You need to upgrade your Flash Player
Central Asia

Nowruz with many spellings and pronouncements is celebrated in various forms in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as well as in Afghanistan. Central Asia is a core region of the Asian continent from the Caspian Sea in the west, China in the east, Afghanistan in the south, and Russia in the north. It is also sometimes referred to as Middle Asia and is within the scope of the wider Eurasian continent.

Various definitions of its exact composition exist, and no one definition is universally accepted. Despite this uncertainty in defining borders, it does have some important overall characteristics. For one, Central Asia has historically been closely tied to its nomadic peoples and the Silk Road. As a result, it has acted as a crossroads for the movement of people, goods, and ideas between Europe, West Asia, South Asia, and East Asia.

In modern contexts, all definitions of Central Asia consensually include these five republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan (pop. 16.0 million), Kyrgyzstan (5.5 million), Tajikistan (7.3 million), Turkmenistan (5.1 million), and Uzbekistan (27.6 million), for a total population of 61.5 million as of 2009. Other areas often included are Mongolia, Afghanistan, northern and western Pakistan, northeastern Iran, Kashmir, and sometimes Xinjiang in western China and southern Siberia in Russia.

During pre-Islamic and early Islamic times, Central Asia was a predominantly Iranian region that included sedentary Sogdians, Chorasmians and semi-nomadic Scythians, Alans. The ancient sedentary population played an important role in the history of Central Asia. After expansion by Turkic peoples, Central Asia also became the homeland for many Turkic peoples, including the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uyghurs, and Central Asia is sometimes referred to as Turkestan. The borders of Central Asia are subject to multiple definitions.

Central Asia is an extremely large region of varied geography, including high passes and mountains (Tian Shan), vast deserts (Kara Kum, Kyzyl Kum, Taklamakan), and especially treeless, grassy steppes.

Nawruz in Kazakhstan
Life on the Steppe, Past and Present

It is wonderful to see southern Kazakhstan in spring from the windows of a train – the wide rolling lands shimmer bright green with new grass, the high peaked Tien Shan mountains are covered with snow glinting in the sunlight, herds of sheep and baby lambs graze under the watch of shepherds on horseback, unfettered horses run free with their manes flying in the wind. Kazakhstan is big sky country, a land of wide vistas where you can feel the spaciousness of the earth and the height of the mountains. As you travel you can see the wide plains interspersed with small villages where slope roofed houses sit surrounded by white flowering trees and gardens. People are active in the villages - digging, hauling water, making repairs—as the passing train gives snapshots of life in progress. It’s even difficult to remember that not long ago the snow and wind had ruled this land. This is Kazakhstan in the month of Nawruz (March), when the earth comes back to life after the long winter.

Kazakhstan is a land of extremes – cold in winter, hot in summer. Kazakhstan is a huge country, much of it the grassy steppe that separates the alpine mountains of the south and east from the Siberian pine forests of the north. The country has little precipitation and a great deal of sun and wind. The pleasant green days of spring belie the challenges of living in these steppe-lands, challenges that Kazakhs have faced for millennia and still face today: little arable land, scarce water resources, extreme climate conditions.

For longer than anyone really knows, Kazakhs have celebrated New Year on the spring equinox as the holiday of Nawruz [Наурыз]. But in Kazakhstan, Nawruz is not so much a celebration of spring as it is a celebration of survival. Survival of the harsh winter of the steppes is at the core of this holiday, which, though inspired at some time in the distant past by Iranian Nooruz, was transformed by the Kazakhs to reflect the life cycle of the steppe and the more ancient spring rituals of nomadic culture.

Before the 20th century, traditional Kazakh life was perfectly adapted to life on the steppe. The Kazakhs were pastoralists, living in communities that moved from summer pastures to winter pastures to avoid the harshest weather and take advantage of their vast territory to graze their herds; a social-economic organization called pastoral nomadism. Families of nomads lived in ingenious mobile houses called yurts, sturdy dwellings built on wooden frames that are easy to put up and take down. Yurts are lined inside with thick felt carpets decorated with designs favoring bright tones of red, embracing all inhabitants with warmth and color. The nomadic Kazakhs were herders, living off of their livestock, and life depended on indigenous knowledge of natural cycles and a solid social organization; when extreme winter conditions threatened, or when enemies attacked, everyone must know their role. Even ordinary pursuits such as how to preserve food, how to help flocks give birth, and how to navigate by the stars were matters of life and death that required knowledge and training. This knowledge had to be passed down to each generation by older men and women, who were held in a position of the highest respect as wise people and teachers. No one would survive if they did not listen to their elders, and to this day respect for elders is fundamental to Kazakh culture. Women were also vital to survival in nomadic culture, and needed to know how to ride and fight. The generations of ancestors are especially revered, the legends of their wisdom and courage are still told in epics by Kazakh bards called zhirau.

