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ETHNONYMS: Kalpaks, Karalpaks; Russian names: Chernyye klobuki, Karakalpaki


Identification. Karakalpaks speak a Central Turkic language, live primarily in the Turanian (Aral Sea) Basin of Central Asia, and are by tradition Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school. "Karakalpak" means "black hat" and identifies the former Soviet republic (ASSR) of the people of the same name.

Location. The Karakalpak Republic is an amalgamation of the old Khivan Khanate (1811-1920) and the Khorezm People's Republic of the early 1930s, makes up the eastern third of the Uzbek Republic, and is located between 41° and 46° N and 55° and 62° E. The Karakalpak people are heavily concentrated in Uzbekistan (98 percent), with most (93 percent) being located in the delta country of the Amu Darya (Oxus River). Their homeland includes sections of both the Kyzyl Kum (Red Desert) and Kara Kum (Black Desert). The region is extremely arid, rarely receiving more than 12.5 centimeters of precipitation per year, over half of which falls from February to May. Diversion of rivers for irrigation, both within Karakalpakia and upstream, have radically depleted the water that reaches the Aral Sea, which has lost 40 percent of its surface area since 1960. Nukus is the capital of the republic.

Demography. In 1990 the Karakalpak population was estimated at 380,000. Of this, 350,000 lived in the Karakalpak ASSR, 16,000 resided in other parts of Uzbekistan (the provinces of Bukhara, Tashkent, Fergana, and Samarkand), 3,000 in Turkmenistan (Tashauz Province), 2,500 in Russia (mainly Moscow), and 2,000 in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Beyond the Soviet border, there were at least 3,000 in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Within the republic, population density averaged 7.9 persons per square kilometer and population was growing at 3.4 percent per year. Some 52 percent of the republic's inhabitants and 70 percent of the Karakalpaks were rural. In 1979, 62.6 percent of the republic's population was nearly evenly split between Uzbeks and Karakalpaks, followed by Kazakhs (26.9 percent), Turkmen (5.4 percent), Russians (2.3 percent), and others (Dagestanis, Tatars, Ukrainians, and Koreans). The Central Asian groups (Uzbeks, Karakalpaks, Kazakhs, and Turkmene) are more than 60 percent rural, whereas nonnatives are more than 80 percent urban.

Linguistic Affiliation. The national language is Karakalpak, which belongs to the Kipchak or Kipchak-Nogay Linguistic Subgroup of the Central Turkic Group of the Altaic Language Family. It has two primary dialects: northeastern, closer to Kazakh, and southwestern, closer to Uzbek, and a number of peripheral subdialects, which are hybrids of Kazakh, Uzbek, and Turkmen. Nonliterary until 1930, the Karakalpak language was first unsuccessfully rendered into Arabic, next endowed with a Latin alphabet, and lastly (in 1940) provided with a Cyrillic script. The Soviet Karakalpaks were still semiliterary in 1990, and their written literature is insignificant. The oral traditions are richer and similar to Kazakh, Crimean Tatar, Uzbek, and Nogay epics. Karakalpak is the native tongue of 96 percent of the Karakalpak people. Russified Karakalpaks are a meager 0.5 percent of the population.

