Heroic epics date back to antiquity. The ancient 8th century Orkhon-Yenisei inscriptions commemorating spectacular feats of arms of Turkic heroes contained rhythmic and parallelistic passages that resemble those of epics. The Epic of Alpamys, a hero from the Qongyrat tribe, is one of the best known and most important examples of the Turkic oral literature. A gigantic 50-ft monument to Alpamys was unveiled in Shymkent, South Kazakhstan in 2014.
The Epic of Qobylandy Batyr, a 15th-century legendary warrior from the Kypshak tribe, has a least 29 recorded versions of his feats. Qobylandy’s mausoleum, a 58-ft tall and 40-ft wide structure in the form a casquet with a shield and a sword, was erected on the Qobda River in Western Kazakhstan on what is believed to be the hero’s burial site. A monument to Qobylandy atop a stallion named Taiburyl was unveiled in the town of Kyzylorda in 2009.
‘Batyr’ is an honorific term meaning a hero-warrior in Kazakh. Glorified in oral poetry, epic heroes illustrated traits, performed deeds, and exemplified morals valued by the ancient Kazakh society. One of them was Raiymbek Batyr, an 18th-century warrior and army commander, who actively resisted the Dzungar invasion of Kazakh lands. A son of a diplomat and clan’s elder, Raiymbek played a major role in liberating Kazakhs from Dzungars’ raids and forays. There is a vast number of legends and epics told about Raiymbek. He is also a frequent subject of paintings, including one by Kazakh contemporary artist Talgat Tleuzhanov.
Kazakh aqyns, or bards, displayed astonishing feats of memory and improvisation when retelling epics about national hero-warriors. One of the most famous epics is about Yer-Targhyn, a 15th-century warrior who fought valorously to defend his people against invaders. The epic’s main idea is a call to unity and an end to feuds among khanates. Its verse is typical for a Kazakh epic with heptasyllabic or octosyllabic verses alternating with prose segments.
Abylai Khan, the khan of all three hordes, is one of the key figures in the history of the Kazakh Khanate. A symbol of national unity, Abylai Khan has been a source of inspiration for folktales, mythology and epic-scale literary best-sellers. A descendant of Genghis Khan, Abylai Khan’s real name was Abilmansur but he changed it when enemies brutally killed his father and he had to hide in the steppe under the scornful nickname of Sabalak (shaggy dog). Later Abylai proved to be a talented organizer and commander as he headed Kazakh army during the Kazakh-Dzungar Wars. He participated in the most significant battles against Dzungars from the 1720s to the 1750s, for which he was declared a national hero by the people. He consistently worked toward creating a strong and independent Kazakh state and furthered the centralization of state power. In 1771, at the meeting of the representatives of the three hordes, Abylai was elected as the Kazakh khan. Abylai’s talent in playing China against Russia gradually made him the unrivaled Khan of the steppe. Unlike the khan of the Little Horde, Abylai never submitted to Russian rule. As a khan, Abylai left a strong influence on the formation of Kazakh people’s self-identity which led to mythologization of his historical figure. Upon his death in 1781 he was interred in the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassawi in Turkestan, South Kazakhstan.
A source of glory and pride, Kazakh heroic epics celebrate the feats of their legendary and extraordinary men and women. Many of them sing exploits of real-life heroic figures and their stories such as those of Karasai Batyr. A 16th-century hero, Karasai Batyr rose through the ranks from a young warrior to a mature army commander fighting against Dzungar invaders and later became a wise elder and patriarch, who died at the age of 73. He was one of the closest military advisors to Yessim Khan who ruled the Kazakh Khanate in 1598−1628. Karasai Batyr was immortalized in a heroic epic composed by Kazakh bard and master of improvisation Suyunbai. A mausoleum with two conical towers and a mosque was erected in the burial place of the warrior in northern Kazakhstan.
Bogenbai Batyr was one of the most renowned 18th-century military commanders during some of the most difficult times in the history of the Kazakh Khanate. Commonly regarded as a key figure in the fight for Kazakhs’ independence, Bogenbai rose to legendary status on account of his military victories over Dhungar and Chinese invaders while being an indispensable combat advisor to Tauke Khan and later Abylai Khan. Talented in oration, the lionhearted warrior enjoyed enormous respect and authority among Kazakh soldiers and was a skilled community organizer. Later in his life, Bogenbai was particularly interested in extraction of ores necessary for producing armor, weapons, canons. He died at the age 85 and was interred in the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmet Yassawi alongside Kazakhs’ most prominent personalities and khans. Legendary exploits of the warrior were storied in song and epics of his contemporaries as well as 20th-century writers and poets. There are various memorials to Bogenbai Batyr across Kazakhstan, including townships, streets, institutions, monuments, including one in his home and ancestral summer pasture in Yereimentau, Aqmola region.