If you make a brief visit to Kazakhstan today, however, you will not at first see much of nomadic culture – in fact, will have to follow your eco-tour guide a long way into the hinterlands to find the few communities still living in yurts. Today’s Kazakhs live in houses and apartments, they have satellite TV and high speed internet, drive an SUV instead of the traditional horse. Kazakhstan’s cultural metropolis Almaty has a truly cosmopolitan vibe, and the capitol city of Astana is modern to the point of being futuristic. Kazakhs are well educated and sophisticated, and you may find yourself talking world affairs in a remote village with people who are better informed than many a westerner.

However, looking deeper into the life of modern Kazakhs, you will find that their culture is strongly infused with values rooted in their nomadic past but folded into their continuing history, a history that includes the multicultural heritage of the Silk Road, the religious and intellectual influence of Islam, and the triumphs and tragedies of the Soviet experience. The early 20th century was especially difficult for Kazakhstan as independence movements were crushed by the Red Army and nomads were forced to settle on collective farms with great suffering and a terrible loss of life. Having been colonized first by the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, for 200 years Kazakhstan shared with Russia the vicissitudes of its history – revolution, terror, industrialization, World War, stability, collapse, and now renewal. Kazakhstan boasted the pride of Soviet science--the space complex Baikonur, from which rockets still fly– and suffered the USSR’s greatest shame--the nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk which sickened whole communities with illness and birth defects from which many still suffer today. For Kazakhs, surviving the 20th century has been a long and difficult road.

Kazakhstan is also a multiethnic nation. Over the past two hundred years the region absorbed many Russians and Ukrainians moving into the empire’s frontiers, and in the Soviet era it became home to whole populations exiled by Stalin, including Chechens, Meskhetian Turks, Tatars, Koreans and Germans. Other Central Asian peoples, such as Uzbeks and Uighurs, have long lived within its boarders, and the country today has over 100 ethnic minorities who share Russian as a common language. Nonetheless, Kazakh language and culture infuse and define this country, which is firmly and peaceably multicultural and multisectarian. Nawruz today is celebrated as a holiday for every Kazakhstani, in full awareness of the struggles of the past, the complexity of the present, and the hopes of what this ancient yet young country, born in 1991, has yet to come.

The Nawruz Holiday

The role that the holiday of Nawruz has played in modern Kazakhstan is a complex one. Strongly discouraged and at times banned during the Soviet Period, Nawruz went underground, persisting quietly in villages and city apartments. Many Kazakhs have memories of their grandparents celebrating Nawruz during this time, cooking the traditional Nawruz-kozhe and inviting their neighbors to share. In the 1980s, during the heyday of Glasnost’, film director Sabit Kurmanbekov tells how in a daring move he and other Kazakh students held an open Nawruz celebration at the Kazakh consulate in Moscow. At that time Nawruz was a subversive holiday, celebrated as an affirmation of Kazakh cultural identity, and the survival of this holiday through the 20th century is a testament to the quiet persistence of the Kazakh spirit. I felt the strength of this spirit on Nawruz day when I went to my neighborhood fruit seller, a dignified woman in her 60s, to buy pears to bring visiting as a gift; “Happy holiday!” I said to her – “And a very good holiday it is,” she answered, looking at me seriously. “A very good holiday indeed.”

After the independence of Kazakhstan in 1991, the celebration of Nawruz was transformed. It became a recognized state holiday with lavish public celebrations meant to unite all Kazakhstanis. In Almaty I witnessed three days of festivities in the central square -- yurts were set up in which traditional arts and crafts were demonstrated and sold, actors and musicians performed in traditional Kazakh dress, berkutchi with hunting eagles on their arms strolled through the urban crowds. In the midst of these somewhat staged folkloric festivities a wall of canvas had been set up where young people were intently spray-painting murals reflecting their own ideas of Nawruz. One young man who had done an abstract of flying shapes explained to me “This is the earth coming back to life - it’s the sun, the spring, everybody feels it.”