History and Cultural Relations

The Karakalpak people are the culmination of 2,700 years of ethnic mixing of indigenous Iranians of the Mediterranean Caucasoid race (Sacs) with invading Altaic-speaking peoples of Mongoloid extraction, among them Huns and Oguz Turks. The latter, including the Pechenegs, who themselves had mixed with Bashkirs and Ugrians (of Magyar lineage), reached western Central Asia in a.d. 500. In the eleventh century a faction of Karakalpaks joined the Seljuks in the latter's invasions south and west, but the majority remained behind in the Aral Sea Basin. It was these Karakalpaks to whom the twelfth-century Russian chronicles alluded as "Chernyye klobuki" (Black Hats). The western Pecheneg-Karakalpaks entered into an alliance with the Kievan princes against marauding Kipchak (Polovtsian/Cuman) tribes. In gratitude, the Kievan princes rewarded the Chernyye klobuki for their bravery in battle with appanages along the Dnieper River. The Black Hats ranged from the Dnieper to the Aral Sea. They did not use "Karakalpak" as their self-name until after 1500. The Kipchaks, despite their adversarial relationship with the Karakalpaks and, indeed, with most of the Trans-Uralian steppe dwellers, Turkicized these peoples between the years 1000 and 1300. In the 1200s Karakalpakia became part of the Golden Horde, and, as the latter weakened during the next two centuries, the Karakalpaks became more closely allied with the Nogay Horde. During the 1500s, while living in the delta regions of the Syr Darya (Jaxartes River), the Karakalpaks began to be alluded to by name and became virtually independent, albeit not united: each tribe was governed by its own leaders (bijs and batyrs ). Independence was short-lived: over the next 200 years, the tribes became subjects of the Bukharans, Kazakhs, and Dzungarians, the last of whom caused the Karakalpaks to migrate in two directions. One group went up the Syr Darya to the Fergana Basin ("upper Karakalpaks"), and a second moved closer to the Aral Sea ("lower Karakalpaks"). After 1750 the lower Karakalpaks again migrated, this time to the Amu Darya Delta, which in 1811 became part of the Khivan Khanate. Over the next seventy years, the Karakalpaks revolted against Khivan rule several times. In 1873 the right-bank Karakalpaks were annexed by Russia; those on the left bank remained subjects of Khiva. After the Bolshevik Revolution (1917), the struggle for Karakalpak autonomy was tortuous both in design and jurisdiction; however, on 5 December 1936, Karakalpakia was recognized as an ASSR within Uzbekistan.

The Karakalpaks are a distinct minority in their own republic. Uzbeks prevail in the south, Kazakhs in the east and west. The republic is the most Muslim and the most Turkic of all former Soviet administrative units. The Russian population is less than 3 percent of the total and their influence is hardly felt, except for decisions emanating from Moscow. In this regard, economic decisions pertaining to the expansion of irrigation for growing a nonfood, cotton, have resulted in considerable environmental degradation and have stimulated the formation of an environmentalist movement. Karakalpaks almost never intermarry with Russians, who, according to one mythical tradition, have a common genealogical origin with the Karakalpaks.


Karakalpakia exhibits an arcuate settlement pattern that corresponds to the fanlike combination of the main channel, distributaries, and irrigation canals of the Amu Darya Delta. In 1983 the republic had twenty-five settlements large enough to be included in the Atlas SSSR (Atlas of the USSR): nine towns, thirteen urban settlements, and three large nonurban settlements. Settlements that did not conform to the drainage pattern were along the Kungrad-Makat (Trans-Aral) Railway, along the old shoreline of the Aral Sea, or on isolated oases. Villages (kishlaks ) of fifty or more houses are typically part of a system of more than 100 state and collective farms. Although modernized during Soviet rule with (broad streets, new houses, schools, stores, electricity, and natural gas), the villages are still characterized by small, enclosed, clay-walled cottages with dirt floors. These villages are nestled in the shade of Lombardy poplars along irrigation ditches lined with mulberry trees. In the rare cities and towns, the adobe construction of the native Turko-Muslims contrasts with the wood and prefab construction of the nonnatives (Russians, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, Koreans, and others).


