The Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly (100 kilometers northwest of Almaty) and its petroglyphs were was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. According to UNESCO: “Set around the lush Tamgaly Gorge, amidst the vast, arid Chu-Ili mountains, is a remarkable concentration of some 5,000 petroglyphs (rock carvings) dating from the second half of the second millennium B.C. to the beginning of the 20th century. Distributed among 48 complexes with associated settlements and burial grounds, they are testimonies to the husbandry, social organization and rituals of pastoral peoples. Human settlements in the site are often multilayered and show occupation through the ages. A huge number of ancient tombs are also to be found including stone enclosures with boxes and cists (middle and late Bronze Age), and mounds (kurgans) of stone and earth (early Iron Age to the present). The central canyon contains the densest concentration of engravings and what are believed to be altars, suggesting that these places were used for sacrificial offerings....The dense and coherent group of petroglyphs, with sacred images, altars and cult areas, together with their associated settlements and burial sites, provide a substantial testimony to the lives and beliefs of pastoral peoples of the central Asian steppes from the Bronze Age to the present day. [Source: UNESCO]

“Towards the western end of the Tien Shan Mountains in the southeast of Kazakhstan, the Chu-Ili mountain spur forms a canyon around the Tamgaly Gorge. An abundance of springs, rich vegetation and shelter distinguishes the area from the arid mountains that fringe the border of Kazakhstan with Kyrgyzstan to the south, and from the flat dry plains of central Kazakhstan to the north. The Gorge and its surrounding rocky landscape, where shiny black stones rise up rhythmically in steps, have attracted pastoral communities since the Bronze Age, and have come to be imbued with strong symbolic associations.

“The Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly features a remarkable concentration of some 5,000 petroglyphs, associated settlements and burial grounds, which together provide testimony to the husbandry, social organization and rituals of pastoral peoples from the Bronze Age right through to the early 20th century. The large size of the early petroglyphs, their unique images and the quality of their iconography sets them apart from the wealth of rock art in Central Asia.

“The property covers a roughly circular area of 900 hectares and includes the 982m peak of Mt.Tamgaly. The Tamgaly River flows through the centre and out onto the plain below, to the north. Surrounding the property is a large buffer zone of 2900 hectares, which to the northwest and southeast of the property includes outliers of the petroglyphs, and further burial mounds and ancient settlements. The delineation of the property into a sacred core and outer residential periphery, combined with sacred images of sun-heads, altars, and enclosed cult areas, provide a unique assembly, which has maintained persistent sacred associations from the Bronze Age to the present day.”

Petroglyphs in the Tamgaly Archaeological Area

Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. The galleries of the rock drawings of Tamgaly was discovered accidently in 1957 by the Semirechye of South-Kazakhstan archaeological expedition of the Institute of history and archaeology of the Academy of the sciences of KAZSSR under the direction of Anna Georgievna Maksimova who was the first professional archaeologist of Kazakhstan.

There are more than 5000 petroglyphs dating back ro the 14th and 13th century B.C. All are engravings made with stone tools or metallic instruments. No images made with paint have been discovered. The galleries can be grouped according to historical epochs: 1) Paleolithic; 2) Bronze Age; 3) Late Bronze Age (the ancient Renesans); 4) Early Iron Age (Saks, Scythians and Uysuns); 5) Medieval (Ancient Turkish) and 6) the last 500 years or so (Dzungarian and Kazakh). Those from the Bronze Age are the most interesting and expressive. The images and motifs include children of sun ("sun headed"), men in a wolf mask, warriors with weapons, scene of sacrificing of animals and people, erotic scenes, chariots and different signs and symbols. The are many scenes with the oxen, kulans, horses, camels, wild boars and wolves. [Source:]

According to UNESCO: “Petroglyphs on unsheltered rock faces, which have been formed using a picketing technique with stone or metal tools, are the most abundant monuments on the property. Images have been recorded in 48 different complexes, of which the most important are five complexes, displaying about 3,000 images. By far the most exceptional engravings come from the earliest period and are characterized by large figures deeply cut in a sharp way with a wide repertoires of images including unique forms such as solar deities, zoomorphic beings dressed in furs, syncretic subjects, disguised people, and a wide range of animals.

