Altay is a general name used to describe a group of Turkic peoples living in the region o the Altai mountains in southern Siberia in the Altai Republic. Also known as the Altai, the Altaians, the Altai Turks and the Kizhi, they hail from a mountainous region that stretches into Mongolia and Kazakhstan and is regarded as homeland of all Turkic people and people which have spoken Altaic languages which includes Mongols, Mongolians, Kazakhs, Koreans and a host of other people.

The Altay people comprise several Turkic-speaking tribes living in the Altay and Kuznetsk Alatau mountains. Several collective terms have been applied to the overall group, including "Oirot," which was used in tsarist times. The Altays first came into contact with Russians in the eighteenth century, when colonization of the region began. Some conversion to Christianity occurred in the nineteenth century, but substantial numbers of Altays returned to their previous Mongolian Lamaism in the early twentieth century, as part of a general movement against Russian domination. In the post-Soviet era, most of the republic's population is Orthodox Christian. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

There are about 70,000 Altay in Altay republic in Siberia near the Mongolian and Kazakhstan borders, forming 28 percent of the population there. Among the Altay groups are the Chelkan, Kumandin, Telengit, Teles, Telut and Tubalar. Most Altay are bilingual in their native Turkic tongue and Russian.

Altay Region

Altay Region (300 miles south of Novosbirisk) is a mountainous area in central Asia where Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan and China all come together. Situated between the Gobi Desert and the Siberian Plain, it is regarded as the homeland of the of the Mongolians, Turks, Koreans, Hungarians and Parzyrks (famous well-preserved 4,000-year-old Parzyrk mummies have been found here). Ural-Altaic languages are named after the region. Ancient petroglyphs found in the area are believed to have been made the ancestors of the Altay.

The Altay region is one of the wildest and most interesting parts of southern Russia. It is a varied region with forest, steppes, wild river, lakes, deserts, snow capped mountain and abundant wildlife. On windward sides of the mountains are some of the wettest places in southern Russia, with glaciers, streams and numerous lakes. On the leeward side are some the driest areas. The most important rivers are the Biya, Katun, Bukhtarma, Kondoma, Ursul, Charysh, Kan, Sema, and Mayma. In lowland areas where the soils are accommodating there is some farmland. Otherwise most of the landscape comprised of steppes and meadows, some of which are used for grazing animals.

Natural vegetation in the region includes steppe grasses, shrubs and bushes and light forests of birch, fir, aspen, cherry, spruce, and pines, with many clearings in the forest. These forest merge with a modified taiga. Among the animals are hare, mountain sheep, several species of deer, bobac, East European woodchucks, lynx, polecat, snow leopard, wolves, bears, Argali sheep, Siberian ibex, mountains goats and deer. Bird species include pheasant, ptarmigan, goose, partridge, Altai snowcock, owls, snipe and jay, In the streams and rivers are trout, grayling and the herring-like sig.

Many foreigners and Russians come to the area to trek, white water raft and hunt. Most do so as part of organized tours that are arranged abroad or in Novosibirsk but is also possible to travel around independently picking up guides in the cities or the outdoor areas.

Altay Republic

Much of the Altay region lies within the sparsely-populated Altay Republic, a semi-autonomous republic set up for the Altay minority and known until 1991 as the Gorno-Altay Autonomous Republic. About 30 percent of the republic's 200,000 people are Altay. Most of the remainder are Russians. Ancient petroglyphs found in the are believed to have been made the ancestors of the Altay.

The Altay Republic was established in 1922 as the Oirot Autonomous Oblast, for the Mongol people of that name. In 1948 the region was renamed the Gorno-Altay Autonomous Oblast. Redesignated a republic in 1992, the region took its present name--the Republic of Gorno-Altay, or simply Altay (the vernacular term omits gorno , which means mountainous in Russian)--in that year. Occupying 92,600 square kilometers on the north slope of the Altay Range on the northeast border of Kazakstan, Gorno-Altay had a population in 1995 of 200,000, of whom 60 percent were Russian and 31 percent Altay. About 83 percent of Russia's total Altay population lives in the Altay Republic. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The economy of the Altay Republic is primarily agricultural, supported mainly by livestock raising in the hillsides and valleys that dominate the republic's landscape. Gold and other precious and nonprecious minerals--especially the rare earth minerals tantalum and cesium--support a small mining industry, and Altay Republic possesses rich coniferous forests. The main industries, mostly based on local resources, are the manufacture of clothing, footwear, and foods, and the processing of chemicals and minerals. The capital of the republic is Gorno-Altaysk.