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence occupancy no longer exists in the Karakalpak Republic. Under socialist domination, especially since the 1930s, all land and means of production belong to the state. Private plots (0.6 hectares, or 1.5 acres per household in Central Asia) are actually leaseholds. Agriculture dominates the economy, and all the cultivated land is irrigated. Locals say that without irrigation, agriculture, "indeed life itself," would not exist in Karakalpakia. Thus, in a drive to maintain self-sufficiency in cotton production, the Soviet regime doubled the consumption of irrigation water from the Amu Darya between 1960 and 1990. If agriculture dominates the economy, then cotton dominates agriculture, accounting for at least 65 percent of the arable land and up to 90 percent of the income of the republic. Farming is conducted on more than sixty state farms (sovkhozy) and some fifty collective farms (kolkhozy) with an average of 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of arable land per farm. Grain, 90 percent of which is rice, accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the farmland (sorghum and wheat are also grown). Feed crops, especially alfalfa, compose 20 to 25 percent of the sown area; indeed, Karakalpakia is today the leading producer of alfalfa in the former USSR. Less than 5 percent of the croplands consists of specialty crops like the Khorezm muskmelon, watermelon, grapes, apricots, apples, pears, plums, new potatoes, and other vegetables. On the berms that parallel the irrigation canals, silkworms are bred in mulberry trees. Livestock are raised for their meat, milk, wool, pelts, eggs, and cocoons. Half of the inventory consists of sheep and goats (Karakul sheep are raised for Astrakhan pelts). Other animals include cattle, 40 percent of which are dairy cows, and, for a Muslim region, a surprisingly large number of hogs (178,000 in 1979). Poultry are raised on private plots, and muskrats are nurtured commercially (the Karakalpak Republic is one of the largest muskrat producers in the former USSR). Apart from agricultural resources, the republic is deficient in raw materials, especially in evaporites, natural gas, building materials, and other nonmetallics. Local industry, therefore, depends heavily on agriculture for its inputs. The republic boasts seven cotton-ginning and three cottonseed-oil factories. While the Aral Sea yielded twenty-four different fish species and 3 percent of the Soviet annual catch, the Muynak cannery flourished. With the shrinkage of the sea, Muynak stands starkly 50 kilometers from the seashore and relies on imports of frozen fish from the Barents Sea 2,000 kilometers away. Light industry prevails in all the major cities (Nukus, Khojeyli, Takhiatash, Muynak, and Chimbay).

Industrial Arts. Although machines have rapidly replaced handiwork, Karakalpaks have a history of expert craftsmanship. Unlike their neighbors, they adorn their homes and yurts luxuriously with decorative carpets, wall hangings, macramé, and wide-fringed belts, currently stressing brown, green, and blue patterns on a red and yellow backdrop. The tribespeople are also recognized for their excellence in work with leather, wood, and bone.

Trade. Kolkhoz production is procured through state agencies, the profits and bonuses from which are distributed to farmers by the collective-farm management; salaries are based on the amount of work performed by each person. In contrast, sovkhoz production belongs to the state, and state-farm workers receive a standard wage. Both state and collective farmers are eligible for private plots, the yield from which may be sold for extra income in collective farm markets in the towns and cities.

Division of Labor. Even through the Soviet period, Karakalpak household duties remained distaff work. Women and adolescents are largely responsible for the harvest. Men do the planting, herding, fishing, and heavier industrial and bureaucratic work. Women do light industrialespecially textilework.

Land Tenure. The heavy emphasis on cotton and rice leaves little room for adequate crop rotation, which accounts for the reported soil erosion, in particular by wind. Ordinarily, Soviet farmers use seven-or nine-field crop rotations, but Karakalpaks lack this variety. Alfalfa and pasturage have been introduced to diversify the plantings, both of which replace the nitrogen extracted by cotton and rice.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. Large families are a Karakalpak ideal: four children are common, and eight or ten are not unusual. The nuclear family is enhanced by as many as four generations in the same household. Descent is patrilineal. Beyond the extended family is a subclanic formation called the koshe, consisting of a group of families claiming descent from a common male ancestor over four to five generations. To the Karakalpak, the koshe is a psychological reality, with its own claim to territory and close kinship. Under Soviet rule, koshe integrity has been maintained on the kolkhoz, the members of which usually correspond to an uru, or clan. Each clan therefore is made up of several koshe. Upward of twenty-one clans can trace their origins to a dozen or more ancestral tribes that today are ethnographic groups of the Karakalpak nation. According to Bennigsen and Wimbush (1986, 114), they still consider themselves members of a tribe and have an acute sense of kinship with others of the same tribe elsewhere in Turkic areas of the former Soviet Union. Prior to the Revolution, the tribes represented a loose confederation, divided into two Karakalpak federations of separate Turkic and Mongol origins.

