The nomadic heritage of the Kyrgyz has made them self-reliant and independent-minded. The have traditionally lived in small groups, not under emperors. Nomadic herding and patriarchal family life left a deep imprint on the culture of the Kyrgyz. Dwellings, traditional clothes, food — are rooted their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Kyrgyz still generally greet foreign travelers with friendly curiosity.

Kyrgyz are famous for their hospitality. They have an expression, "When you arrive at my home is up to you. When you leave is up to me." Hospitality is rooted in the traditions of nomadic people.

Tribal ties were important just after independence, but now regional ties are more important. Favoritism for those from the same tribe or region is common. Tribes become important during marriage. Two people from the same tribe may not marry, unless they do not share a common ancestor for seven generations.

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “ The Kyrgyz are notoriously fractious and independent minded. They don’t often rally around a leader, says Ted Callahan, an anthropological researcher who lived with the Kyrgyz for more than a year. A Kyrgyz joke goes that if you put three people in a yurt and come back an hour later, you’ll find five khans.[Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 =]

“Throughout their history, the Kyrgyz have always rejected the idea of being controlled by a government or serving as vassals to a king. “We are untamed humans,” one Kyrgyz man proudly informed me. Their origins are murky. The Kyrgyz are first mentioned in a Chinese document from the second century A.D. and are thought to have come from the Altay Mountains of what is now Siberia and Mongolia. The name Kyrgyz, according to anthropologist Nazif Shahrani, is possibly a compound of kyrk, meaning “40,” and kyz, meaning “girl”—an etymology the Kyrgyz take to signify “descendants of 40 maidens.” =

According to Because of the economic hardships endured since independence, Kyrgyzstan has a very small upper class and a large lower class. While ethnic Kyrgyz may be in either class, it is more rare to find other ethnic groups in the upper class, which consists mainly of politicians and community leaders. Speaking Russian and dressing in a Western manner, having a two-story house, a Mercedes, or a BMW are all signs of wealth. Poor knowledge of Russian is considered a sign of lower-class status. [Source:]

Character of Nomadic Kyrgyz

Describing Kyrgyz nomads in northern Afghanistan, Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “The Kyrgyz are not the most gregarious people. They don’t laugh much. They own no books, no playing cards, no board games. Their one dance is little more than a gentle waving of a handkerchief. With a single exception—a young boy who filled a notebook with marvelous penciled portraits—I met no one who seemed interested in fine art or drawing. A wedding I attended was shockingly joyless, with the exception of a game of buzkashi, a fast and violent sport played on horseback with the headless carcass of a goat as the ball. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 =]

“Kyrgyz manners could be considered gruff. It’s acceptable to walk away in the middle of a conversation. More than once, without asking, a man would thrust his hand into my pocket to see what I kept in there. Or snatch my glasses off my nose to inspect them. The Kyrgyz eat meat by slicing off hunks and stashing the leftovers in a pocket. There’s not much singing. =

“Perhaps this is understandable. This is a place, as the khan says, where “you get old fast.” Maybe, when you are always cold, when you watch a half dozen of your children die, some emotion is sandpapered away. Maybe this land is too windy, too remote, too hard. If it doesn’t kill you, it damages you; it robs you of a certain channel of joy. =

“Until you step into a Kyrgyz yurt. Move aside the heavy felt door. And suddenly everything changes. The outside world disappears, and you’ve walked into a Kyrgyz wonderland. The blankets and carpets and wall hangings and ceiling coverings are all decorated with ornate designs—paisley, flowered, spangled, psychedelic, kaleidoscopic. This is where the family eats and sleeps and escapes, in this ecstatic explosion of color.” =

Differences Between Northern and Southern Kyrgyz

There are sharp divisions between northern and southern Kyrgyz. Traditionally divided by mountains, they have developed district customs and dialects. The two regions are connected by a single road through the mountains. The northern Kyrgyz living in areas of the Tien Shan mountains, Issyk-kul lake and the Chu and Talas river valleys maintained their nomadic traditions and resisted Islam for a longer period of time. The southern Kyrgyz of the Ferghana Valley and the Eastern Pamirs became settled and embraced Islam earlier and more deeply. The southern Kyrgyz have traditionally been settled in the Fergana Valley with Tajiks and Uzbeks and tended to be sedentary farmers.

