History of Steppe Civilizations, Khanates & Hordes


The great Kazakh steppe, at the junction of west and east, north and south of the Eurasian continent, was the cradle of one of the world’s most ancient cultures. Evidence of hominids (modern human’s earliest forebears) has been found dating back to between 1.5 million and one million years ago, during the early Paleolithic Era in the Caspian Sea region, in the Turan desert, in Mongolia and Northern China.
One of the apparently favoured regions, in what is now Kazakhstan, for early human settlement was the Karatau mountain range. The relatively warm and humid climate, lush vegetation, and diversity of fauna created a good environment for Stone Age human evolution.
No hominid fossil bones have yet been found in Kazakhstan, but there is plenty of archaeological evidence – from stone age tools to animal bones – that primitive tribes settled within Kazakhstan’s modern borders.
The earliest Kazakhstan inhabitants – from evidence found in the Koskorgan and Shoktas sites in Southern Kazakhstan – were Homo erectus contemporaries of Pithecanthropus and Sinanthropus, able to make fire, hunters and gatherers.
The appearance of Homo sapiens is connected to late Paleolithic epoch, and there are findings from the sites at Shulbinka (Eastern Kazakhstan), and Maibulak (Southern Kazakhstan) to show evidence of evolving humankind in Kazakhstan, with numerous discoveries of Neolithic age settlement. More than 800 Neolithic and Eneolithic sites have been found here, but there is a great deal still to be explored.

Neolithic changes
During the Neolithic age – around the fifth millennium BC – maximum use of stone tools, along with the technology of pressure flaking, innovative techniques for stone dressing began, creating a wide range of tools.

The most important feature of this era was the beginning of cattle breeding and agriculture, which prompted other cultural and domestic innovations. The rudiments of mining and weaving are seen, and the use of ovens for cooking was introduced. In social terms, the Neolithic age saw kinship communities with common ownership of the means of production, and the forming of tribes and tribal alliances.


The economic changes of the Neolithic evolved into a stock-raising agricultural economy and well-developed metallurgy by the second millennium BC. The transition to a manufacturing economy drastically changed life in Kazakhstan.
Bronze becomes the critical raw material for producing tools and weapons. Kazakhstan’s subsoil, rich in base metals and predominantly stannic copper ore, was a key reason for the development of metallurgy.

During the Bronze Age the vast steppe regions of Siberia, Cisurals, Kazakhstan and Central Asia were inhabited by tribes who have left evidence of their rich culture known as Andronovskaya, after the first discovery near Andronovo village in the Western Siberia. Distinctive artefacts of the Andronovskoye population include obsequies, stoneware with geometrical patterns, and metal products.
The production cooperative style of community changed over time into individual families, with family property rather than community property; housing changed, too, with the appearance of separate dwellings for each family by the late Bronze Age. These years also saw the appearance of defensive hedges and ditches surrounding settlements, as tribal conflict increases.
Religion develops, with ritual sacrifices to the sun, the moon and the stars, as well as fire, and patron spirits. The petroglyphs, or rock carvings, for instance at Tamgaly and Tamgaly Tas, provide vital information about religious cults of the Bronze Era tribes, from generic to tribal.


In the first millennium BC, tribes in what is now Kazakhstan were known as Saks, (or Scythians). The Persian sources of that time described in detail three major groups of Saks: haomavargs (from the drink haoma), tigrahaud (wearing pointed hats), and paradaraya (living abroad). Much of what we know about the Saks comes from the records of the Greek chronicler Herodotus, the ‘father of history’, who wrote of tribes such as Sakarauk, Massagetae, Savromats, Issedonians, Argippaeans, Arimaspi, Assiev, Pasianov, and others.
Written sources are supported by archaeological finds, especially in the huge burial complexes or barrows that the Saks built; one on the shore of the Issyk River, 70 kilometres from Almaty, contained the magnificent Golden Man. The Issyk mound is one of the greatest archaeological sites of the Sak period, and one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. The Golden Man was a youth from the circle of Saka Tigrahaud rulers. He was dressed in armour richly decorated with gold, and gold-embroidered ceremonial clothing; his headdress contains about 150 golden ornaments. The Golden Man became the personification of courage of the defenders of the land on which the ancestors of today’s Kazakhs – Saks, Huns, Usuns, Kipchak – lived. Replicas of the Golden Man are exhibited in the museums in Almaty and Astana, as well as the UN headquarters in New York.
A distinctive feature of the Saka (terms Sak and Saka are used intermittently by the scholars) civilization was their widespread use of cavalry in military affairs – a novelty for the farming cultures of the time which used infantry and chariots. The Saks and Sarmatians established heavy cavalry – very advanced for its time – in which detachments of armoured riders on armoured horses went into the attack immediately after the archers had loosed their arrows on the enemy from a distance. The Greeks called them katafraktarie, (covered with armour), and historian F. Cardini believed that Saks cataphracts became the predecessors of European cavalry.
One of the most famous Saka rulers was Queen Tomiris, who defeated the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great from invading the nomads’ lands. But the invasion of the Saka steppe didn’t stop after his death, with Persian king Darius and Alexander the Great attempting invasions.
Saks formed a complex society, with a military democracy with elected kings and warriors who simultaneously served as high priests.