Marriage. Karakalpak girls are expected to marry young. During the 1960s, one-third of them married between 16 and 19. Although allowed to attend middle, technical, and, occasionally, higher schools, many girls withdrew at age 18 to be married. Men are expected to pay a bride-price (kalym ). Although discouraged by Soviet mores, marriage by prior arrangement (i.e., child marriage) sometimes occurred. Wives were expected to move into the household of their fathers-in-law. They had few rights and privileges except the dowry, which was not illegal in the USSR. What was illegal was the marriage of minors. Muslim families often concealed the ages of their daughters through outright chicanery, for example, by refraining to register their girl infants or by sending them away to relatives in districts where their ages were not known. Where clans are concerned, exogamy is strictly observed. Divorce among Karakalpaks is as infrequent as it is easy; the rate is much lower than that of Soviet Slavs. The typical Muslim divorce was illegal under Soviet law. Legal divorce, however, was simple, especially where childless couples were concerned: at most, it required an hour before a procurator for the division of property. Divorces of parents with children could take several weeks, but the wife invariably got the children and a portion of the husband's wages, which the state garnisheed for her.

Domestic Unit. Dining at the same hearth keeps the Karakalpak family united. To avoid eating "forbidden" Russian fare, the families generally dine at home. Some families continue to eat at low tables and to sleep on the floor.

Inheritance. Sons receive the bulk of the father's wealth. Widows are entitled to one-half the amount inherited by the sons and are subject to levirate.

Socialization. Karakalpaks, like all Soviet citizens, were subject to Soviet, not Muslim, law. Corporal and capital punishment, especially for theft of state property, were legal. Crime rates typically were low, but under the Gorbachev reforms they rose.

Sociopolitical Organization. Under the Soviet system, the Karakalpak ASSR was a dual hierarchical socialist republic. Until the Gorbachev reforms, the republic was governed by a unicameral Supreme Soviet and an overlapping "shadow government" composed of the republic's Communist party leadership. Members of the Supreme Soviet were elected for four years; there was 1 deputy for every 3,000 people.

Social Organization. Apart from the extant inequality between the genders, there were at least two classes within Karakalpak society: the Communist party nomenklatura and the average citizen. The latter disparity may change in the future.

Political Organization. The republic is subdivided territorially and economically into raions (districts). Political representation is based on the raion, gorod (city), poselok (settlement), kishlak (sedentary village), or aul (semisedentary village), each of which has its own party executive committee and governing soviet.

Social Control. The Supreme Soviet of the ASSR elected the Supreme Procuracy, which was composed of two judiciaries, for a period of six years: one was concerned with criminal cases and another with civil cases. Under the Soviet system, the republic was controlled by its militia, the KGB, local branches of the armed services, party volunteers (druzhiniki ), public opinion, and Islamic mores.

Conflict. In the past, related auls and kishlaks would unite under the names of illustrious patrilineal ancestors, in whose names Karakalpak clans went to war. The recent peaceful outcry against environmental depredation, the result of overirrigation, has inspired a quasi-Green Party. The Karakalpak tribes have not taken up arms since the Basmachi revolts on their territory in 1918-1920.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Since the Karakalpak sense of nationhood is said to be the weakest among Central Asian groups, Islam is a major unifying force, especially unofficially. The republic had 553 mosques in 1914; today there are less than 10. In the mid-1980s, Bennigsen and Wimbush (1986, 112) located 5 working mosques in Nukus (2), Turkjul, Khojeyli, and Chimbay.

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Officially Hanafite Sunni Muslim, Karakalpakia, especially in its northern part, is a major center of Central Asian Sufism. Estimates for the Karakalpak Islamic faithful in the 1970s were: firm believers (votaries), 11.4 percent; believers by tradition, 14.4 percent; hesitant believers (interested parties), 13.6 percent; indifferent believers (part-time Muslims), 39.1 percent; and atheists, 21.5 percent. Kurban Bayram (Sacrifice of Abraham) is the most important holiday. Fasting at Ramadan persists despite official condemnation.

