turkic-Mongolian peoples into a Kazakh nation. Kassym Khan (en) (1445-1521) succeeded in unifying the remaining peoples of Eastern Coumania under his aegis, and expanding his territory from the Irtysh to the Urals by fighting the Transoxian Uzbeks in the south and the Nogai Horde in the west. Under Kassym Khan, the population of Kazakhs reached one million people.
In the early 1530s, an internal war in the Kazakh Khanate (ru) broke out between the grandsons of Janibek Khan. Khak-Nazar Khan (ru), son of Kassym Khan, emerged victorious. Khak-Nazar (reign from 1538 to 1580) continued the policy of consolidation of the Kazakh Khanate, and took Jetyssu from Mogholistan and the Saryarka steppes from the Nogai Horde. Towards the end of the 16th century, Tashkent was annexed to the Kazakh Khanate by Taukel Khan, and later became its capital. Essim Khan led a crucial reform of the political system of the Kazakh government; in the early 17th century, instead of the ulus system, the juz organization was established.
At the beginning of the 17th century, a new Mongolian state, the Dzugar Khanate, was formed in Dzugaria, between the Tian Shan and the Altai. From that moment on, a war of more than 100 years opposed the Kazakhs to this new state. The Kazakhs lost in battle and during the destructive invasions of the Dzugars more than one million people, and more than two hundred thousand Kazakhs were taken captive. The Dzugar raid of 1723 is called “Great Disaster” (Kazakh: Актабан шубырынды). Up to a third of the Kazakh population fell victim to it, and many people had to migrate to flee the war. In 1726, the khan of the small jüz Abulkhair (1693-1748) approached the Russian Empire in St. Petersburg to request that Russian citizenship be granted to Kazakhs. In 1726, the Kazakhs met in Orlabassy and mobilized an army under the leadership of Abulkhair, who succeeded in 1727 in driving the Dzungars back to their lands. However, this success was short-lived, because the Dzungars had again the advantage from 1729, invading several times the Kazakh lands, until 1734-1735, when the Dzungar armies consolidated their positions in the South of Kazakhstan and in Kyrgyzstan. The Kazakhs, seeing in the Russian Empire a powerful ally, repeatedly asked it to grant them Russian citizenship. In 1731, an agreement of rallying of Kazakhs to Russia was signed. This step was beneficial for Kazakhs, who, not having a central government, were in a weakened position with regard to the aggressions of their neighbors and in particular of Dzoungars.
In the winter of 1741, a Kalmyk (Dzungarian) army of 20,000 men led by Septen moved to the Baraba steppe and attacked the middle Juzh. The Kazakhs suffered a defeat near the river Ichim. Soon the Kalmyks drove the Kazakhs out of the region between the Ichim and Tobol rivers, and also attacked the small jüz along the Irguiz river, pursuing the Kazakhs almost to the Urals. In the spring of 1742, the Kalmyks resumed fighting and moved down to the Syr Darya. They consolidated their positions in Turkestan, and the Dzugar Khanate moved to Tashkent after the betrayal of its governor.
Following the campaign of 1741-42, the leaders of the middle jüz recognized themselves as vassals of the Dzungars (which implied paying tribute and leaving the sons of notables as hostages). The great jüz also became vassals of the Dzungar Khanate. Informed of this, the Russian Empire intervened diplomatically with the Dzungars and obtained the restitution of the hostages and the withdrawal of the Oyrate troops from the Kazakh lands.
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Kazakhs under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union
Russian expansion into Kazakhstan was preceded by the construction of a line of fortifications along the Russian-Kazakh border, the encouragement of Russian peasants and traders to settle in the border regions of Kazakhstan, and political and economic pressure on local leaders.
In total, at the beginning of the 19th century, 46 fortresses and 96 redoubts were erected on four lines. In 1731, the small jüz was put under Russian protectorate. In 1732, the khan of the middle jüz Sameke Khan (ru) took an oath to the Russian empress, and in 1740, Abylaï Khan confirmed the Russian protectorate of the middle jüz. The Khan of the Great Juz recognized Russian suzerainty in 1818. By 1847, Russian citizenship was shared by almost all Kazakhs of the greater Juz. The supreme power having been transferred to Saint Petersburg, the function of khan became de facto symbolic. In 1818, the title of khan was abolished in the Middle Juz, and in 1824 for the Lesser Juz; as a result, the lands of the Middle Juz were included in Eastern Siberia under the name of “Kyrgyz Steppe. The whole period of subjugation of the Kazakh steppe by the Russian Empire was punctuated by independence movements led by the Kazakhs.From the middle of the 18th century until 1916, about 300 wars, revolts and national liberation movements took place on the territory of Kazakhstan. The most important of them were the insurrection of Issataï Taïmanouly (ru) within the Bokey Horde (1836-1838), the insurrection of Syrym Datouly (ru) (1783-1797), the insurrection of Kenessary Kassymov (ru) (1802-1847) and also the insurrection of Jetyssou of 1916 (ru).
According to the 1890 data published in the “Alphabetical List of Peoples Inhabiting the Russian Empire”, the Kirghiz-Kaisaks (i.e. Kazakhs) lived on the territory of the Orenburg and Astrakhan governments, and in the Semipalatinsk, Semirechy, Turgai, and Uralsk oblasts, and made up a total of 3 million people. In order to weaken the Lesser Jüz, the Inner Horde or Bokey Horde was created and approved by the Russian Empire in 1801.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Kazakhs had more than 40 significant tribes. The Encyclopedia Brockhaus and Efron mentions at the end of the XIX century that different personalities of the Kirghiz-kaïssaks (Russian name of Kazakhs at that time) sometimes designate their nationality by the general name of Kazakh, but more often define themselves by the name of the clan to which they consider to belong. However, the Russian ethnographers did not doubt that it was a single nation, noting that they spoke the same language.
