Dwellings in Traditional Funeral and Burial Rituals of the Kyrgyz People

Dwellings in Traditional Funeral and Burial Rituals of the Kyrgyz People (Using Yurts as an  Example)

Published: March 25, 2023

Using historical and ethnographic studies from previous years, literary data, and his own field research conducted over several years’ time in different regions of Kyrgyzstan, the author explores the place and role of dwellings in traditional funeral and burial rituals of the Kyrgyz people. The yurt, a type of dwelling continually used by the formerly nomadic Kyrgyz people, is the subject of this research. The 19th and early 20th centuries form the chronological framework for this article. It is the first to present a compilation of factual material and examine various aspects of the yurt when it is used as a place of mourning. In particular, this article focuses on the outer and inner decorations of the mourning yurt, the way funeral practices are arranged both inside and outside of it, and aspects of proper social behavior for those taking part in mourning ceremonies. The article also touches on specific points connected with those ceremonies and their symbols, establishes a link between certain procedures and ideological perceptions, and traces the genetic relationship between ceremonial mourning traditions in yurts in the Hun, Old Turkic, and Old Kyrgyz periods.

This article was originally published in Russian in Ethnographic Review (N.N. Miklukho-Maklai Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Moscow, Russian Federation), 2008, 6. Translation to English by Jill Ann Neuendorf, 2022. © A.S. Kochkunov, 2008. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this text or any excerpts of it for commercial purposes is prohibited.

Introduction to Yurts in Kyrgyz Life

Funeral and burial rituals are important in a people’s ethnic culture. When the information contained in them is carefully studied and compared with similar findings from several ethnically related peoples, it can shed light on many characteristics of the ethnocultural development of the Kyrgyz.

Dwellings of the Kyrgyz within the context of funeral and burial rituals have not been specifically considered. However, certain aspects were addressed in connection with the study of material culture (Antipina), the cult of the dead and ancestors (Abramzon 334-353), and pre-Islamic beliefs (Bayalieva 58-94). Information provided by Fielstrup, who in the 1920s collected field data on various topics of the ethnography of the Kyrgyz and other Central Asian Turkic peoples, as well as the topic at hand, is a valuable resource for future reference.

Nevertheless, I think that researchers have overlooked some significant ethnological aspects of traditional Kyrgyz funeral and burial rituals, which have to do primarily with issues regarding the role and the place of dwellings as they relate to these rituals in Kyrgyz culture.

In this article, I will analyze one type of dwelling, namely the yurt.

A significant amount of literature has been devoted to the historical and ethnographic study of yurts among the Turkic-Mongolian peoples. According to generally accepted ethnological classifications, a yurt is a type of dwelling with a cylindrical, collapsible lattice frame (Weinstein). The history and development of yurts are closely connected with the Turko-Mongols and, to some extent, with the Iranians (i.e., the Jamshid and Hazara people) of the Eurasian Steppe, as yurts have been an integral part of their social, spiritual, and material culture (Kharuzin; Gafferberg; Kuz’mina et al.; Margulan).

Research that has been done on yurts in Kyrgyzstan is characterized by a lack of cohesion and researchers’ attempts to describe yurts without giving any thought to identifying their role and place in the Kyrgyz ethnocultural system (Antipina; Alymbaeva).

While developing this topic, I naturally relied on existing studies of the ethnology of the Kyrgyz. The authors who have researched this subject are primarily Abramzon, Bayalieva, Moldobaev (93-96), and others. It is especially important to highlight Bayalieva’s research, as this is the only ethnographic study in which traditional funeral and memorial rituals and customs of the Kyrgyz people are more or less analyzed in detail, and which includes partial data that illustrates how dwellings are connected with funeral practices.

Data taken from Kyrgyz funeral and burial rituals were used as the basis for a comparative analysis in several researchers’ work, among whom the names of Snesarev, Karmyshev, Diyakonov, Butanaev, Khudyakov, and others should especially be mentioned.

This article is based on research conducted by both pre-revolutionary and Soviet authors such as the Kazakh explorer Valikhanov, Grodekov, and information from the ethnographer Fielstrup, in addition to others. The data from the latter were systematized by subject matter and contain many useful facts about the gamut of funeral and burial rituals among the Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and other Turkic peoples of Siberia. Data collected by the first “folk” ethnographers such as Talyp Moldo, Togolok Moldo, Soltonoev, Usoyyn azhy, Tynybekov, and others at the end of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th, and which are preserved in the manuscript collection at the National Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic can be used as a valuable resource for future reference. However, my field data, which were gathered from 1986 to 2005 in many areas of Kyrgyzstan, as well as in the Jerge-Tal region of Tajikistan in 1987, served as the primary source of information for this article.

