Kazakhstan's People & Culture

Before the Russian colonization, the Kazakhs had a highly developed culture based on their nomadic pastoral economy. Although Islam was introduced to most of the Kazakhs in the 15th century, the religion was not fully assimilated until much later. As a result, it coexisted with earlier elements of Tengriism.

Traditional Kazakh belief held that separate spirits inhabited and animated the earth, sky, water and fire, as well as domestic animals. To this day, particularly honored guests in rural settings are treated to a feast of freshly killed lamb. Such guests are sometimes asked to bless the lamb and to ask its spirit for permission to partake of its flesh. Besides lamb, many other traditional foods retain symbolic value in Kazakh culture.

In the national cuisine, livestock meat can be cooked in a variety of ways and is usually served with a wide assortment of traditional bread products. Refreshments often include black tea and traditional milk-derived drinks such as ayran, shubat and kymyz. A traditional Kazakh dinner involves a multitude of appetisers on the table, followed by a soup and one or two main courses such as pilaf and beshbarmak. They also drink their national beverage, which consists of fermented mare's milk.

Because livestock was central to the Kazakhs' traditional lifestyle, most of their nomadic practices and customs relate in some way to livestock. Kazakhs have historically been very passionate about horse-riding. Traditional curses and blessings invoked disease or fecundity among animals, and good manners required that a person ask first about the health of a man's livestock when greeting him and only afterward inquire about the human aspects of his life. Even today, many Kazakhs express interest in equestrianism and horse-racing.

Kazakhstan is home to a large number of prominent contributors to literature, science and philosophy: Abay Qunanbayuli, Mukhtar Auezov, Gabit Musirepov, Kanysh Satpayev, Mukhtar Shakhanov, Saken Seyfullin, Jambyl Jabayev, among many others.

Kazakhstan features a lively music culture, evident in massive popularity of SuperStar KZ, a local offspring of Simon Fuller's Pop Idol. Almaty is considered to be the musical capital of the Central Asia, recently enjoying concerts by well-known artists such as Deep Purple, Tokio Hotel, Atomic Kitten, Dima Bilan, Loon, Craig David, The Black Eyed Peas, Eros Ramazzotti, Josť Carreras, Ace of Base, Scorpions (band), Timati, TiŽsto, among others. Tourism is becoming fasting growing industry in Kazakhstan and its is joining international tourism networking. In year 2010, Kazakhstan joined The Region Initiative (TRI) which is a Tri-regional Umbrella of Tourism related organisations. TRI is functioning as a link between three regions----South Asia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Armenia, Bangladesh, India, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Tajikistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine are now Partners and Kazakhstan is linked with other South Asian, Eastern European and Central Asian countries in tourism market.

Whereas rural Kazakhs have maintained some old traditions, particularly on display during festivals or weddings, most modern Kazakhs have mixed long enough with Slavs to make them seem almost European in their dress, work habits and home life. Their former nomadic lifestyle, however, has bequeathed a certain laid-back and open attitude which separates them from their Russian brethren.

Quality of life for most people in Kazakhstan has improved since the difficult years following independence. A middle class has emerged and in places such as Almaty and Astana their incomes are fuelling the opening of ever more leisure complexes, malls, car showrooms, nightclubs and restaurants.

While the rich, who earn salaries comparable to middle-income Europe, build themselves mansions up in the valleys around Almaty, home life for others hasn't changed much. Several generations of a family are still accustomed to living under one roof, with grandparents often caring for children while parents go to work. Kazakh homes tend to be decorated with colourful carpets and tapestries, a tradition inherited from brightly decked yurts.

In precommunist Kazakhstan, when most homes were one-room yurts, women occupied an important place in maintaining the home while husbands were out in the pastures, sometimes for extended periods. Islamic tendencies, however, gave ultimate domination to men. Following independence, economic depression forced many women to abandon careers in favour of less sophisticated jobs such as working in bazaars. Women occupy 20% of ministerial positions in the government.

Family and ancestry remain very important to Kazakhs. They determine both a person's zhtis (horde) and clan. The best ancestor of all is Jenghiz Khan, and right up to the 20th century the Kazakh nobility consisted of those who could trace their lineage back to him.

Population

Southern areas are about 90% Kazakh; this figure declines the further north one travels; in many northern towns the majority population is Russian. An estimated 40% of people live in rural areas.

RELIGION

Kazakhstan as a nation has never been deeply religious and extremism is notable by its absence. Islam, the leading faith among Ka zakhs, is at its strongest in the south, especially around Taraz, Shymkent and Turkistan. Pilgrimages to the mausoleum of Kozha Akhmed Yasaui at Turkistan and the desert shrine of Beket-Ata, east of Aktau, are important ways for Kazakh Muslims to affirm their faith. Most Muslims are of the Sunni denomination, while the Russian Orthodox Church is the major Christian denomination. The government trumpets Kazakhstan's tradition of religious tolerance.

ARTS

The new Kazakhstan is forging an identity based on old traditions, monuments and cultural icons. Some of the most inspiring symbols, such as the Scythian-style Golden Man costume (see pll9) or the Kozha Akhmed Yasaui Mausoleum (pl49), were actually not Kazakh in origin but left on the territory by earlier inhabitants. Other elements, such as the writings of the national bard Abay Kunan-baev (1845-1904; see pl73), or the riveting aitys (song duels) between skilled bards, are purely Kazakh.

The national musical instrument is the dombra, a small two-stringed lute with an oval box shape. Other instruments include the qobyz (a two-stringed primitive fiddle), the playing of which is said to have brought Jenghiz Khan to tears, and the sybyzgy (two flutes made of reed or wood strapped together like abbreviated pan pipes). The best place to catch Kazakh musical concerts is Almaty's State Philharmonia (see pl26).

The music is largely folk tunes, handed down like the area's oral literature through the generations. The most skilled singers or bards are called akyns. Undoubtedly the most famous and important form of Kazakh art is the aitys, a duel between two dombra players who challenge each other in poetic lyrics. This may be seen during Nauryz (Navrus or 'New Days', the main Islamic spring festival on 22 March; see pl79) and possibly other holidays, including 9 May (Victory Day) and 16 December (Independence Day). Meanwhile, Kazakh pop music is enjoying its greatest popularity, largely thanks to talent contests such as SuperStar KZ, the local version of Pop Idol. Stars like Madina Sadvaqasova, Roman Kim and Makpal Isabekova, who may sing in Russian, Kazakh or English, are all products of this trend.

As a nation of nomads, Kazakhs have little architectural or artistic tradition, but some of the new buildings going up in Astana display a uniquely Kazakhstani mix of Asian, Western and Russian styles - undeniably spectacular in some cases - and beautiful new mosques have been built in Pavlodar, Almaty and Astana.

High skills were developed in the crafts associated with nomadic life, such as brightly woven carpets and wall-hangings for yurts, jewellery, ornate horse tackle and weaponry, and splendid costumes for special occasions. You can admire these in almost any museum in the country.