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ETHNONYMS: Kik-Kun, Kirghiz, Kirgiz


Identification. The Kyrgyz are a Turkic-Mongol people who live primarily in the mountainous regions of Central Asia, where their traditional livelihood was that of pastoral nomadism. The ethnonym "Kyrgyz" is derived from the Turkic kyrk + yz, "the forty clans," reflecting their patrilineal clan kinship system. In early twentieth-century texts, the term "Kyrgyz" was also used in reference to the Kazakhs, a group with quite similar ethnic characteristics.

Location. The majority of the modern Kyrgyz (about 2 million) live in Kyrgyzstan (the former Soviet republic of Kirghizia), located in the southeastern part of the Tianshan range and the northwestern area of the Pamir-Altai Mountains. These two mountain ranges separate the north and south of Kyrgyzstan not only geographically but also in terms of their economic, religious, and political orientations. Well-adapted to living in the higher elevations, some Kyrgyz fled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and eastern China during various land disputes among the Russians, Chinese, and Afghans over the regulation of pasturage. More so than their Soviet counterparts, the Kyrgyz diaspora still practices nomadic pastoralism. Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country in the center of Asiawith China bordering on the east, Kazakhstan on the north, Uzbekistan on the west, and Tajikistan on the south and southwest. Occupying 198,500 square kilometers, Kyrgyzstan is situated at elevations between 1,000 meters and 7,400 meters with only about 7 percent of its land being desert, steppe, and arable river valleys. Located between 39° and 43° N, Kyrgyzstan has a harsh continental climate with temperatures as low as -23° C and as high as 41° C. More than 600 glaciers cover 6,578 square kilometers of the country. Lakes and rivers abound in this part of Central Asia, including one of largest lakes in the world, Lake Issyk Kul. This unique saltwater lakeat an elevation of 1,500 meterscovers about 6,000 square kilometers, has a maximum depth of nearly 700 meters, and is geothermally heated. Sometimes referred to as the "little Switzerland of Central Asia," Kyrgyzstan, with its exceptionally high mountain ranges and intense seismic activity, is a major site for the study of the geology of Central Asia.

Demography. Kyrgyzstan's population of 4.5 million is 52.4 percent Kyrgyz. Other major ethnic groups living there include Russians, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Germans, Tatars, Dungans, Kazakhs, Uighur, and Tajiks. Since Kyrgyzstan's independence in 1991, there has been a large exodus of Russians, Germans, Ukrainians, and Jews who are migrating to other parts of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Germany, and Israel. In 1989 Kirghizia had the third-highest rate of reported abortions (86 percent of women reporting at least one abortion) of the Soviet republics, with Russia and the Ukraine first and second. Prior to 1990 Kirghizia had one of the lowest rates of emigation in the Soviet Union. Approximately 83% of the population of Kyrgyzstan live in the rural regions around Lake Issyk Kul, the Fergana Valley, Naryn River valley, and the low-lying areas of the Tianshan and the Pamir-Altai Mountains. The other 17 percent live in Biskek, the capital city, or Osh, which is on the former Silk Road and is one of the oldest cities of Central Asia.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Kyrgyz language belongs to the Northwestern (Kipchak) Division of the Turkic Branch of the Altaic Language Family. It is closely related to Kazakh, Nogay, Tatar, Kipchak-Uzbek, and Karakalpak and should not be confused with Yenisei Kyrgyz. Kyrgyz was not a written language until the late nineteenth century. Before that, "Turki," a written form of Uzbek, was the script in use. At the turn of the century, Kyrgyz was first written using the Arabic alphabet, and in 1924, the Arabic alphabet was modified for writing Kyrgyz. In 1928 Arabic was dropped and the Latin alphabet substituted. In 1940, under Soviet influence, the Kyrgyz adopted the Cyrillic alphabet.