Ancestor worship was the dominant form of religious belief, so the dead body was embalmed, and a portion of their possessions placed with it in the grave. They also worshiped the sun and fire, and Iranian sources suggest the spread of ideas such as animism and totemism.
The Saka animal style of art and crafts began to emerge in the Bronze Age and was well-formed by the 7th-6th centuries BC; precise images of wildlife, with the most common images of Kazakhstan fauna being argali, tigers and wild boar, deer and camels, as well as steppe eagle. Animal images were diverse in form: sculpture, silhouette and line drawings, with materials from gold, silver, bronze and iron as well as carved bone and horn, applique, embroidery mosaic of colored felt and leather.


Kanguy (Kangls)
At the turn of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, the Kanguy union was being formed on the banks of Syr Darya; their public education, political institutions, economic system and military were highly developed. The Sarmatians, Massagetae, and Alans joined the Kanguy; according to contemporary Chinese sources, the Kanguy population reached 600,000 people, with an army of 120,000.
Chinese historians characterized the nature of the Kanguy nomadic culture, although the ruling elite had summer and winter residences.

The Kanguy kingdom was first in the region to introduce money – as evidenced by discoveries of copper coins carrying the Kanguy tamga – possibly influenced by the campaigns of Alexander the Great in Central Asia.
The Kanguy had political, economic and cultural ties with China, Parthia and the Kushan Empire, among others; this created the preconditions for the emergence of writing: clay tablets with inscriptions found in the Kultobe settlement (Southern Kazakhstan) prove the use of writing by the Kanguy.
However, in the 3rd-5th centuries AD, the Kanguy lost control over the Aral Sea area, which had divided itself into independent states.

Usuns were neighbours and rivals of the Kanguy, moving from what is now China to create their own state in the Zhetysu (Seven Rivers) area: the Ili and Chu valleys and the Issyk-Kul basin were the centre of Usun lands.
Usuns were considered to be one of the major ethno-political tribes in Central Asia – with a population of 630,000 in the second century BC. With a history of internecine conflict, Usuns could call on a large army of cavalry and infantry archers; the army of the Usun leader consisted of 30,000 cavalry.
Archaeological material from Semirechye shows that Usuns continued to live in the area until the era of the Turkic Kaganate – sources quote the Usun name right up to the 10th century AD.

The name Hun is notorious in world history: in medieval Europe, the name meant war, violence and barbarism as the Huns under Attila made devastating raids through Europe, sparking the Great Migration. All this is familiar to students of European history, but what is less well known is the story of the Hun tribes that lived in Central Asia around the time of Christ.
Chinese historians called them the Xiongnu or Hunnu, and they came from around the Ordos Plateau in what is now northern China. From an anthropological perspective, Hunnu were Mongoloids, and according to most scholars they were Turkic-speaking people.
In 209 BC, the charismatic Hun ruler Modu Chanyu took effective steps to concentrate power, exploiting the martial art skills of nomads to force the Chinese rulers to pay tribute. For about two and a half centuries Huns dominated the eastern part of the Great Steppe and competed with China, but the drought and harsh winters between 70-60 BC weakened the nomadic Hun empire. Rivalry for the throne led to a split between north and south in 48 BC; the northern Huns moved westwards to the Syr Darya, the Aral Sea region, Central and Western Kazakhstan.
The military emphasis of Hun culture started early in life. A Hun child mastered horse riding, archery, and hunting, and accepted unquestioning discipline. Evasion of military service was punished by death.
The significant invention which gave them supremacy over their enemies was the long-range Hunnish bow, a wooden structure strengthened by bone and horn. Bone beads attached to arrow shafts whistled during flight: the howl of thousands of arrows demoralized the enemy and terrified their horses.
Just as effective as their weapons was the Hun Empire’s power of cultural and ideological influence. Most of the overwhelmed nomadic tribes willingly became part of the Hun state, attracted by the clear ideology offered by Modu Chanyu. The idea of a single unified family of nomads was the civilizing mission.


The Great Silk Road is the grandest trade route to connect East and West since the 2nd century BC, and was the reason for the growth of historic cities, ancient monuments, even tribal states – as well as the constant exchange of cultures.
Though the specific routes of the Silk Road changed over the centuries, there were two main routes between the East and West of the Eurasian continent: the South Road, from the north of China through Central Asia to the Middle East and North India; and the North Road, from northern China through Pamir and the Aral Sea area to the lower Volga, the Black Sea basin and further on into Europe (there were also several roads connecting north and south).
Most of the Silk Road trade brought goods from east to west, and (as the name implies) the main commodity was silk. Light, compact, with enormous demand and a high price, it was an ideal commodity for long distance transport. The Silk Road (Seidenstraße) name was, by the way, coined in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand Richthofen in his seminal work China.
The section of the Silk Road running through Central Asia played a crucial role in the development of Kazakhstan’s urban culture until the 14th century, stimulating the rise of a string of urban centres in the south of Kazakhstan. In Zhetysu (Seven Rivers), for instance, Silk Road trade contributed to the rapid growth of cities such as Otrar, Syganak, Sauran, and others.
