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Religious Revival and Identity in Modern Kirghistan

Wolfgang-E. Scharlipp

(Dieser Beitrag erscheint auch im "Central Asiatic Journal" 49 (2004) 2)

Kirghistan declared itself independent on the 31st of August 1991, on the same date as Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan followed a few months later, on the 8th December. This slight hesitation on the side of Kazakhstan can be interpreted as an indicator for the closer connection that this country had to Russia compared to the other Turkish republics. The new republics faced all the problems that new countries have to deal with. Problems include among others, building up an independent economical and monetary system, introducing a new constitution and legal system, and last but not least, a modified educational system.

The ex-member states of the Soviet Union faced some more big problems which remained to be solved. Their traditional culture had come under Russian influence and partly disappeared. Two of the most important cultural factors, language and writing systems had to be reformed. In all Turkish republics language reforms are being carried out, which also include the creation of scientific terminology, as until recently Russian had been the language of science. Seeing at least a certain Westernization as the prerequisite for modernization, the Cyrillic alphabet was given up and the Latin alphabet introduced instead, by Azerbayjan 1991, Türkmenistan 1993, Uzbekistan 1993, reformed alphabet 1995, Tatarstan 1999. Kazakhstan announced to introduce the Latin alphabet in the future, while at the same time continuing also to use Cyrillic, Kirghistan so far does not intend to introduce a Latin based alphabet. This fact reflects the search for identity, which is the topic of our article.
President Nazarbayev inaugurates the Köl Tegin Stone
President Nazarbayev inaugurates the Köl Tegin Stone


On the 18th of May 2001 a copy of the stele of the Turkish prince Köl Tegin (erected 1st of August 732 in the Mongolian steppe), was inaugurated in the hall of the university of Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan. The inauguration festivities were headed by Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of the state. The festivities were accompanied by a symposium about the Old Turkish Orkhon inscriptions, which are written in a writing system, that was obviously developed especially for writing Turkish. Because its letters have shapes very similar to the Germanic runes, they were called "Old Turkish Runes", a term now criticized by some Turkish nationalists.

One of the speakers of the opening session was the author of these lines, who was invited in his capacity as the "successor" of Vilhelm Thomsen, the Danish linguist and decipherer of the Turkish Runic alphabet. (It should be added here that not only the Institute of Central Asian Studies at this university was closed down ca. twenty years ago, but that even the field of turkology is only in an experimental state and might also be closed soon. Furthermore the reader should know that all of Central Asia, as well as the study of pre-Islamic Turkish language and culture is regarded as being something outdated and superfluous in accordance with the local idea of "modernism".)

The papers read during this symposium were published shortly after in the form of a book, the quality of which is of a high standart, with a hard cover binding, good inside paper, and photos of the speakers in the panel. The cover is decorated with all the signs of the Runic alphabet, the title is printed in Kazakh, Russian and English (see literature: Proceedings…2001) All the papers included treat various aspects of the Old Turkish Runic inscriptions and the book is hitherto the greatest collection of articles on this topic.

Proceedings of the Conference in Astana
Proceedings of the Conference in Astana

Shortly before, in May 2001, another book had been published on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the independence of Kazakhstan, dedicated to the Old Turkish Orkhon inscriptions (see literature: Orhonskie nadpisi). It includes various articles concerning the three big inscriptions of Mongolia, containing reprints of old contributions of P. Melioransky, V. Radloff, S. Malov, S, Amanžolov, J. Stebleva, M. Auezov and A. Amanžolov's essay about the origin of the Old Turkish Runic letters. In the beginning of the book we find a preface written by president Nursultan Nazarbayev and a short introduction written by the rector of the "Eurasian University" in Astana, Mirzatay Žoldasbekov, both in the Russian and Kazakh languages.

In 1999 a meeting of turkologists took place at Frankfurt University to which Marcel Erdal had invited and where a possible new writing system for Kazakh was discussed. The Cyrillic alphabet was to be replaced by an alphabet that should contribute to finding a new identity. For such an introduction of a new alphabet often the reason is given that a writing system should be introduced which is more efficient in giving the sound system of the respective language than the alphabet used at the present time. The change from the Arabic alphabet to the Latin alphabet in Turkey in 1928 is an excellent example for the political background of introducing a new alphabet. Introducing the Latin alphabet for Turkish was the strongest visible signal of changing from the cultural basis of the Islamic Ottoman Empire towards a modern democracy in the Western sense.

