HISTORY
The region of what is now Kazakhstan has been an important cultural crossroad for several hundred thousands of years.
Archaeologists have excavated ancient settlements dating back to the Lower Paleolithic Age in Southern Kazakhstan. Central and Eastern Kazakhstan were settled during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic Ages. During the Bronze Age roughly 4,000 years ago, the region was inhabited by the agrarian Andron and Begazy-Dandybai tribes, who were outstanding warriors known for their battle chariots. The Sun god, to whom their hymns were devoted, was believed to be the warriors’ protector.
Around 2000 Aryans, perhaps the ancestors of the Medes and Persians, entered the region. (The Assyrians mention them in the ninth century.) Between the ninth and seventh centuries the region was dominated by groups of nomads known for their skill with horses and breeding cattle. Between the seventh and third centuries the Persians mention groups they called Saks, probably the same tribes known to the Greeks as Scythians, renowned for their deadly accuracy with the bow and arrow while riding a horse at full speed. The Scythians dominated the Eurasian steppes from Siberia to the Black Sea. The Scythians fought several wars with the Achaemenids, and Cyrus the Great (c. 585–c. 29) was killed in one of them in 530. Tomiris, the Scythian queen, ordered his head put into a wineskin filled with human blood.
In the sixth century the region was finally subdued by the Achaemenid Empire of Persia. Then, in 330, Alexander the Great (356–23) conquered the entire area, reaching Kabul and the Hindu Kush mountain range by 328. The aftermath of Alexander’s short-lived central Asian empire led to an increase in cultural exchange between Europe and Asia. This region came into the limelight once again as a part of the legendary Silk Road, through which the highly coveted Chinese silk traveled from China to Europe and down into Africa during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.).
For the next thousand years Central Asia (including Kazakhstan) witnessed countless shifts of power. The Huns, the Western Turks, Arabs, and the Chinese all ventured into and held sway over the region during these centuries. Starting in the year 1219 C.E., armies of Mongols, under the leadership of Genghis Khan (1162–1227), swept through most of Eurasia (Central Asia bordering Europe). The ravages inflicted on the region took centuries to heal. The feuds, factions, and bickering that cropped up after Genghis Khan’s death led to the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire and the rise of the ruthless Timur the Lame (Timur Lenk or Tamerlane, 1336–1405), toward the end of the 14th century.
The 15th century saw the emergence of Kazakhs as a distinct people for the first time in history, and by the middle of the 16th century they had developed a common culture, language, and commercial system.
Originating from the descendants of Mongols, Turkic, and other ethnic groups, the Kazakhs evolved as the world’s last great nomadic empire, with their domains stretching across the steppes and desert north, east and west of the Syr-Darya (a river in Tajikistan and southern Kazakhstan). The Kazakhs were eventually vanquished by the Oyirads, a fierce group of Mongolian people who captured the eastern part of Kazakhstan, the Tian Shan, and parts of Xinjiang to form the Zhungarian Empire during the 1630s. The Kazakhs were brutally and repeatedly defeated by the Oyirads between 1690 and 1720. In the 19th century the Russian Empire began to expand its reach into Central Asia and gained control of the region formerly ruled by the Kazakh Khanate.
Then in the early 20th century, the Russian Bolsheviks made their debut, swiftly bringing the Central Asian nomads (including the Kazakhs) under their control, and in 1920 the region of Kazakhstan became an autonomous republic within Russia.
Though there were rumblings of discontent, these were quickly put down by the Soviet Communists.
Meanwhile a dynamic young Turkish leader named Enver Pasha (1881–1922) convinced the Soviet leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870–1924) that he could win for Russia all of Central Asia as well as British India. His ulterior motive was to gain control of the region with Soviet aid. But the former Soviet Union (USSR) managed to outmaneuver him and thwart his plans. This eventually resulted in the waning of Pasha’s prowess and the revival of Moscow-centered power over the Kazakhs. Kazakhstan became a Soviet Republic in 1936.
Kazakhstan’s medley of tribal divisions located in various regions across the territory were largely ignored and neglected by the Soviets. The republics of Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek were created in the 1920s, each designed to contain pockets of diverse nationalities with long-standing claims to the land. Central Asia (including Kazakhstan) was a testing ground for Soviet Russia, which tried converting the steppe (the temperate grassland of Eurasia, consisting of level, generally treeless plains) into a giant cotton plantation and using Kazakhstan as a secret nuclear testing zone, among many other experiments.
As a consequence of decades of suffering political, social, economic, and ecological disasters, these republics declared their sovereignty in 1991 when the USSR was on the verge of disintegration.
Later they teamed up with other former Soviet states to form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in 1991.
At the start of the 21st century Kazakhstan was struggling with problems related to the introduction of a free-market economy and a brand of deregulation that unfortunately has tended to lead to anarchy. The incumbent president Nursultan A. Nazarbayev (b. 1940), a former Communist, continues to experiment with democracy as a part of his plans to turn his country into a major economic and political power in Central Asia. Nazarbayev’s victory in the 1999 elections was partially achieved by banning major opponents on questionable grounds.
The nascent country’s capital city was shifted from Almaty in the south to Akmola in the north and then renamed Astana.

GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Kazakhstan is bordered by Russia in the north, China in the east, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the south, and the Caspian Sea and part of Turkmenistan in the west. It has a 1,177-mile coastline on the Caspian Sea. Kazakhstan is twice the size of Texas. The terrain is mostly steppes with hilly plains and plateaus. Since it is far removed from the ocean, the climate is continental (characterized by winter temperatures cold enough to support a fixed period of stable snow cover each year and low precipitation, which occurs mostly in summer). The precipitation in the eastern mountains is approximately 24 inches per year (mainly snow), but the rest of the country receives only 4 to 8 inches per year. The average winter temperatures are 26°F in the north and 64°F in the south, while the summer temperatures average 66°F in the north and 82° to 86°F in the south.
There are 8,500 large and small rivers in Kazakhstan. The largest ones are the Ural and the Emba, which flow into the Caspian Sea, while the Syr Darya empties into the Aral Sea. Pik Pobedy (Victory Peak), at 24,406 feet, is the highest peak of the Tian Shan range and is also the highest peak in Kyrgyzstan. (Pik Pobedy is on the border shared by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China.)
ECONOMY
Kazakhstan possesses abundant mineral resources, vast farming areas, as well as a competent, trained labor force. In the early years of the 21st century more than 2,700 enterprises were involved in industrial production, employing nearly 812,000 people.
Kazakhstan possesses reserves of high-quality copper, lead, zinc, and cadmium, which are in high demand in world markets.
In terms of oil reserves, Kazakhstan has forged ahead of several oil-producing countries. As of 2005 the Republic boasted more than 170 oil, 40 condensate, and 90 gas fields with explored and recoverable resources of oil. Of late an international project for construction of pipelines for exporting oil has been launched that would export Kazakhstani oil to the world markets. Oil production is expected to grow exponentially in the future.

CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
The country is split in terms of religion between Islam and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Although religious expression was suppressed during the Soviet era, religious observances are returning, though many holidays are still not widely celebrated in the early years of the 21st century. Kazakhstanis still managed to retain some of their religious customs, albeit with specific sorts of change. St.
Nicholas, for example, the ancestor of Santa Claus, came into being in Myra, in the province of Lydia, when the area was primarily Greek. Under the Soviets St. Nicholas became Grandfather Frost (Ded Moroz), the Russian spirit of winter, who became responsible for delivering presents on New Year’s.
Grandfather Frost’s helper was Snyegurochka, the Snowmaiden.
Peter the Great (1672–1725) brought the custom of decorating Christmas trees (yolka) back to Russia after a visit to Europe in the 1700s. The Soviets banned this tradition and, to keep the custom alive, people decorated New Year’s trees instead.
Because ornaments were either very costly or unavailable during those years, family trees were trimmed with homemade decorations and fruit.
Kazakhstan is home to a great variety of handicrafts.
The art of embroidery is well known and has been practiced in Kazakhstan since ancient times.
Other well-known crafts are made out of stone, bone, ceramic, metal, clay, wood and leather. Carpet weaving has long been a skill of the Kazakhs. For centuries, right up until the present, syrmaks, traditional handmade carpets, have adorned the interiors of Kazakh buildings and homes.
Another hallmark of Kazakh arts and crafts is the yurt, a portable dwelling. It consists of a wooden framework covered with felt. The framework (kerege) forms the walls of the dwelling. Uyuk (long wooden poles) serve as a cover for the upper spherical portion of the yurt; shanrak comprises the topmost open part of the yurt, which functions as a ventilator and a source of lighting for the interior. Depending on the season and the weather, the yurt can be covered with two or more layers of felt for insulation.