The demise of the Great Silk Road came about with the development of the merchant marine navigation along the coasts of the Middle East, South and South-East Asia. In the 14th and 15th centuries, maritime trade became a more attractive option compared to the long and dangerous overland caravan routes: cargos by sea between China and the Persian Gulf took around 150 days, while the overland caravan route from Tana (Azov) to Khanbalik (Beijing) took twice as long; one ship carried as much cargo as a caravan of 1,000 pack animals. So in the 16th century the Great Silk Road finally ceased to exist as the key connection for transcontinental trade – although some segments continued to function for a long time; the caravan trade between Central Asia and China continued until the 18th century, for instance.
The Silk Road was one of the greatest achievements of ancient civilizations; for many centuries trade goods and commodities were the driving force to cross the vast distances, but along the way, people exchanged new technologies, religion, art, architecture, culture, music and dance – the Great Silk Road linked the material and spiritual culture of many peoples. Silk Road Cities
Otrar – this medieval city, in South Kzazakhstan oblast, was one of the largest in Central Asia before the era of Mongolian invasion.
Known by several names – Tarband, Turarband, Turar, and Farab – the city was in the lower reaches of the Arys river where it joins Syr Darya River; the ruins of Otrar are 120km to the north-west of modern-day Shymkent.
The city was the centre of culture and craftsmanship; it had a big madrasah (theological and scientific centre), a large market, numerous blacksmiths’ forges and workshops, wine houses, bath houses, mosques, and shops.
The city played a key role in the economic, political, cultural, and scientific lives of the entire region. But due to the strained relationship between Khorezm, to which Otrar belonged, and Genghis Khan’s Mongolian empire, a city administrator named Kaiyrkhan gave the order to slaughter a Mongolian trade caravan suspected of espionage.
In 1219, the city was attacked by Mongolian forces under the command of Juchi, Genghis Khan’s eldest son. After a six month siege the city was defeated by famine, and the city’s gates were opened. The Mongol conquerors massacred a significant part of the population, and the rest were taken as slaves; the city was burned to destruction. According to legend, the man who opened the gates and betrayed the city, Karadzha, was executed by Juchi himself.
The city was rebuilt in the 15th century. Tamerlan, while preparing to start a military expedition to China, died in Otrar in 1405.
Otrar was the home town of many famous scientists across the years. Prominent medieval mathematician and philosopher Al-Farabi was from Otrar, as was a famous astronomer and mathematician Abbas Zhaukhari, and the linguist and geographer Iskhak Al-Farabi. A famous Sufi, Arystan-Bab, whose mausoleum is not far from the site, lived and taught in Otrar.
In 2001-2004, as part of the UNESCO project Conservation and Management of ancient Otrar city, the site was included in the list of world’s most valuable archeological findings. A government programme ‘Ancient Otrar’s Revival’ has been in place since 2004; the plan is to open an open-air archeological museum. Syganak in South Kazakhstan is well documented by written accounts dating back to the 10th century and coins made there in the 14th century.
In the 12th century, Syganak became the capital of the Kypchak national union. In the middle of the 13th century, Syganak (then known as Sgnakh) is mentioned as one of the cities visited by the Armenian tsar Getum I. In the second half of the 14th century the city became the capital of Ak-Orda. Syganak was ruled by Erzen Khan, his son Mubarak Khodja, Urus Khan, and Tokhtamysh. The city had its own mint, and there is evidence of intensive construction work.
In the 14th to 18th centuries Syganak was ruled by Kazakh khans and was the largest city in the lower reaches of Syr Darya. Every day 500 camel-loads of goods were sold; at that stage, Syganak was called the harbour of Desht-i-Kypchak, known for its high quality slings and arrows traded by steppe-dwellers for wheat, fabric, and luxury items. The agricultural crop fields around Syganak were irrigated by channels from Syr Darya River and small rivers flowing from Karatau mountains.
The historian Rubizkhan wrote that the citizens of Syganak hunted, farmed, and plied different trades. “Steppes around Syganak are covered with grass and woods in which sheep, wild goats, mouflons, and other animals feed. People hunt them during summer and prepare meat for winter; game is extremely cheap here.”
However, by the mid-15th century, due to endless warring and ruinous raids, Syganak was gradually deserted. Sauran – on the border between South Kazakhstan and Kyzylorda oblasts, 40km north west of Turkestan, the city stretched 800m from north-east to south-west, and was 550m across.
Even now some of the castellated walls with arrow-slits and round towers can be clearly seen. The city gates are five to six metres wide, and going through them you cannot help feeling the weight of the massive ramparts made of rammed clay and sun-dried earth bricks. Defensive walls rise six metres above the surrounding land and at their base they are three metres wide. It is easy to see the 33 hectare city’s plan of plazas, streets, and alleys, with their administrative, residential, trade and social buildings.
The first references to the city go back to the 10th century. The famous Arab geographer Makdisi described it as “a big city surrounded by seven walls where the cathedral mosque is in the inner city”. Sauran was talked about as a cultural, artisanal and market centre, mentioned by historian Ibn al-Asir and geographer Yakut who defined it as an important strategic node on the Silk Way and a trading haven on the edge of the steppes, part of the medieval city culture of Central Asia.

Sauran differs from other Kazakh cities with its water supply system, which uses kahrezes. Kahrez is an underground gallery through which ground water comes to the surface; the water pipes run at a gentle angle between the source and the surface – it was a brilliant technical solution for that time.
The city and its outskirts was a big agricultural oasis with fruit gardens, vineyards, melon fields, and woodlands; surplus farm produce was sold at markets and fairs.