Nawruz-kozhe, Nawruz Traditions

At the center of Almaty’s Nawruz celebration was a giant kazan perched over a fire, a huge cooking pot boiling Nawruz-kozhe to share with the entire city. For Kazakhs, Nawruz-kozhe is an essential feature of the holiday--more than a soup, it is a symbol of unity, made in a large kazan and meant to be shared with your friends, family, and neighbors. In some villages it was customary for every household to add their Nawruz-kozhe to a central pot to share. “The kazan signifies abundance,” Almira Ablayeva explained to me, and a kazan filled with Nawruz-kozhe expresses shared blessings and bounty for the whole community, the very roundness of the kazan reflecting the cycles of nature on which Nawruz is based.

Nawruz-kozhe must be prepared from seven ingredients. What exactly makes up these ingredients can differ across regions, but all agree that there should be meat, milk and grains; most commonly water, meat, milk, kurt (cultured cheese), wheat, rice, and millet. Every ingredient has significance. The meat used in the Nawruz-kozhe should be the last of the preserved salted meat that had been slaughtered in the fall. As one student told me, “in our village we slaughter one horse and three sheep in the fall - the meat is dried and salted and eaten all winter.” Scholar Zauresh Axmetzhanova explains that throwing all the winter’s leftover meat into the Nawruz-kozhe expresses faith that spring will overflow with fresh new food – not just meat but also the milk of the herds giving birth. “People think nomad culture is just about meat,” she told me. “But it’s not - its also about milk – the life-giving milk that comes in the spring, when the livestock bear their young….That is why white is so important to Kazakhs. It is the white of milk, of new life, of spring, of purity, of innocence.” And indeed, many Nawruz blessings include the expression “white,” such as “Ak mol bolsin” “May your livestock be white [give abundant milk]” meaning “May your life be filled with abundance and goodness.” The soup cooks for a whole day, finally tasting like a rich, milky stew. After eating the Nawruz-kozhe, the oldest person at the table says a blessing, wishing all health, happiness, and a “white road” in life.

Another central element of Nawruz is the celebration of the spring equinox, the balancing point between winter and spring, day and night. Astronomical cycles have always been important to Kazakhs; as scholar Asiya Muxambetova points out, nomads needed to steer by the stars and had developed accurate planetary calendars since ancient times. These calendars, she feels, deeply reflected the Kazakh’s spiritual relationship with natural cycles. “Nawruz is a time of the meeting between worlds… during this time God is close to the earth, and prayers can be heard.” Many Kazakhs feel that their spirituality is expressed in a unique understanding of Islam combined with older religious beliefs called Tengriism (from Tengri, the ancient sky God). Tengriism is based on the maintenance of balance and respect between human, natural and spiritual worlds. Communication between worlds is possible, especially in holy places where the borders are thin, such as the graves of saints or power points of the earth where there are sacred rocks and springs. Nawruz, when dark and light are in perfect balance, is sacred in time, just as places can be sacred in space – a time when one can reach beyond boundaries and communicate with other worlds, an auspicious time to pray and ask for blessings. However, it must be said that some Kazakhs do not consider Nawruz to be a spiritual holiday in this sense, and distinguish it from religious holidays such as Eid.

Nonetheless, there is still a strong association of the holiday with the legendary Muslim saint Khyzyr Ata, or Khydyr Ata. Khyzyr Ata, the protector of nomads and travelers, has a special resonance for Kazakhs. There is a Nawruz legend that on the night of March 21st Khyzyr Ata goes around the world and visits only those houses that are clean and in good order. Many remember their grandparents helping them set out a table full of food for Khyzyr Ata when they were children. Thus Nawruz is also a time to put your house in order and make it sparkling clean. You should also put your inner house in order, as Saltanat Zarkhpay told me, making up with anyone you have had conflicts with and resolving any long standing problems. Planting trees is another Nawruz tradition, often done in community settings such as schools. Nawruz is a time to start everything new, and the warming days and brilliant wildflowers of the Kazakh March feel as if they are granting nature’s blessing.

