Written by: Kagan Arik
Mon, 25 May 1998

The Kirghiz and their national epic Manas

The Kirghiz are one of the most ancient peoples of Eurasia. In their language, which is related to Turkish, Kirghiz means The Forty, possibly because the nation was made up of forty tribes. Old Chinese texts mention that they used to live along the Yenisey river in southern central Siberia over fifteen centuries ago. From there, they migrated south over one thousand years ago and settled in the areas where they live now. Most of them live in the Republic of Kirghizstan, which used to be part of the Soviet Union until 1991, and some live in China and in Afghanistan. The Kirghiz were nomads, or semi-nomads, for most of their known history. They bred horses, sheep and cattle (yaks), practiced a little agriculture and hunting, and were very skilled at metalwork. Both the horses which they bred, and the iron swords which they made, were famous throughout Asia for their quality. Their lifestyle as nomads meant that they spent the summers in the cool mountain slopes, and the winters in the warmer valleys. This way, they made good use of the landscape and the seasons in order to keep themselves and their herds of animals warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and well-fed at all times.

They also traded with neighboring peoples, bartering what they produced in exchange of items which they needed but did not produce themselves. For example, they gave horses and iron weapons to the Chinese in the south, and got silk for their clothing in exchange. They traded meat and milk in exchange of cereals, fruit and vegetables with the Sogdians and other oasis peoples to the west. They also worked as paid soldiers for a number of their neighbors, since they were famous for their ability as brave and disciplined warriors, especially as horse-riding archers. Some of them became famous generals in the Chinese, Persian and Arab armies. Because they were nomads, the Kirghiz preferred not to have a lot of heavy material possessions. Their homes, for example, were portable. These homes were shaped like a dome, and could be set up or packed away in less than half an hour. They were made of a collapsible, lightweight reed frame, around which panels of felt were installed. The Kirghiz got the reed framework from plants which grew around rivers and lakes, and the felt from compressing wool from their domestic sheep and goats. Brand new felt homes were called 'aq uy,' or white home, because the new felt was as white as the wool used to make them. As time went by, the felt would age and turn grey, and such a house would be then called 'boz uy,' or grey house. In English, such houses are called yurts, and this is a word that we got from the Russians, who began to invade the Kirghiz homeland last century. Yurt, in the Turkic language of the Kirghiz, means homeland or country, but it does not mean house. However, it must have been easier to pronounce than 'uy,' and so the word stuck, to mean the felt house used by the nomadic Turkic and Mongolian peoples of Eurasia.

The Kirghiz knew how to write, using an alphabet known as the Turkic Runic Script to European scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries. But, they preferred not to use their writing ability on a daily basis. Keeping written records would have meant having to carry the written materials around during migrations, which was not practical. They did leave some written records on monuments for the dead, however, and some of these monuments of stone still exist, either on the spots where they were left, or in museums to which they were taken by archeologists and other outsiders. The Kirghiz recorded their history and culture in the form of very long poems, known as oral epics. These epics were not written, but instead memorized and passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Many of them described the lives and adventures of well-known heroes, who accomplished extraordinary deeds in their lifetimes, defending their people against enemies.

The greatest and best known of these heroes is a man called Manas. No one really knows when the real Manas lived, or whether he really even existed, but you could say the same about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table in Camelot. The fact is, he exists today for the Kirghiz, and for other Turkic-speaking peoples, inside of a long, detailed and beautiful epic called Manas. Recent scholarly studies have also identified the legendary hero Manas with certain real historical figures, such as Mete Khan, king of the ancient Turks, who fought the Chinese almost two thousand years ago. The epic of Manas begins with the story of his parents, and his birth, and continues with his life story, and then of his son Semetey and his grandson Seytek. It includes the story of the battles of the Kirghiz against their enemies, but also gives details about the culture of the Kirghiz, and about the world as it was known to the Kirghiz in past centuries. Although written records about the history of the Kirghiz and their neighbors are scarce, the epic of Manas is full of information on these topics. The epic also provides a lot of information about the customs of the Kirghiz in past centuries. Through the epic, the Kirghiz were able to pass on the knowledge and wisdom of their elders to the younger generations.

The people who learned and sang the epic are called Manaschi. They still exist today and are very respected members of their communities. They evolved over time from the shamans of the Kirghiz people. A manaschi candidate has to become an apprentice at a young age to one or more elder manaschis, and learns parts of the epic by listening to the elders perform it for many years. When he or she is ready, Manas or some other character in the epic will appear to the candidate in a dream, and instruct the candidate to perform the epic. From that point on, the candidate becomes a true manaschi, and often has the ability to improvise his or her own version of the epic. Manaschi who can thus improvise their own version are called Great Manaschi, while those who merely repeat someone else's version are called Half Manaschi.

Nowadays, it is possible to learn Manas at a conservatory, and many young Kirghiz are doing so. But, is this the same as the old way of apprenticeship and dream initiation? When the Kirghiz were conquered by the Russians and later incorporated into the Soviet Union, singing the epic was heavily repressed. Many Manaschi were deported to Siberia or killed. In later years of the Soviet period, it was once again possible to sing Manas, but the epic had to be shortened and modified to suit the needs of Soviet propaganda. The epic hero Manas was thus made into a communist working class hero. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kirghizstan became an independent nation, and efforts were made to revive the epic Manas. In 1995, the Kirghiz celebrated the 1000th anniversary of the epic Manas, and staged a year-long festival to which people came from around the world. UNESCO declared 1995 The Year of Manas. Not only was the epic revived, but in fact it became the focal point of the rebirth of Kirghiz culture, which had been repressed for over 70 years. Manas was taught at schools and conservatories, and films were made about the epic and its hero. Scenes from Manas were used in art contests among schoolchildren, and statues of Manas and famous manaschi replaced statues of Lenin and other Soviet leaders in many Kirghiz cities.

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