Altai Mountains

Altai Mountains stretch for 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) across southwestern Mongolia from Siberia to the Gobi Desert. The mountains are of moderate height. There are several peaks over 4,500 meters. Those that are higher than 3,000 meters are snowcapped throughout the year. The region is rich in lakes and streams. The Ob, Irtysh and Yenisei all have their sources in the Altai mountains. The Altai people live mainly in the broad plateaus, steppes and valleys of the ranges, where water is plentiful. The Altai complex of mountain ranges embraces the water divide mountains for all of Asia: the South Altai, the Inner Altai and the east Altai. The highest peak, 4506-meter-high Mt. Belukha, is in Russia near the Kazakhstan border.

There are some trekking and hiking opportunities around ice-covered Mt. Belukha and 4173-meter-high Mt. Aktru. The treks in the 5-day to 2-week range generally begin at Tyungar (300 miles from Gorno-Altaysk on a daily bus). Destinations include Turkic stone sculptures, petroglyphs, Lake Kucherla, Kara-Tyurek Pass, Lake Akkem, Akkem Glacier, and Kiziyak Pass. Around the lakes there are some mountaineer huts where hikers and trekkers can stay.

Ukok Plateau (southwest Altay Republic) is a bleak area near where Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan all come together and is where many of the important Pazyrk tombs were discovered. The climate here is ideal for preserving the bodies in the tombs. Some of the mummified remains and artifacts are now in the Hermitage. It is difficult get to. Many of the archeologist who work rely on helicopters.

During the winter this 7500-foot-high region is hit by such nasty winds the "grass stands free of snow." Ufok means "the end of everything" and people that live in this region believe it is a step on the way to heaven. People are not allowed to shout out of fear that it might offend the spirit who they believe reside are closeby. [Source: Natalya Polosmak, National Geographic October 1994]

The climate is continental with extremes in temperatures between the summer and the winter. The mountains help to mitigate the extremes to some extent by causing a winter temperature inversion that produces an island of winter temperatures that are warmer than those in the Siberian taiga to the north and the Central Asian and Mongolian steppes to south and east. Even so temperatures drop as low as -48 degrees C in the winter. The mountains are a gathering point for precipitation in a region that otherwise is dry. The most rain falls in July and August, with another smaller period of rain in late autumn. The western Altai receives around 50 centimeters of precipitation a year. The eastern Altai receives less: around 40 centimeters a year

People of the South Russian Steppe

Peter B. Golden wrote in the “Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia”: “Below a line running approximately from Kiev through Riazan to Kazan, lie the south Russian steppes. The region north of this line gives way to a transitional forest-steppe (lesostep') zone before becoming the densely wooded tracts of the Russian and Siberian forests. The latter, in turn, become the taiga and tundra zones in the far north. The great contrast in physical setting is reflected in the economic activities that evolved in these regions. The steppe, in historical times, was largely populated by pastoral nomads of Iranian and Altaic speech. The early population of the eastern Russian forests, our area of concern, consisted primarily of fishing and hunting peoples who spoke Uralic languages. The forest-steppe region became the contact zone between the southern nomads and the northern hunters and trappers. The former, when they entered the contact zone, made certain adaptations in their life-style, becoming semi-nomadic with ever greater emphasis placed on sedentary pursuits. Those Uralic elements that entered the forest-steppe zone, in turn, were drawn increasingly to the steppe and its mode of existence, becoming in time stereotypical, equestrian nomads. [Source: The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990]

“The rich grasslands and abundant rivers of the Ponto-Caspian steppes, a continuation of the great Inner Asian plains, constituted a natural gravitation-point for the nomad migrating or ejected from the Asian hinterland. Given these favorable conditions, the long-distance nomadism common to Inner Asia tended to be muted and not infrequently transformed into a semi-nomadic system with increasing emphasis on permanent winter camps. Urban life and the practice of agriculture and other settled pursuits were more in evidence amongst the nomads here. A nomadic life-style, as we know from the Khazar and Hungarian models, became more and more the perquisite of the aristocracy, a badge of social distinction. Those tribal groupings that adopted the semi-nomadic model tended to be more stable and better able to withstand the vagaries of steppe life.

“In times of turbulence the tribal and ethnic composition of these steppes became a richly hued mosaic, the colors and textures of which are only partially reflected in our sources. The latter largely stem from and were written in the languages of the surrounding sedentary societies. They are frequently incomplete, on occasion ill-informed and universally tend to view the nomad through the prisms of their own cultures.

“The movement of the Huns toward Europe undoubtedly introduced new ethnic elements into the Ponto-Caspian steppes. These included Turkic speakers who later became the dominant ethno-linguistic grouping in this region. We have, however, scraps of evidence that appear to indicate that Turkic nomads were present here even before the Huns crossed the Volga.”