The official language recognized by the 1993 constitution of Kyrgyzstan is Kyrgyz. Although all urban dwellers know Russian because it was the language of instruction in the Soviet educational system, the rural population has maintained Kyrgyz as the primary language. Recently, the five Central Asian nations of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have all agreed to adopt the Latin alphabet by 1995 in order to smooth trade and increase affiliation among themselves.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological remains indicate that Kyrgyzstan was first inhabited by humans about 300,000 years ago, during the Lower Paleolithic period. Stone implements and stone quarries of the Middle Paleolithic period have been located in several primitive sites. Settlements from the the Neolithic period have been found in caves near the city of Naryn and also on the northern shore of Lake Issyk Kul. Archaeologists infer from the burial sites and settlements that during the Bronze Age both agricultural and pastoral groups inhabitated the valley regions in what is now Kyrgyzstan. By the fifth century b.c., iron tools and weapons were in use, indicating that the economy had shifted more toward nomadic herding. The Scythians' domestication of the horse (1000 b.c. to a.d. 900) made Kyrgyzstan an important transcontinental trade route. Later in the Middle Ages, Kyrgyzstan was one of the several routes for the Silk Road through the Tianshan and the Pamir-Altai Mountains. Religious artifacts of the Zoroastrians, Buddhists, early Christians, and Muslims, who transversed these well-traveled mountain valleys, are found at Burana Tower outside of Tokmak. This strategic garrison of early tribes was one of the few sites not destroyed by the Mongol conqueror Chinggis (Genghis) Khan (eleventh century) on his many warring expeditions to the western parts of Central Asia and eastern Europe.

The nomadic history of the Kyrgyz is more difficult to trace. The modern history of the Kyrgyz is currently undergoing revision, as Soviet-period accounts were formulated to support Marxist ideals. The Kyrgyz were not originally from the area that is now Kyrgyzstan. Most frequently, their cultural origin is traced to the region around the Yenisei River in southern Siberia. Similar cultural elements, including the practice of animism, certain burial customs, and animal husbandry suggest common roots with other nomadic peoples of Siberia. The existence of a Kyrgyz people is believed to date to at least 200 b.c. In the eighth century a.d. they were mentioned in the Orkhan inscriptions. In 840 the Kyrgyz tribes defeated the Uighur tribes and inhabited their lands in what is now northwestern Mongolia. The Kyrgyz were themselves dispossessed of these lands by the Khitai in the tenth century.

Most historians specify the sixteenth century as the time when the Kyrgyz tribe migrated in large numbers into the area now known as Kyrgyzstan. The tribal history of Central Asia is marked by continuous upheavals between warring tribes. Throughout the last millennium, the Kyrgyz tribes utilized vast areas of land from the eastern shores of the Aral Sea to the western border of China for herding their sheep and horses. In southern Kyrgyzstan, caravans of traders moved along the Silk Road, bringing silk and spices to the West. Bennigsen and Wimbush (1986) have argued that because of the relative geographic isolation of Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz have been less influenced by the pan-Turkic and pan-Islamic ideologies that are especially deep-rooted in Uzbekistan. It is nevertheless important to realize that the Tianshan range divides the southern Kyrgyz from the northern Kyrgyz, who have maintained a seminomadic economic existence much longer than those in the south and have been less influenced by Islam. Southern Kyrgyzstan historically has had a sedentary, agricultural economic base, with the Fergana Valley as its center, a region the Kyrgyz share with the Uzbeks and Tajiks. The southern city of Osh is where Islam took hold in the Middle Ages.

In the early nineteenth century the Kyrgyz were defeated by the Uzbeks in 1845, 1857, 1858, and 1873. These intertribal conflicts were among the factors that led the Kyrgyz to ally themselves with the Russians in the mid-nineteenth century. As the Russians colonized the Kyrgyz and surrounding ethnic groups, they also confiscated the better agricultural lands. Competition for lands for farming and herding, along with compulsory service in the Russian army, resulted in a revolt by the Kyrgyz in 1916. They were disastrously defeated by the Russians, who burned villages and killed many Kyrgyz. Thereafter, about one-third of the Kyrgyz fled to eastern Turkistan (the western region of China). The Kyrgyz continued their resistance to the Russians even after the 1917 Revolution, but eventually, in 1924, the new Soviet regime established Kirghizia (the Russified name of Kyrgyzstan) as an oblast within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), and in 1926 it was declared a Soviet autonomous republic.

During Stalin's collectivization of 1927-1928, Kyrgyz pastoralists were forcibly settled on collective and state farms; many responded by slaughtering their livestock and moving to Xinjiang, China. Between 1926 and 1959 the Soviets moved many Russians and Ukrainians into the republic, and for a time the Kyrgyz were in the minority. Kirghizia joined the USSR as a Union republic in 1936. The capital, Bishkek, was called Pishpek until 1925 and Frunze from 1925-1991. Kyrgyzstan declared itself independent on 31 August 1991, joined with ten other former Soviet republics in the Commonwealth of Independent States on 21 December 1991, and achieved complete independence with the dissolution of the USSR on 25 December 1991.