The formal division into jüz effectively disappeared at the beginning of the 20th century, but even today representatives of the Greater jüz are in the majority in southern Kazakhstan, those of the Middle jüz in the north and east, and those of the Lesser jüz in the west of the country.
After the abdication of Nicholas II and the creation of the provisional government, political life resumed on the bangs of the Russian Empire. In December 1917, in Orenburg, the 2nd Congress of all Kazakhs was held. The congress proclaimed the creation of the Alash autonomy. But the Alash Autonomy took part in movements against the Bolsheviks, and in particular supported the Mensheviks, and during the period of civil war entered into a military alliance with the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly. In the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks dissolved the Alash autonomy and subsequently had its leaders executed.
On August 26, 1920, following the signing of the decree “On the Formation of the Kyrgyz Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic” by Mikhail Kalinin and Lenin, the Kazakhs were included in the RSFSR, and their capital became Orenburg. It was only in 1936 that the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic was formed.
From 1942 to 1986, one of the leaders of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan was Dinmukhammed Kunayev, a native of Kazakhstan. Under his leadership, the process of Russification was accentuated; in particular, there remained only one Kazakh school per oblast, and only for the children of herders. It was also during this period that a remarkable economic growth could be observed in Kazakhstan, with a significant development of the country”s means of production, especially in mining, primary industries and energy, agricultural production.
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After the independence of Kazakhstan
After the break-up of the USSR, Kazakhstan proclaimed its independence on December 16, 1991. The following years saw a significant emigration of many Kazakh citizens who, not belonging to the Kazakh ethnic group, felt left out of responsible situations; but gradually the economic situation stabilized these last years, with a significant growth, and a migratory balance tending to become positive again, in particular thanks to the program of repatriation of the ethnic Kazakhs (see oralmans).
Since April 24, 1990, Kazakh Nursultan Nazarbayev has been systematically re-elected – five times (he has engaged the country in a very important economic development based on the exploitation of large hydrocarbon and mineral reserves.
In 1997, the capital of Kazakhstan was moved from Almaty (formerly Alma-Ata) in the southeast of the country to Akmola (Akmolinsk, Tselinograd), renamed Astana (“capital” in Kazakh) at that time. This city is located in the northern steppes of the country (closer to its geographical center) and was developed as the main urban center for the virgin land countryside. The reason given by the government for the change of capital was that Almaty was not sufficiently central, that its urban development prospects were limited, and that it was located in an earthquake zone; however, the actual reason for the change was that the north of the country, which is mostly occupied by ethnic Russians, might have been tempted to separatism. In fact, the establishment of the capital in Tselinograd led to a reoccupation of the northern territories by the Kazakhs, which reinforced the integrity of the territory of Kazakhstan.
In 2019, the capital changes its name again and is named Nursultan, in honor of the first president.
According to another study conducted on a sample of 409 ethnic Kazakhs, the major paternal lineages of Kazakhs are: haplogroup C-M217 (Y-DNA) (en), R, G, J, N, O, and Q.
Kazakhs have a certain genetic proximity to the Russian populations bordering Kazakhstan; traces of the peoples who have historically contributed to their ethnogenesis, including from the time of the Scythians, are also found in their genes.
The total population of Kazakhs in the world is about 15 million people. About a quarter of Kazakhs live outside Kazakhstan. The countries with the most significant populations of Kazakhs are:
In addition, smaller populations of Kazakhs are found in Europe and America.
The table below shows the historical development of the Kazakh population:
The sudden increase of population between 1730 and the beginning of the XIXth century, when the number of Kazakhs is multiplied by five, is due to the fact that the latter, under Russian protectorate, had access to more lands, could thus have larger herds, and were able to feed a larger population.
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Repatriation of Kazakhs to Kazakhstan
The table below shows the evolution of the proportion of Kazakhs living on the territory of Kazakhstan:
The main reason for the establishment of the program of repatriation of ethnic Kazakhs to Kazakhstan was the disadvantageous demographic state of the country following the breakup of the USSR, as well as the desire to provide assistance to Kazakhs to enable them to resettle in Kazakhstan and obtain Kazakhstani citizenship. The vast majority of Kazakhs living outside Kazakhstan are descendants of people who fled the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, seeking to escape repression, forced collectivization and famine. As a result of Slavic emigration, which began in the 18th and 19th centuries and intensified during the Soviet period, accompanied by massive population displacements, including deportations (see Deportation of peoples in the USSR), the Kazakhs found themselves in the state of a national minority on their own territory. By 1959, the number of Russians was greater than the number of Kazakhs in Kazakhstan.
Since the independence of Kazakhstan, a policy of repatriation of ethnic Kazakhs who fled the country voluntarily or under duress has been implemented (these repatriated Kazakhs are called oralmans). According to official data, in 25 years (from 1991 to January 1, 2016), 957,764 Oralmans have settled in Kazakhstan.
The repatriation program provides each migrant family with a place to settle in Kazakhstan and a sum of money to buy a house. Other incentives have been put in place, such as transportation of all goods (including livestock) from the country of departure, access to vocational training and national language programs, free health care, and job search assistance.