Turks and the Altai Region

The first Turkish tribes are thought to have originated from the Altai region. There are perhaps 135 million Turkic people in the world today, with only about 40 percent of them living in Turkey. They rest are scattered across Central Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and northern and western China, making them one of the most widely scattered races in the world. All these people descended from a small tribe of horseman that originated in the Altai region

The word "Turk," is derived from the Chinese character Tu-Kiu, which means "forceful" and "strong." The Chinese believed these Turks descended from wolves and the Great Wall of China may have been built to keep them out. According to legend a gray wolf led the first Turkic tribes from their homeland in Central Asia into Anatolia.

The first Turks were nomads who spoke an Ural-Altaic tongue similar to Mongolian, Finnish, Korean and Hungarian. Other Turkic people include the Uzbeks in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmen in Turkmenistan, Kazakhs in Kazakhstan, Mongolians, Tartars in Russia, Uighars in western China, Azeris in Azerbaijan, Yakuts in Siberia. Some even regard Koreans and Hungarians as the relatives because their languages are similar.

Turks have been known throughout history for their fierceness and fighting skills. Most of the warriors in the Mongol armies were Turks. Turks also dominated the Mamluk forces and beefed up the Persian Safavid and Indian Mogul armies. Turkic tribes were a threat to the Byzantines and Persians starting in the A.D. 6th century. They absorbed Islam during the Arab invasions which began after Mohammed's death in 632.

Ancient Turks

The Turks were such excellent horsemen the ancient Chinese called them “horse barbarians." Turkish women reputedly could conceive and gave birth while riding. Based on excavations and stele observations in Mongolia, archaeologists say that early Turks dressed themselves in silk, wool and animal skin garments; men wore daggers in their belts and earrings in both ears; and both men and women braided their hair.

These ancient Turks raised millet, lived in felt yurts like Mongolian nomads today, and worshiped a fertility goddess, a god of the underworld and their Turkish ancestors. They made swords and spears from iron and were known for their metal working skill. Some of their leaders wore armor made from golden plates.

Throughout Central Asia, Mongolia, the Altai area of Russia and western China they left behind large stone figures known as balbals or man stones. Dated to the A.D. 6th through 8th centuries, they are thought to be memorial erected to honor warrior who had fallen in battle. Almost all face east towards the rising sun. Most hold a sword and a bowl and wear a distinctive belt and earrings. They are often found with lines of stone slab that perhaps represent the number of men killed by person the man stone honors.

The ancient Turks were adept hunters, preying on roe deer and mountain goats, which they sometimes drove into pens. They were one of the first groups of people to use saddles with stirrups. This enabled them to swiftly attack their enemies because they could stand up and shoot their long bows while riding. Ancient Turks were so attached to their horses that rulers and warriors often had their fully harnessed mounts buried with them after they died.

Early History of the Altay Turks

Turkic people trace their ancestry back to the A.D. 3rd century Altai Turks, who came from the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. The Altai (also spelled Altay) Turks were united in A.D. 552 under leadership of a chieftain named Bumin, who, with the help of the Chinese, defeated the overlords that ruled the tribes in the Altai region and then subjugated the tribes on the Mongolian steppe. Later, with the help of the Sassanid Persians, Bumin conquered Central Asia, which gave the Altai Turks control over the Silk Road trade route between China and the West.

The Altai controlled much of southern Siberia and Central Asia from the A.D. 6th century. They were one of the first Central Asian groups to realize the importance of trade and the wealth the trade brought them allowed them to establish permanent settlements.

The ancient Turks of the Altai region developed a written languages which they left in on runic stones as far away as the Yenisei Valley in Siberia to the north and Orkhon Valley in Mongolia to the east. This writing system resembled the script of early Germanic tribes. Later the Uigar script was adopted by many Turkic-speaking peoples. The Uigar script is related to the alphabets of Western Asia and was also used by the Mongols during the era of Genghis Khan.

Later History of the Altay

The Altays formed part of the ancient Turkic kingdoms of Central and East Asia, such as Kok Turk, and later the Kara Kitay and the Khitan, who briefly lived in China at the end of the 12th century and in the Altai region and part of the Mongol Empire in the 13th to 15th centuries.

In the 15th century the Altay came under the rule of the cruel Oryats of western Mongolia and the Dzungarians The Oryat are now a small minority that live in the Altai area of China and Russia. They were a western Mongols clan that converted the Tibetan Buddhism. They established the Zhungarian (Dzungaian) empire in eastern Kazakhstan, western China, western Mongolia and the Tien Shan area which lasted from 1635 and 1758.

The Altay came under Russian control in the mid 19th century at the time of Russian incursion into Dzungaria and were un the middle of power struggle between the Russians, Chinese and Central Asians. In the late 19th century Russian peasants began migrating into the region. They introduced things like beekeeping and the iron plow.