The resources gathered help identify the place and role of the yurt in the funeral, burial, and memorial rituals of the Kyrgyz, as well as certain aspects of proper social behavior for those taking part in mourning ceremonies and rituals.

It should be stressed that Kyrgyz funeral and burial rituals are a complex ethnocultural phenomenon in which various cults, beliefs, and devotional practices, as well as social relations are intertwined. There may be differences within the same groups of Kyrgyz as to how various elements of funeral rituals are arranged and carried out. This is because of complex ethnogenetic, ethnic, and social processes, as well as specific elements of intercultural contact between the Kyrgyz and different ethnic groups at different periods in Kyrgyz history. For the most part, funeral and burial rituals discovered among those groups of Kyrgyz who preserved a nomadic way of life all the way up to the end of the 19th century coincide with one another. This pertains to the Kyrgyz population in the north and the mountainous regions in the south of Kyrgyzstan. As far as the Kyrgyz population in the Fergana Valley and nearby in the southwestern part of Kyrgyzstan is concerned, nomadic traditions there changed greatly due to the fact that people actively settled and developed agricultural practices. These changes were so great that the yurt, which had been the primary dwelling for stock farmers, was replaced by multi-roomed, permanent housing made of clay. This, in turn, caused a complete transformation of the entire way of life of once nomadic stock farmers, contributed to the appearance of new modes of existence and social relations, and strengthened Islam, which, among other things, significantly changed the traditions associated with funeral and burial rituals. When studying this topic, we must take these factors into consideration.

This article’s chronological framework is limited to the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. However, since funeral, burial, and memorial rituals and customs are considered one of the most conservative dimensions of a people’s traditional culture, earlier data from the Hun, ancient Kyrgyz, and Old Turkic traditions are used to make historical and relative comparisons.

In traditional society, the yurt was the main type of portable dwelling for the Kyrgyz and was ideally adapted to the nomadic way of life. The structural elements of a yurt made it possible to assemble and disassemble it in a very short time and set it up on any small, flat surface of terrain.

The entire life cycle of a Kyrgyz nomad was connected with the yurt and even after massive settlement during the years of socialist transformational change, yurts always stood next to multi-roomed, permanent housing. In the summer months, the whole family would eat and spend the night in their yurt. During the time of collective farming, stock farmers who engaged in distant cattle breeding on summer pastures used yurts as their main type of dwelling. Even today yurts are the only type of mobile dwelling used by Kyrgyz stock farmers. Moreover, nowadays, as Kyrgyzstan’s market economy has developed, yurts have suddenly acquired a completely new function: they serve as a place for sales and service operations. Yurts are now commonplace in the Kyrgyz service sector, serving as retail outlets, cafes, and hotels. Anyone who goes to Kyrgyzstan will definitely see yurts that function as stores along roads, in picturesque gorges, and in alpine pastures.

Thus, not only is the yurt still used today but it is also reinventing itself as a multi-purpose space.

The irreplaceable yurt is also still of vital importance today as a place for holding funeral ceremonies. It is used in this way throughout Kyrgyzstan, but especially in the north and mountainous regions in the south of the country, as well as in cities. In the valley regions in the south, bordering Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, funeral ceremonies are held in multi-roomed, permanent housing; specifically, in one room of a private residence. However, this is a subject for a separate study.

My research shows that the Kyrgyz yurt has played a prominent role in the entire gamut of rituals and customs connected with a person’s death and subsequent funeral practices, post-funeral ceremonies, as well as a series of ceremonial procedures held before and during the death anniversary, which is called аш (ash)[1] in Kyrgyz. The field materials that I have gathered and analyzed, as well as literary data, primarily describe traditional funeral and burial rituals that date back to the second half of the 19th century. Considering the conservative nature of these types of rituals in the entire system of Kyrgyz ethnic culture, one may assume that many of their elements were active for a lengthy period in history. Similarities have been found among the Yenisei Kyrgyz of the 5th to 12th centuries and numerous early and late nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppe—in particular, among peoples of Turkic ancestry. When we speak about pinpointing the origin of Kyrgyz funeral rituals, we should also focus on determining the time when yurts were used as the main place for mourning rituals.