Syrym Datuly was a leader of the 18th century national anti-feudal and anti-colonial movements of the Kazakhs of the Little Horde. Syrym Batyr led a large-scale movement against the Tsarist Russia for 14 years from 1783 to 1797 until, betrayed by steppe elites, was forced into exile. An antimonarchist, Syrym was the first Kazakh leader who called for modernization of the 18th-century Kazakh society and demanded political reforms. Thanks to his political talent, the khan’s rule of the Little Horde was replaced by a collegial government and became an independent administrative unit within the Tsarist Russia. This stopped Cossacks’ raids and ensured free access for Kazakhs to River Ural. One of the most respected and beloved national heroes, Syrym is the main character of various heroic epics, legends and songs.
Kazakh heroic epics propagate the idea of courage, statehood and national values. Their characters are warrior-heroes whose exploits and feats are glorified by aqyns, or bards. Yer-Kokshe is one of them. His bravery and struggle against invaders are the subject of the eponymous epic whose main theme and idea are defense of motherland and national unity. According to the legend, the hero died on the battlefield fighting the enemy. The epic, which also describes the exploits of his son Yer-Qosai, was first published by Russian orientalist Valiliy Radlov in late 19th century.
Yer-Zhanibek is a Kazakh epic about a national hero and orator who fought for the independence of the Kazakh lands against Dzungars. Zhanibek was famed for extraordinary leadership abilities, elocution, wisdom, and bravery. The legends say Zhanibek saved Abylai Khan in one of the battles. In protest to the pledge of allegiance to the Russian Tsar by the Khan of the Little Horde, Abulkhaiyr, the hero moved off his village from the Syr Darya River to Lake Zaisan in eastern Kazakhstan. Zhanibek batyr died at the age of 80 and was buried there. (This monument has a 3D tour - http://www.3d-maps.kz/ru_place_33-pamyatnik-zhanibek-batyru#iframe)
The Epic of Alau Batyr is part of ‘The Forty Heroes of the Crimea’ collection, a series of historical-heroic epics common to Kazakhs, Nogais, Karakalpaks, Tartars and Bashkirs that narrate the events between the 14th and early 17th century. Alau Batyr was a 15th-century legendary Kazakh hero and an army commander. According to the legend, Alau Batyr hailed from the Alshyn tribe of the Little Horde. The idea of protecting the country from enemies and giving one’s all in the name of the native land is at the heart of the epic. Composed with elements of a fairytale, the epic portrays Alau Batyr as the people’s defender and protector.
Yesset Batyr, also known as Tama Batyr, was an army commander and an eminent elder of the Tama clan of the Little Horde. The right-hand man of Abulkhaiyr Khan, he was an active participant of the struggle against Dzungars and Volga Kalmyks for almost 50 years. Awarded the prestigious title of Tarkhan, he lived a long and action-packed life and died in old age. The warrior’s burial place, 30 km away from the city of Aktobe in western Kazakhstan, became a site of pilgrimage for some locals who treated him as a saint, but was banned during the Soviet era. Only in 1992 ahead of the commemoration of Yesset Batyr’s 325th anniversary, a mausoleum crypt was built in the shape of a casquet and a life-size statue of the warrior in front of the tomb.
‘Kambar Batyr’ is one of the oldest Kazakh heroic epics that narrates the exploits of a 16th-century Kazakh warrior, Kambar, who defeated a Kalmyk khan. Unlike many other heroic epics, ‘Kambar Batyr’ is also about a peaceful life of a warrior who meets his loved one, Nazym. It’s a beautiful epic full of details, epithets, and metaphors. It also skillfully paints a picture of social inequality but has a happy ending.
Baraq Batyr, a Kazakh national hero and a leader of the national liberation movement of the Kazakhs of the Little Horde. Together with Syrym Batyr, Baraq fought Russian tsarist punitive forces in 1785-1792. Thanks to Baraq’s military actions against the aggression of Russian colonizers, Kazakhs were able to preserve their lands on the right bank of River Ural, hamper Russia’s influence in West Kazakhstan and prevent construction of military fortresses there. Baraq Batyr lived for almost 100 years and died in 1840. He was buried in Mangystau region.
The heroic epic of Qarabek Batyr describes a number of historic events and milestones. It also follows a storyline often used in Kazakh heroic epics about a child born to an elderly childless couple. The first version of the epic consisting of 1,825 lines was first recorded and published in 1882. Its second version recorded in 1940 has 7,500 lines.