Until recent decades, the Kyrgyz were nomadic, as they needed to move their livestock from one grazing area to another. The Soviet government has both encouraged and forced settlement, first into kyshtaks, villages intended to be transitional, and then into permanent Soviet-style settlements in cities and towns and on collective and state farms. Many kyshtaks remain, however, and not all Kyrgyz have been settled. Most Kyrgyz living on kolkhozy and sovkhozy were only partially settled.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Kyrgyz have long been transhumant nomadic pastoralists who raise primarily sheep, but also horses, goats, cattle, Bactrian camels, and yaks; in some areas swine are important. Horses provide not only transportation, but also meat and milk, the latter of which is fermented to make koumiss.

In the warm months the higher meadows are grazed, and in the colder months the people and their animals move to lower elevations. Transhumant pastoralism has survived under the Soviets because it is the most efficient way to raise livestock, given the ecological conditions. During the 1960s Khrushchev acknowledged the importance of nomadic pastoralism and launched an economic plan that included the production of factory-made yurts, the traditional dome-shaped tents of Central Asian nomads.

Under the Soviets, the previously self-sufficient Kyrgyz families became enmeshed in the Soviet imperial economy. Their production efforts were collectivized and controlled by the central Communist party in Moscow, and the products they made went to other republics and to foreign markets. The Kyrgyz also became dependent on foreign manufactured goods, especially medical supplies, which they do not manufacture themselves and which, over the last several years, they have been unable to afford.

Industrial Arts. The Soviets introduced a great complex of industries, including food processing, oil drilling, coal and gas mining, lumbering and woodworking, textiles, leatherworking, sugar refining, agricultural and electrical machinery production, and various others. Two industries have been especially well developed in Kyrgyzstan: hydroelectric power and the extraction and processing of nonferrous metals, notably mercury, antimony, zinc, tungsten, and uranium. Kyrgyz agricultural products include wheat, cotton, maize, grapes, sugar beets, poppies, hemp, potatoes, fruits, nuts, tobacco, wool, silk, and sheep.

Trade. The traditional nomadic life-style made the Kyrgyz self-sufficient. They were isolated by mountains, which made trade less viable. Under Soviet rule the Kyrgyz became enmeshed within the great Soviet interdependent trade network as producers and consumers.

Division of Labor. The traditional division of labor in the Kyrgyz nomadic pastoralist household was unique among Central Asian groups. It was often noted in historical records that Kyrgyz women were less conservative in behavior and dress than were other Muslim women of Central Asia. The transhumant life-style required that both men and women operate independently of one another; thus, both sexes rode horses and knew how to hunt and prepare food. Women were principally in charge of putting up and striking the large yurt, caring for all domestic animals used as food sources, and shearing sheep for wool to construct felted rugs (shurdak ). Both men and women herded nondomestic animals as well. Although tribal organization of the clan system included a de facto male army to protect pasturelands, there are legends of Kyrgyz women warriors. Three prominent historical women were very popular among the Kyrgyz: Konikey, the powerful wife of the legendary figure Manas; Kurmanjon Datka, the Kyrgyz leader who signed the original treaty between the Kyrgyz and the Russians in the late nineteenth century; and Jongil Misar, the female warrior who conquered khans in the sixteenth century. These Kyrgyz women, despite Islamic ideals, are ail perceived as self-sufficient, powerful, and wise advisers to their people.

After the 1917 Revolution, the collectivization of farms and pastures changed the division-of-labor strategy. Women were relegated to the more traditional roles of dairy work and textile manufacture. With an increase in literacy, both men and women had the opportunity to train in specialized fields. Although Soviet socialist policy was to treat women and men as equals in all arenas, economic demands more than ideological guidelines set out by Marx and Engels have historically influenced Soviet women's involvement in the work force. Not until perestroika were questions raised about the economic and social welfare of women rather than the economic welfare of the state.