Copper coins not only served for small trade but also were used for inter-regional trade; around 400 coins of different age and value have been found in the ruins of Sauran city. This coin collection is an invaluable resource that helps to recreate the social and economic context of the city.
Within the framework of the Cultural Heritage programme, archeological excavation is still in progress on the site of ancient Sauran. EARLY MIDDLE AGES Turkic Kaganate (552-756)
In the 6th century, the tribes of Kazakhstan were united under the powerful Turkic Kaganate, which became one of the largest in the history of Asia. In the time of greatest expansion (end of the 6th century) the Kaganate spread from the Korean Peninsula in the east to the Crimean peninsula in the west; from the headwaters of the Yenisei River in the north to the headwaters of the Amu Darya in the south. The state became dominant in Central Asia at the time of Kagan Mugan (553-572), having good relations with major states such as Iran, Byzantium, China and others.
Benefitting from the combination of a large number of warlike steppe tribes and new metal-smelting technology, the Turkic Kaganate was one of the leading geopolitical powers of the time. Alongside military skills, the Kaganate had a highly developed culture – with their own runic writing system – and advanced statesmanship with a complex state apparatus and an active foreign policy.
However, external pressures, internal feuding and social contradictions weakened the Kaganate, and in 603 AD it was divided into two independent states – the Eastern and Western Kaganates. The West-Turkic Kaganate (603-704)
Occupying the territory from the Sea of Azov and the River Don to the eastern spurs of the Tien Shan Mountains and north-eastern India, the nucleus of the Western Kaganate consisted of ten tribes that roamed from the mountains of Karatau to Dzhungaria. To the east of the Chu River were the five Dulu tribes, and to the west, five tribes of Nushibi. The capital city was Suyab (near modern-day Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan).
The Kaganate had a nomadic and semi-nomadic way of life – the city and the steppe were complementary parts of the socio-political organism. People engaged in trade, crafts, agronomy and cattle-breeding.
The outbreak of a sixteen year long tribal war and dynastic conflict (640-657) weakened the state and led to its defeat by the Turgesh tribe which came to power in the Seven Rivers region in 704. The Turgesh Kaganate (704-756)
The Turgesh Kaganate continued the public-administrative, military and socio-cultural traditions of the West-Turkic Kaganate and in fact was the last period in its history. Karluk State (756-940)
In the 8th-10th centuries the Karluks settled between the Dzhungar Alatau and the middle reaches of the Syr Darya, between Lake Balkhash and Issyk-Kul, in the valleys of the rivers Ili, Chu, and Talas, in the spurs of the Tien Shan, in Isfidzhab region to the medieval town of Otrar (South Kazakhstan). According to the tenth century Arab geographer Ibn Haukal, “30 days of travel were required to cross the land of the Karluks west to east.”
There were 25 Karluk towns and settlements, including Taraz, Kulan, Merki, Atlalig, Tuzun, Baliga, Barskhan, Sicula, Talgar, Tong, and Penchul; many were on the Great Silk Road.
But again, the Karluk Kaganate was torn apart by strife, and struggles for power and land. The real threat came from outside, and in 940 Balasagun, the capital of the Kaganate, was taken by Kashgarians. The Oguz State (9th – early 11th century)
As a result of the 8th century Turgesh-Karluk war, most of the resident Oguz tribal confederation left Zhetysu for the hills and valleys of the Chu. At the beginning of the 9th century Oguz leaders in alliance with Karluks and Kimaks defeated the Kangar and Pechenegs and captured the lower reaches of the Syr Darya and the steppes of the Aral Sea region; by the end of the century, allied with the Khazars, they defeated the Pechenegs and captured land between the Urals and the Volga. The Kimak Kaganate (9th – early 11th century)
The stormy events of the 9th century, when Kimak tribes entrenched themselves from the Middle Irtysh to the Dzhungar Gates and got as far west as the Southern Urals and the Syr Darya basin, gave rise to the Kimak Kaganate. The Kimaks had their own alphabet, and wrote with cane quills. Their religious belief was centred on Tengri and the ancestor cult. Individual groups worshiped fire, the sun, the stars, the river and the mountains, and a common form of religion was shamanism, but some groups of Kimaks practiced Manichaeism (Christianity). Early in the 11th century the Kimak Kaganate collapsed, its failure caused by two factors: the aggression of the Kipchak khans striving for self-determination, and the internecine strife within the kaganate; and the migration of the nomadic tribes of Central Asia. The state of Karakhanids (942-1212)
The state of Karakhanids saw the adoption of Islam as the state religion, which brought the standards of science and literature from the Arab world, and allowed Islamic literature to appear in the Turkic language. But the penetration of the Muslim religion into the nomadic aristocratic environment, especially in the south of Kazakhstan, led to the ousting of the ancient Turkic runic writing, replaced by Arabic script. The Karakhanid era represented a new level of quality, but the military defeat of the Karakhanids led to the fall of the dynasty in 1212. The State of Karakitais (1128-1213)
The head of the Karakitai state held the title of gurkhan who based himself in the city of Balasagun. Under the direct control of the Karakitais were the southern part of Zhetysu, north-eastern region of Isfidzhab and Kuldja region.
The Karakitai state was distinguished by a system of homestead taxation – every house was charged one dinar – and strong military discipline. But the Karakitai reign came in the midst of geopolitical transformation, and was soon at an end. Kypchak Khanate (early 11th century - 1219)
After the fall of Kimak Kaganate in early 11th century, it was the Kypchak khans who took over the territories of the Kimak, Kypchak and Kuman tribes. The Kypchak dynasty began to make moves to the south and west, which led to Central Asia and South-East Europe.