Arts. The music of the Karakalpaks reflects an ancient oral tradition that was preserved by tribal bards and instrumentalists. Native songs are diverse in type and theme. They are basically diatonic with melodies that are rich in glissando, grace notes, and other embellishments. The most popular instruments are the two-stringed dutar (a pizzicato instrument) and the kobuz (a kind of fiddle). Reed pipes, flutes, and mouth harps are also used. Since the 1940s national symphonic compositions have been produced, including the symphonic poem Karakalpakstan. Although amateur theatrics, maintained by goliards, preceded the 1917 Revolution, a formal dramaturgy dates from the 1920s. The first national plays, originating during that decade, were The Girl Who Found Equality and Yernazar, the Camel's Eye. In the seventy years since, dozens of other dramas have been created.

Medicine. Modernization has meant general access to Soviet medical care; however, the health of the Karakalpaks, especially near the retreating shore of the Aral Sea, has deteriorated. Because of the salty grit roiled up from the dry lake bed, throat cancer rates have soared, respiratory and eye disorders have increased markedly, rates of infancy and childhood anemia are extraordinary, and local infant mortality is the highest in the former USSR (60 per 1,000). Pesticide and fertilizer use (DDT and butifos ) have polluted drinking water and traces of the same have been found in the milk of lactating mothers. Sanitary conditions, even in hospitals, are deplorable.

Death and Afterlife. Karakalpak believers are convinced that on the Day of Judgment, Allah will weigh their good and bad actions, which are recorded during their lifetimes in the Book of Deeds, and decide their final destinationparadise or hell.


Akiner, Shirin (1986). Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union: An Historical and Statistical Handbook. 2nd ed. New York: KPI.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush (1986). Muslims of the Soviet Empire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ellis, William S. (1990). "A Soviet Sea Lies Dying." National Geographic Magazine 177(2).

Gaisford, John (1978). Atlas of Man. New York: Marshall Cavendish.

Weekes, Richard V. (1984). Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey. 2nd ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.


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ALTERNATE NAMES: Qoraqolpoqlar

LOCATION: Uzbekistan (territory of Karakalpakistan); Kazakstan; Russia; Turkmenistan


LANGUAGES: Karakalpak; Russian

RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)


The Karakalpaks (who call themselves Qoraqolpoqlar ) are a people of Central Asia. They lived within the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union until it was dissolved in 1991. Today their territory is within independent Uzbekistan.

The Karakalpaks' ancestors originally came from the Irtysh River areas in southern Siberia. They settled in their current home-land in the tenth and eleventh centuries ad. The Qipchoq people they encountered referred to the newcomers as "Karakalpaks" (black hats) supposedly because they wore black wool or felt hats. The Karakalpaks' culture has been influenced by their harsh desert and steppe existence. It has also been affected by invaders such as the Mongols, Timurids, Kalmyks, Khorezmian Uzbeks, and Russians. The Russians colonized the Karakalpaks during the second half of the nineteenth century.


The Karakalpak homeland, Karakalpakistan (Qoraqolpoqiston), lies in the northwestern part of Uzbekistan. It occupies nearly 40 percent of Uzbekistan's total territory. Until recently, the major feature of its landscape was the Aral Sea. Today, however, the sea is drying up at a rapid rate due to irrigation methods.

About 2.3 million people live in the Karakalpakistan region. Of these, approximately 350,000 are Karakalpaks. Other Karakalpak people live in the surrounding countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan.


The Karakalpak language is part of the Turkic language family. It is related to such languages as Turkish, Kazak, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Uzbek. There was no written form of the Karakalpak language until the 1920s. Today it is written in a modified Cyrillic alphabet (the alphabet used by Russians, Serbs, and Bulgarians). Newspapers, magazines, and books are printed in the Karakalpak language.

Russian remains an important second language for educated Karakalpaks.


Folklore is divided into lyrical tales and epic poems (zhyr and dostan ). There are tales about boys, such as Tarzshi and Aldarkose, whom everybody tries to outsmart. But the boys always manage to come out on top. There are also tales about animals, such as the cunning fox who can trick just about anyone and anything. Other tales involve wolves, tigers, and, occasionally, even God himself.

The epics are almost always about historical events and heroic figures. Epic heroes often turn out to be women. In Kyrk Qiz (The Forty Maidens), the heroine Gulaim defends her homeland from invading Kalmyks. Maspatsha is the story of Aiparshir, a woman of great beauty and tremendous courage.