Most of the Kazakhs live in Xinjiang (about 1.3 million people), where a system of autonomous administrative entities has been created for them: most Kazakhs in the People”s Republic of China live in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, including the territories of Tasheng Prefecture and Altay Prefecture; they can also be found in Urumqi and other cities in Xinjiang
Kazakhs in China speak Kazakh (830,000 speak the northeast Kazakh dialect (ru), 70,000 the southern Kazakh dialect (ru)), but unlike others, they use a writing system based on the Arabic alphabet. In Xianjiang, there are schools with instruction in Kazakh, more than 50 newspapers are published in Kazakh, and there are three television channels in this language. For a time, as with other ethnic minorities, Kazakhs in China were not subject to the one-child policy, although this exception eventually changed.
Starting in 2014, Chinese authorities set up re-education camps in Xinjiang that detain Kazakhs and Uyghurs. One million people would be affected by this confinement.
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Kazakhs in Russia
Kazakhs are one of the indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation, ranking tenth among the most numerous peoples of the country. After the proclamation of independence of the Republic of Kazakhstan in 1991, there remained a large number of Kazakhs in the regions of Russia bordering Kazakhstan, descendants of Kazakhs who lived there long before the colonization by the Russian Empire or who settled there afterwards; these Kazakhs received Russian citizenship after the breakup of the USSR. The number of Kazakhs in Russia was 647,000 according to the 2010 census, but according to the vice president of the World Association of Kazakhs (ru) in 2003, there were more than one million Kazakhs in Russia. The majority of Kazakhs live along the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The largest communities are in Astrakhan (149,415), Orenburg (120,262), Omsk (78,303) and Saratov (76,007) oblasts.
Several regions have a few dozen schools where the Kazakh language is taught.
The repatriation of Kazakhs from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan (see oralmans) is a large-scale phenomenon. Between 1991 and 2014, according to estimates by the Ministry of Public Health and Social Development of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 586,000 people were repatriated.
Kazakhs are one of the largest national minorities in Kyrgyzstan. They live mainly in the provinces bordering Kazakhstan in the north of the country, such as the provinces of Chui, Yssyköl and Talas, but also in the capital Bishkek. The Kazakh population in Kyrgyzstan is gradually decreasing, mainly due to their emigration (mostly to Kazakhstan).
The Kazakh people were originally divided into three tribes called “jüz” (a word that can be translated as “horde”):
Although it has no official value, membership in a particular juz continues to have significance for many Kazakhs today. The juz are a specific form of socio-political organization of the Kazakh people. There is no consensus on the period when the juz appeared, the reasons for their creation and their internal structure. The jüz are themselves divided into tribes (Kazakh: Ру – see Kazakh tribe), which in turn break down into a multitude of smaller clans.
Besides these three tribes, other groups exist:
Clans not belonging to any jüz: Töre (supposed descendants of Genghis Khan, considered separate and forming a kind of aristocracy) and Tolengity, Nogai-kazakhs, Kyrgyzy, Koja, Karakalpak, Sounak.
These social structures, though less important today, may still be apparent in some respects; for example, some observers note that the administration of Kazakhstan has been subtly arranged so that each of the jüz gets equal representation.
According to genetic analysis, each clan or tribe can be identified by a distinct haplogroup.
In the past, society was hierarchically divided into two groups: the ruling class, consisting of the white bones (Kazakh: Ақсүйек – see Ak souyek (kk)), which included the khans and sultans, and the common people, referred to as the black bones (Kazakh: Қарасүйек – kara souyek). The white bones were originally descendants of Genghis Khan, and their status was linked only to this heredity until the 19th century. Although this distinction is theoretically no longer used, the term black bones to refer to the people may still have been used in the twentieth century.
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Evolution of Kazakh culture
Kazakh culture was not really studied until the 18th century when Russia began to colonize the territory of present-day Kazakhstan.
As a “horse people”, the culture of the pre-colonial Kazakhs was a nomadic or semi-nomadic society, stemming from its Turko-Mongol ethnogenesis. Islam, gradually integrated into the traditions of Central Asia between the 8th and 14th centuries, also had an influence on Kazakh culture.
Forced sedentarization, through collectivization and the establishment of kolkhozes, has profoundly changed Kazakh customs; in its quest to harmonize society, the USSR has actively fought to destroy Kazakh traditions.
In an attempt to unify the country, independent Kazakhstan has been trying since 1991 to reinstate, sometimes artificially, the culture that characterized the pre-USSR Kazakh people; the repatriation of the Mongolian Oralmans to Kazakhstan, who have not undergone this sedentarization and have perpetuated the old traditions, reinforces this identity policy Although a revival of religious practice, particularly Muslim, has been observed in Kazakhstan since independence, Arab Islam is not viewed favourably by the government, which emphasizes traditional national identity in order to turn to a Turkish and secularized Islam. Despite the government”s efforts, the people of Kazakhstan have since independence turned away from the Soviet or traditional way of life to adopt a highly consumerist behavior and a strong attraction to Western culture accompanied by a rural exodus that further weakens the transmission of nomadic traditions.
The way of life of Kazakh shepherds in the Altai is also changing and modernizing; the nomadism that characterized them is disappearing.
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The policy of revival of Kazakhstan launched after the breakup of the USSR has helped to support the revival of national traditions, which are taken very seriously. In 2010, the motto of the Kazakh representation in the OSCE was the “Four T”s” (for the initials of the four pillars in English: Trust, Tradition, Transparency and Tolerance).