The change was linked to the appearance of the name of Desht-i Kypchak (Kypchak steppe) in place of the earlier name of Oguz steppe (Mafazat al-guz).
In the middle of the 11th century Kypchak tribes began to move westward from the Itil (Volga) River, and the Kuman tribes came into direct contact with the people of Eastern Europe, in particular Rus, Byzantium and Hungary.
Kypchaks maintained close relations with the Russian principalities, where they became known as the Kumans. Russian chronicles are very informative about trade, armed conflicts, foreign relations and economic structure of the Kypchak tribes. The Kypchak Khanate left a significant number of cultural monuments, notably balbals (stone statues).
As the era of the Mongol conquests began, the tribes of the Kypchak Khanate became the basis of the Jochi Ulus, better known as the Golden Horde. KAZAKHSTAN IN THE MONGOL EMPIRE ERA The Mongol Empire (1206-1468)
As the 13th century began, leaders of strong nomadic tribes were vying for power – and it was the Mongol leader Temuchin (Genghis Khan) who managed to unite the tribes of Central Asia to become one of the most powerful conquerors on the Eurasian continent.
In the spring of 1206 at the head of the Mongol river Onon a kurultai (meeting) of nomadic aristocracy took place, when Temuchin was proclaimed the great Khan and given the title Genghis (‘the lord of water’, or ‘the lord of land boundless as a sea’). After conquering Mongolia, South Siberia and the Northern China, Genghis Khan – at the head of a powerful and disciplined army – conquered all of Central Asia over the years 1218 to 1221.
Gengis Khan’s empire was based on a military system formed by the Turkic Khanate and developed by successive states. But a new legal code was developed during the rule of Genghis Khan and his successors; named Yasa, the codified collection of laws related to new social and political framework.
Gengis Khan’s dynastic empire spread across half the known world in the first half of the 13th century, based on a strong centralized power, and an ideology with these fundamental values: the right to power of the descendants of Genghis, and the need to unify all nomads (yurt dwellers) and states under nomad control.
But internal strife amongst the ruling elite, and economic disunity within the Empire led to weakening of the main ulus (territorial possessions) including Ulus Juchi, which covered a greater part of Kazakhstan territory. The Golden Horde (Altyn Horde)
In 1227, Genghis Khan died, half a year after his eldest son Juchi died under mysterious circumstances. Juchi’s son Batu succeeded Genghis and became famous for his successful military campaign across Europe; after returning to the lower reaches of the Volga, Batu founded a new Mongol state – the Golden Horde; it included Juchi’s ulus, the steppe regions of Kazakhstan to the west of the lower reaches of Ob and Irtysh rivers and up to the lower reaches of Volga and Amu Daryia rivers, as well as a part of Khorezm and Western Siberia. The cities of Sarai-Batu (near modern Astrakhan) and Sarai-Berke were successive capitals, the seats of Genghis’s two grandsons, Batu Khan and Berke Khan.
The Golden Horde exerted heavy influence on Russian principalities which became vassals of the Steppe state; in return for tribute, they were given trading and economic links to the whole Mongol Empire.
The Golden Horde was a multinational state, made up of numerous tribes and nationalities at varying degrees of social and economic development, and differences of cultures and customs.
The Turkic tribes – mainly Kypchacks, with Kanglys, Karluks, Naimans and many others – formed the majority of nomads in the Steppe of Desht-i-Kypchak. Settled regions of the Golden Horde were inhabited by Bulgars, Mordvinians, Russians, Greeks, Circassians, and Khorezmians, with Mongols proper forming an insignificant minority. During the 13th and 14th centuries Mongols living here were assimilated with Turkic people.
During the rule of Batu’s brother Berke Khan (1256-1266) the Golden Horde became an independent state; it reached its height in the early 14th century under Uzbek Khan (1312-1342) and his successor Janybek Khan (1342-1357). In the 23 years after Janybek’s death there were 25 khans taking the throne, and by the mid 1400s the Golden Horde disintegrated. The Post-Mongolian period (14th-15th centuries)
The Post-Mongolian period saw ethnic consolidation of the nomadic, seminomadic and settled agricultural population across Western Desht-i-Kypchak, Zhetysu (Semirechye) and South Kazakhstan.
Political evolution involved several ethnic states – Ak-Orda, Mogulistan, Abulkhayr Khanate (nomadic Uzbeks), and Nogai Horde.
Ak-Orda (the White Horde) became an independent state in the east of what was Juchi’s Ulus managing gradual economic revival and reinforcement of local Turkic culture. The Turkic speaking tribes had lived in the steppe of Kazakhstan for a millennium, or had moved from the East during Genghis Khan’s invasion. The latter included Kypchaks, Naimans, Uisuns (Ushuns), Argyns, Karluks, Kereits (Kirei), Kanglys, Kongrats, Mangyts and others.