In a culture in which the written word enjoys a particularly high prestige, the system of writing enjoys a particularly high symbolic value. It is thus not surprising that among the Kazakh participants of the meeting in Frankfurt, one seriously argued in favour of introducing the Old Turkish Runic alphabet in order to replace the Cyrillic one. This proposal was based on the argument that the Runic writing system would clearly indicate the Turkish past of the Kazakhs, making clear at the same time the self-identification with an autochthonous cultural achievement.

Such effects of the search for identity are often belittled and ridiculed by societies who are not familiar with this kind of problems. In this respect I would like to remind in the fact that all societies take advantage of their most remote past in order to prove the age of their cultural achievements. As our topic are Runic inscriptions, a good example - and we only need one - is a book like "Dansk litteratur fra Runer til grafitti" (Danish literature from runes to graffiti), which is one of the most common Danish introductions into Danish literature and not only has the word "Runes" in the title, but includes also an illustration of the short Runic inscription of King Harald from ca 970.


In an article published 1998 I had drawn attention to the role that the knowledge of and about the Old Turkish Runic Inscriptions had played among Turkish intellectuals at the end of the Ottoman Empire and the first years of the Turkish Republic. The decipherment of the Runic alphabet and the sudden awareness of an original Turkish, non-Islamic, non-Buddhist historical cultural past with its autochthonous, written sources had contributed to developing a national identity that could be constructed without the help of Islamic culture.

The circumstances and conditions for constructing a Kazakh national identity are similar only to a certain degree. As was the society of the Ottoman Empire, also the society of Kazakhstan is multiethnic and multireligious. But religion never had the same importance and power in Kazakhstan. The necessity to strengthen a Kazakh nationalism was rather conditioned by the fact that Kazakhs are a minority in their own country, 39.7 % of the total population in 1989 (Mangott, p. 32).

The "kazakhization" of the country, which has been pushed forward by president Nazarbayev, was mainly directed against the danger of Russian dominance or at least too high demands from the side of the Russian population of Kazakhstan, being only slightly less than the Kazakh population (37.8 % in 1989). Most actions taken in order to demonstrate Kazakh dominance in the state have mostly been symbolic. A clear example for this is the fact that former Akmola, situated in the Russian dominated North of the country was made capital (now called Astana), instead of the old capital Almaty, situated in the South Eastern corner near the borders to China and Kirghistan.


Turkish states, whichever we think of, are in publications usually referred to as "Muslim" countries. Almost every author who writes about Turkey feels obliged to mention that 99% of the population of Turkey are Muslims. In this tradition an otherwise thoroughly written study of the modern Central Asian countries gives the percentage of Muslims of the total population of Kirghistan with 72.This number corresponds roughly with the non-Russian population of the country.

Visitors to Bishkek, the capital, will look in vain for anything that indicates the presence of Islam. The town makes a very Western - if this word is allowed here - impression, although the poor economy prevents sometimes the impression of "modernity". It is certainly legitimate to say - and for the sake of truth, we may get a bit polemic - that most bigger cities of the "Muslim" Turkish states give a more Western or modern impression than most big cities in North and South America with their slums. Nevertheless Islam is present in the country, although it does not show in the capital. It is found mainly in the South and in the country side. Even if Islam here is on the rise, according to Mangott (p. 3), an impact of religion on the town population and especially on intellectuals, cannot be stated. Islam does in these parts of the society not play a role as a factor of self-identity.

From the 9th to the 12th of November 2003 the public foundation "Tengir Ordo" hosted an international congress titled "Tengirçilik is the world view of the Altaic people". The singular form "people" might not indicate the idea that all ethnic group speaking an Altaic language are regarded to be one people. It rather might indicate the idea of a group of persons being united by the same cultural past. It might furthermore indicate a certain unfamiliarity with the English language. This unfamiliarity can also be seen in the few English papers which were handed in for publication in the conference acts.

Furthermore only few of the papers read during the conference could be regarded as scientific in an international sense. Although some of the papers were nevertheless interesting, what counts even more is the fact that such a congress could be held. Besides this, it is especially the less scientific papers, being partly rather emotional, which made clear why such a congress had to take place according to the opinion of the participants. We will come back to this further down.

In the focus of this congress were the religious or philosophical aspects of the Old Turkish nomadic empires. We will give here a very short summary of what in so far has been accepted by Western science of the scarce knowledge we have of what some call "tengriism" or "tengrianity" as it is called in the title mentioned above.