One of the greatest rulers of the Great Steppe, Yessim Khan was the third khan after Kassym Khan and Khak-Nazar Khan who saw the rise of the Kazakh Khanate. A tall, courageous warrior, Yessim was an experienced army commander and gifted politician. At the helm of the Kazakh Khanate, he concluded a peace treaty with Bukhara, making Tashkent, Shakhrukhiya, Kanka and some areas of the Fergana Valley part of his Khanate. His main goal was to transform the Kazakh Khanate into a centralized state and strengthen its military might. Due to his impressive height and courage displayed when fighting back foreign aggressors, his people affectionately called him ‘Valiant Yessim the Giant’. The Epic of ‘Valiant Yessim the Giant’ is an extraordinary focal conjunction of historical and ethnographic data, epic deeds and literary value.
The Epic of Zhetigen Batyr tells a story of love and dreams. It is a story of life and love of Zhetigen Batyr who falls in love with a beautiful daughter of a Kalmyk khan. Although the epic is full of fairytale-like characteristics, it does not have a happy ending. The epic is a tribute to the precious qualities of love loyalty and human kindness. It is written in an eleven-syllable prose and hepta- and octameter iambs. Its only version was recorded from the words of bard Yesdaulet Qandekuly in 1939.
‘The Epic of Aidos Batyr’ was never recorded in full. Some of its fragments were first recorded and published in 1883 by Yaakov Lutschg. In 1937 another version was recorded which put various fairytales and legends about Aidos Batyr in a form of a poem. It contains 889 lines.
‘The Epic of Qabanbai Batyr’ lyricizes the exploits and courage of one of the most famed Kazakh warriors and heroes. Qababai Batyr was one of the organizers of the Kazakh national liberation struggles against Dzungar aggressors, an army commander and an invincible jouster. Born and raised in Eastern Kazakhstan, he lost his father at the hands of Dzungars at the age 16 and since then devoted his life to the struggle against invaders. Qabanbai fought in 103 battles and never lost. He also won in 54 one-on-one combats. He stood out thanks to his extraordinary physical power and, as legends go, could lift a horse on his shoulders. He also was involved in peacemaking missions and judging. The epic is rich with mentions of names of real historic people and geographic places. The main idea of this epic is protection of peace and freedoms of the native lands.
A contemporary of Abylai Khan, Zhidebay Batyr left an indelible mark in the history of Kazakhstan with his exceptional feats in the struggle against Dzungar aggression. ‘The Epic of Zhidebai Batyr’ was born on the basis of folk legends about the hero. It follows the familiar plot line common to many Turkic-Mongolian epics when a young hero faces a thousand strong enemy and single-handedly defeats it. The real-life hero was indeed one of the greatest warriors of his time and in the history of the Kazakh Khanate famed for his heroism and courage during liberation wars. He lived for over 100 years and today his burial place in Karagandy region is a pilgrimage site.
‘The Epic of Valliant Zhasybai’ tells the story of Zhasybai Batyr, an 18th-century legendary Kazakh warrior from the Arghyn clan. He was born in 1716 in the village of Bayanauyl of Pavlodar region. A skilled archer and wrestler since his childhood, Zhasybai fought valiantly on battlefronts against Dzungars. He died young at the age of 25 when an enemy’s arrow pierced through an open spot in his armor. Zhasybai is a character of oral legends and folk genealogies. A lot has been written about Zhasybai in the work of Russian ethnographer Nikolar Konshin. ‘The Epic of Valliant Zhasybai’ pays tribute to the patriotism and courage of the Kazakh hero.
‘The Epic of Olzhabai Batyr’ recounts exploits of an 18th-century stalwart Kazakh hero and one of the leaders of the national-liberation movement against Dzungars. He hailed from the clan of Arghyn of the Middle Horde in Aqmola region. A graduate of a Turkistan city madrasa, he fluently spoke Arabic and Kalmyk. A staunch supporter of Abylai Khan, Olzhabai batyr was his banner-bearer and advocated for a strong centralized state power with Abylai Khan at its helm. He was not only an outstanding warrior but also a prominent diplomat who participated in Sino-Kazakh talks in mid-18th century. In his so called ‘black book’, Olzhabai kept records about major battles and his relations with Abylai Khan and other prominent comrades-in-arms. Olzhabai’s name later became a battle cry of many tribes of the Middle Horde. Kazakh folk legends, song and real facts about Olzhabai’s heroic deeds and his quick mind were recorded by Russian scholars Nikolai Konshin, Natalya Smirnova, Dmitry Primak and others. Olzhabai’s direct descendent in seventh generation is Kazakhstan’s renowned poet, writer and scholar Olzhas Suleimenov.