Abulkhair’s Khanate ran from 1428 to 1468 over western, central and south regions of what is now Kazakhstan. Riven by internal conflicts for its entire existence, the khanate never became a unified state but was divided into several ethnic territorial and political groups, headed by Chingizids (descendants of Genghis) and nomadic tribal leaders. To please his political backers, Abulkhair Khan waged wars of conquest in the south and south-east of Kazakhstan. Briefly, in 1430, he conquered the cities of Khorezm and Urgench in the valley of Amu Darya River, and in 1446 Abulkhair conquered several cities on the Syr Darya River and in the Karatau foothills; these were given to tribal leaders who had supported him. This bolstered Abulkhair’s authority with some and worsened relations with the others; as so often before, internecine warring and political weakness led to the breakdown of the Khanate.
The century of instability and flux paved the way for a Kazakh nation of a three-way tribal structure: the Zhuzes. Mogulistan tribes became the Senior Zhuz; tribes of Ak-Orda and Abulkhair’s Khanate formed the Medium Zhuz, and the Nogai Horde formed the Junior Zhuz. KAZAKH KHANATE The defeat of Abulkhair Khan by the Oirats (from Mongolia) in 1457 rather proved the Khan’s inability to defend his country against external aggression. That basic failure, and a harsh rule of law, resulted in massive discontent in the population. As a consequence, the Sultans Janibek and Kerey rebelled against the khanate in 1459, and led an exodus of tribes to the Zhetysu rivers region; the migration was a death knell for Abulkhair’s khanate. The rebels got a nickname: kazakhs – outlaws, or freemen, and this was the genesis of the ethnic state that became Kazakhstan.
The following half-century saw the Kazakh Khanate strengthen its economy and expand its territory. Notable rulers of that period included Kassym Khan (1511-1518), Haknazar Khan (1538-1580), Tauyekel Khan (1582-1598) and Yessim Khan (1598-1628).
With the formation of Dzhunghar Khanate in 1635, the danger of Mongolian tribes of Oirats capturing Kazakh lands grew into decades of war. Dzhungar raids were one factor in the gradual decay of city life in the south of Kazakhstan, cutting important trade routes and causing havoc to the civilian economy.
A landmark in the history of the Kazakh khanate was the reign of Tauke Khan (1680-1718) when the legal code Zhety Zhargy set out the basic principles of law, order and state structure. Maslikhat, the convention of community representatives and sultans acquired supreme constituent power in the Kazakh Khanate; it was now the Maslikhat that elected (and dismissed) khans from among Genghis Khan’s descendants. The khan had executive power for life, except for rare cases when the Maslikhat expelled him from office.
The war with Dzhungars lasted until the mid-18th century; the hardest years of the conflict are remembered as Aktaban Shubyryndy, or the years of great tribulation (1723-1727). In 1729, the most remarkable episode was the victorious Anyrakai battle, which led to the liberation of Kazakh territory – but the struggle with foreign enemies was not over. The question arose as to whether Kazakhs should join the Russian Empire. KAZAKHSTAN DURING THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE The 1720s was a devastating period in Kazakhstan’s history: endless war against the crippling Dzhungar invasion from the east disrupted the social and economic life of Kazakhs.
Desperate to find a way out of the disastrous situation, the khan of the Junior Zhuz sent an ambassador to Russia to request the Empress’s patronage. On 19 February 1731, Empress Anna of Russia signed a letter of grant for the Khan accepting the Junior Zhuz into Russian citizenship; the Middle Zhuz were given citizenship in 1734, and and the Senior Zhuz in 1824.
But the relationship with Russia had its drawbacks. On one hand, Russia’s military and diplomatic strength, the construction of fortresses, and lines of Cossack outposts protected Kazakhs from their aggressive neighbours. Entry into the Russian economic system had a positive effect on Kazakh’s economic life, and internecine conflicts were almost eradicated.
The strengthening of ties between Central Asian, Kazakh and Russian nations paved the way for cultural growth and widening of trade worldwide. That was the reason why the outstanding thinker Abai Kunanbayev called for the development of friendship and strengthening of relationships with the Russian people.
However, there was a negative side to the pact. The building of fortresses limited the traditional camping grounds of Kazakh nomads and created tension between the Siberian government and Kazakh sultans. In the early 19th century the Russian government began to exert direct control over Kazakhstan, and after the death of the Middle Zhuz khans Buke (1815) and Vals (1819) the imperial government removed the khans’ authority.
In 1822, the government created eight external districts in Kazakhstan, divided into volosts which, in turn, consisted of auls. The towns of Ayaguz, Kokchetav, Karkaralinsk, Atbasar and others were built. In 1824, the khan’s rule of the Junior Zhuz was ended, and the Zhuz was split into three, headed by sultan-rulers, with the rights of the local aristocrats limited.
The autocracy did not consider the needs of working people, and this led to discontent and uprisings throughout the empire, including the Kazakh steppe. The largest national liberation movements were started by Kenessary Kassymov, daring horsemen Syrym Datov, Issatai and Makhambet, but each rebellion eventually failed.
Economic development continued gradually; in the early 20th century, industry began in Kazakhstan, with Russian, French, English and American capital invested in the ore mining sector. In 1911, oil production began in the Emba district. At the Spasski copper smelting plant, at the Ekibastuz coal-pits, at the Uspensky diggings and in Karaganda, tolerant Kazakhs worked together with Russians. Sizable enterprises were established by rich Kazakh landowners engaged in cattle supply.