It is a common fact that Kyrgyz funeral and burial rituals are made up of three components, which in essence correspond to those that are prevalent in the ethnography of the Turkic people (Dyakonova 6). In each component, the significance of the yurt as a central place for funeral and burial ceremonies is evident.

Kyrgyz yurts, as well as the yurts of other Turkic-Mongolian peoples of Central Asia, had clear interior spatial divides: there is эр жак (er zhak), an area for men, and эпчи жак (epchi zhak), an area for women, while төр (tor) or the area opposite the entrance and behind the hearth was considered honorable. Thus, the улага (ulaga) for men’s personal belongings and horse tack was in the men’s half of the yurt on the left side of the entrance not far from the doorposts, while household items and food were in the women’s half of the yurt on the right side of the entrance just behind the doorposts. This half was separated by a канат (kanat), a special partition made of matting that was about as long as the width of the lattice frame of the yurt. In Kyrgyz, this area is called чыгдан (chigdan), meaning “out of,” or ашкана (ashkana), meaning “kitchen”. In the center of the yurt stood the коломто (kolomito), or hearth, which was also called очок (ochok). In a yurt in which the deceased were mourned, spatial divides were limited to a male or female section, depending on the gender of the departed. A deceased man would be laid in the men’s half of the yurt, while a deceased woman would be laid in the women’s half. Later, the body would be carried out for burial. This custom was strictly observed. The boundaries of other areas were erased (1).

At the first and preparatory stage of the mourning ceremony, people chose a yurt and a place to put it that was convenient for arranging funeral and burial rituals and ritual observances. The dead were usually placed in their own yurt. If a family was well off, a guest yurt was erected where the family lived. This was done regardless of the gender and age of the deceased. If this area was inconvenient for receiving and accommodating guests, the yurt would be moved close to the family’s primary residence within the ail[2] community.

In addition to the mourning yurt, several yurts were specially put up to accommodate and receive guests, and to meet household needs (e.g., cook meat, gather together all of the cooked meat and then subsequently distribute it among different dishes, store food and fuel, and provide respite for those serving others, etc.), which, together with the mourning yurt, formed a common area for funeral, burial, and memorial practices.

The Mourning Yurt

Before placing the deceased in the yurt, all household items and personal belongings were removed from it. The famous Kyrgyz ethnographer Bayalieva thought that these actions “… were connected with beliefs whereby at the moment a person passes, death cuts them like an animal. The blood of the dying person invisibly reaches the midpoint of the walls in the room and inundates all the food, things, etc. there with liquid. Therefore, it was considered sinful to eat this food. If, for some reason, food and/or dishes were still in the room at the moment the person died, this food was thrown away and the dishes were thoroughly washed” (Bayalieva 66). There are reports that in such situations, dishes were smashed or thrown away (ibid. 66). After that, several layers of felt carpets were laid in the yurt. At a later point in time, that is, at the end of the 19th century, when the Kyrgyz started to use hay, sources state that people began placing a layer of dry hay underneath the felt carpets. Wall murals called туш кийиз (tush kiyitz) were hung around the perimeter of the yurt on the ends of the кереге (kerege) lattice frame. The layer of hay was slightly thicker in the spot where the deceased was laid than in the rest of the yurt. The departed was laid with their head toward the yurt entrance. Later in history, in accordance with the canons of the Islamic faith, the deceased was put inside the yurt so that its head faced west, in the direction of the Kaaba.[3] As previously noted, if a man died, he was placed on the left side of the entrance to the yurt, while a woman was placed on the right side. Regardless of the gender of the deceased, the area in which they had been placed was sectioned off with a чий (chii) mat or a көшөгө (koshogo) curtain made of dark fabric. In some instances, a second curtain was drawn where the widow or widows were seated. “When darkness fell, шам (sham) candles made of chee grass[4] stems wrapped in fibers were placed at the headboard and the feet of the deceased” (ibid. 74-75). After the body was put in the grave, candles were placed every day in the spot where the deceased had lain until the memorial service was held on the 40th day after death. The Kazakhs, who are the closest relatives of the Kyrgyz, had the same custom (Valikhanov 370).

While the deceased was in the yurt, no food was prepared there. To this end, Grodekov wrote, “No food is prepared in the yurt of the deceased for up to three days; neighbors bring food. If those in the yurt want to prepare something to eat before the third day, they have to move the yurt at least some distance away or the angel of death Azrael will strangle the deceased, which makes the yurt stained with blood and defiled ‘макрух’ (makruh)[5]” (Grodekov 33).