Nomadic pastoralists, the Kazakhs have long ignored borders. On two occasions, they emigrated by hundreds of thousands to China: during the First World War, after being massacred by the Russians because they refused to ensure the stewardship of the rear lines, then when the Soviets forcibly sedentarized them and wanted to collectivize the livestock, composed mainly of sheep, camels and horses, and to a lesser extent of goats and cattle.
The Kazakhs knew several forms of nomadism. Only a few groups of the small and medium jüz were nomadic all year round, the rest of the Kazakhs knew intermediate modes (semi-nomadism with sedentary wintering, or nomadism of a group with a sedentary base where only a small part of the group lives, or even semi-sedentarity with summer transhumance). We find groups that transhume four times a year, at each change of season and according to the reproduction cycles of the livestock. These variations depended mainly on the environment, with aridity leading to more travel to feed the herds, and on the size of the herd. Aul was the name given to the camp of a group of nomads, consisting of a few yurts; little by little, the sedentarization policies carried out by the Russian Empire and the USSR transformed the meaning of this word, reducing it to the meaning of “village. The location of the aul, although it varies according to the seasons and transhumance, is always the same from one year to the next. In spite of their nomadism, Kazakhs were very attached to their lands, and their transhumances, over distances ranging from 50 to 100 km, followed a predefined route on the territories they considered as theirs; the route of these lands was nevertheless not clearly defined, and depended a lot on the fluctuations of the climate from year to year.
Forms of agriculture well before the Russian colonization could nevertheless be found, attesting that nomadism was never exclusive for the Kazakhs, whether they practiced a form of agriculture of small scale, fast growing and requiring little maintenance, or whether their societal model is divided into a sedentary agricultural group and a mobile pastoral group. Grain production served as a reserve for the Kazakhs, allowing them to cope with a cold spell and too many livestock losses. The Kazakhs were able to grow proso millet, Italian foxtail, and common barley, but these grains were supplanted by wheat, especially during the Virgin Lands Campaign (1950s).
Russian colonization was accompanied by several measures aimed at abolishing Kazakh nomadism, but the massive arrival of settlers had more influence on the population. However, it was the forced collectivization during the five-year plan of 1928-1932, aimed at ending Kazakh nomadism in Kazakhstan, and the famine of 1932-1933 in Kazakhstan, that dealt a fatal blow to the last remaining nomads. The famine, which caused between 1.3 and 1.4 million deaths, added to the emigration of about 600,000 Kazakhs and the loss of most of the livestock, led to sedentarization: only the possession of a herd justified transhumance. The sedentarization, although it is mainly due to the ideologies of the Russian colonizer and then of the USSR, has sometimes been seen by the Kazakhs as a progress.
The rare Kazakhs still nomadic nowadays escaped sedentarization by fleeing the USSR, of which in particular the Kazakhs of Altai; sedentarization threatens the nomadic Kazakhs of China, who see in the program of repatriation of the ethnic Kazakhs of Kazakhstan a last possibility of preserving their way of life and their traditions, of which the ethnologists estimate that they are, with the Kazakhs of Mongolia, the last depositories.
In the process of establishing Kazakh identity, nomadism has been emphasized and even idealized by the government of Kazakhstan, without any intention of returning to this way of life, which is in fact perceived by the people as incompatible with modern times; nomadism has become part of folklore. If modern pastoral practices in Kazakhstan lead to a form of nomadism, it concerns only a small minority of Kazakhs, although it may resemble the pre-Soviet way of life.
The yurt, a white transportable tent, has important advantages for the nomadic life that the Kazakhs led, both easy to move and of great comfort. The most symbolic element of the yurt is the chanyrak (Kazakh: шаңырақ), the compression ring at the top of the tent that holds the entire structure together, and which was passed down from generation to generation, a symbol of temporal continuity. The objects of everyday life are made of solid materials and small size to minimize the clutter; the center of the yurt is occupied by a fireplace on which the kazan is placed; the tablecloth on which the meal is taken also has symbolic importance.
The door of the yurt faces east or south. The place of each of the yurt”s occupants is determined by their social rank, age and gender: the part to the right of the entrance is considered male, and the left part is female; the back of the yurt is occupied by people of high social rank and adults, while the threshold groups together children, women and the poor; the social hierarchy is reflected in the distribution of food, with the best morsels going to the most prestigious occupants.
In Kazakh culture, the interior of the yurt is quite distinct from the exterior, even sacred: crimes committed there are punished much more severely, and it is the seat of all important discussions. The part outside the yurt immediately in front of the threshold, called esik aldy, constitutes a first symbolic border with the outside; the enclosure around the yurt, called üj irgesi, marks the border with the public space and the beginning of the aul, and is also charged with a particular symbolism. The aul is regulated by a particular code of conduct, intended to preserve calm and punish intrusions that might disrupt it. The area in the immediate vicinity of the aoul (aul ajnalasy) and the pastures are also regulated by a specific code of conduct.
Tensions and disputes between different groups, sub-clans or auls were supposed to be settled by the bi. However, it was common to take justice into one”s own hands, especially through the barymta (ru), which consisted of stealing horses from the opposing tribe to the extent of the damage done, without, however, damaging their other property.
In case of moral disagreement between close tribes, the offended person could threaten his offender with the sabu, which consisted in attacking his aul and damaging his yurt, a highly symbolic gesture; women could be abducted on this occasion.
Kazakhs paid great respect to the elderly. They paid special attention to their genealogy (Kazakh Chejire), especially in relation to other clans.