“The Petroglyphs within Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly still keeps its pristine character and essential natural and cultural features intact. The main elements of the cultural landscape are the petroglyphs of the different levels of visibility (from bluish black ones of the Bronze and Early Iron Age to the light grey carvings of the latest time), the low stone-earth mounds and stone tombs hardly visible on the surface, the ruins of stone dwellings and enclosures. Despite of the fact that some parts of the rock massifs have traces of ancient destruction (Groups II-3rd) and modern graffiti (Groups 4th-V), as a whole the gallery of petroglyphs preserved its integrity and representativeness.

“The main threats to the physical integrity of the property come from weathering in combination with the geological formation of the rocks. Water ingress and stratification of the bedrock parallel to the surface make the rock face vulnerable to exfoliation. The high water table and its salinity also affect the bones and artefacts (grave goods) that can be found in the burials. These decay factors are also exacerbated by the extreme variation in temperatures daily and seasonally. There is also a threat of earthquake activity in the Almaty region, and fires in the steppes. In terms of human factors, uncontrolled visitation and graffiti pose a threat to the integrity of the component parts.”

Kapchagay and The Handwritten Rocks

Kapshagay (50 kilometers north of Almaty) is a town in located on the Ili River that was built along with the construction of Kapshagay Dam on that river in the 1960s. The dam has formed Kapchagay Reservoir (Lake Kapshagai), a popular weekend destination for Almaty residents. It has a population of about 40,000.

Kapshagay town, as of 2008, had 12 shops, eight cafes, a restaurant, pub, two hairdressing salons, seven beauty salons, a fitness club, three baths-saunas, two cinemas, one disco and one 1 casino. The Kapshagay territory covers 3600 square kilometers and has two rural districts and 11 settlements. It is home to 54,000 people, of which 14,000 live outside the town in rural areas.

On the river Or, in a city district of Kapchagay, there are some 2,200-year-old rock drawings of Buddhas. They are referred to as the “Handwritten Rocks,” "Written stones" and "Red rocks". The central image of the Three Buddhas dates to 2nd century B.C. The other two images date to the 16th and 17th centuries. The central images looks like images of Buddha found in northern India and demonstrates how far Buddhism traveled to the west on the Silk Road.

Petroglyphs of Eshkiolmes

Petroglyphs of Eshkiolmes (27 kilometers South of Taldikurgan, right bank of Koksu river) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998, According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Eshkiolmes mountain range, a 30 kilometers long western spur of the Dzungar Alatau system on the north of the Koksu river, houses numerous archaeological objects from Late Bronze to Middle Ages. The main group is located in the middle part of the valley: settlements, burials and petroglyphs of Late Bronze and Early Iron epochs belonging to the same cultural complex. [Source: UNESCO]

“The petroglyphs are the most remarkable remains: more than 4000 well preserved engravings spanning from the very beginning of the nomadic society to the Middle Ages. The specificity of the petroglyphs of Eshkiolmes, if compared with other large petroglyphs' sites, is the big variety of techniques, topics and styles, and their analogy with other artistic performances of the nomadic cultures, as castings, applications, bones' engravings, etc. Remarkable is also their detailed attention in the representation of clothes, arms and tools, obtained by the use of graffito techniques, so that the comparison of their representations with other archaeological findings permitted the dating of petroglyphs' groups and the individuation of stages in their execution.

“Being that the most important part of them corresponds to the Early Iron epoch, the petroglyphs of Eshkiolmes represent an exceptional testimony of arts, culture and way of life of the early nomads of Semirechie, and of the imitative tradition that followed during the I degrees millennium B.C.”