Other Kyrgyz groups include fled Kyrgyzstan because of land disputes with the Russians and settled in western China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and other places. Those that fled have tended retain their traditionally nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyle while those who remained in Kyrgyzstan tend to be more Russified.

Politics in Kyrgyzstan is often divided along north-south lines. In a survey in the late 1990s, 63.5 percent of Kyrgyz said that differences between the north and south are the main destabilizing factors in the country. North Kyrgyz are regarded as more Russified, slightly richer and less Islamic that their counterparts in the south, especially in the Fergana Valley around Osh and Jalal-Abad.

Kyrgyz Society

Among Kyrgyz, kinship and descent are very important in determining social organization. Kinship may be real or fictive. The later includes milk kin, people who have been nursed by the same mother and are forbidden from marrying one another.

The most important social group is the “oey”, or extended family group, comprised of an elderly man and his wife or wives and all their unmarried children and married sons and their wives and children. All of these people traditionally lived together in a yurt or group of yurts.

A group of extended families, often made of all sixth- or seventh-generation descendants, belong to a “kechek oruq” (patrilineage), also known as a “bir atanyng baldary” (“children of the same father”), which have traditionally camped together and cooperated on trade, herding, migrations and religious activities. A clan (“oruq”) or tribe (“orwo”) is comprised of a group of “kechek oruq”.

As is true with the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz place great emphasis on being able to trace their ancestry back seven generation. Clan membership is defined through these records. In the old days, those that could not prove clan membership could be enslaved. See Kazakhs.

The age-old geographic separation of pockets of the Kyrgyz population has tended to reinforce conservatism in all of the country's society. The modern Kyrgyz still apply great significance to family and clan origins. The majority of Kyrgyz continued a nomadic lifestyle until the Soviet campaigns of forcible collectivization forced them first into transitional settlements and then into cities and towns or state and collective farms in the 1930s. Within the centralized farm systems, however, many Kyrgyz continued to move seasonally with their herds. There has been strong resistance to industrial employment. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Important Kyrgyz Clans

Kyrgyz are very loyal to their clans and tribe (a group of clans). Kyrgyz identity in public and private life is said to be determined primarily by membership in one of three clan groupings known as "wings" (right, or ong ; left, or sol ; and ichkilik , which is neither) and secondarily by membership in a particular clan within a wing.

Kyrgyz have traditionally belonged to two major federations: Otiz Uul (30 sons) in northern Kyrgyzstan and Ich Kilik in southern Kyrgyzstan, particularly the Fergana Valley. There have traditionally been tensions between these two federations. Otiz Uuul has two “kanats” wings: the right wing and left wing. The right wing (Ong Kanat) is located in northern, western and southern Kyrgyzstan. One of its tribes, the Tagay, had traditionally produced intellectual and political leaders of the Kyrgyz people. The Tagay is made up of thirteen clans. Other important tribes include the Buguu (the largest tribe), Salto (Bishkek area tribe), Adigine (Osh area tribe) and Sary Bagysh (the tribe of President Akayev). Some of the tribes in the left wing and the Ich Kilik are of Mongol origin.

The history of these grouping is unknown, although several legends explain the phenomenon. The left wing now includes seven clans in the north and west. Each of the seven has a dominant characteristic, and all have fought each other for influence. The Buguu warrior clan provided the first administrators of the Kyrgyz Republic under the Soviet Union; when the purges of Stalin eradicated their leaders in the 1930s, their place was taken by a second northern warrior clan, the Sarybagysh, who have provided most Kyrgyz leaders since that time, including Akayev. The right wing contains only one clan, the Adygine. Located in the south, the Adygine are considered the most genuinely Kyrgyz clan because of their legendary heritage. The southern Ichkilik is a group of many clans, some of which are not of Kyrgyz origin, but all of which claim Kyrgyz identity in the present. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Legend of Origin of the Bugu: the Tribe of Mother Deer

The Kyrgyz Bugu (or Deer) tribe is the largest Kyrgyz tribe. They consider their first ancestor to have been a "Mother Deer". They have a legend which describes how in ancient times, when the earth was covered with forests, a Kyrgyz tribe lived on the banks of the Yenesei river near Lake Baikal in what is now Russia. There was constant fighting between this tribe and other neighboring tribes. Wars broke out when cattle were stolen. Houses were razed to the ground and many people on both sides were killed. [Source: advantour]

One day a beautiful bird appeared and told the Yenesei river tribe in a human voice that a calamity was about to happen, but the tribe members paid no attention to the prophecy. Soon afterwards, their leader Kulchoo died. As the tribe prepared to bury him and great noise was heard and their bloodthirsty enemies attacked them. Caught defenseless, they were killed one by one until no one was left alive.