According to their family habits, different people were in charge of the education of the sons:
Kazakhs considered as their grandsons (Kazakh: немере) only the children born from their male children:
Several important stages in the development of the child were noted: bessikke salou (Kazakh: бесікке салу), the cradling of the child, toussaou kessou (Kazakh: тұсау кесу), the child”s first steps (the oldest and most respectable man of the aul was called to the yurt where the child was to take its first steps to cut with a knife the special ties that entangled the child”s legs), atka otyrgyzou (Kazakh: Атқа отырғызу), the child”s first ride with grip of whip and spear.
The traditional Kazakh society seems to present a form of equality of the sexes, and excluded domestic violence; this point of view must be qualified by the fact that men considered their wife as their possession (which can be seen through the use of the word “my catch” to designate the wife, which it is well seen to go to kidnap, or in the idea that the ancestors bequeathed to the men three things: “the ground, the cattle and the women”). The education of boys and girls was strictly similar until the age of six. Sexual relations are a taboo for Kazakhs, and the associated lexicon is not very developed.
The circumcision ritual takes place at the age of 4 or 5, and is performed in a yurt or, nowadays, in a polyclinic, by the mullah. The parents offer presents to the child and organize a party after the operation. It was on this occasion that the aydar was cut; this braid, which the child had kept from a very young age, was supposed to protect him from evil spirits, and was only cut when he became a man (around 12-13 years old, during his first battles). The Muslim practice considered that the child passed an important stage at the time of the circumcision, and transferred the cutting of the braid to this occasion, between 3 and 5 years.
The father who wishes to marry his son makes a request to the family of the young woman his son is interested in or has in mind for him. In case of disagreement with this family, sometimes the young woman is kidnapped (however, kidnapping one”s wife to another clan, or even to the enemy, was highly valued among the Kazakhs. The two families agree on the terms of the marriage, in particular the amount of the dowry and the price of the bride.
The wedding itself consists of two parts: the wedding of the bride, a festivity that takes place one or more days before the wedding and takes place at the home of the bride”s parents, and then the official act at the mosque and the festivities at the home of the groom”s parents. The wedding night is also supervised; in case of non-virginity of the bride, the groom was entitled to cancel the marriage. An evolution of these traditions could be observed nowadays.
Although the strengthening of traditions in Central Asia is less felt in Kazakhstan, it is frowned upon not to be married after 25 years. Today, despite strong religious identification, the majority of Kazakhs consider it acceptable to have sex before marriage.
Hospitality is considered a sacred duty by Kazakhs, and the visitor is under the protection of the host. The visitor arriving in the yurt, even for a short time, must sit down and eat a piece of bread, unless he is looking for lost cattle. The visitor is given the best pieces.
A tradition that the Kazakhs share with the Kyrgyz, even if it is found more nowadays among the latter, is to erect a funeral yurt. This yurt was initially used to accommodate the sick person, as if to put him in quarantine, but this practice has disappeared nowadays. The mullah or the aksakal was invited to come and say a prayer for the dying person as his end approached or a little before, to accompany the patient. The sick person who feels that death is approaching should turn to Mecca as a sign to all that he is about to pass away.
Shortly after death, the deceased is placed in the funeral yurt, where his or her mortuary cleansing is performed. The body was traditionally laid on the ground, on a clover bed, with the face towards Mecca (according to the Muslim tradition) and the head towards the North Star (tradition of shamanic origin). The deceased lies in the funeral yurt for three days, sometimes less if it is too hot. Before the funeral, four people are designated to carry out a second mortuary cleansing. It was then customary for one person to guard the dead person, and to ride seven times around the yurt, but this last practice has disappeared.
A cemetery was built according to the clan, where burials were made according to clan and jüz membership.
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The Kazakh language belongs to the subgroup of Kiptchak languages of the Turkic language group. Together with Nogai, Karagasse and Karakalpak it belongs to the Nogai (Ru) language group. It is closely related to other Central Asian languages: Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, Turkmen, but not to Tajik which belongs to the Iranian group of Indo-European languages. It has the status of an official language in Kazakhstan and in the Kazakh autonomous prefecture of Ili in China, and is used in some official publications in the Altai Republic. The number of speakers of Kazakh is estimated to be between 12 and 15 million people.
The formation and development of the Kazakh language, which is close to contemporary Kazakh, took place during the 13th-14th centuries within the Golden Horde, where communications were gradually carried out mainly in Turkic languages. The language has not undergone any major alteration since then. Between the 13th and the beginning of the 20th century, literary works were in Turkic (en), the language that is the origin of the local Turkic languages of Central Asia. Literary Kazakh (ru) is based on the Northeast Kazakh dialect, which was used by the authors Abai Kunanbayly and Ibrai Altynsarin (en). According to Sarsen Amanjolov (en), the Kazakh language has three main dialects: Western, Northeastern and Southern. The first two are the result of tribal mixtures of Kazakhs over the centuries, while the southern dialect has strong Kyrgyz and Uzbek influences due to the rule of the Khanate of Kokand over the southern Kazakh tribes for several centuries.
Since the independence of Kazakhstan in 1991, purist tendencies began to surround the Kazakh language. In particular, words from abroad, although generally accepted and used by the population, are translated by linguists as neologisms. The Kazakh language has been influenced by Russian in the former Soviet republics. A significant part of the recent lexicon is made up of borrowings from this language. As a result, there are minor differences between Kazakh spoken in the former USSR and Kazakh spoken in Western China (mainly Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture), which was not exposed to the same influences during the 20th century, and in Western Mongolia.