The highest god is the divine sky, which is called "tengri". This word seems to designate the visible sky as well as its divine character. Trying to define the "tengri" from what is said about it in the Old Turkish inscriptions, is impossible, as neither its character nor its relation to the other divine powers become clear. Quality and abilities of this divine power have been investigated by several scientists, but their conclusions differ in certain aspects from another. One big problem is , in how far "tengri" himself is a creator or is he created himself? The other unanswered question is, in how far can he be regarded as the only god, a question the answer of which depends on whether "tengri´s" relation to other divine powers has to be understood. The inscriptions mention "umay", who is feminine and who could, in the opinion of some researchers be identical with the goddess of earth. But the inscriptions mention also the word for earth, "yer" in close connection with "sub" water. In these cases we certainly have to understand certain locations and lakes and rivers, which were sacred places and to which sacrifices were made. We can furthermore understand from the inscriptions that "tengri" could interfere into the life on earth. We read that the "kaghan" the emperor, could loose his power to govern his state, if he was unable to keep up stability and equilibrium among his people. It was especially the unclear relation between "tengri" and "umay" which caused a discussion among scholars, in how far we are faced with a monotheistic religion in the case of tengrianity.

The role that shamanism and totemism played in relation to the religion of tengrianity has been discussed by several scholars, but will not be considered here, as it was no topic during the congress. (to this topic see: Roux 19 and Scharlipp 1991)

During this congress the inscriptions played a role only in so far as they could possibly contribute to our knowledge about this religion. When there was from time to time a reference to the old stone inscriptions, speakers mostly referred to the inscriptions found in the Yenissey basin as "Kirghiz" inscriptions, which is in accordance with the international scientific opinion. Mentioning the stones of the Mongolian steppe, these were referred to as Old Turkish.

The Old Turkish inscriptions became an object of academic research and publication in Kirghistan a little bit later than in Kazakhstan (and several years later than in Azerbayjan; see list of literature). Two Kirghiz turkologists were - to my knowledge - the first Turkic scientists to write an introduction into the Runic inscriptions in a Turkic language, the main part of their book being a grammar and a glossary written in original Runic signs together with a Cyrillic transliteration and a Kirghiz translation.

The authors K. Konkobaev and S. Sydykov are professors at the "Kirghistan/Turkey-Manas University" in Bishkek. This university was founded by both countries, Kirghistan and Turkey, the contract being signed 1995 in Izmir/Turkey. Kirghiz and Turkish are both languages of instruction. The study program of Turkology at this university offers a thorough education in Turkish philology in the classical sense, including two semesters reading Runic inscriptions, continuing with classical Islamic texts of Central Asian Turkish (Karahanic and Chaghatay), continuing with Ottoman, modern Kirghiz and Modern Turkish.

Introduction into the Runic Inscriptions by Sydykov and Konkobaev
Introduction into the Runic Inscriptions by Sydykov and Konkobaev

During the conference the inscriptions were only in so far of importance as they allow some conclusions referring to the beliefs of the Turks of the steppe empires. But only one paper concerned the role of "tengri" as it appears in several places in the Yenisey inscriptions (Takashi Osawa: "Aspects of the cult and culture of Tengri on the ancient Turkic inscriptions of the Yenisei Basin"), one paper treated the role of tengri in an epic poem (Aigerim Dyikanbaeva: "Kococaę Destanında Tanrı Kavramı"). A third paper tried to summarize the results to which Western scientists had come concerning the "cult of heaven", including the role of the earth and the "sacred places".

The other papers focused on the conception of tengrianity, discussing mostly how these conceptions should be understood, whether it can be regarded as a religion or rather as philosophy. In the context of these discussions the similarity and possible historical relations with religions and world-views of other societies were also a topic of several speakers.

In the following I quote a passage from a paper titled "Religion or philosophic outlook" by G. Akmatova, M. Murataliev and N. Esengulova, which gives both, a clear picture of how the speakers presented their papers and some typical topics, which will shortly be discussed at the end of the quotation.

"We understand religion as a form of social consciousness that includes spiritual notions based on the belief in the existence of God, but assumes mandatory forms of behaviour and specific actions (cults, riddles), in churches, mosques etc.

Tengreanism from the point of view of theologists who are based on religious dogmas is the connection between two beginnings: the Sky and the Earth, Good and Evil, Light and Darkness (all spelled with capital letters, W.E.S.). The followers of Tengreanism consider the Sky as the omnipotent force of Divine Goodness and Light, Beginning of all Beginnings, Eternity. The Earth and the Sky were inseparable. Man appeared as the link between the Sky and the Earth whose good intentions and deeds were strengthening the connection, giving birth to harmony and wellbeing on the Earth. Bad intentions, in the opposite, could ruin the connection and provoke chaos and panic on the Earth.

The Sky was considered as the one and only source of the Divine Grace and was steadfast. Man perceived the Sky as the criteria for clear consciousness, moral criteria. The Sky could punish or bless. In the interpretation of Tengrean researchers the Sky was omnipresent and an omni-inclusive substance. Therefore all the ancient nations believed in the power of the Sky and worshipped it as the God itself.