Land Tenure. Each family traditionally had its own pasturage, which it defended from use by others. This continued under the Soviets, although it was then each brigade that guarded its own interests. The Soviets exerted rather rigid control over production, including land use, and so reduced the expression of tensions between groups over land use. Since independence, Kyrgyzstan has embarked on a privatization program in which people are given coupons with which they may purchase state property; preference has been given to the employees of each business concern.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kyrgyz society is organized on agnatic descent principles. The basic, and in some respects, most important social group is the oey, or patrilineally extended family. The oey includes a man, a wife or wives, all sons and unmarried daughters, and the wives and offspring of the married sons. All of these people typically live together in a single yurt. Several oeys, all sixth- or seventh-generation descendants of the same apical male ancestor, belong to a kechek oruq (patrilineage) which is also conceptualized as a large exogamous patrilineally extended family known as bir atanyng baldary, or "children of the same father." Members of this group often live together in one camp and assist each other in trade, herding, migration, and religious activities. Above this level, Kyrgyz are organized by chung oruq (clan) and orow (tribe). Kyrgyz place great emphasis on being able to trace their patrilineal ancestors seven ascending generations, in order to prove membership in an oruq. In earlier times, those who could not prove oruq membership in this fashion were made slaves (qul ).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The traditional Kyrgyz marriage was arranged by parents and extended family members. Young adults often courted, however, and their wishes frequently influenced or determined the choice of mate. In the past, marriage was often highly endogamous for clans and lineages in areas in which the hated Uzbeks, Uighur, and Tajiks were predominant. Only marriages to other Kyrgyz or Kazakhs were acceptable, and children of marriages between Kyrgyz and people of other ethnic groups were often assigned low-status positions in the clan.

Traditional marriage practices in the rural regions maintain pre-Soviet sentiments and have been little affected by Soviet domination, although couples undertake both civil and traditional marriage rituals. Patrilocality remains the norm, and the groom's family in some instances pays a modified form of bride-price. Under the Soviet system, bride-price payments were illegal; the Kyrgyz simply substituted "gifts."

Domestic Unit. The basic residential unit is the oey, or patrilineal extended family, which traditonally shared a yurt.

Inheritance. Under Islamic law men own property, and a man's sons inherit his property. Under Hanafi law, however, which pertains to the Kyrgyz, women may also own property and may inherit their husband's property, although only one-half of the amount inherited by his sons.

Socialization. Prior to the 1917 Revolution, the Kyrgyz were primarily illiterate. The institutionalization of Soviet education throughout the rural and urban areas of Kirghizia in the 1920s and 1930s rapidly brought literacy to the country.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Kinship and descent principles play the preeminent role in social organization. Kinship may be real or fictive; fictive kin include milk kin, people who were nursed by the same woman and are forbidden to marry each other. Differences in wealth were traditionally relatively small. The wealthy are expected to assist poorer kin materially.

Political Organization. Politics within the Kyrgyz ethnic group follows tribal lines. Each tribe, which is made up of clans, belongs to one of two large federations. The larger of the two federations, Otuz Uul (thirty sons) has two kanats (wings). The right wing (Ong Kanat) of the Otuz Uul is located in northern, western, and southern Kyrgyzstan. One of its member tribes is the Tagay, who are the political and intellectual leaders of the Kyrgyz people. The Tagay have thirteen clans. Other tribes within the right wing are the Adigine and the Mungush. The left wing of the Otuz Uul has eight clans. The other federation is the Ich Kilik, which is composed of ten major and several minor tribes. The tribes of the Ich Kilik live in the southern Ferghana Valley in southern Kyrgyzstan and in Tajikistan. Some of the left wing and Ich Kilik tribes are of Mongol origin.

The qualities traditionally necessary for leadership, which was a male role, are: possession of good character, observance of Islamic laws, courage in battle, success as a herdsman, wealth, membership in a large lineage, and a good oratorical ability.

In Soviet times, members of each kolkhoz belonged to the same clan, and local Communist party organizations were composed of people belonging to the same clan or tribe. Soviet political and economic structures simply incorporated indigenous social structure unchanged.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has become a constitutional republic, with an elected president who acts as head of state. In April 1993 the first Kyrgyz constitution was ratified by the parliament.