The Karakalpaks are Sunni Muslims. In addition, they have long been influenced by Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, religious practice and teaching played a minor role in the lives of most Karakalpaks. More recently, however, faith in Soviet communist ideals has given way to faith in the doctrines of the Muslim religion.

Many Karakalpaks have also held onto some religious beliefs that are not formally included in the Muslim religion. These often are about the natural world. They relate to saints or patrons (guardians) who watch out for herds, fishermen, farmers, and so forth. Many people believe that each type of herd or flock has its own patron.


Four major secular (nonreligious) holidays are celebrated by the Karakalpaks, together with their fellow Uzbeks. Novruz (New Day) marks the beginning of spring, on March 20 or 21. The holiday is celebrated with festivals, contests, game playing, and especially feasting. Schoolchildren celebrate with their teachers and put on skits. The favorite food for this holiday is sumalak, made from young wheat plants. It takes about twenty-four hours to prepare this sweet, tasty pudding. Sumalak parties are always part of the Novruz festivities.

Victory Day celebrations, commemorating the end of World War II (193945), take place on May 9. There are military parades that include veterans of World War II. Uzbekistan Independence Day, September 1, has been celebrated since 1991. This day is marked by parades, speeches, and festive events throughout Uzbekistan. Constitution Day, December 8, is another new holiday. It marks the creation of the Uzbekistan constitution in 1992. Businesses and other work-places are closed on that day. Most people simply stay home and relax.


Parents with a newborn baby visit relatives constantly for the first few months to introduce their infant into the family. Boys undergo circumcision at approximately age five. It is marked by a big celebration known as the sunnat toi.

The major rite of passage in adulthood is marriage. The wedding ceremony, called the kelin toi, symbolizes the joining of families and the continuation of family lines. The kelin toi is marked by feasts, dances, music, and speeches that continue for days. The festivities take place at various locations belonging to both of the families.

Death is marked by ritual outpourings of grief at the home of the person who has died. Mourners come to share their sympathy with the bereaved family. A clergyman (mullah) leads a procession of mourners to the cemetery. The closest relatives perform the burial after prayers are said.


When one person approaches another, the one who is approaching offers the first greeting. (This custom is typical of many Central Asian peoples.) Usually, the greeting is Assalomu alaikum! ("Peace be with you!" in a dialect of Arabic). The person being greeted responds, Valaikum assalom! (And may peace be with you, too!). Then men shake hands. They use either one or two hands, depending on their degree of closeness. Women typically hug one another. A rapid series of questions about one another's health and family usually follows.

Respect for older people is taken very seriously in Central Asia. This is true even between people who differ in age by only a few years. A younger person usually bows slightly. One may also cover the lower part of one's chest with one's right hand as a sign of respect.

When visiting, Karakalpaks always bring presents or food. Neighbors constantly visit with one another to chat and snack.

Dating is rare among the Karakalpaks, except for those living in large cities such as Nukus. Marriages are often arranged.


Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, economic conditions have deteriorated for most Karakalpaks. Few people are able to buy more than basic necessities.

The traditional Karakalpak dwelling is a dome-shaped tent known as a yurt. A yurt has a wooden frame; huge pieces of felt cloth are thrown over the frame and then carefully arranged.

Some European-style furniture is found in Karakalpak homes. However, most people relax and sleep on thick, dense quilts called kurpas. Kurpas are often placed on raised platforms that are built into the room. The family sits on these platforms for meals and recreation, such as watching television. Kurpas are easily moved and stored. Large wooden cabinets known as sandals are used for storage.


Karakalpak families are usually large, with four to ten children. Most women prefer to have four or five. Households of extended families (parents and children plus other relatives) are common. A family of four generations may live in a single home. A group of families descended from a common male ancestor is called a koshe. Several koshe make up an uru, a kind of clan.

Girls marry early, usually as young as sixteen years of age. Marriages are arranged through consenting sets of parents. A woman is given a dowry (gifts and money for her new married life) by her parents. She is also presented with bride gifts by the groom's parents. The new wife moves in with her husband's family.