The Russian Empire crashed in the bourgeois-democratic revolution of February 1917, and in October, the socialist revolution marked Kazakhstan’s move into a new stage of its history, as part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). KAZAKHSTAN DURING THE USSR When, after the bourgeois-democratic revolution in 1917 in Russia Tsar Nikolai II abdicated from the throne, power in Kazakhstan was passed to the temporary government, executive committees and commissariats in cities and volosts.
At the same time the Kazakh nationalist parties appeared, of which the Alash party was most important. Headed by one of the leaders of the Russian Kadet Party, Alikhan Bukeikhanov, Alash wanted to unite ethnic Kazakh territories and win autonomy within the Russian Republic, keeping to Islam but without Shariah law. Alash demanded the return of lands to the native population, the handover of personal land as a property of the aul, and the creation of the Kazakh zemstvo (local assemblies for self-government).
The Kazakh Socialist party Ush-Zhuz (three zhuzes) consisted of socialist revolutionaries. It supported the idea of an Islamic Nations Union, taking in Povolzhye, Kazakhstan, Ural, Caucasus and Central Asia; it demanded redistribution against zemstvos and wanted to keep ‘non-discriminating’ Shariah law.
In the end, after the October revolution, Soviet power was established in Kazakhstan by February 1918, although the Alash party set up an autonomous region as the Alash-Orda, headed by Bukeikhanov and based in Semipalatinsk, East Kazakhstan.
After lengthy conflict in 1918-1919, the White Army and armed forces of Alash-orda were defeated; the Revolution Committee (Revcom) demanded complete dissolution of Alash-orda and its subsidiaries in Omsk, Turgai, Akmolinsk and Semipalatinsk. The Independent Kirghiz Soviet Socialistic Republic was established in Orenburg (now in Russia), and taking in Akmolinsk, Semipalatinsk, Turgaisk and Uralsk oblasts; in 1925 its name was switched to Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and its borders changed to include Syrdaryinsk, Semirechye and Karakalpaksk oblasts, moving the capital to Kyzyl-Orda (the capital moved again in 1929, to Alma-Ata – modern day Almaty).
Stalin’s plans for agricultural collectivization and industrialization were imposed on Kazakhstan, along with the policy of sovietising the Kazakh aul, destroying the age-old system of traditional aldermen and local authorities. Cattle and land were confiscated, and people were sent under police escort to ‘settlement places’.
The cattle confiscated for collective farms had to be slaughtered as such huge herds proved impossible to feed. By 1933, out of 40 million head of cattle only ten per cent had survived.
The resulting famine in 1931–1933, known as holodomor or asharshylyk, killed 1.5 million people in Kazakhstan and sent others fleeing to China; according to various estimates the Kazakh population was reduced by 48%.
In the decade from 1928, two billion roubles were invested in Kazakh industrialization; workers and engineers were sent to construction sites and enterprises from other regions of the USSR and some 200 big industrial sites, including Shymkent lead plant, Balkhash copper-smelting plant, the coal centre in Karaganda, and the Turkestan-Siberian railway were built in the years before World War II.
The Soviet Union in 1930s saw waves of political repression which reached its peak in 1937-1938, with the arrests and shooting of thousands of Kazakhs – some of the first victims were the intellectual elite of the Kazakh nation, including most of the former Alash party.
From 1936 onwards, Stalin’s totalitarian regime relocated ethnic groups from the border areas of the USSR to Kazakhstan: Koreans, Poles, Meskhetian Turks, Pontic Greeks, Assyrians, Germans, Chechens, Ingush, Karachais, and many others. The labour and migration policy of the Soviet Union sent hundreds of thousands of Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians and other ethnic groups from the Soviet Union, turning Kazakhstan into a multi-ethnic country. At the start of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), Kazakhstan became a labour base for the Red Army; more than a million people and over 140 industrial enterprises were transferred from the USSR to Kazakhstan, and new plants and mines were built to provide for the front.
But it wasn’t one-way traffic. About 1.5 million people from Kazakhstan were conscripted into the Red Army, and about half of them died at the fronts. Some 528 people from Kazakhstan were honoured with the highest recognition of military prowess in the USSR – Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, many of them posthumously.
Post-war industry focused on mineral and hydrocarbon extraction; agriculture focused on stockbreeding.
The Virgin Lands programme ran from 1954-1965 in which 46 million hectares of fallow and virgin land were ploughed up; the clearings meant that 100,000 people were resettled in Kazakhstan. The plan moved fast, ploughing 33 million hectares in the first two years; by 1960 nearly 43 million hectares had gone under the plough. But only 425 corn state farms were created on the virgin lands in the first two years – the agrarian giants were created later.
Due to the extraordinary concentration of resources and people, the new lands in the first years produced high yields at first – in the late 1950s Kazakhstan was producing a third to a half of all the wheat for bread in the USSR.
It didn’t last, and the failure of ecological balance and soil erosion made a dust bowl of the virgin lands in 1962-3, and cultivation efficiency dropped by 65%.
Between 1960–1962 and again from 1964 to 1986 the republic’s Communist Party organization was headed by Dinmukhamed Kunayev. Under his guidance, industrialization continued, large facilities were built in Almaty, Karaganda, Ekibastuz, Pavlodar – power plants, railways and roads; major progress was made in education, science and culture. But at the same time, the use of the Kazakh language was being eroded and restricted, which caused some disaffection among ethnic Kazakhs.