Social Control. Within the oey, the head of the household exercises authority. Beyond the oey, but also governing its members' behavior, is the authority of Islamic law and Islamic courts, which is similar to that found in other Muslim areas.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Kyrgyz are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school of law, but the degree to which the north and south adhere to religious practices must be considered when understanding the role of Islam in Kyrgyzstan. The distinction is often made between the religious practices of Islam and the everyday cultural practices of Islam. Islamic mosques and madrassah were built by the sixteenth century in the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan. One of the most important holy places for Muslims in Kyrgyzstan is the Throne of Suleyman in the southern city of Osh. It is sometimes referred to by Soviet Muslims as the "second Mecca." By contrast, Islam infiltrated northern Kyrgyzstan in a slower, less encompassing manner. Many ancient indigenous beliefs and practices, including shamanism and totemism, coexisted syncretically with Islam. Shamans, most of whom are women, still play a prominent role at funerals, memorials, and other ceremonies and rituals. This split between the northern and southern Kyrgyz in their religious adherence to Muslim practices can still be seen today. Likewise, the Sufi order of Islam has been one of the most active Muslim groups in Kyrgyzstan for over a century.

The Sufi orders represent a somewhat different form of Islam than the orthodox Islam, and their adepts are generally more extreme in their views and in their intolerance of non-Muslims. The four Sufi tariqas (paths to God, or Sufi brotherhoods) that brought Islam to the Kyrgyz and remain in Kyrgyzstan are: the Naqshbandiya, which is Bukharan and very popular and powerful; the Qadiriya, an ancient tariqa; the Yasawiya, a south Kazakhstan tariqa; and the Kubrawiya, a Khorezm tariqa. In addition, there are two newer indigenous orders that sprang from the Yasawiya. The earlier of the two is the Order of Lachi, which formed in the late nineteenth century. It opposed the older orders and was oppressed by them in return. As a result of this enmity, the Lachi initially supported the Bolsheviks but later came to oppose them. The Lachi went underground, and the Soviets could not find them again until the 1950s. Several villages in the Osh Oblast are composed entirely of Lachi members. Another indigenous Sufi order is the Order of the Hairy Ishans, which formed in the 1920s and was intensely anti-Soviet. As a result of its opposition, the Soviets attacked them in 1935-1936 and again in 1952-1953, killing some of their leaders. The Hairy Ishan order, unlike other Sufi orders, allows women to participate in the zikr (prayers) and to form their own female-only subgroups. On the whole, however, under the Soviets the practice of Sufism became highly secretive, even to the point that the silent zikr has replaced the zikr said aloud.

Under the Soviets, religious activity and belief were strongly discouraged, although not eradicated. The Soviets printed anti-Islamic books for Kyrgyz consumption (sixty-nine titles between 1948 and 1975) and gave antireligious lectures (45,000 in Kirghizia in 1975 alone). Antireligious propaganda was seen or heard in the opera, the ballet, the theater, and over the radio. The Soviets also formed motor clubs, whose task it was to bring antireligious propaganda to isolated regions. Reforms in the 1980s made open religious observance possible for the first time in many decades. A significant number of Kyrgyz observe Muslim practices in their everyday lives but not in a religious sense. Kyrgyz women do not wear veils, nor do they avoid men to whom they are not related.

Religious Practitioners. The Kyrgyz Muslims have the Standard Islamic clerics. In addition, the Sufi orders have their own murshids, or leaders.

Ceremonies. The Kyrgyz practice standard Islamic ceremonies and rituals. Births, circumcisions, weddings, funerals, and Islamic holidays occasion celebrations. The wealthy and the politically powerful also hold large, well-attended festivals for weddings and to commemorate the death of a family member.

Arts. Kyrgyz cultural arts are rich and varied. From acrobatic horseback riding by both men and women to the fine craftsmanship of leather saddles and silver jewelry, the Kyrgyz have remembered their nomadic roots in keeping such traditional arts prominent in their everyday lives. One of the more significant cultural arts of the Kyrgyz is the recitation of their epic poem Manas, one of the longest epic poems in the oral tradition of the world's peoples. It is at least one million lines long and is said to take six months to perform. Manas is part of the Turkic dastan, a genre of literature that served as an educational medium by which the Kyrgyz transmitted from generation to generation their history, values, customs, and ethnic identity. The bard, called a manaschi, chanted Manas without musical accompaniment. This storytelling role was performed by an individual with shamanlike capabilities and in whom the community would confide. The Russian historian Basilov describes a nineteenth-century manaschi as one who used episodes of Manas as a curative ritual. Listening to the epic was reputed to have the power to cure a woman of infertility.