In the early 20th century there were still a large number of semi-nomads running around the Altai region. The early Soviet government made an effort to settle them. By the late 1930s, 93 percent of the population was settled. Transmigration practices persisted especially in the southern Altai where raising livestock required seasonal migration to find pastures.

Altay Religion

Some Altay are Orthodox Christians. Other practice a unique religion known as Burkanism, which combines Buddhism and Oryat folk religions. The religion has strong anti-Russian elements and consequently the Altay were persecuted during the Stalinist era. Some aspects of the religion remain, such as the hanging horse hides from branches.

Burkhanism or Ak Jang flourished among the indigenous people of the Altai region between 1904 and the 1930s. Czarist Russia was suspicious of it and Soviet authorities ultimately suppressed it for fear of its potential to unify Siberian Turkic peoples under a common nationalism. Originally millenarian, charismatic and anti-shamanic, the Burkhanist movement gradually lost most of these qualities—becoming increasingly routine, institutionalized (around a hierarchy of oral epic singers), and accommodating itself to the pre-existing Altaian folk religion. It exists today in several revival forms. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In April 1904 Chet Chelpan and his adopted daughter Chugul Sarok Chandyk reported visions of a rider dressed in white, and riding a white horse. This figure, whom they called Ak-Burkhan ("White Burkhan"), announced the imminent arrival of the mythical messianic hero Oirat Khan. Chet and Chugul gathered thousands of Altaians for prayer meetings, initially in the Tereng Valley. These were violently suppressed by mobs of Russians. Chet and Chugul were arrested, then released in 1906 after the faith was shown to be no threat to the czarist government. +

Burkhanism accepts the "three worlds" of Mongolic and Turkic tradition. (These are the upper, middle, and lower worlds—in other words heaven, earth, and the underworld.) However, it rejects worship of traditional deities associated with the underworld. In addition, it imports into cultic worship many figures from Altaian oral epic lore, which were not worshipped in the "shamanic" part of the Altaian religion. Deities included: 1) Oirat or Galden-Oirat, mythological ancestor of the Western Mongols; 2) Amursana, a legendary Khoit-Oirat chieftain who fled Chinese territory for Russian after the 1756 Qing destruction of Dzungaria; and 3) Shunu ("Wolf"), the Altaian version of Ashina, the totemic lupine ancestor recognized by various Turkic peoples. Among the common rituals were: A) burning juniper (archyn) for blessing, purification, or healing; B) home or hilltop altars (kure or murgul), with candles and milk-offerings; and C) erecting of cairns (oboo).

Traditional Altai religion was characterized by the cultures of sky, fire and the earth and a belief in a pantheon of gods and evil spirits. Shaman were the primary religious practitioners. They used the rhythm of drums to work themselves into a trance and entered the spirit’s world to seek guidance, divine the future and solicit help to cure aliments. As part of their funeral ritual shaman conducted “meetings” with spirits to help guide the soul of the deceased to the afterlife.

Altay Life

Most Altay live in villages set up along rivers, lakes, farmland, mountain meadow and steppe lands, where they can farm, raise animals, hunt and gather firewood. Transportation was by boat in the rivers and lakes or by horse across the meadows. In the old day they lived in wooden huts, bark-covered conical dwelling, polygonal framework structures and yurts. Today most live in modern houses, some with yurts in their backyards.

While the ancient people that lived in this region were Mongol-like horsemen, the people that live in the Altai today are primarily settled farmers and livestock raisers. Most lives in farms or villages and raise cereal grains or cattle and sheep and other livestock.

Food traditionally came from grains such as rye, barley and wheat and from their animals. A good portion of the summer was spent making butter, various kinds of cheeses and dried curds. Clothes were made from animal parts and furs from animals they hunted.

A few are still nomads. Some are nomads in the summer when the move to the summer pastures and live in yurts. They raise sheep, goats, cattle, yaks, horses, camels and maral deer (whose antlers are valued for medicinal properties).

Altay Culture

The traditionalAltai headgear is a round sheepskin cap with a silk tassel on the top. It is worn by Altay men and women ad local Russians. Other traditional garments include fur overcoats, boots and other kinds of headgear. Traditional wedding clothes worn by an Altai bride include a silk-covered fur coat, headdress and sleeveless jacket.

Society in the southern Altai has traditionally revolved around clans maintained by patrilineal customs. In the north territorial and village-oriented regional alliances were more important. In the old days villages were organized into districts ruled by hereditary aristocrats called zaysan

The Altay have traditionally valued the skills of storytellers and have a rich cannon of folklore. legends and epic poems. Storytellers often sang their tales accompanied a the topshur, a lute-like string instrument with horsehair strings, and a temir-komys, a kind of Jew’s harp. Tuvan sports such as long distance horse racing and wrestling are popular. See Tuvans.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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