Petroglyphs of Arpa-Uzen

Petroglyphs of Arpa-Uzen (60 kilometers southwest of Turkistan, 25 kilometers west of Chulak-Korgan village) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998 According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Arpa-Uzen is a naturally circumscribed area, a gorge limited by the Karatau mountains in the South, and protected from the northern winds by hills. Because its favorable climate and landscape, the many suitable rock surfaces, and its position on a corridor of ancient migrations, it has been chosen by ancient inhabitants as a main place for petroglyphs. It houses more than 3500 images, the largest collection In S Kazakhstan.”

“It constitutes the most important testimony of the culture and way of life of the people inhabiting and crossing the steppes and semi-deserts of the region during the Late Bronze and Early Iron epochs. Their stylistic analysis, compared with the one of other sites, gives information on the centers of formation and ways of diffusion of the pastoralist cultures of the steppes, and on their interchanges with the settled centers of the southern regions. Images of animals peculiar of steppe shepherds (domestication, harness and sacrifice of camels; horses with fringes analogous to the representations of the Seismino-Tubino bronze castings, etc.) can be detected, together with southern influences from Transoxiana, Zagros mountains and Mesopotamia.”

“Furthermore, the fact that the petroglyphs of the Iron epoch have been engraved with organic attention on the same surfaces of the Bronze epoch ones, the Saka animal style covering the early styles in such a way to form an indivisible composition and palimpsest, that fact permits the study of the successive unbroken inheritance of the sanctuary, and gives information about the genesis and formation of the culture and arts of the Saka tribes as rooted in the early epochs.”

Petroglyph Site of Sauyskandyk

Petroglyph Site of Sauyskandyk (on the Syr Darya River in southeast Kyzylorda, 50 kilometers north of the village of Enbekshi) contains images that date from the 18th century B.C. to the A.D. 3rd century. It was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016. According to a report submitted to UNESCO by the National Commission of the Republic of Kazakhstan: “Petroglyph Site of Sauyskandyk is situated on the lower reaches of the Syr Darya River on the territory of the Shielinskiy District of Kyzylorda Region... 3.5 kilometers from the route between the villages of Shieli and Taykonyr on the western end of the Karatau Mountains. The site is situated on both sides of the little mountain river of Bala Sauyskankyk between Ulken Sauyskankyk and Bala Sauyskankyk. [Source: UNESCO]

“Karatau Mountains has multiple water sources. Due to this factor the region was always a favorable area for different communication roads between Margiana and Bactria, Northern Iran, Western and Central Kazakhstan, and Ural Region. These multiple contacts have left numerous traces on the material culture of the region. One of the regional particularities of the site is the close connection between archaeological sites of different periods on the territory of the Ulken Karatau Mountains and The Syr Darya River valley. From the Neolithic period to modern days the fertile lands of ancient and modern deltas of The Syr Darya River were situated on the west and were populated by numerous communities.

“The site of Sauyskankyk forms an important cultural complex or the system of different archaeological sites such as necropolises, petroglyphs or rock carvings, cult constructions etc., which had the same territorial and functional characteristics, and which were related to different aspects of social and cultural life of local communities from the Bronze Age to the beginning of 20th century. Ancient individual and group burial sites have formed one of the main types of archaeological sites on the territory of Sauyskankyk complex. Kurums (ground-based constructions with stonework, burial chambers with or sometimes without dromos), and kurgans with the earth-embankment above the burial chamber are the two construction types of burial sites, which can be identified on this territory. Kurums are normally situated on the saddles and on the summits of local mountains. Similar constructions were dated by the first half of the first millennium AC.

“Petroglyphs are the most valuable and numerous types of archaeological sites of Sauyskandyk. All petroglyphs of Sauyskandyk site were made by picketage technique and engraving with the use of metal and stone instruments. Sauyskandyk petroglyphs can be separated in 9 groups, which belong to different historical periods from the 2nd millennium B.C. to the beginning of the XXth century: Early Bronze Age, middle Bronze Age, Late Bronze Age, transit (Early Saka) period, Early Iron (Saka and Wusun) Age, Middle Ages (Early Turkic period), and Modern (Kazakh) period.”