It so happened, however, that a young boy and girl from the tribe had earlier gone into the woods to collect mushrooms — and so they were to escape the slaughter. On their return they found their parents, relatives and friends all dead, their homes destroyed and the once clean river flowing red with blood. They saw their enemies leaving and heard them boast about the slaughter. They waited until they were sure that they had all left and then began to search for food and help.

Hungry and afraid, they eventually saw signs of life at the foot of the mountain. They rushed down the mountain to find that it was their enemies who were feasting and celebrating. Driven by hunger and forgetting their fear, the rushed forward begging for food. One kind old woman took pity on them and gave them some boiled meat. Others in the crowd, however, recognized them as Kyrgyz and carried them off to the Khan, who sat on his white felt carpet and drinking Koumiss. He burst into a rage, furious that some Kyrgyz had survived and, screaming at the old woman ordered her to kill them so that not one Kyrgyz remained alive. She took them to a cliff overlooking the Yenesei River and prepared to throw them over it. She prayed to the River to accept them and take pity on them as there was nowhere on left on earth for them, and asked them to forgive her.

She then heard a voice and saw a large maral deer, with big black eyes and udders heavy with milk. She explained to the old woman that some hunters had killed her own children and she wanted to nurse the two human children. The old woman was astounded ... you don't know man," she said, "they have no respect for animals - or each other. All you are doing is inviting pain and suffering. Why do you want to do that?" The mother deer replied that she would take the children away. She had plenty of milk and would be able to feed and care for them. She would be a good mother. The old woman gave her consent.

The children followed the deer, and she took them a long way away, over the mountains to Lake Issyk Kul where she nursed them and raised them. There, they married and had two sons — Tynymsejit and Alesejit, who raised families. They called their new tribe the Bugu — the tribe of the Mother Deer. In due course Tynymsejit moved with his family to the Naryn region but Alesejit remained around Lake Issyk Kul. Some time later the harmony between the Bugu and deer came to a tragic end. In the Issyk Kul region, some people killed deer and used their antlers as decoration for their graves. So the deer left and went deep into the mountains. The legend has many variations, usually with more detail and subplots. The best known rendition of it is in Chinghiz Aitmatov's novel "The White Ship".

Clan Loyalty in Kyrgyzstan

Clans and tribes are led by a patriarch, who were traditionally chosen on the basis of their good character, observation of Islamic law, wealth, success as a herdsman, courage in battle , oratorical skills and position in clan and lineage. The Soviets recognized and incorporated the clan system into their structures. Members of collectives were generally members of the same clan. Local party organizations were also often comprised of members of the same clan or tribe.

Acutely aware of the roles each of the clans traditionally has played, the Kyrgyz are still very conscious of clan membership in competing for social and economic advantage. Support for fellow clan members is especially strong in the northern provinces. Kyrgyz men frequently wear traditional black-on-white felt headgear, which informs others of their clan status and the degree of respect to be accorded them. Larger clans are subdivided by origin and by the nobility of their ancestors; although there is no prohibition of advancement for those of non-noble descent, descent from a high-born extended family still is considered a social advantage.[Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Like other Central Asian groups, the Kyrgyz venerate history and see themselves as part of a long flow of events. A traditional requirement is the ability to name all the people in the previous seven generations of one's family. Clan identity extends this tradition even further, to the legendary origins of the Kyrgyz people. Kyrgyz clans are said to spring from "first fathers," most of whom appear in both oral legends and in history. Clan history and genealogy are entrusted to tribal elders, whose ongoing knowledge of those subjects makes falsification of lineage difficult. Because clan identity remains an important element of social status, however, Kyrgyz do sometimes claim to have descended from a higher branch of their clan than is actually the case. *

Kyrgyz Nomadic Life

The Kyrgyz have been nomads for as long as anybody can remember. Many tend sheep, and to a lesser extent cattle, and yaks in the highlands. Shepherds on horseback, with lean dogs running beside them, live in yurts and move their animals between valleys in the winter and mountain pastures in the spring. One nomad told the New York Times, “This will always be Kyrgyzstan. That means people will always live in the mountains, always have horses, and always take care of animal. It’s who we are and what we do,”

The Kyrgyz, however, have traditionally been more settled than the Kazakhs. There are skilled horsemen but usually have lived in permanent settlements—where they raised animals — for nine months of the year and then moved to higher pastures for the summer. Many Kyrgyz that are considered nomadic live a semi-nomadic resistance: spending most of the year in their permanent homes and residing yurts in the summer.

