The Kazakh are nomadic people from Eastern Europe and the northern parts of Central Asia (mostly Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, China, Russia and Mongolia). There are different stories about the origin of the name ‘Kazakh’. Legend says a white steppe goose turned into a princess, who gave birth to the first Kazakh (‘qaz’ means goose; ‘aq’ means white). But the name can also be derived from the verb ‘qazğan’, meaning ‘available’ or ‘winning’. Therefore, the noun ‘qazğan’ refers to someone who is a winner.
The Kazakh use golden eagles for hunting and to detect intruders. The most important part of the Kazakh culture is horses. The Kazakh love their horses, they ride them, they use them for agriculture, they race with horses for fun and the Kazakh eat horsemeat on special occasions. Many Kazakh possess horses and often they have pictures of them in their houses.
The ancestors of modern Kazakh were followers of Shamanism, Tengrism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity. Islam was first introduced in the eight century and initially appeared in the southern parts of Turkmenistan. The Islam gradually spread to the north. Nowadays, most Kazakh have slowly embraced the Islamic faith, but traditional faith remain. The Kazakh are worshipping heaven, their ancestors and fire. They believe supernatural forces exist, such as good and evil spirits, goblins and giants.
The Kazakh believe they descended from an ancestor with three sons. These sons represent the main divisions of the Kazakh: the Large, the Middle and the Small hurdles. These hurdles are divided into smaller groups; the basic unit is the extended family (parents and unmarried children as well as married sons and their family).
Traditionally women are important in the nomadic society. Their duties consisted mainly of making clothes and preparing meals. Men and women have a similar status. Elderly are not separated, they remain active for as long as possible.
Habits and rituals
It is common to ask two important questions at the first encounter: from what part of the country do you come and to what hurdle and what tribe are you a member of? This is all what is needed to understand the origin of each other. This tradition remains from the ancient tribal divisions, which are deemed relevant in Kazakhstan.
The Kazakh is a nomadic tribe and their shelter is adapted to their lifestyle. They live in ‘yurts’ (round tents), which they can carry easily from one place to another. The yurt has a wooden base and is covered with felt. The yurt looks very similar to a tipi, which were also very easy to carry around. Inside the yurt, tapestries are used to cover the walls. The beautifully embroidered tapestries are world famous.
Food and beverage
The Kazakh diet exists mostly from dairy products, supplemented with mutton. Fermented mare’s milk and horsemeat are very valuable, but usually only available to the wealthy. Meals are traditionally served at the floor, but nowadays the Kazakh eat at a low table. To show his respect to the most honoured guest, the host can offer a boiled sheep head. The guest then divides the food in the following way: the ears are given to the smallest child, so that he will listen and obey. The eyes are given to the two best friends, so that they will take care of the guest. The palate is given to the daughter-in-law and the tongue to the host’s daughter, in order for both women to hold their tongues. The pelvic bones are given to the second most respected guest and the brisket is given to the son-in-law.
Kazakh men and women in urban areas wear modern clothes; the traditional clothing is reserved for special occasions. Very characteristic is the so-called ‘chapan’ for the Kazakh men: a long woollen robe with a sash. Traditionally worn on a loose shirt, a jacket and trousers, with high leather boots and a large headgear. These items are made from wool, camel hair, leather, fur and goat or antelope pelt. Nowadays, the chapan is richly embroidered and made of velvet. The Kazakh women traditionally wear a long, sleeveless jacket or vest, worn over dresses made from cotton, silk or velvet. Women also wear a wrap skirt fastened with a belt. Many Kazakh women cover their hair with a shawl or a hat (especially at special occasions).