We hypothesize that Tengreanism should be considered as the philosophic world view that is common for different cultures, which developed moral and ethic values despite geographic and religious borders. The essence of Tengreanism, as we see it, embraces the idea of achieving harmony through the understanding of connectedness between Nature and Human Beings.

Man achieves a spiritual revelation, as it applies to God, by taking the way of self perfection, embracing life and keeping the balance with nature. Ancient peoples of the Altai, including the Kirghiz people, cherished their land. They considered land a life-giving force of everything existing and hence sacred. Out of this belief different rituals were born, connected to the sacrifices of the Earth (Jer/Suu/Tauuy). Special attitudes towards Earth resulted in harmonic coexistence with the environment of rational use of natural resources.

It is worth mentioning that Man never valued himself above Nature (surrounding spiritual and material world) and never considered himself the master of the Earth as certain concepts tried to present it based on the ides that Man was the most evolutionally developed creature on the Earth, and Nature existed to satisfy his needs. On the contrary, in tengreanism Man is trying to live in harmony with the surrounding world keeping the balance and considering himself as one wholesome creation with Nature where one cannot exist without the other. Moreover Man understands that the damage to the environment will ruin the divinity of life, because Nature is a God creation as well. Tengreanism and the idea of harmony and equality with Nature were born, as we think, at the moment when human beings appeared and represented the very first world outlook for humanity."

There are several points in this section which it has in common with most of the other papers. Tengreanism is understood as a world view based on a dualistic principle. Several papers underlined the similarity between this old Altaic world view, Zoroatrism, but more than any other ideology, Taoism with its Yin and Yang principle. Some speakers expressed the original identity of Tengreanity and Taoism and in some cases also Shintoism was included. Based on the idealization of the equilibrium of two cardinal powers as symbolized in Yin Yang, some speakers focused on the importance of this equilibrium for ecological thinking.

Book about Tengirçilik by Choyon Ömüraliev
Book about Tengirçilik by Choyon Ömüraliev
The title is written in Cyrillic letters which are given the shape of runes.

S. Sarygulov, who had organized the congress, had particularly stressed this point in his opening speech. He sees tengrianity as an alternative to the many -isms which so far acted as social principles of mankind, leading to nothing but conflicts and ecological catastrophies :"This is the first time in the history of humanity that nature……became the crucial and defining factor in mankind´s fate (the "hotbed effect" ozone hole, lack of natural resources, total water, soil, atmosphere pollution, lack of drinking water etc.)".

Although at no time during the conference anything positive about communism was mentioned, one is well aware of the destructive effects of capitalism as it is flourishing now: "The domination of capitalist ideology, not combining with morality, in tandem with the scientific-technical revolution, lead to an increasing dehumanization phenomenon of humanity, its spiritual and moral degradation having become the plague of amorality, rapidly spreading all over the planet." Sarygulovs opening speech focused thus on many global issues, which the predominant ideologies were not able to deal with appropriately or which they even caused to increase.

Tengrianity as a contribution to constructing or intensifying an already existing national identity, did not play the prevailing role one could have expected, but was mentioned by some speakers. We quote one example from the paper of Nurgul Osmanova: "For the Kyrgyz society the problem of self-consciousness and finding the place in the varied technocratic world is one of the most crucial questions. The reason for that is that in this transitional period, the process of internationalization, globalization of modern life and culture and mankind´s way of thinking, do not always have positive effects on the culture of our people. Because culture is connected with imposing so-called "Western" and "American" way of life-style and mode of thinking on moral and cultural values of our own society. This process of accustoming with other cultural values has caused insufficient attention to our own historical traditions and cultural sources." Nevertheless the author does later in the text not focus on nationalism, but on regaining a Kirghiz, which is closely connected to nomadism.


In the end of the congress it became surprisingly clear to the foreign guest how deeply some old traditions are still rooted in the society. The program closed with a rich repertoire of national music being presented by artists in classical costumes. On some observers this might have made the impression of a purely folkloristic character, but this was prevented by the seriousness of the public. A clearer proof even for the survival of old traditions, were the renderings of three "manasci", men who present parts of the Manas epos in a certain way between speaking and singing. They are so highly concentrated that they make the impression of being in trance. Their art of presenting this epos requires a thorough education which is highly esteemed in the Kirghiz society.


It remains to express my cordial thanks to several persons in Bishkek who made my stay pleasant and interesting, among them Sabira and Aigerim for their interpretations and explanations and especially Aizat for her interpretations, help and care.