My field data contain a range of information about the topic of moving the yurt after the deceased was buried. If the family was poor and had only one yurt, they could move it to another nearby place after three days’ time; that is, the next day after the funeral, and the family’s life resumed as normal. However, the yurt was still considered a mourning yurt, which is called каралу үй (karalu uy) or азалуу үй (azaluu uy) in Kyrgyz. This was reflected in its inhabitants’ state of grief, mourning and lamenting by women until the death anniversary, a restriction on holding family celebrations there, the retention of a small flag on a pole as an external sign of mourning, and others. In wealthy families, a mourning yurt could remain standing until a family moved on to a new place with their relatives. In poor families, the restriction on eating in the mourning yurt was lifted differently—after three, seven, or 40 days (among some groups of Kyrgyz it was lifted on the 52nd day). Thus, depending on a family’s social status, the custom of not allowing cooking and eating in the yurt varied. Nevertheless, in all cases and regardless of a family’s social status, the three-day restriction was strictly enforced.

Funeral Practices Around The Yurt And Inside It

A чий (chii) mat, woven with an ornamental pattern, was usually hung on the outside of the yurt, opposite the area where the deceased lay in it. Alternatively, a small rug could be tied to a rope on the felt that covered the yurt and hung outside. This served, first of all, as a place for the male guests to give reverence to the deceased. Second, it was a distinctive type of identification for those who just happened to arrive in a village, allowing them to accurately find out the gender of the deceased and, consequently, determine where the body of the deceased lay. Another important part of this stage of the funeral ceremony was lamenting by a group outside of the yurt, which is called өкүрүү (okuruu) and жоктоо (zkoktoo) in Kyrgyz. Mourning outside the yurt were exclusively males: children and close relatives of the deceased. They were joined by newly arrived men who, after drying their eyes and expressing their condolences, went into a different yurt for a light meal that was usually served with tea. Crying and wailing, women immediately entered the mourning yurt and joined the wailers. Close male relatives of the deceased were by the body day and night but outside of the yurt and, leaning on their staffs in a half-bent position, lamented loudly over their loss. For this occasion, staffs were specially cut from willow trees (2) and were always leaning against the yurt. Staffs were not used by some groups of Kyrgyz such as the Solto and Sarybagysh of the Chuy, Kemin, and Kochkor Valleys. Men in these groups lamented by embracing themselves with their hands around the area by their kidneys or with both hands around their knees while leaning toward the area where the deceased lay (Israilov [#1 in author’s list of field data sources]). The stance of wailers by the yurt is also worth mentioning. Close relatives through paternal lineage and children of the deceased mourned, as was described above, in a half-bent position leaning on a staff and burying their faces in the ground. Those guests who had just arrived mourned in the same manner, but did not have a staff and embraced themselves with their hands around their lower back, or more precisely, around the area by their kidneys or around their knees. Others mourned by kneeling on one knee. Although it was not customary to mourn while standing up straight, mourning on horseback was acceptable. All of these activities always occurred across from the spot in the yurt in which the deceased lay. Morning and lamenting in other places inside the yurt were forbidden.

It is important to take note of the way that this group of men positioned themselves with regard to the yurt. Bayalieva and Abramzon observed this ethnographic fact and pointed out that the way the men arranged themselves while mourning was not the same everywhere (Bayalieva 71). Among the majority of Kyrgyz, this group of men was in close proximity to the deceased and while mourning, they faced the spot where the deceased lay. This was the way that the Kyrgyz Solto and Sarybagysh Tribes mourned, as well as certain clans of the Bugu Tribe and others. In other groups, specifically some subclans of the Aryk Tukum Clan of the Bugu Tribe and the Shykmamat and Chirkey Clans of the Sayak Tribe that were located in the northeastern and northern parts of the Issyk-Kul basin, a group of wailers would be about eight-ten meters[6] from the yurt with their backs to it. While leaning on a staff in a half-bent position, they would wail loudly. People arriving at the funeral would stop near them and lament over the deceased. In other subtribes of the Sayak Tribe, mourners would stand in a line slantwise from the entrance to the yurt (ibid. 71). In certain groups of southern Kyrgyz tribes, they would stand face to face in two lines from the entrance to the yurt (Abdullaev [#2 in author’s list of field data sources]). These facts are extremely thought-provoking for further research on the origin of funeral rituals among the Kyrgyz. Indeed, experts of the aforementioned subtribes of the Bugu and Sayak Tribes, in which wailers stand a few meters away from the yurt, comment on the long-standing existence of such customs as these. In their opinion, “It is forbidden to mourn the deceased near a yurt, as there are living people—our mothers and wives—there besides the departed” (Zarnaev [#1 in author’s list of field data sources]). Despite the logic behind this explanation, this ethnographic fact is noteworthy. This type of mourning custom exists among the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz people’s northern neighbor, who used to belong to the Middle Zhuz Clan. It is impossible to determine the time of origin or at least find an earlier mention of this custom because of the lack of written sources and other types of documentation and, additionally, observers provide contradictory information on this subject. In my opinion, the custom of mourning at some distance from the yurt is a more ancient practice. Seemingly, it appeared before the yurt became the main type of portable dwelling for stock breeders and funeral ceremonies still took place outdoors. It may be that the group of wailers had to maintain some distance from the deceased because it was considered taboo to come close to the dead.