Kyrgyzstan is famous for it jailoos, high pastures used for grazing in summer. Unlike the Kazakhs and Mongols, who primarily migrated with their animals long distance from summer pastures in the steppes to winter pastures in the semideserts, the Kyrgyz have traditionally migrated vertically between summer pastures in the mountains and winter grazing areas or settled farms in the valleys or lowlands.

Horses and Livestock in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz nomadic pastoralists have traditionally raised mostly sheep but also horses, goats. Bactrian camels and yaks. In some places pigs were kept. There are about 1 million cattle and 9.3 million sheep and goats in Kyrgyzstan.

There are roughly twice as many sheep as people in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan produces lots wool. Animals sometimes kept in corals and allowed to roam around the mountain and valley grazing areas. Fires are made with animal dung.

The Selfless Nomad wrote in his blog: “Sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell. In Kyrgyzstan the sheep is a way of life. A culture whose favorite meat is mutton, almost any large gathering will have boiled sheep, handicrafts are made from wool along with their yurts, they also have children’s game played with the knees from sheep chuko. In the village wealth is measured in the amount of sheep or other livestock you own, at the animal bazar you choose a sheep by the amount of fat it has in it’s butt. People go to the lush mountain valleys in summer to graze their sheep and other livestock. Sheep play a huge role in Kyrgyz life and culture. [Source: /theselflessnomad ; May 11, 2014 \=/]

Horses are prized as a means of transportation, source of food, investment and a display of wealth. People use them to get around, herd sheep and carry and pull loads. They are bred and sold, milked and occasionally eaten. They are prized as a source of koumiss. Even people who live in Bishkek and other cities are expected to be excellent horsemen and have horses and saddles back in their home villages. Manhood is often judged by horsemanship.

Kyrgyz Nomadic Lifestyle

The Kyrgyz material life is still closely related to animal husbandry; garments, food and dwellings all distinctively feature nomadism. The nomad Kyrgyz live on the plains near rivers in summer and move to mountain slopes with a sunny exposure in winter. The settled Kyrgyz mostly live in flat-roofed square mud houses with windows and skylights. The nomadic Kyrgyz of Kizilsu graze their livestock herds on low-lying grassland plains in the vicinity of rivers during the summer months, then relocate to higher mountain terrain during the winter, as the higher mountain slopes offer more exposure to the warming rays of the sun during winter.

The diet of the Kyrgyz herdsmen mainly consists of animal byproducts, with some cabbages, onions and potatoes. They drink goat's milk, yogurt and tea with milk and salt. Rich herdsmen mainly drink cow's milk and eat beef, mutton, horse and camel meat, wheat flour and rice. They store butter in dried sheep or cattle stomachs. All tableware is made of wood.

The tents are made of felt, Those that are not yurts are generally square in shape with a frame and fencing made with red willow stakes. The tent frame is first covered with a mat of grass and then a felt covering with a one-meter-square skylight, to which a movable felt cover is attached. The tent is tied down with thick ropes to keep it steady in strong winds and snowstorms. Kyrgyz settlers, in contrast, live in flat-roofed square mud houses with windows and skylights, and make their living as farmers.

Kyrgyz Nomadic Life Under the Soviets

The Soviets encourage the Kyrgyz to continue practicing migratory pastoralism because it was the most efficient way to raise livestock in the rugged, mountainous terrains that makes up most of Kyrgyzstan. In the 1960s, Khrushchev, launched an economic plan aimed at pastoralist that included production of factory-made yurts.

Each family traditionally had its own pastures which it defended against others. This system persisted under the Soviets except that brigades rather than families guarded the interests of the land. The Soviets exerted more control over land use which reduced conflicts over land.

In the Soviet era, many people lived on collective farms that raised livestock. After the collapse of the Soviet Union many of these collective were closed down an many people lots their jobs.

After the Soviet era, many herders left collective farms to work on their own. Discussing the transition to a market economy, one herder told the New York Times, “This is better. You breed your own horses, you sell your own horses. You make koumiss, You sell koumiss. But you have to pay taxes.”

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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