The Kyrgyz also have a long and popular tradition of informal recitation of folklore. The singing of folk songs is often accompanied by the three-stringed instrument akomuz. Among some of the most famous Soviet writers of the last thirty years, Kyrgyz writer Chingis Aitmatov has distinguished himself as the author of books and screenplays. His works include Dzamilya, A Day Lasts Longer than One Hundred Years, and The White Steamship.

Soviet influence in Kirghizia has included the formation of a Kyrgyz orchestra; the publication of books, magazines, and newspapers in Kyrgyz and Russian; the establishment of libraries; radio and television broadcasts; and the creation of a feature-film industry to disseminate cultural material.

Medicine. Traditional Kyrgyz medicine, Chinese acupuncture, and Soviet rest sanitoriums offer the major methods of healing available to people in Kyrgyzstan. Since 1991 Western aid has focused on providing pharmaceutical medicines and medical training to the country. Medical help is inadequate in the rural mountainous regions, especially since the breakup of the Soviet infrastructure in 1991 and the earthquake in August 1992.

See also Kirgiz in Part Two, China


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LOCATION: Kyrgyzstan; China

POPULATION: 2.5 million

LANGUAGES: Kyrgyz; Russian; English

RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)


The 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). However, there have been conflicts between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, as well as periodic clashes between Kyrgyz and Tajiks along the border with Tajikistan.


There are approximately 2.5 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.


Most 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.

The Kyrgyz people have many proverbs and sayings related to horses, such as: "A horse is a person's wind."


The 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.


Horses 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.


New 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.


Kyrgyz 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.


Kyrgyz 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.


The 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, but about 40,000 Kyrgyz still live in yurts. 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.


Women in Kyrgyz society still perform the bulk of household chores. Women in the cities are encouraged to be professionals as well as mothers. Both men and women may marry more than one spouse. It is more common for a man to have more than one wife. A husband must provide each wife with her own separate house, and must support her children. In order for a woman to have multiple husbands, she must have substantial wealth or influence.

Kyrgyz families are large, with an average of four to six children. In the capital city of Bishkek, families are slightly smaller. In the countryside, it is common for three generations to live together. As many as ten to twelve people may share a home during the cold months. It is very important to the Kyrgyz to know about ancestors. Some people are able to recount their ancestors as far back as seven generations or 200 years.


Traditional everyday clothes were made of wool, felt, and fur. Ornate silks were, and still are, used for special occasions and ceremonies. By the 1990s, cotton denim and other fabrics had become popular for everyday wear.

Headgear figures prominently in Kyrgyz culture. During the Soviet era, women were prohibited from wearing their large traditional hats, which were a symbol of Kyrgyz culture. There is also a traditional hat proudly worn by men as a symbol of Kyrgyz culture, the ak-kalpak (white hat).


Because many Kyrgyz live in areas with little rain, the variety of crops grown depends on irrigation from the mountains. Sugar beets and cereal grains are the main crops. Livestock are an important source of food, with sheep, goats, cattle, and horses most common. Pigs, bees, and rabbits are also raised.

Examples of traditional Kyrgyz food include manti (mutton dumplings), irikat (a type of pasta salad made with noodles, carrots, and radishes), and koumiss (fermented mare's milk).

A great Kyrgyz delicacy reserved especially for guests is a combination plate of fresh sliced sheep liver and slices of sheep tail fat. It is often boiled and salted and tastes far more delicious than it sounds.

At the breakfast table, one often finds bountiful amounts of yogurt, heavy cream, butter, and honey served with bread and tea. Dairy products are an essential part of Kyrgyz life.


For the most part, Kyrgyz people have been influenced by Russian culture. Most Kyrgyz cannot speak or understand their own native language very well, except for people living in rural areas. Most high school and university instruction is in Russian. Although this is slowly beginning to change, rural Kyrgyz (who are less likely to learn Russian) have a hard time competing at the national level on university entrance exams.

Parents tend to favor a broad education for their children. It is often not possible for parents to send their children to universities and technical schools because education is not free in independent Kyrgyzstan. When Kyrgyzstan was part of the former Soviet Union (191791), university education was free.