Now we will focus on funeral practices inside of the yurt.

Only women who were close relatives of the deceased—the mother, wife, daughters (including those who were married), and wives of the village male elders stayed inside the yurt. This group of women was always in the yurt opposite the entrance and occupied the place known as төр (tor) that on ordinary days was considered honored. Their main function was to watch over the body of the deceased and take part in ritual mourning. A mistress of ceremonies was appointed from among the energetic and wise women to communicate with the organizer of the funeral ceremony, called өлүк башчы (oluk bashchy) in Kyrgyz. She would also keep order in the yurt, feed the widow and assist with her attire, and count the кийит (kiyit) or pieces of clothing brought as a gift for the deceased. This woman would freely move around inside and outside of the yurt. Lamenting loudly as they walked, the women who had just arrived at the funeral would immediately enter the yurt. There they would continue lamenting loudly for a long time, facing the seated widow and her close female relatives. After this mourning ritual had ended, these women would pass the clothing brought as a gift for the deceased, or кийит (kiyit) in Kyrgyz, on to the mistress of ceremonies. After expressing their condolences, they would then leave the yurt to make room for the next group of arriving women. The men who had arrived with the women did not enter the yurt, but rather stopped close to it where they would join the male wailers and lament over the deceased. After taking part in the mourning ritual and expressing their condolences, each group of men and women was invited to other yurts for a memorial dinner where they were seated according to strict gender and age differences.[7]

Each time new guests arrived, everyone both inside and outside of the yurt near the deceased would lament loudly and wail in unison.

During the mourning ritual inside the yurt, women would occupy two different positions depending on whether the deceased was in the yurt or had been buried. Before the deceased was taken out of the yurt for burial, the widow, her adult daughters, and the mother of the departed lamented over the deceased person while sitting facing the door, while all of the other women in the yurt sat facing the widow. After the body was taken out and buried, literally all of the women, including the widow and her female relatives, lamented with their backs to the door, which is to say that from that moment and until the death anniversary or аш (ash), when the custom of casting off the cloak of mourning took place, it was taboo for women to show their face. Regarding the pose of seated women, Grodekov wrote, “Among the Kara-Kirghiz, women are supposed to sit on the ground with their back to the door. Their left hand rests on their bent left leg, while their right leg is extended with the sole on the ground. Their right elbow is on their right knee and their right hand supports their cheek. Their lamenting is connected with the activities, trade, and affluence of the deceased. A woman crying for her husband wears a кара жоолук (kara zhooluk), a black veil, while a woman crying for someone else (e.g., her son) wears a white one” (Grodekov 258). The author undoubtedly observed (or was told about) only the first stage of the funeral ceremony when the deceased was in the yurt and the women who sat with their “backs to the door” were visiting. Additionally, the pose that seated women adopted during this ritual depended on their degree of kinship and age. Thus, married daughters sat with both legs tucked under their right or left side, while other women, including the widow herself, sat in the pose that Grodekov described. Moreover, I should add an important detail regarding the place in the yurt where the widow sat: a hair rope 10-15 meters[8] long was always laid under her and another about three meters[9] long was wrapped around her waist so tightly that it caused her pain. Bayalieva (73) noted this fact in her research findings. This rope was removed on кырк ашы (kyrk ashy) or the day of the memorial service 40 days after death; however, it could be worn until the death anniversary. In some instances, a кайыш (kayysh), or leather strap, was used instead of a rope (ibid. 73). This fact is also confirmed by my many field notes (Soorbekov [#5 in author’s list of field data sources).