Sarmishsay Petroglyphs

Sarmishsay Petroglyphs (50 kilometers northeast of Navoi city in Uzbekistan) is the largest area of rock art in Uzbekistan, with most of the images dating to between 3000 and 900 B.C. It embraces well-studied sites, such as Uchkuduk, Kokpatas and Korakot. Sarmishsay is a gorge. Currently, in the gorge itself and its surroundings, more than 10,000 drawings rendered on the surface of the rocks have been found. The drawings are covered with black or brown patina. The theme of petroglyphs is diverse. Today there are at least 35 thematic images and plots. The images include carved figures of people, their tools and household products, geometric compositions and hunting scenes.

Along with this, the theme of the fauna is often found — these are various animals, some of which have long disappeared. Here you can see images of a mountain goat, argali, bison, primitive bull, wild horse, camel, kulan, deer, boar, saiga, and gazelle. Of the predators in the pictures are present — a lion, a wolf, a leopard, a jackal, a fox, a leopard and a cheetah. An interesting example is the image of bulls-rounds made in a bio-triangular style typical of the Upper Paleolithic culture. In the Neolithic era, the Kyzylkum desert was greener and had more vegetation than today. The petroglyphs mya have played a role in the unification of the tribes in the area.

All rock paintings are carved or carved with stone or metal tools. The most ancient drawings are carved in ornamental-openwork, contour or mixed style. In addition to the drawings among the rocks Sarmyshsaya there are also various inscriptions in Arabic. The petroglyphs have been studied by M. Khuzhanazarova, a Senior Researcher of the Institute of Archeology of Samarkand.

Sarmishsay Petroglyphs was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The territory of "Sarmishsay" is one of the largest and most investigated monuments of rock arts in Uzbekistan. Now, about 4000 separate images are registered here, many of which are collected in the composition and scenes. The majority of the petroglyphs can be denoted to Bronze Age (3000-900 years B.C.). Nevertheless, also among them there are motives dated eneolith (4000-3000 B.C.), neolith (6000-4000 B.C.) and even late mesolite (15000-6000 B.C.), and significant amount of Sako-Scythian period (9000-100 B.C.) and Middle Ages (400-1500 B.C.). [Source: National Commission of the Republic of Uzbekistan for UNESCO]

“Sarmishsay is the largest and important object of the rock painting in Uzbekistan; it stays in the same level with tracts of Tamgaly (Kazakhstan) and Saymali Tash (Kyrgyzstan) in Central Asia region. About 650 species of plants can be identified in the region, 27 from which are precinctive species. Typical representatives of deserts and low mountains present the fauna. There are also the species that inscribed in the Red Book of the Republic of Uzbekistan, such as Central Asian cobra, black vulture, Severtsev sheep. For the protection of this territory are organized the measurements of the formation of natural park of the regional level with 5000 hectares. “

Saimaly-Tash Petroglyphs

Saimaluu-Tash area (accessible from Kazarman in Kyrgyzstan) is one of the largest petroglyph sites in Central Asia with thousands of stone carvings and images. The earliest ones date to Neolithic and Bronze Ages). The drawings are invaluable sources of information about the day-to-day life, mentality, history, and culture of the ancient hunters, herders and farmers of Central Asia.

The area was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Situated high up in the Ferghana mountain range, Saimaly-Tash is a grandiose natural sanctuary containing one of the biggest collections of rock pictures not only in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia but also in the whole world. About 10,000 stones with pictures have been identified, the earliest dating back to the third to early second millennia B.C., that is to the Eneolithic and Bronze Ages. [Source: Kyrgyz National Commission for UNESCO]

“Saimaly-Tash is remarkable in that it has been in continuous use as a sacred site by the populations of Tien-Shan and Pre-Ferghana from the third millennium B.C. until the middle ages, and even until the present day. It is thus a rich source of knowledge about the everyday life, mentality, history and culture of the ancient tribes of hunters, cattlebreeders and first peasants in Central Asia, about the development of their spiritual culture, their religious beliefs and their worship of mountains, nature, totems and solar-cosmic images.”