Today’s generation, however, takes on these blessings with an awareness of their challenges. “My painting is about the coming New Year” one young spray-painter in Almaty told me, “but there are unknowns – he’s not sure what’s coming, if it’s good or bad.” His painting was of a giant crab, somehow both reaching out and pulling in as various objects flew in at him from the sky. Many people in Kazakhstan are troubled with anxiety for the global future: for the climate, for the earth, for peace, for prosperity. And they know how hard life can be. Kazakhstan suffered a severe crisis in the 1990s when the country was plunged into sudden poverty after the fall of the Soviet Union, and its rise to stability has been a difficult climb. The celebration of survival, yes, but with full knowledge that it does not come without a struggle.

Kokpar - The Spirit of Struggle

In many regions of Kazakhstan, toughness and strength are celebrated at Nawruz with traditional games based in the need for superb horsemanship in nomadic culture. Although nomads no more, these games remain as a powerful reminder of the Kazakhs’ legacy as warriors as well as herders. Races include Kyz kuyu, where young men chase young women on horseback and try to kiss them while the young women fend them off with a whip, and Tenge tuyu, where a galloping rider has to lean over and pick up money from the ground. But by far, the premier Nawruz competition is Kokpar.

There are few regions where Kokpar is more popular than in southern Kazakhstan, in the open grasslands surrounding the city of Shymkent. Here there are star players, fanatic fans, expertly trained horses and sometimes huge tournaments drawing thousands. The sport has a strong tradition in here—as champion Sattarkhan Abdaliev told me, Kokpar was banned in the Soviet era but was played secretly in the mountains until it was finally allowed. Anyone with a horse and enough courage can show up at the games to play, and you can see wizened veterans, burley men, and young teenagers all competing on the same field, three generations sharing the same proud stance in the saddle, the same readiness for the fight.

I was fortunate to attend the Kokpar with photographer Said Atabekov, who risks his life on a regular basis to capture the spirit of the games. Kokpar is a sport where riders on horseback fight to get the headless carcass of a goat and throw it into a goal. It may sound grisly, but Kokpar-- played in a fast, fierce crush of flying whips, hands and hooves-- has a warlike beauty all its own and is thrilling to watch. At its most intensive moments Kokpar turns into a rapid swirl of horses and riders circling around a center -- a churning spiral that to Said reflects the most basic energies that drive the universe: the crashing of stars to form galaxies, the great cycles of nature, the clash of order and chaos, and the urge of humanity to throw ourselves into the struggle of existence, over and over again. As expressed in his photographs, to him Kokpar most perfectly expresses the true meaning of Nawruz for the Kazakh people, in its most raw and intensive expression.

Kokpar is a war game, reminding us that Nawruz is a celebration of survival. And survival in Kazakhstan, now as in past centuries, is a struggle requiring not only the strong community ties represented by the kazan, but also individual toughness, courage, and fighting spirit. Daily life in 21st century Kazakhstan is lived in the struggle of a transitional society in challenging times, demanding both mutual support and personal fortitude from everyone, from the youngest child to the oldest grandmother. It is perhaps these opposites –the strong collective ties combined with the spirit of the lone warrior -- that create the dynamism that drives Kazakh culture and infuses the celebration of Nawruz with continuing new life.

A Celebration for Us All

If we could find an American holiday that shares some resonance with Kazakh Nawruz, we might find common ground in the holiday of Thanksgiving. Although the comparison is an imperfect fit, nonetheless there are human constants in the appreciation of family, community, traditional foods, and thankfulness that runs through both holidays. As in the US at Thanksgiving, Kazakhs travel far to make sure they are with their families for Nawruz. The sharing of traditional food as a symbol of connection to the past and to the larger community is also held in common, and even the ritual of football on Thanksgiving day echoes the competition of Kokpar. And of course, though we often forget, Thanksgiving originated in the thankfulness for survival, a survival that required the generous help of the Native American community as much as it did individual fortitude--the survival of a new nation through very hard times, a feeling that Kazakhstanis can easily share.

Thus, when thinking of Nawruz, besides appreciating all of the unique aspects of its celebration in Kazakhstan – the kazan, the Nawruz-kozhe, the kokpar --we can also appreciate the common human feelings that resonate through this holiday, feelings that are some of humanity’s deepest and most cherished. And together with the Kazakhs we can all give thanks on March 22--For the return of the sun, for the world’s abundance, for our survival into the 21st century, and for the majestic cycles of life.

Anna Oldfield
May 2011
Almaty, Kazakhstan

Share on