Women do most of the cooking, cleaning, and child care. Men are usually responsible for buying groceries, preparing certain feast dishes, and doing home repairs, especially electrical work or carpentry.

Polygyny (marrying more than one woman) is illegal, but some men do it secretly. On the whole, though, it is rare; it is very expensive to have more than one family.


Karakalpaks often wear a mix of traditional and Western-style clothing. Women wear the kiimeshek, a long capelike dress with a head covering. Older women wear white, and younger women wear red. Tunic-like shirts and baggy trousers are also worn.

A man's typical summer outfit consists of loose trousers and a koilek. This is a long, loose white shirt with an open collar and no buttons.

Some type of hat or head covering is almost always worn because of the extreme temperatures and strong sunlight. Men wear silk or cotton embroidered skullcaps (duppi). They also wear the thick wool hats (qoraqolpoq), from which the Karakalpak got their name. Women wear long cotton or woolen scarves (rumol) that cover their heads, ears, backs, and shoulders.


Grain is a staple food of the Karakalpak diet, especially rice, sorghum, barley, and millet. From these grains, tasty breads, noodles, and dumplings are made.

Fruits and vegetables include onions, carrots, plums, pears, grapes, apricots, and all kinds of melons and squashes. Pumpkin is often used in turnovers known as samsa. Milk products include yogurt, butter, cream, and cheeses.

Boiled beef, mutton, and smoked horse-meat are among the favorite meats. Beef and mutton are ingredients in palov, a Central Asian favorite. Palov recipes use rice, meat, carrots, garlic, steamed quinces (a kind of fruit), and mutton tail fat (dumba ).

As Muslims, Karakalpaks do not drink alcohol or eat certain foods, especially pork.


The Soviet educational system is still in place. Almost all children receive a high-school education. Some then go on to technical and university training. Karakalpakistan has only one university, located in Nukus. Recently, medresses, schools for higher religious education, have opened in the region.


In the past, Karakalpak bards (performing poets) roamed from village to village, reciting stories and verses. They were accompanied on instruments such as the two-stringed dutar, and the qobyz and ghypzhek, which were played with bows.

Two Karakalpak poets of the nineteenth centuryAzhiniaz Kosybai uly and Berdakh Kargabai ulyare among Central Asia's greatest writers. Modern Karakalpak writers have adopted Western literary forms such as novels, short stories, and plays.


Most of the work in Karakalpakistan is agricultural. Almost 70 percent of the population is rural. The only real manufacturing jobs are centered around the cotton industry. These jobs include ginning and baling cotton, and pressing cotton seeds for their oil.

Silk manufacture is also a significant part of the agricultural economy. Farmers feed silkworms mulberry leaves from nearby trees. The worms produce cocoons, which people bring to regional collection centers. Profits depend on the quality of the cocoons.

Farm workers work twelve to fifteen hours a day at harvest time.


Volleyball and soccer are popular at school. Boys also engage in a type of wrestling known as Qurash. It involves grabbing one another on the back of the neck and the thigh. The object is to force the opponent to lose his grip, and thus lose his balance.

Women and girls are rarely, if ever, encouraged to participate in sports.


Movies and television programs are imported from the West, especially action movies and Latin American soap operas. Plays in the theaters, on humorous or historical themes, are popular.

Pop music is important to Karakalpak young people. Iulduz Usmanova is one of the most popular young singers.

Adults entertain themselves by getting together with friends at conversation sessions known as gap, which means "talk." Men and women meet in separate groups, perhaps twice a month. They eat, play games, sing songs, catch up on news, and offer each other advice.

Children enjoy an elaborate game of riddles called askiia. Two children try to out-smart one another with a series of questions about a particular thing. One child starts with a description. The other must ask questions about what is being described.


Karakalpak rugs are narrow and not usually used as floor coverings. They are hung as doorway coverings at the entrance to a yurt (tent). They are also used as wall coverings or saddlebags. Bright blues, yellows, and greens are the main colors.

Jewelry is mostly silver. Blue stones, such as lapis lazuli, and red stones are often added. Necklaces, earrings, and bracelets are the most common kinds of jewelry.