The kyiak and komuz are traditional musical instruments used by the Kyrgyz. The kyiak resembles a violin and is played with a bow but has only two strings. The three-stringed komuz is the favorite folk instrument among the Kyrgyz.

The Kyrgyz have several titles of honor that are given to various musical performers. A jïrchiï is a singer-poet, whereas an akin is a professional poet and musician-composer. The jïrchiï is primarily a performer of known music, while the akin is a composer who plays original compositions as well as traditional music.

A special performer called a manaschï performs the famous saga of Manas (see Folklore section). There are also several types of Kyrgyz songs, such as maktoo (eulogies), sanat and nasiyat (songs with a moral), and kordoo (social protest tunes).


Work hours vary. Most often work runs from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Mills and factories operate on a relay system, with shifts set up by the management. Retail shops are usually open from 7:00 am to 8:00 pm, with an afternoon lunch period. Department stores, bookstores, and other shops usually open according to the hours set by government offices. Bazaars (street markets) are open from 6:00 am until 7:00 or 8:00 pm.


Equestrian sports (sports with horses) are very popular among the Kyrgyz. Racing and wrestling on horseback are especially enjoyed. Wrestling on horseback for a goat's carcass, called ulak tartysh or kok boru, is a common game among the Kyrgyz. (Kok boru means "gray wolf.") The game may have its origin in ancient times, when herds of cattle grazed in the steppes (plains) and mountains and were exposed to the threat of attack by wolves. Shepherds would chase after a wolf on horseback and beat it with sticks and whips, and then try to snatch the dead carcass away from each other for fun.

Kok boru was later replaced with ulak tartysh, played with a goat's carcass on a field measuring about 328 yards by 164 yards (300 meters by 150 meters). The two goals are at opposite ends of the field. A goat carcass, usually weighing 60 to 90 pounds (30 to 40 kilograms), is placed in the center of the field. Each game lasts fifteen minutes. The object is to seize the goat carcass while on horseback and get it to the goal of the other team. Players may pick up the carcass from any place within the limits of the field, take it from opponents, pass or toss it to teammates, carry it on the horse's side, or suspend it between the horse's legs.

Falconry (the sport of hunting with trained falcons) while on horseback is another part of Kyrgyz culture that has been practiced for centuries. In addition to falcons, golden eagles are also trained for the sport. Jumby atmai is a game that involves shooting at a target while galloping on horseback. Tyin enmei is a contest to pick up coins from the ground while riding at full speed on horseback.


The capital city, Bishkek, has large parks, public gardens, shady avenues, and botanical gardens enjoyed by people traveling on foot. Opera, ballet, and national folklore groups are also popular forms of entertainment. The most popular form of relaxation for city dwellers is to spend a weekend at a country cottage. Tens of thousands of these cottages are located on the outskirts of Bishkek. There are no bars or shows in Bishkek, so the city becomes quiet after 11:00 pm.


The Kyrgyz are best known for crafting utensils, clothes, equipment, and other items used in everyday life and making them beautiful. Many articles are made of felt: carpets (shirdak and alakiyiz), bags for keeping dishes (alk-kup), and woven patterned strips of carpet sewn together into bags or rugs (bashtyk). Ornate leather dishes called keter are also made.


After years of life under the Soviet system (191791), the transition to a market economy is a difficult undertaking for the Kyrgyz. The poor service and uninspired work ethic that were results of the Soviet era will take a long time to change. Alcoholism and public drunkenness are now a visible social problem, partly because of rising unemployment.


Allworth, Edward, ed. Central Asia: 130 Years of Russian Dominance, A Historical Overview. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.

Çagatay, Ergun. "Kyrgyzstan: A First Look." Aramco World (Houston: Aramco Services Company) 46, no. 4 (1995): 1021.

Geography Department. Kyrgyzstan. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1993.

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


Embassy of Kyrgyzstan, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

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

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Kyrgyz Turko-Mongolian people who inhabit the Republic of Kyrgyzstan in central Asia. Of Muslim faith, they are Turkic-speaking nomadic pastoralists who began to settle in the Tian Shan region of Kyrgyzstan in the 7th century. They were colonized by the Russians during the 19th century. After fighting the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War (1917–21), many Kyrgyz perished in the ensuing famine.

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