In December 1986, the ethnic Kazakh Kunayev was replaced by Russian Gennadiy Kolbin, causing massive demonstrations in Almaty over three days from 16-19 December. The response was severe, with fire-engines, truncheons, and dogs used to suppress the crowds. Many of the demonstrators suffered severe wounds and were prosecuted for the open expression of their protest.
Overall, around 8,500 people were detained over the Zheltoksan (zheltoksan means December in Kazakh) riots, and 99 people were convicted and sentenced to varying terms. One protester, Ryskulbekov, was sentenced to death for the murder of a bodyguard, but the sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison. Nevertheless, in 1988 this young man died in jail in mysterious circumstances.
The central powers of the USSR were forced to recognize the fury of the people, and Kolbin was removed from power in June 1989. That month Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev, the chairman of the Kazakh SSR Council of Ministers since 1984, was appointed as First Secretary of the Republic’s Communist Party, the effective leader of the constituent part of the USSR.
Nazarbayev promoted the adoption of a law giving official status to the Kazakh language, criticized negative aspects of collectivization, created an independent religious department for Muslims of Kazakhstan. A mass campaign, Nevada-Semipalatinsk, demanded the ending of nuclear tests at the territory in East Kazakhstan, and got huge public support in 1989. In the Soviet Union, things were changing, and new political processes created conditions for Kazakhstan to win its independence. INDEPENDENT KAZAKHSTAN 16 December 1991 is the date of adoption of the constitutional law which proclaims Kazakhstan as an independent, democratic, rule-of-law state. Since then, Kazakhstan has seen a new era of development as a modern state.
In the first half of 1992 the leadership of independent Kazakhstan defined the main strategic directions for the country, in President Nazarbayev’s Strategy of establishment and development of Kazakhstan as a sovereign state. In economic matters, the following objectives were identified:
- developing a social market economy;
- creating legal and other conditions to implement the principle of economic self-determination;
- introduction of a national currency and promotion of its internal and external convertibility;
- improving its competitive positions on the global commodity market;
- attracting and exploiting foreign investments.
Almost all these objectives have been achieved ahead of schedule; however, the country faced considerable obstacles to move from a planned economy to a contemporary market economy and gain a global position.
On 15 November 1993 Kazakhstan introduced the tenge as its national currency, to become a symbol of economic development and financial independence.
In June 1995, President Nazarbayev presented the draft of the new Constitution, for the people’s judgment through a referendum, which was held on 30 August 1995. Despite the challenges of political and economic reforms, 89% of the people in Kazakhstan voted to adopt the new Constitution; 30 August was declared a national holiday – Constitution Day.
That year, the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan (AKP) was established: a vital institutional body representing the many ethnic groups in the country, to facilitate the conversation between them and promote mutual understanding. From 2007, AKP has had the right to elect nine members in the country’s Parliament.
Kazakhstan became a member of the United Nations in 1992, and as of 2015, Kazakhstan has established diplomatic relations with 174 countries around the world.
Since winning independence, the preeminent national goal has been to define foreign policy priorities and strengthen the national security system: in other words to define its own national interests and, on that basis, foreign policy, national defence, and military strategy.
Kazakhstan declares that it has no territorial claims against any other state, and recognises the preservation of peace as its top priority. Since its first day, the young state has strongly rejected any use or threat of military force as a means of achieving political, economic, and other goals.
When the USSR broke up, Kazakhstan was left with a large nuclear arsenal: 104 intercontinental ballistic missiles SS-18 each with 10 nuclear warheads (1,040 in total), and 40 strategic TU-95MS bombers with more than 300 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Special zones had been based in Kazakhstan for nuclear-weapon testing and space rocket launch technology (Baikonur, Semipalatinsk, Sary-Ozek). Kazakhstan cleared its territory of all nuclear weapons of the former USSR, obtained nuclear-weapon-free status, and signed up to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-nuclear-weapon state, demonstrating the state’s consistent peaceful policy. Even before winning independence, on 29 August 1991, President Nazarbayev made the bold decision to close the Semipalatinsk Test Site, and this date is commemorated internationally following the UN’s designation of the date as the International Day against Nuclear Tests.
At the 47th session of the UN General Assembly, in October 1992, President Nazarbayev – speaking for the first time as President of an independent Kazakhstan – suggested reducing military budgets every year by one per cent, to create a UN fund for building, maintaining and consolidating world peace. The President also proposed convening a Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) – which has now come to fruition.
Due to its foreign policy of peace, its clear economic development strategy, and international and domestic interfaith harmony, Kazakhstan has established itself as an economic leader in the region, has become a safe home for 140 ethnic groups, and is a reliable member of the global community.
During the first years of independence, bold economic reforms were necessary after the virtual collapse of the USSR economy; these reforms had evolved a competitive market economy in Kazakhstan. Due to political openness, there have been direct foreign investments of more than US $200 billion, and the resulting new jobs have made a significant improvement in living standards.
For the first decade of the 21st century, according to international agencies’ calculations, Kazakhstan was in third place globally – after China and Qatar – in economic growth, averaging just under 10%.
Consistent economic growth and a wise policy of national consensus has contributed to political stability in the country and the gradual strengthening of democratic institutions. In the presidential elections of 1999, 2005, 2011, and 2015 the overwhelming majority of voters gave Nursultan Nazarbayev convincing wins. President Nazarbayev has acquired the real status of the national leader – the founder of modern Kazakhstan.
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