Significant changes occurred in the widow’s appearance and behavior: she would let her hair down and scratch her face with her nails or some sharp object. To this end, Fielstrup wrote, “Widows scratch their cheeks until they’re bloody as a sign of their intense grief. They do this very skillfully and without even the slightest bit of self-pity. They must severely scratch their cheeks or others would reproach and even beat them violently. Scratching up their cheeks is what widows are expected to do until they pay their last respects to the deceased or, in other words, until аш” (Fielstrup 123). I would add to this the fact that widows covered their heads with a black veil.

There was a special individual—a female wailer кошокчу (koshokchy) or ыйлакер катын (yylaker katyn) in southern Kyrgyzstan —at the funeral ceremony. Sometimes there would be several of them and they would participate in a peculiar kind of competition to see who could lament over the deceased and praise that person’s virtues the best. “The wailer was seated inside the yurt on a special seat slightly higher than the other women. The yurt’s doors эшик (eshik) and felt covering over its walls үзүк (usuk) were opened so that everyone could hear her lamentations” (Bayalieva 72).

It was important for women’s wailing, known as жоктоо (zhoktoo) and ыйлоо (yyloo), and lamenting, known as кошок (koshok), to be heard a good distance away from the yurt.

The rules of etiquette that widows needed to follow while mourning are worth noting. It was absolutely forbidden for a widow to go to relatives’ yurts until the completion of аш (ash), which was known as тризна (trizna).[10] While the deceased was in the yurt, the widow could leave it only when absolutely necessary and only in the company of women. In the daytime, she could go out of the yurt only after she had asked all of the men to move a short distance away from the path she was going to take. Additionally, she lowered her veil so that her face and hands could not be seen. Furthermore, during the brief periods that the widow was away from the mourning yurt, it was strictly forbidden for her to go to other yurts, even those designated for carrying out domestic needs and activities. This taboo did not apply to other close female relatives of the deceased; they could go to other yurts after кыркы (kyrky) and кырк ашы (kyrk ashy), which is the memorial service on the 40th day after death. It was not customary for women to lament over the deceased outside of the yurt except for the period of time when the body was being taken away to be buried. At that time, all of the women, while paying their last respects to the deceased, would come out of the yurt and begin to lament loudly.

The Décor of the Mourning Yurt

This topic should be explored from two reference points: the interior and exterior decorative schemes.

As noted earlier, after a person died, the best yurt would be designated as the one in which the funeral ceremony would be held. If the conditions in the village were cramped, the mourning yurt could be moved a short distance away so that the guests’ accommodations and mobility would be less restricted.

The interior décor of mourning yurts differed from that of everyday yurts in several characteristics. In particular, mourning yurts did not have any household items or bedding in them. If a middle-aged or elderly man died, a тул (tul), or portrait of the deceased, was mounted on a pole (i.e., a crossbeam) in the back of the yurt to the right of the төр (tor), the place of honor (i.e., to the left of the entrance), in the area of the marriage bed (Abramzon 344-353). This portrait was separated from the rest of the yurt with a curtain, called көшөгe (koshogo) in Kyrgyz, and remained in the yurt until the аш (ash) death anniversary, or, in other words, for one year from the day of death.

In addition, an аркан (arkan), or special rope, was stretched out inside the yurt. On it, the belongings of the deceased, as well as gifts of clothing кийит (kiyit) that guests brought to pay homage to the departed were hung. This rope, with the clothing hanging on it, had to remain in the yurt until the deceased was buried. Heavy clothing such as ичик (ichik) fur coats, тон (ton) sheepskin coats, and тебетей (tebetey) skullcaps were hung around the perimeter of the yurt on the ends of its кереге (kegere) lattice frame, which is where saddles and weapons were also found.