Not all Kazakhs are fluent in Kazakh, but most Kazakhs in Kazakhstan speak Russian; Oralmans generally know Kazakh better than long-time Kazakhs. In northern Kazakhstan, especially in the cities and in Almaty, the use of Kazakh was long supplanted by Russian and often limited to the family circle. After the country”s independence, Kazakh appeared to be a threatened language. The government reacted by granting the status of official language to Kazakh only, to the detriment of Russian. Kazakh is now compulsory for all citizens of the country, regardless of their ethnicity. Kazakh is also still used, along with Russian, by Kazakhs in the Russian Federation, although the language is being lost over the generations.
Kazakhs, like all Turkic peoples, are historically descended from peoples using the Orkhon alphabet (between the 7th and 10th centuries). The expansion of Islam spread the use of the Arabic alphabet among the Kazakhs in the early 10th century, with notable changes of course. Kazakhs in China still use Kazakh script in characters derived from the Arabic alphabet, according to the reform of Akhmet Baitursinoff, alongside the Han script; Uyghurs also use this alphabet. During the Soviet period, the Kazakh language was first, for political purposes and in particular to eliminate the Muslim and Turkic roots among the peoples of the USSR, transcribed into Latin characters in 1926, then transcribed into Cyrillic characters in 1939. Contemporary Kazakh has used a 42-letter Cyrillic alphabet since 1940. The government of Kazakhstan plans to begin a process of Latinization of Kazakh by 2025; however, there are currents of thought that this reform could harm the language, which is already in a fragile situation.
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The Kazakhs were traditionally shamanists (they have historically been in contact with Zoroastrianism, Christianity (especially Nestorianism), Buddhism and Manichaeism. The first appearance of Islam probably took place around the 8th century. Islam had a harder time advancing among the nomadic Turkic peoples than among the sedentary ones, especially because of their strong adherence to Tengrism. The spread of Islam took place over several centuries, starting in southern Kazakhstan, first imposing itself on the Jetyssou and Syr Darya regions. Proclaimed the state religion by the Qarakhanids in the 10th century, its progress was slowed down by the Mongolian shamanic influence of the great conquests of Genghis Khan, but continued during the following centuries. The khans of the Golden Horde Berké (1255-1266) and Özbeg (1312-1340) converted to Islam, which had a strong Sufi tendency among Turks during this period.
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For a long time Kazakh clothing remained simple and functional. They had similar forms for all social categories, but with certain variations according to rank or age. The most elegant ornaments were decorated with fur, embroidery and jewelry. Traditionally, locally produced materials such as leather, fur, fine felt and cloth were used for clothing. Clothes made from imported products – silk, brocade, velvet – were a mark of prosperity. Cotton was quite common.
Kazakhs have always appreciated leather and fur. Winter clothing, which had to be adapted to the extreme conditions of the Kazakh steppes, could be made of sheepskin, such as ton (Kazakh: тон), or fur, such as chach (Kazakh: шаш).
Kazakh women traditionally wore a dress and a vest. Outerwear was similar to that of men, but sometimes included some ornamentation. Headgear was an indicator of marital status; young girls wore a characteristic headdress, similar for all tribes, while the headdress of married women showed more significant variations according to location. Girls wore a round hat usually covered with satin, the takyya (Kazakh: такыя), and the borik (Kazakh: борик), a tall, pointed conical hat with a base trimmed with fur or sheepskin. Owl feathers could be planted atop the takyya, being considered a talisman. During the wedding, the bride wore the expensive saukele (ru) (Kazakh: Сәукеле), a 70 cm high conical hat adorned with precious stones and decorations all with powerful symbolic meaning. The saukele was part of the dowry, and was prepared long before the girl reached marriageable age; it was worn on the wedding day and afterwards during important festivities. The kimechek (with a veil attached to the headdress, it covered the neck, shoulders, chest and part of the back.
Men wore different hats, another form of takyya, and winter and summer headdresses. The summer hat, or kalpak (Kazakh: калпак) was made of felt, usually white. The borik and tymak (Kazakh: тымак) were winter hats. The latter, designed with fur earmuffs (fox being considered the most prestigious) that also cover the neck, is still popular today. The bachyk (Kazakh: башлык) is another headgear worn mainly among the small and middle jüz in the nineteenth century, traditionally made of camel felt.
As Kazakhs have always been a horsemen people, pants were an important part of their costume from very early on. The main outer garment was the chapan (en) (Kazakh: Шапан, a kind of dress worn by men. It was possible to wear several on top of each other; in order to mark their status, chiefs thus wore two or three, even during the summer, with the most valuable one on the outside.
At other times, men”s and women”s shoes were relatively similar. The shoes varied according to the seasons. In winter, Kazakhs wore high boots over their felt socks, with high heels (about 6-8 cm) for young people and lower heels for older people. There is another type of light boots, without heel, called itchigi (Kazakh: ичиги) or masi Kazakh: маси).
The ornaments were very varied, and were widely applied to hats, boots, and clothing. Carnelian, coral, pearls, and colored glass were used to set women”s gold, silver, copper, and bronze jewelry. Earrings, bracelets and rings are found in their finery, including the besilezik (Kazakh: бес бiлезiк), a bracelet linked to three rings. The belts, an indispensable part of the dress of both men and women, were skilfully decorated with embroidery and studded with silver. The choice of jewelry depended on age, social and marital status, and even clan.
Under the USSR, Kazakhs adopted a Western style of dress, and this fashion has continued to this day. Independent Kazakhstan has seen the development of a Kazakh fashion trend, which managed to be represented once at the Paris Fashion Week in 2008.
