LOCATION: Kyrgyzstan; Central Asia
POPULATION: 6 million
LANGUAGES: Kyrgyz; Russian; English
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)
1 INTRODUCTIONThe Kyrgyz people were nomads throughout much of their history, initially living in the region of south-central Russia between the Yenesei River and Lake Baikal about 2,000 years ago. The ancestors of the modern Kyrgyz were probably not Turks, like most people in the area are. The ancestors of the Kyrgyz exhibited European-like features (such as fair skin, green eyes, and red hair). At some time between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, they settled in the Tien Shan Mountains.
In modern times, the Kyrgyz people have seen much of their land taken by Russians as the Russian empire spread east. From 1917 to 1991, the Kyrgyz lived in the Soviet Union as residents of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kyrgyz people became independent and created their own country.
Since 1991, Kyrgyzstan has been led by an elected president and parliamentary form of government. The government has concentrated on elevating the status of Kyrgyz culture in Kyrgyzstan without alienating persons of other ethnic backgrounds (a citizen of Kyrgyzstan does not need to be Kyrgyz).
2 LOCATIONThere are approximately 4.5 million Kyrgyz living throughout the former Soviet Union, about 88 percent of them in Kyrgyzstan. Ethnic Kyrgyz constitute slightly more than half of the population of Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is located in Central Asia, along the western range of the Tien Shan Mountains. The boundaries with neighboring countries (Kazakstan, China, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) run along mountain ranges, and about 85 percent of Kyrgyzstan itself is mountainous.
The largest mountain lake, Issyk-Kul, is located high in the mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan. Many Kyrgyz fishing villages are located around the edge of the lake.
3 LANGUAGEMost Kyrgyz people speak the Kyrgyz language, which is a distinct Turkic language with Mongol influences. Although the Kyrgyz language is spoken in the home, most Kyrgyz also speak Russian, which is the language of business and commerce. English is the third language of communication.
4 FOLKLOREThe telling of epic oral tales dates back about 1,000 years among the Kyrgyz people. One of the most famous epics tells the saga of Manas, the father of the Kyrgyz people; his son Semetey; and his grandson Seytek. The entire poem is incredibly long (about twice as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey combined). It can take up to three weeks to recite and was not written down until the 1920s. In the epic, the forty Kyrgyz tribes strive for freedom and unity. Under the leadership of Manas, the Kyrgyz people who were the slaves of various tribes are gathered as a nation. Manas is believed to be buried at a small mausoleum near the town of Talas, in western Kyrgyzstan near the border with Kazakstan.
5 RELIGIONHorses figured prominently in the traditional spiritual beliefs of the early Kyrgyz. It was believed that a horse carried the spirit of a dead person to a higher world. Most Kyrgyz today are followers of Islam (Sunni Muslim), but many ancient traditions persist.
Since the eighth century AD, Islam has been the dominant religion in the Fergana River Valley in southwest Kyrgyzstan. Even so, it did not gain a strong presence among all the Kyrgyz until the nineteenth century.
The Kyrgyz are generally more secular (nonreligious) in daily life than some of the other peoples in the area. Kyrgyzstan also has a large population of non-Muslims. The government has made no moves to use Islamic law.
6 MAJOR HOLIDAYSNew Year's Day (January 1) and Orthodox Christmas (January 7) are official holidays in Kyrgyzstan. The spring equinox (around March 21) is called Nawruz and is an important holiday among the Kyrgyz people because it marks the start of the Muslim new year. Kurban Ait (Remembrance Day, June 13) and Independence Day (August 31) are also official Kyrgyzstan holidays.
7 RITES OF PASSAGEKyrgyz rites of passage include large birthday parties with many friends and relatives. These feasts often last five or six hours. Celebrations are held for a birth, for a baby's fortieth day of life, for the first day of school, and for school graduation.
A wedding serves to honor the married couple and assemble an extended family or clan. Traditionally, marriages were arranged by the parents, and a dowry payment was expected. Many modern Kyrgyz young people want to influence the selection of their spouse.
8 RELATIONSHIPSKyrgyz women typically greet one another with handshakes or hugs. Male-female relations among the Kyrgyz are less formal and less rigid than among their neighbors, the Uzbeks or Tajiks. Men and women eat together and share some household tasks.
Like many other peoples of Central Asia, the Kyrgyz are very hospitable. Kyrgyz often honor their guests by serving them a cooked sheep's head.
9 LIVING CONDITIONSThe traditional Kyrgyz home is a yurt or yurta- a round, felt-covered structure built upon a collapsible wooden frame. Most Kyrgyz today live in individual permanent homes. The arched opening of a yurta is called the tundruk. The flag of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan features a tundruk.
Life in the city has some challenges. There is a lack of housing, and public transportation does not run on schedule. In Bishkek, for example, evening bus service is not reliable. There are taxis in the city, but people looking for a ride will often stop a private car and pay the driver because it is cheaper than using a taxi.
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