We will now focus on the outer décor of the mourning yurt. A black ribbon or fringe, known as кылдырооч (kyldyrooch), was stretched along the lower half of it. In addition, in certain southern regions of Kyrgyzstan, the doormat, known as эшик жапкыч (eshik zhapkych), was recolored black or green; the latter clearly shows evidence of the influence of Islam and may thus be considered a novelty (3). The custom of putting up a special mourning pole, called a каскак (kaskak) in Kyrgyz, with the tail of a yak or colt and a piece of cloth, known as желек (zhelek) or туу (tuu), tied to it was an even more ancient practice. The color of the cloth varied depending on the age of the deceased. For example, white meant that an elderly person had died, while red symbolized the death of someone young (Fielstrup 133-134). In his journal, Valikhanov noted that “… a black flag hanging on a yurt indicated the age of the deceased.[11] Regardless of the flag’s color, if it is waving on a yurt, you should understand that one of the people who lived there has died. If the flag is red, a young person died. If it is black, the deceased was middle-aged. If the flag is white, an elderly person passed away” (Valikhanov 333). There were two ways that the pole was put up. One was to make a hole in the узук (uzuk) felt covering from inside the yurt, usually in an area close to the hearth. The other was to attach the flag to the yurt outside close to the doorposts. Referring to her field materials, Bayalieva described another way of displaying the mourning flag. “It was tied to a найза (nayza), or pike,[12] which was either simply placed against the yurt or put up outside” (Bayalieva 70). The special каскак (kaskak) mourning pole and tail of a yak or a colt with a piece of желек (zhelek) or туу (tuu) cloth tied to it hung in the yurt until the death anniversary (i.e., trizna) was held a year after the death of the loved one. It was only then that the pole and the flag were broken into pieces, burned with the widow’s mourning veil in the hearth, or кемеге (kemege), where the memorial meal was also prepared. Or, these things were “poked into the grave of the deceased” (ibid.). If the family moved to a different pasture before trizna took place, the flag, horizontally folded, and pole were transported by horse or camel. After arriving at their new destination, the family put the pole and flag back up in the mourning yurt exactly as they had been before they moved.

According to burial customs of the Kyrgyz people, the deceased was in the yurt for three days, or, to be more precise, two nights. In rare instances, the departed could be kept there longer—up to ten days—until the immediate family arrived from far away. During this time, the wife (or wives) of the deceased and his closest female relatives were in the yurt around the clock. Their responsibilities also included watching over the deceased at nighttime. In some groups of Kyrgyz, for example, the Bugu and Solto Tribes, elderly men of the clan would take over for the women at night and watch over the deceased until morning arrived, in what was known as сөөк кайтаруу[13] (sook kaytaruu) in Kyrgyz. There were also people outside of the yurt at that time, but unlike those who were inside of it, they could take turns staying with the deceased. In such actions as these, one sees remnants of the most ancient worldly customs that are phasic in nature and characteristic of many peoples of the world. The deceased needed to be guarded, first and foremost, from a possible attack or a revenge kidnapping by enemy tribes. According to Kyrgyz folk beliefs, if two radial bones, called кар жилик (kar zhilik), are removed from a famous person’s (e.g., a batyr’s[14] or khan’s) arm and hammered into the ground in a certain place, then there will not be any more famous people in his family.

The women inside the yurt had to comply with certain restrictions: they were forbidden from talking or giving orders loudly, laughing or making jokes. If the necessity arose, conversations with the widow were conducted through the mistress of ceremonies, young women, or girls. The widow and close female relatives of the deceased were allowed to eat only when it was dark and, before they ate, guests and strangers would have to temporarily vacate one of the yurts, which had been set up to receive and accommodate guests. However, according to memories shared by elderly observers, this custom was not always followed. Among certain groups of Kyrgyz, at the beginning of the 20th century women could eat right in the yurt where the deceased lay. However, the food was brought when it was dark and covered ahead of time with a tablecloth.

The etiquette for a widow during the entire funeral and memorial service, her attire and the way she wore various items of clothing, taboos on what she could wear, and similar topics are the subject of a separate study. In this article, I will limit myself to mentioning several points that are relevant to the topic at hand.

The mourning yurt was the only place in which the widow could be from the beginning of the funeral ceremony until it ended on the day of the death anniversary. Furthermore, her movement inside the yurt was limited to the area across from the doors, right by the lattice frame, or кереге (kerege) in Kyrgyz, and wall of the yurt. It was there that the widow, covered in a mourning veil, known as a аза жоолук (aza zhooluk) or каралуу (karaluu), lamented loudly over her loss, accepted condolences, and coordinated everything she needed to do. Women were permitted to sit next to the widow, but men could only go into the yurt after the funeral service and dispersion of the deceased’s clothing and жыртыш (zhyrtysh) or small pieces of cloth. When this occurred, men would once again be in the men’s half of the yurt closer to the doorposts; in other words, there was a considerable distance between the widow and the men who went inside the yurt to express their condolences. In my opinion, this demonstrates the existence of the ritual whereby it was taboo to touch the widow.