Pamir Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs (very old carved rock drawings) can be found at various locations in the Pamirs. More than 50 sites have been found in Tajikistan. They are found in the valleys of the Ghunt River (at the Chertym Dam), Panj (near Namatgut), Langar, Porshnev, Shohdara, Yazghulom, North Ak-Jilga villages and in the Bartang River estuary.

According to Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “These are the main points of concentration of petroglyphs. They are divided into groups according to their approximate age. The earliest ones are dated from the bronze age, and the more recent ones are from the early medieval, developed medieval and modern periods. The greatest number of known petroglyphs are found in the Langar and Kisht village area in Ishkashim district. The total number of the rock drawings has not been counted, but there may be more than 6,000.[Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]

“The drawings are carved on the surface of granite rocks. They are combined into several “fields” connected by a chain of separate pictures. They are found in the area starting from the foothills of the Shohdara range and extend almost as far as the watershed. The petroglyphs are usually drawings of mountain goats, yaks, deer, riders, and hunters with bows and dogs. Some drawings have been found at 3,200—3,300 meters above sea level.

“The majority of the pictures were done using a “spot technique”, i.e. engraved by a metal tool or a stone. In odd cases one can find deeply engraved pictures made with a metal object. Sometimes pictures have been scratched using a sharp knife-edge. The pictures in Langar contain frequently repeated themes — scenes of hunting and of nakhchir (mountain goats). Most of these are drawings 10-20 centimeters long, with occasional ones 30-40 centimeters long. The biggest figure is 80 centimeters, the smallest one six centimeters. Also interesting are drawings of rubobs — a favourite local musical instrument. It is remarkable that there have been no other discoveries in Central Asia of a comparable quantity of petroglyphs showing musical instruments (about 300).

“A hypothesis, based on Pamiri folklore, is that a rubob represents a man, therefore the discovered pictures are actually stylized pictures of the people. Another region with interesting petroglyphs is Vybist-dara. It is located 7-8 kilometers higher than the Debasta village (30 kilometers from Khorog) at the end of a valley of the same name. There are four groups of rocky manuscripts. The central one has the biggest concentration of petroglyphs. Unlike the majority of Pamiri petroglyphs, in which themes of hunting wild goats with bows and dogs dominate, pictures in the Vybist-dara are devoted to the portrayal of people and ornaments. The oldest group of pictures comes from the second half of the 1st century B.C.

“There are many petroglyphs on the 23 х 19 meters black shale stone of the Ak-Jilga River valley (left side of the Bazar-dara River) in the East Pamirs, a few kilometers from the remains of the ancient mining town of Bazar-dara. You can see pictures of mountain goats, an archer with a hooked nose and a pointed hat, and a two-wheeled chariot harnessed by horses and driven by coachmen. Pictures of chariots are well known in Central Asia and date from the bronze age.

“It is difficult to say what the ancient people intended by their drawings. They may have had religious significance, or described their daily life. Perhaps it was just an expression of their imagination, or the desire to leave a permanent memento of themselves. One thing is clear — the drawings reflect the centuries-old history of the people who lived in this area or came here from other places..

Getting There: The main location of the Pamir petroglyphs is in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast Kikhnjarv Valley area, Isor village, Chikordur sai, Debasta village, Ak-Jilga River area. There is regular bus between Khorog and Ishkashim. After that you can hitchhike or take a taxi to Langar village, and then travel on foot. To reach Debasta village, take taxi from Khorog to Debasta village and walk to the petroglyph sites. The River area can only be reached by private car, foot travel or by helicopter.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Kazakhstan Tourism website, Kazakhstan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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