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Composing songs was an integral part of Kazakh life, whether they were created to express love or grief. A widespread form of Kazakh musical art is the kui, a piece of traditional instrumental music, listed as a World Heritage Site since 2014. The kui is characterized by a simple, mixed and variable meter, with a wide variety of forms, ranging from the simplest melody to a very elaborate multi-instrument piece. Kuai music can include parts in pentatonic scale and be based on a diatonic scale.
Traditional Kazakh music is very much influenced by Mongolian shamanic music and Turkish world music. It has its own instruments, such as the dombra or kobyz, which it sometimes shares with Kyrgyz music and some of which are derived from shamanic music (percussion instruments such as the Asatayak, the jaw harp (shankobyz (Kazakh: Шаңқобыз)).
During the 1930s, Kazakh traditional music was given pride of place in the USSR, including the classification of its genres by Alexander Zatayevich (en). Gradually, under Soviet influence, new forms of music were integrated by Kazakhs: Kazakh musicians such as Akhmet Zhubanov (kk) studied music in Moscow and composed classical music (operas such as Abai, ballets, etc.), and conservatories were created. Various international musical genres inspired Kazakh musicians, who appropriated this culture (resulting in folk music groups such as Dos-Mukassan (ru)) or mixed it with their musical heritage, which contributed to the survival of Kazakh traditional music (see Turan ensemble).
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Kazakh literature was for a long time of oral tradition, and was finally put into writing only from the end of the 19th century. It was characterized by historical or heroic epics, historical songs, and genealogical writings (see Kazakh chejire). An essential actor in the perpetuation of the oral heritage is the jyrau, a storyteller who recounts the epics, unlike the akyn, who composes new works, and improvises poems during aïtys (verbal jousts) accompanied by the dombra. The declamations must be accompanied by music.
Modern Kazakh literature began to form only in the second half of the nineteenth century, especially under the influence of the Russians and Western culture. One of the most emblematic authors of modern Kazakh literature is Abai Kunanbayuly, who gave birth to the Kazakh literary language. Kazakh literature diversified under the USSR while following the axis of patriotic themes.
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Although the first film studio in Kazakhstan dates back to 1935, Kazakh film production was not supported by the USSR until 1941, mainly at the request of the Lenfilm studio, which had been relocated to Kazakhstan. When Lenfilm withdrew from Kazakhstan, film production was carried out by the Kazakhfilm (en) studio. The first film that deeply marked the history of Kazakh cinema was Amangueldy (ru), shot in 1938 by Lenfilm, but featuring Kazakhs on a theme from their history. The history of Kazakh cinema under the USSR is characterized by numerous revivals, due to the political use of the commemorative events to which the films were devoted.
Kazakh cinema has faced a problem of audience, especially since the independence of Kazakhstan: Kazakh films are less successful in Kazakhstan than abroad (for example, the director Amir Karakoulov is better known in Europe than in Kazakhstan). The cinema in Kazakhstan is still today a political and ideological lever, turned among other things towards the creation of a national unity by trying to emphasize Kazakh history and myths (as in the case of the 2005 film Nomad).
In Kazakhstan, the most screened films are mostly American, Russian, Turkish and Chinese.
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The main Kazakh dishes are based on meat, eaten four to five times a day, especially mutton, beef, horse, and more rarely camel (according to other sources, it is unlikely that meat was on the menu every day because of the need to preserve livestock, and dairy products would be at the center of the Kazakh diet). Game is rarely on the menu. Fruits and vegetables were traditionally not consumed by Kazakhs, except for garlic and wild onions from the harvest; food was systematically consumed cooked. It is the influence of the sedentary peoples they were living with, especially the Russians, then the USSR, that the Kazakhs began to consume other vegetables and starchy foods (bread, potato, rice, and pasta). Kazakhs did not use spices. They preserved their food by salting, fermenting, smoking or drying.
Kazakhs from other regions than Kazakhstan have adopted a different diet: Kazakhs from Uzbekistan eat little meat, those from China eat pork without seeing it as a violation of the Muslim ban and do not drink tea.
Meat is often eaten boiled because it keeps its fat, which is important in Kazakh diet. Nowadays Kazakhs cook more with electricity, but traditional cooking was done over a wood fire, whether the food was roasted or grilled. The pieces of meat and organs had a special meaning for Kazakhs, and their distribution to family members and guests during a meal is codified.
The Kazakh national dish is beshbarmak (barmak, “finger”). It consists of homemade flat noodles (kespe), boiled horse meat and a broth poured over the dish.
Other popular dishes are kuyrdak (made from pieces of meat and liver, kidneys, flab, heart, etc. ), sirne (Kazakh: сiрне – lamb prepared in a kazan, the main cooking utensil of Kazakhs, with onions and potatoes) and palau (Kazakh: палау – Kazakh-style plov with a large amount of meat and carrots), kepse or salma (noodle soup), sorpa (meat broth), ak-sorpa (milk and meat broth, or sometimes simple meat broth with added qurt). The main course is often also made up of different kinds of sausages: kazys (horse sausages, the fat content of which varies according to the kind), soudjouks and hams. In the past, pastoralists also consumed stuffed belly cooked in ash (similar to haggis), but nowadays this dish is considered exotic by Kazakhs themselves. Other examples include mantıs, large steamed meat ravioli, and pelmeni. Kazakh food is influenced by Russian, Chinese, Indian and Turkish cuisines. There are samossas, chachliks, Russian salads… Horse meat is commonly eaten boiled or in sausages. The most famous smoked fish dish is koktal (ru), which is served with vegetables.