CUISINE
Kazakh dastarkhan (which refers to hospitality and cuisine, as well as a table full of food) has a rich heritage.
Interestingly any Kazakh meal (especially a banquet) starts with an elaborate ceremony of tea drinking. The host welcomes his guests and invites them to the table, where girls and young women pour the tea. The women must be alert to ensure that the guests’ drinking bowls are always full and that there are no remains of tea leaves on the edges of the bowls. Tea is normally accompanied by cream, dried and fresh fruit, or nuts.
For the main meal Kazakhs serve mostly meatbased appetizers using horseflesh or mutton. There is also an array of smoked, semismoked, and boiled meats. Other prominent items include flat cakes and milk tonics such as koumyss, shubat, and katyk. Kuyrdak is a roast meat prepared with liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, and the tail fat of sheep or goats; samsa (meat filled patties), puktermet (patties stuffed with by-products), belyashes, and kausyrma all prepared in much the same way.
The highpoint of any banquet is besbarmak, a large round or oval dish with small, round flat boiled pieces of pastry scalded with hot broth and accompanied by small strips of boiled horse meat or mutton.
The platter is typically garnished with onion rings and a green mixture of fennel, parsley, and dill.
The guest of honor is usually treated to koy-bas (a boiled sheep’s head). The guest is expected to dress it and distribute it among the other guests sitting around him.

BIRTH
The birth of a Kazakh child is steeped in folk beliefs.
As soon as a pregnant woman begins to experience labor pains she calls for her soothsayers, or baks, whose presence and predictions are meant to provide relief from the pain. When the time of delivery comes, a female relative or a companion hugs the expectant mother, pressing her hard on the abdomen to accelerate the birth of the baby. If the force exerted by one woman is not enough, a few others are invited to press harder. Relatives entering the tent customarily strike the pregnant woman’s skirt and say: Chik (“Go out child”).

MARRIAGE
The first precondition for a traditional Muslim Kazakh marriage is deciding the amount of the bride-price and the terms and conditions regarding its payment. When the terms are settled, a mullah sanctifies it after asking the fathers or relatives of the groom and bride whether they agree to let their children enter into this lifelong bond. This arrangement is celebrated with a feast.
Until the bride-price has been paid, the wedding cannot take place; however, the groom is allowed to visit the bride. Before the departure of the groom to the bride’s house, his father invites the mullah to pray for the health and well-being of his son. The groom is dressed in a splendid robe, given a new saddle and harness, a strong horse, and is sent on his way.
For the ceremony the groom and bride are shown into a special tent prepared for the occasion.
The mullah asks them to sit in the middle of the tent, places a cup of water before them, and covers it with a cloth. He then reads a prayer and asks both of them whether they willingly enter into matrimony or not. They are given water to drink three times.
Some mullahs dip an arrow containing hair from the mane of the groom’s horse (bound to the arrow by a ribbon belonging to the bride) into the water.
After this ritual the groom leaves, and the bride changes into a new headdress symbolizing her married status. She is then seated in the middle of the tent where the women gather around her to sing songs.
The new husband comes up to the door and asks the bride’s permission to enter but is allowed in only after being made to wait. Finally he rushes in, grabs the bride, and puts her on his horse; then together they ride to their new home to enjoy some privacy.
Afterward they return to the bride’s home, and prior to the formal departure of the newly married couple the entire village gathers. The bride’s father solemnly presents to the son-in-law the dowry, which has been loaded on the backs of camels and horses. He exhorts his daughter to be devoted, virtuous, and loyal to her spouse. As a gesture of farewell he settles her on a horse and hands over its harness to her husband. The couple departs accompanied by the crying and wailing of the assembled women.