Otegen Batyr is one of the outstanding hero-warriors of the 18th century Kazakh Khanate who valiantly fought against Dzungar invaders. According to folk legends, his father’s 12 older sons died of plague when he turned 50. Grief-stricken and inconsolable, Otegen’s father saw a holy elder in his dream who promised him a son. Very soon his son Otegen was born and brought glory to his family. In combat since age 15, Otegen batyr participated in major battles against aggressors. In 1756, Otegen opposed Abylai Khan’s policy of cessation of hostilities with China and left the country. He returned home only after 17 years of self-exile. Otegen Batyr was glorified in many epics and folktales. The epic that has come down to present days was sung by Zhambyl, the brightest Kazakh traditional folksinger. A monument to the hero was erected in his homeland in the Ile District of the Almaty region.
The last Kazakh khan, Kenesary Khan was the leader of the national liberation movement that resisted the capture of Kazakh lands and segregation policies by the Russian empire. Kenesary Khan was the grandson of Abylai Khan and the last ruler of the Kazakh Khanate elected at an all-Kazakh council in 1841. Like other descendants of the Kazakh aristocracy, as a child Kenesary learned the fundamentals of governing and warcraft. He demonstrated leadership and executive skills early on and stood out from his brothers and peers. By the mid 19th century, the Kazakhs fell under the full control of the Russian empire and were banned from electing their own leader or even given representation in the empire’s legislative structures. All fiscal/tax collections were also taken away from local Kazakh representatives and given to Russian administrators. As a freedom fighter and popular as a leading voice against the increasingly aggressive and forceful policies of the Russian empire, Kenesary was ruthless in his actions and unpredictable as a military strategist. Kenesary Khan fought against the Russian imperial forces until his death in 1847. He was a true Kazakh national hero who dreamed of political unity of all Kazakh tribes and hordes. Ever since his death and especially since Kazakhstan became independent, Kenesary Khan has been regarded as a hero in Kazakh literature, folklore and media. His monument can be seen on the shore of River Yessil in the capital of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan.
Recorded in 1948, ‘The Epic of Olzhashy Batyr’ was first published in the run-up to the 550th anniversary of the Kazakh Khanate commemorated in 2015. Olzhashy Batyr was an army commander under Yessim Khan who defended the Kazakh people against Dzungars. Olzhashy Batyr led his army against aggressors defending the ancient cities of Sayram, Turkestan, and Syganak.
‘The Epic of Qabylan Batyr’ is a tale about the exploits of a Kazakh hero-warrior during the wars against Dzungar aggressors. Composed in a form of a legend, it also describes the feats of other renowned personalities of the Kazakh society of the Early Modern period. The epic was recorded by Kazakh prominent bard and scholar of oral literature Imanzhan Zhylqyaidaruly in 1948.
‘The Epic of Myrza Satbek Batyr’ is a narrative poem recounting heroic deeds of a 16th-century warrior and national hero Satbek Batyr who killed Cossack chieftain Yermak. According to the legends, Satbek Batyr lives peacefully along the Yertish River when a Cossack regimen led by its chieftain Yermak attacks Satbek’s village and ruthlessly kills every single of its dwellers. Devastated and enraged, Satbek Batyr seeks revenge against Yermak whom he overhauls in Siberia and kills. Satbek batyr is portrayed as a freedom-loving warrior, ready to sacrifice his own life for the sake of his people’s liberation. The Epic of Myrza Satbek Batyr became one of the most beloved oral compositions of the Kazakh people who longed to be freed from the Russian colonizers’ shackles. The text was first recorded in early 20th century and published in Kazan, Russia in 1909. There are several versions of the same story with minor differences but all of them revolve around the same main idea, that is the exposure of the Tsarist Russia’s colonial policy of violence against the people of the Kazakh steppes.
Oraqty Batyr was a 15th-century hero and a contemporary of the founders of the Kazakh Khanate, Kerei and Zhanibek Khans. He played a key role in strengthening of the fledgling Kazakh state and defending his nation against Oirat aggressors. Oraqty Batyr was glorified in the songs of Kazakh renowned bards and modern-day writers.
‘The Epic of Myrqy Batyr’ was written by poet and pedigree-monger Ashim Nurlybaiuly based on historical facts and folkloric legends and tales. The epic narrates the exploits of Myrqy batyr who valiantly fought in a liberation war against Dzungar aggressors. A warrior of extraordinary physical strength, Myrqy batyr was an outstanding jouster. The epic graphically portrays Myrqy’s joust against a Dzungar opponent, first using swords, shields, and axes, then wrestling on horseback and on the ground.
The Epic of Yer Aghybai is an odyssey of a 19th-century Kazakh warrior who fought against foreign enemies alongside the Kazakh Khanate’s last ruler Kenesary Khan. It tells a story of a courageous man, his wits and oratory talent. Agybai Batyr was often affectionately called ‘Aqzholdy’ (meaning ‘lucky’) because he would win wherever he went. There are many legends and tales devoted to Agybai batyr and there are several known versions of the epic about him.