One of the best perpetuated Kazakh traditions, called sogym (Kazakh: согым), is to buy and cook a horse for the winter at the first frost.
In addition to meat dishes, there are a wide variety of milk-based dishes and drinks: koumis (mare”s milk fermented by the action of yeast and lactic bacteria), shubat (fermented camel”s milk), goat”s or sheep”s milk kefir, milk, cream, cottage cheese are also widely used, as well as qatiq (en). Qurt is made from qatiq, and is dried for winter consumption. Various forms of yogurt are also popular.
Several types of flat breads are traditionally prepared by Kazakhs, including naan, lepiochka or shelpek (Central Asian round bread) and baursaki. These breads were baked in kazan. Kazakhs also consumed cereals in the form of porridges, either millet (a sweet form of these porridges is jent (ru).
Any meal eaten in the dastarkhān ends with tea, also a popular drink. Tea is strong there, and drunk with milk or even cream; tea consumption in Kazakhstan is one of the highest in the world (10th most tea-consuming country per capita in 2016). It is accompanied by sweets such as balkaimak or çäkçäk.
Kazakhstan is the country of origin of the cultivated apple (see History of the apple), the oldest known cultivated variety being Malus sieversii, whose genome originated in Kazakhstan about 50 million years ago; this fact was confirmed by genetic analysis in 2010. This is what gave its name to the former capital, Almaty, composed in the Soviet era of (алма) meaning “apple”, to which was added ata (ата), “father”, which gave Alma-Ata “father of apples”.
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Kazakhs traditionally practiced a number of sports and games, especially mounted. These sports, often aiming at developing a useful equestrian control in time of war, ended up being more or less abandoned during the sedentarization under the USSR. They are again put forward by the revival of traditions promoted by independent Kazakhstan, in particular by the creation of the Association of National Sports, or the participation in the World Nomadic Games.
Several types of horse races can be distinguished among Kazakh equestrian sports. A very popular race is the taig, which is held in autumn or spring and is run over long distances (on average 20-30 km), which is very demanding for both horse and rider. There are several variants, depending on the age of the horses and the difficulty of the race: the taï-baïge is run over about ten kilometers and involves one and a half year old horses ridden bareback by children, the kounan-baïge is run by two year old horses over about twenty kilometers, and the baïge-alaman is run over about forty kilometers. Another type of race is the jorga-jarys, which is run on a straddling horse. This race, usually over a short distance (between 2 and 3 km for women, and between 4 and 6 km for men), must be run at a pacing pace. The referees note each failure to respect this pace, and disqualify the rider on the third infraction.
Kazakhs practiced various equestrian games. Some were aimed at demonstrating the individual value of the rider, and involved forms of Cossack acrobatics, such as tenge alu, where riders had to pick up coins from the ground, jamby atu, a game of skill where the galloping rider had to hit a target by shooting an arrow (maiden chase), a race where, in a first step, the rider tries to catch up with the rider to give her a kiss, and where in a second step, the rider has to catch up with the rider to hit him with her knout. Other games were more aimed at training riders in peacetime to better prepare for war; this is the case of Kok-par, a team equestrian game where riders compete for a goat carcass, saïys (Kazakh: Сайыс), a kind of equestrian jousting, aoudaryspak, an equestrian wrestling close to Er Enish, or Kazakh tartyspak: Тартыспак, a team equestrian game. All sorts of outdoor activities were done on horseback, including a form of mounted tug-of-war (Kazakh: Аркан-тарту).
Apart from sports involving horses, a number of other disciplines were popular among Kazakhs, such as Kazakh kuresh, a form of wrestling, bourkut-salu (hunting with eagles) and other forms of hunting, including salburun, practiced more by the Kazakhs of Bayan-Ölgii.
Kazakhs play many contemporary sports, including soccer and ice hockey, which became popular during the Soviet era, and excel in a number of disciplines, such as boxing and cycling (see sports in Kazakhstan). Kazakhs enjoy winter sports, as well as water polo.
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The traditional games popular among Kazakhs are:
Kazakhs also played games more familiar to the West, such as backgammon, dominoes, and card games; during the Soviet era, they began to excel at chess. Kazakhs also played xiangqi and mahjong.
The perception of important figures in Kazakh history may have varied from period to period, especially with regard to the leaders of revolts, who are idealized today but treated as outlaws in the textbooks of the USSR.
The political figures honored, in its quest for identity, by the independent Kazakhstan led by Nursultan Nazarbayev, are those who helped bring the Kazakh nation together. We find Janibek Khan and Kereï Khan, founders of the Kazakh Khanate, but also Kassym Khan (en), who extended the territory of the khanate in the 16th century. Among the notable Khans, Abylai Khan is also put in the first rank. Kenessary Kassymov, through the very unifying revolt movement he led in the 19th century, is also among the notable Kazakh figures. Among modern leaders, Kazakhs commemorate Dinmukhammed Kunayev, Kazakh leader of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.
The other people highlighted by the Kazakhs are also figures who have had a unifying influence on the nation, particularly in the religious field, with Ahmed Yasavi, or linguistic, in particular Abaï Kounanbaïouly, founder of the Kazakh literary language, or Moukhtar Aouézov.
Artistic personalities such as Roza Rymbayeva (en) or literary personalities such as Ybyrai Altynsarin (en), Akhmet Baïtoursinoff and Tchokan Valikhanov also had a certain renown, especially throughout the USSR.
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