The Kazakhs are a mix of nomadic Mongol and Turkic tribes that moved into or emerged in what is now Kazakhstan in the 13th century during the Mongol era. Some say they emerged as a distinct people in the 14th Century during the reign of the Mongol-conqueror Tamerlane. Many Kazakhs trace their ancestry back to a rebellious kinsman of an Uzbek-Mongol that left his clan and settled in Kazakhstan in the 15th century. During the 15th to the 17th century, “traditional” Kazakh culture became defined in term of clothing, food, rituals, housing type, furnishings, tools, utensils and oral traditions. Customs and beliefs were shaped by the nomadic and semi-nomadic, animal-herding lifestyle of the Kazakhs.

“Kazakh” is an old Turkic words that means "free man" or “secessionist.” The same Turkic word is believed to be the root of the word Cossack, another group of people associated with the steppe. Kazakhs and Cossacks are very different though. The Kazakhs have called themselves “Kazakhs” or “Kazakhs” since the 17th century, or possibly the 15th century when they broke away from an Uzbek khan in the 15th century. Neighboring groups began calling them Kazakhs by the 17th or 18th centuries.

The Kazakhs look like Mongolians. They have traditionally been regarded as nomads who didn't settle down while their rivals the Uzbeks have been regarded as nomads who settled down. The Uzbeks are an ancient Iranian people that intermingled with nomadic Mongol and Turkic tribes that invaded Central Asia between the 11th and 15th centuries.

The Kazakhs were subdivided and included in other states. Continuous internal wars between the offspring of Genghis Khan and the nobility, and increasing aggression from the neighbouring states caused them to unite with related ethnic groups into one state. Ethnic, political, social, and cultural processes in the territory of Kazakhstan in the 14th and 15th centuries resulted in the establishment of the Kazakh Khanate in 1466. [Source: B.E. Kumekov, National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2010 ]

Chinese View on the Origin of the Kazakhs

Chinese regard the Kazakhs as descendants of Wusun people and Turkic people in ancient times that were among the descendants of the Qidan (Khitan) people that migrated to western China in the 12th century. Some consider them a Mongolian tribe that rose in the 13th century. They were part of nomadic tribes that spoke Turkic languages and separated themselves from the Uzbek Kingdom and migrated to the east in the 15th century. Hailing from the Altai Mountains, Tianshan, Ili Valley and Lake Issyk Kul in the northwestern part of China and Central Asia, Kazakhs were one of the early pioneers and dealers of the “Silk Road”. Kazakh" means "separators" or "brave and free people".

There are many records on the origin of the Kazakh ethnic minority in Chinese history. In the more than 500 years since Zhang Qian of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 25) went as a special envoy to Wusun in 119 B.C., the inhabitants of the Ili River valley and round the Issyk Kul were mainly Wusun people and part of the Saizhong and Yueshi ethnic people, the forefathers of the Kazakhs. As early as the reign of Emperor Wu Di (140-88 B.C.) of the Western Han Dynasty, Wusun established tributary relations of alliance with the Han court through the marriage of Xijun and Xieyou princesses and woman official Feng Liao with the Wusun King of Kunmo and senior generals.

Early Kazakhs

The Kazakhs emerged as a major group during the 14th and 15th century with the rise of the Kazakh Khanate. This Khanate was made up of three powerful entities called “zhuz” (“orda” in Russian, or horde): the Old (or Great) Zhuz in southern Kazakhstan, the Middle Zhuz in central and northeast Kazakhstan; and the Young (or Lesser) Zhuz in western Kazakhstan. Each zhuz was ruled by a khan and comprised of a number of tribes, which in turn were made up of clans. During this period they raided each other and were raided by others and much as they raided other groups. Many Kazakhs still identify themselves by their zhug

The present-day Kazakhs became a recognizable group in the mid-fifteenth century, when clan leaders broke away from Abul Khayr, leader of the Uzbeks, to seek their own territory in the lands of Semirech'ye, between the Chu and Talas rivers in present-day southeastern Kazakhstan. The After the decline of the Timurids in 15th century, while the Uzbeks were settling down on the land between the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya, which more or less corresponds with modern Uzbekistan, the Kazakhs were living a nomadic life north of the Syr-Darya.