Men specialize as woodworkers (especially carvers) and shoemakers. Some of the most skilled craftsmanship goes into carving house doors and support beams for buildings. Central Asian woodcarving has unique floral (flower) and geometric patterns.

Hobbies among Karakalpak young people include collecting stamps, coins, photos of pop-music stars, records, and tapes. Some young people have pen pals.


The rapid development of agriculture and fisheries in Karakalpakistan during the Soviet period harmed the environment. The water needed for irrigation to grow cotton in Uzbekistan diverted most of the water from the two main rivers that feed the Aral Sea. The sea has decreased in area since 1960. Much of the soil around it is now too salty for growing any crops. In addition, agricultural chemicals have washed into irrigation canals and have been deposited in the sea. Now the region suffers from health problems and economic decline. Statistics show that more than 70 percent of Karakalpaks are in poor health.

Few people have safe drinking water, and not enough food is being produced. Loss of the fisheries industry has led to rising unemployment. Alcoholism and drug addiction (mainly to heroin) are growing problems for the young and middle-aged. Crime has greatly increased since the breakup of the Soviet Union. It ranges from petty theft to organized drug smuggling and Mafia-style murders.


Akiner, Shirin. Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union. London, England: Kegan Paul International, 1983.

Critchlow, James. Nationalism in Uzbekistan: A Soviet Republic's Road to Sovereignty. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991.

Thomas, Paul. The Central Asian States: Tajikstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1992.


World Travel Guide. Uzbekistan. [Online] Available, 1998

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Karakalpaks are a Turkic people who live in Central Asia. Of the nearly 500,000 Karakalpaks, more than 90 percent live in northwestern Uzbekistan, in the Soviet-created Karakalpak Autonomous Republic (KAR). Other Karakalpaks live elsewhere in Uzbekistan, as well as in Kazakhstan, Turk-menistan, Russia, and Afghanistan. Most adhere to Sunni Islam, although Sufi sects have also attracted many followers. They speak a language that is closely related to Kazakh and Kyrgyz.

Most historians trace the Karakalpaks' origins to Persian and Mongolian peoples living on the steppes of Central Asia and Southern Russia. Their name literally meets "black hatted," and mention of a tribe thought to be ancestral to today's Karakalpaks first appears in Russian chronicles (as Chorniye Kolbuki) in 1146. Renowned for their military prowess, this group allied themselves with the Kievan princes in their battles with other Russian princes and tribes of the steppes. In the 1200s some Karakalpaks joined the Mongol Golden Horde, and by the 1500s they enjoyed a short-lived independence. Over time, however, they became subjects of other Central Asian peoples and eventually the Russians, who pushed into Central Asia in the 1800s.

In 1918 they were included with other Central Asian peoples in the Turkistan Autonomous Republic, and in 1925 a Karakalpak Autonomous Oblast was created in the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. This oblast eventually became the KAR, and in 1936 it became part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Under Soviet rule, Karakalpaks were encouraged to move to the KAR, their nominal homeland.

The post-Soviet period found most Karakalpaks desperately poor, living in an environmentally devastated area adjacent to the rapidly shrinking Aral Sea. Serious health problems such as hepatitis, typhoid, and cancer are widespread. Despite their nomadic traditions, their economy is dominated by agriculture, especially cotton production, which has suffered due to water shortages, soil erosion, and environmental damage. Because of lack of investment in the region, the KAR's relations with the central Uzbek government have been strained.

See also: central asia; islam; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; uzbekistan and uzbeks


Hanks, Reuel. (2000). "A Separate Peace? Karakalpak Nationalism and Devolution in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan." Europe-Asia Studies 52: 93953.

Paul J. Kubicek

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Karakalpak Autonomous republic in w Uzbekistan; the capital is Nukus. Under Russian control at the end of the 19th century, it became an autonomous region of Kazakstan in 1925, and an autonomous republic in 1933. In 1936 it became part of the Uzbek Soviet Republic and retained its autonomous status within independent Uzbekistan. Crops include alfalfa, rice, cotton and maize. Livestock raising and the breeding of muskrats and silkworms are important, and there is some light industry. Area: 165,600sq km (63,940sq mi). Pop. (2002 est.) 1,633,900.

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