The Kyrgyz of Turkey

On their journey from eastern Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains to the Turkish city of Van, the Kyrgyz Turks have not failed to preserve their age-old traditions.

Lake Van sparkles like a bright blue bead in a landscape whose history dates back to the 10th millennium B.C. Home to many powerful civilizations, these lands provided fertility over the centuries, nourishing the peoples who settled there. Gleaming invitingly in the distance, the lake offered a refuge to people seeking a new homeland.

The pearl mullet that live in the waters that feed Lake Van travel a long way to breed. They swim upstream against the current to propagate their species and then return. Like all living creatures on the face of the earth, they wage a tough battle to survive. But the struggle waged by the pearl mullet is not unique on these lands. The Kyrgyz who now call it home have made similar journeys.

The struggles they have waged for their people and for the legendary figure of their ancestral father Manas still figure prominently in the tales told by the Kyrgyz today. But the heroes who, sporting a white kalpak on their heads like Manas, once moved mountains as they galloped on horseback are gone now. And Khan Hacı Rahman kul Kutlu, who sowed the first seeds of their life on these lands, is no longer among us either.

The story of the migration of the Kyrgyz, who left the lands where the Manas legends were penned to live high in the steppes of Eastern Anatolia, goes back 27 years. Inhabiting the cold and barren Pamir highlands, the Kyrgyz lived summer and winter in white felt tents, drinking the milk of their trusty yaks and learning to ride as small children. Living by raising animals, they traded in kind with merchants coming from Kabul. Life in the Pamir Highlands was difficult, but it was the life the Kyrgyz knew.

The people were closely attached to Hacı Rahman kul Kutlu. This khan with the status of a revered elder was a just leader with natural authority who placed importance on education and learning. A man capable of resolving differences between people.

But times change and there came a day when the Kyrgyz, too, were affected by political developments in their region. So the khan gathered his white-bearded elders together and took the decision to migrate. Scorning the interests of the great powers, a handful of Kyrgyz began to seek a new home. Their true home of course was the white felt tents they carried on the backs of their yaks. But finding a new homeland would take them a long time.

They traveled first to the city of Gilgit in Pakistan.  But the Kyrgyz, accustomed to living at 3,500 meters, could not tolerate the heat there. Commerce also took the place of livestock raising, and they were unable to adapt to that either. After some of them returned to Afghanistan, Khan Hacı Rahman kul Kutlu decided to migrate again. When an invitation came from Turkey, the Kyrgyz set out. In the end they arrived at the village of Ulupamir in Erciş township of Van province and made Turkey their new home.

Having led his people to these lands, Khan Hacı Rahman kul Kutlu died in Turkey on 6 August 1990. It was he who gave his people a new lease of life, sending up green shoots in a brand new country and a brand new century. Before he died, he told his people: “Never forget your religion or your Turkish identify. Pray at the proper times and do not neglect your education.”

When they set out from Afghanistan with dreams of a secure future, the Kyrgyz were consumed with longing for what they have today. Their lives sprouted anew in Anatolia, but their fate was unchanged.

Time passes slowly in the village. The children go to school, the women tend to their daily tasks; the years pass quickly by. Discovering the blessings of the age of communication, the Ulupamir Kyrgyz find an opportunity to communicate with their relatives in Afghanistan. One by one those who remembered the old days depart from this world.

Although the Kyrgyz are attached to their traditions, many of the ancient ways have inevitably been lost with the new generation. For the young people, who over time have turned their eyes and attention to the big cities and are leaving Ulupamir - some to work, others to study - the Pamirs live only in stories.

But Kyrgyz weddings are still colorful occasions where the old traditions live on. Pinning beads on the bride, for example, is de rigueur. All the women of the village treat the bride as if she were their own daughter. And every as yet unmarried young woman touches the beads, that fate may smile on her and her desires be fulfilled. While they may be short of worldly riches, the Kyrgyz are generous of heart. And when it comes to a wedding, everyone brings whatever they can, be it a piece of candy or a bar of soap.

Food is served to everyone who comes to the house where the wedding is taking place. The groom’s relatives prepare food for the women guests. Kyrgyz dishes being heavy on lamb, meat and rice are standard. The stock wedding dishes are stuffed tripe and liver cooked in milk. Nor is a traditional Kyrgyz dinner any different. In villages with big families, meals are eaten on the floor, which is believed not only to enhance the bounty of the table but to stimulate conversation as well.

On special days, the Kyrgyz play a game called ‘buskaşi’ (gökböğru). Demanding skill and courage, the game is a throwback to their ancestors of long ago.  A forerunner of polo, it involves several players galloping on horseback after the severed head of a young goat. Famous for their prowess as warriors, the men of Central Asia are said to have developed their riding skills and prepared themselves for battle by playing buskaşi.
The Kyrgyz today preserve their cultural heritage and keep their traditions alive by playing buskaşi wherever they live. Turkey has now replaced the homeland they abandoned years ago, and they pursue their existence on the banks of Lake Van, in peace and happiness...