The first Kazakh Khans were Kerei and Zhanybek. During their reign Turkestan was involved in the Khans’ fight for power over the East Desht-in Kipchak. The main reason for the fight was the economic and strategic importance of the area. Up to the late 15th century, the initial Khanate’s area was expanded and later included western Semirechie, some towns in southern Kazakhstan, and the major part of central Kazakhstan. In the first quarter of the 16th century, the Kazakhs dominated the majority of East Desht-i Kipchak. [Source: B.E. Kumekov, National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2010 ]

The first major Kazakh leader was Khan Kasym (r. 1511-23), who united the Kazakh tribes into one people. In the sixteenth century, when the Nogai Horde and Siberian khanates broke up, clans from each jurisdiction joined the Kazakhs. The Kazakhs subsequently separated into three new hordes: the Great Horde, which controlled Semirech'ye and southern Kazakhstan; the Middle Horde, which occupied north-central Kazakhstan; and the Lesser Horde, which occupied western Kazakhstan. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Saraychik Settlement: Cradle of the Kazakh Horde

Saraishyk Settlement(75 kilometers north of Atyrau) is one of the most extensive and well-preserved medieval sites of Kazakhstan. Regarded as the cradle of the Kazakh Horde, it was a stop on the Silk Road and was occupied from the 10th to 16th centuries by Golden Horde, the Nogay and Kazakhs. The site is located near the Ural River between the Ural Mountains and the Sarachinka channel. A part of a site of ancient settlement is built up near Saraychik village. The south and the north sides were protected by walls. The ruins extend along the river for on one and a half kilometers. A new mosque and museum are located at the site. . Saraishyk Ancient Settlement is part of The Silk Road in Kazakhstan, which was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Saraychik settlement has an area of 100 hectares. It is a plain steppe area with low rolling hills. In the southeastern part of the monument Saraychik is partially built upwith “aul”, and from the west and southwestern part by the burials, southern part is washed by the river. Behind the burial and aul there is Ural River flow, formerly the main channel of the river Ural was held here, and the town was located on the east coast. The thickness of the cultural layer in the coastal area, 1.5 — 2 meters, excluding household pits and hills — rolled off the remnants of houses. [Source: UNESCO]

“According to the historical version, Saraychik was founded in the middle of the 13th century by Batu Khan (1227-1256) in a convenient location, and most importantly — on the host site of junction of Europe and Asia. Through it ran the Silk Road from European countries and the capital of the Golden Horde Sarai Berke on the Volga River to the cities of Khorezm, Kazakhstan, India, Iran and China. Now we have descriptions of many merchants and travelers about the direction of this road. In "Dorozhnik" Hamdallaha Qazwini, written around 1339, shows the transition points on the way indicating the distance. Same we can meet in the writings of Arab geographer al-Omari (XIVcentury). Trade route of the road from Saraichik to Urgench in length of "month road" was supplied by wells and caravanserais. Saraychik was an important political center. Here was carried out a procedure of the accession to the khan throne of the Golden Horde Zhanibek (1341-1357), Berdibek (1357-1359 ) and other members of the dynasty of Dzhuchids. The rapid development of the city was connected with the adoption of Islam by Khan Berke (1257-1266) and his brother-Tukai Timur, and later — as the official state religion of the Golden Horde by Uzbek Khan (1290-1312). These events occurred exactly in the Saraychik, which emphasizes its special role as the spiritual center of all the Golden Horde. In Saraychik were buried several khans of the Golden Horde, and other historical figures, including Mengu-Timur (1266-1281), Toktay (1280-1312), Zhanibek (1342-1357), Berdibek (1357-1359), as well as Kazakh khan Kasim (1511-1518). After the collapse of the Golden Horde since 1391 Saraychik became the center of Mangyt Yurt which had finally formed into an independent state — Nogai Horde in the 40th years of the 16th century, that was former political union of the tribes of the steppe. Around 1580 Saraychik was taken by storm and destroyed by the Cossack troops. Soon the city was rebuilt, but it was the beginning of a gradual and irreversible process of its total desolation. This contributed to the economic, social and political upheavals within the Nogai Horde and other unfavorable external factors.

“Saraychik excavations have revealed residential districts of ordinary population.They consisted of houses built of mudbrick. There were two to three rooms, heated by chimney channels laid under the floor. During excavations baths, a mosque and other cult buildings were revealed and dug out and pottery — including glazed which was made on a place, and also products from the Syrian glass, the Chinese porcelain, the Khorezm bowls, bronze jugs and dishes from Iran — were found. The fact that the city was one of the centers on the Silk Road is proved by findings of imported Chinese and Iranian ceramics, bronze products and glass from Central Asia and Iran. Findings of coins minted in Golden Horde of Khoresm, Samarkand and Iran testify the commercial relations. The mint functioned in the Saraychik in 14th-XV centuries.

Rise of the Kazakhs

The Kazakhs resisted settling down and converting to Islam. In the 15th century they expanded to the steppes between the Ural and Irytysh rivers and established the worlds' last horseman empire that reached its height in the 16th century and embraces present-day Kazakhstan and large chunks of Russia and Siberia. Periodically the Kazakhs acted as horsemen of old and terrorized the region as the Mongols had done, once even conquering Samarkand around 1590.

During Kasym’s reign (1512-1523), the early Kazakh state attained the highest point of its significance. Its territory expanded from the basins of the Ural and Syr Darya Rivers toward north-east to Lake Balkhash. It was the first time that almost all Kazakh tribes and clans were united in one state. There were one million subjects in the state of Kasym Khan. Diplomatic contacts with Moscow initiated at that time allowed the Western world to know about the Kazakh Khanate. Austrian diplomat Sigismund Gerberstein left some notes about the Kazakhs. In the 16th century, Antonio Jenkinson, an English merchant, composed a map where the territory of the Kazakh state was shown. His information was enlarged by the notes of Richard Johnson, Arthur Edvarse, Antonio Marsh, and Erancis Cherry. In the late 16th century, diverse information about Kazakhstan was already available in some European countries thanks to efforts of merchants, diplomats, and travelers. [Source: B.E. Kumekov, National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2010 ]

The continuos struggle between Kazakh khans for urbanised agricultural regions of South Kazakhstan and for towns along the Syr Darya was finally ended under Esim Khan (1598-1628). Turkestan was joined to Kazakhstan. Khak Nazar (1538-1580), an outstanding Kazakh khan, fought against the Junggars in Semirechie. He was eager to restore the Kazakh power over the land of his father, Kasym. The situation with the neighbouring countries was complicated. Having conquered Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberian Khanates, Russia was approaching borders of the steppe. Great number of Nogai people, Bashkirs, Siberian Tatars, and Kara-Kalpaks invaded the Kazakhstani steppe, and Junggars invaded Semirechie. Khak Nazar, however, intended to expand his territory in the south in search for trade, craftsmanship, and agricultural centres. Having occupied several towns in Turkestan, Tauekele Khan (1586-1598) ended a long struggle for the Syr Darya towns. Therefore, during the 16th-17th centuries, Kazakh khans were engaged in stubborn wars with the rulers of Mogulistan and Central Asia for the Kazakh ethnic territory.

Kazakh State

Socially, the Kazakhs were organised in pasturing nomadic communities consisting of related families. The families had their own cattle, but roaming routes, pastures, and watering places were in common use. Close everyday practical and ideological links were established, and mutual working and material assistance was maintained among the families of the related groups. [Source: B.E. Kumekov, National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2010 ]

There were no “pure” nomadic nations. All nomadic tribes had stationary dwellings for wintering. The household members who had no opportunity to perform the migration stayed at such dwellings to become engaged in fanning requiring irrigation, horticulture, and craftsmanship. The settled agriculture was closely connected with the nomadic culture. Fanners put their cattle out to distant pastures, while nomads dealt with agriculture during wintering. Craftsmanship was well-developed, supplying the population with all necessary commodities. Tanning, wool, wood, and bone processing, yurt and vehicle manufacturing, blacksmithing, and production of jeweler were the most popular crafts. The manufacture of pottery, glasswork, and carpet weaving boomed in the towns.

A specific feature of Kazakh statehood is the Zhuzas which appeared in the 16th century. Formed on the basis of fixed roaming routes, traditional state systems and tribal confederations, they transformed into ethnic and territorial unions. Zhuzes were subdivided into tribes, tribes into clans, which in their turn were divided into related groups. Every tribe and clan was headed by a sultan, and each Zhuze was ruled by a khan who had no relative relationship with any of the ethnic groups. Feudalism developed in close connection with clan and traditions, rather than classically.

Tribes roaming in the south and south-east of current Kazakhstan were called the great Zhuz; tribes living in middle Kazakhstan, from the Ishim and Irtysh in the north to the Syr Darya and Chu in the south became Middle Zhuz; and tribes which inhabited the western part of Kazakhstan, left bank of the Ural river, Mangyshlak peninsula, and Usturt plateau were named Smaller Zhuz. Zhuzes practiced a nomadic life style. Strict regulations in the clan or tribal structure of each Zhuz, expressed in practical, social, and military spheres, promoted firmness of the structure and advanced resistance to outer “knocks”.

Islam first appeared in Kazakhstan in the 8th and 9th centuries during the Arab conquest of Central Asia. It became the predominate religion of the Kazakh people after the Kazakh khanate was established in the 15th century. In the pre-Soviet era most Kazakhs led a nomadic or semi-nomadic life Their primary occupation was rasing animals. The primary economic concern was the division of pastures.

Tauke Khan

The Kazakh state strengthened under Tauke Khan (1628-1718). Kazakh union with the Kirgiz and Kara-Kalpaks weakened the Junggar onslaught to the Kazakh lands for some period. Soon, however, the economic and political situation became complicated again due to persisting raids of the Junggars, internal wars, unstable relations with the governors of Central Asia, and construction of Russian fortresses at the boundary with Kazakhstan. [Source: B.E. Kumekov, National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2010 ]

Tauke Khan succeeded in bringing the political situation in the state to a normal condition. The took some steps to increase the respectability of the Khan authority, to consolidate the nation, and to deplete the separatism of the nobility with the help of the steppe elite, biys (judges), which represented a significant intelligent layer of society. The Khan surrounded himself with biys, whose advice helped him to struggle against Genghis Khan’s offspring, who resisted the khan’s governing. He made the biys’ council an important body and eventually enlarged the rights of biys. The council which became a permanent institution, solving the most important questions of internal and external policy of the Khanate, was formed on the basis of centralised democracy. The supreme governor had to come to agreement with the biys about national matters, especially in the struggle against the Junggars.

Biys who played an important role during the Khanates consolidation were included in the council: Tole-bi represented the Great Zhuz, Kazybek-bi represented the Middle Zhuz, and Aiteke-bi was the representative of the Smaller Zhuz. In total, there was seven biys who represented six ethnic formations. Their wisdom and resolution were bound to overcome separatism, and to unite the Kazakhs. In a certain way, it was a legislative body which worked out the “Steppe Constitution”, Zhety-Zhargy, (Seven Rulings, or Laws of Tauke Khan) which defined the basic principles of the legal order and state system of the Kazakh Khanate.

Thus, under the ruling of Kasym Khan, Khak-Nazar, Tauekele, Esim, and Tauke, the Kazakh Khanate was a centralised state, a unique political organism playing a significant role in Central Asia. The state system consolidated the nation, formed and strengthened the integrity of the ethnic territory, and developed the spiritual and material culture of the Kazakhs. The history of a joint Kazakh state ended with the end of Tauke Khans rule, and the history of three Zhuzes began.

Oryats and the Decline of the Kazakhs

The Kazakh were ultimately subdued by the Oryats (Oirats, Jungans) from the east, who defeated them in a series of brutal battles between in 1713, 1718 and 1722-23, which the Kazakh today refer to as the “Great Disaster.” The Oryats seized a great amount of Kazakh land. Some Kazakhs tribes fled to the west, where they established protective ties with the Russians.

The Oryats were a western Mongols clan that converted the Tibetan Buddhism. They established the Dzungarian (Zungarian) empire in eastern Kazakhstan, western China, western Mongolia and the Tien Shan area which lasted from 1635 to 1758.

At their height the Oryats claimed Chinese territory in Tibet and western China and challenged the Manchu (Qing) Chinese for dominance in central China. The state finally came to an end in 1758 when a powerful leader died and during the battle of the succession and large Manchu army pounced on their homeland and destroyed the Oryat army and slaughtered many civilians, bringing their civilization to a close.

The cruelty and the aggression of the Oryat is related in the epic poetry of the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz. The Oryat are now a small minority that live in the Altai area of China and Russia.

With the collapse of the Oryat, Central Asia was thrown into chaos. The Manchus in China were too weak to exert control over the region as were the Chaghatai khans. The Kyrgyz controlled much of the Tien San mountains; the Uighars took over the cities in western China; the Kazakhs formed an alliance of with the Russians; and Uzbekistan was controlled by an Iranian interloper Nadir Shah.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 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.

Last updated April 2016

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