In the early morning hours of the third day, people would get ready for the burial. Washing the body, a process known as сөөк жуу (sook zhuu) in Kyrgyz, and wrapping it in a burial shroud, in a process called кепинге алуу (kepinge aluu), took place right in the yurt. The shroud was prepared in a different yurt and those who had been designated as washers, or сөөк жуучулар (sook zhuuchular), participated in this process. However, no other people were allowed to take part in it. While the body was being washed, a large piece of felt was placed over the the yurt’s upper frame, known as the тундук (tunduk), so that the sun’s rays did not fall on the deceased’s body. The washing was done in the exact spot in the yurt where the deceased lay, but the body was wrapped in the burial shroud closer to the center of the yurt. A very heavy stone was immediately placed in the spot where the deceased had lain. According to Urmatova (#3 in author’s list of field data sources), an expert on this subject, this was done to avoid the tragedy of the deceased taking one of their relatives away with them. In such a case as this, one detects that people believed in the existence of black magic. After the deceased was wrapped in the burial shroud, the body was rolled up in felt and, after covering it so that the shroud was not visible, it was carried out of the yurt. Bodies of the deceased were always taken out feet first.

Before the deceased was taken to the cemetery, the Islamic funeral ritual Janazah was performed near the yurt, in which everyone—both young and old—participated. The widow and other women came out of the yurt and stood behind the men. After the religious rituals finished, amidst everyone present lamenting and wailing, the deceased was quickly taken to the cemetery. In the second half of the 19th century, burial ceremonies—from wrapping the body in a funeral shroud to burying it—were conducted among all groups of Kyrgyz primarily by a mullah according to Sharia law with a peculiar combination of pre-Islamic religious beliefs and elements. The male kin group elder of the patronymy,[15] or бир атанын балдары (bir atanyn baldary), (the literal meaning of this phrase in Kyrgyz is “children of one father” or, if one uses popular terminology, топ [top] and ража [razha][16]) was largely responsible for overseeing the entire burial and memorial service. Women did not participate in the burial but stayed behind for the memorial meal that followed it. The widow and other close female relatives would return to the yurt and undertake the task of distributing both the deceased’s personal belongings, known as мүчө (mucho), (4) and pieces of cloth, known as жыртыш (zhyrtysh) (5).

After the burial ceremony finished, the males who had participated in the rituals, called сөөкчүлөр (sookchulor), would quickly walk or, if on horseback, gallop back to the mourning yurt and begin to lament loudly over their loss 150-200 steps away from it. A crowd of men would stop by the mourning yurt and continue this ritual with all of them weeping and howling. The group of women who had been in the yurt would join them and wail with them in unison. The sound of everyone lamenting and mourning their irreparable loss rang out so loudly and was such an astonishing sight as far as its social significance that everyone would be moved by the scenes that were unfolding. The reality is that this ritual was both a tremendously profound act capable of emotionally affecting individuals with this great act of collective mourning. It dates back to the prehistoric era and people’s relations at that time when the loss of every community member weakened the vitality and safety, as well as security of the entire community. It is noteworthy that this entire ritual took place in the yurt and around it, and the doors were always left open for it. Women adopted a different pose than they had at other times: they sat facing the wall of the yurt. The closest relatives and male children of the deceased would go into the yurt crying. As men on horseback approached the yurt, they would jump off their horses and either stand bent over or kneel. This ritual lasted for about 10-15 minutes. Fielstrup, who personally observed this ritual among a subtribe of the Sarybagysh Tribe in the area of Chon-Kemin, wrote, “The women were walking around, giving the men water and, in all likelihood, comforting them. Inside the yurt, the women, as if in eager rivalry with one another, were singing koshok[17] songs. When their lamenting had somewhat subsided, the men sat down in a circle. The mullah, who was still by the yurt, said a prayer again” (119). After that, the master of ceremonies would call all the men loudly by clan, tribe, and village to take their place at the table for the memorial meal. When it finished, everyone present would once again gather near the yurt where the deceased’s personal belongings, or мүчө (mucho), and pieces of cloth, or жыртыш (zhyrtysh), were handed out.

After the end of the memorial service, called кыркы (kyrky), on the 40th day after death (other variants in Kyrgyz are кырк ашы [kyrk ashy] and кара ашы [kara ashy]) the yurt was moved to another place. When this happened, cobblestones were piled up around the place where the deceased had lain. It was also strictly forbidden to walk around in that area, jump over it or use it for anything; in other words, it was completely off limits, and treating it otherwise was taboo. Sometimes, however, water from 40 buckets was used to wash this area and then it would be used again. After the memorial service, “the felt, curtain, and other items that had been used before the funeral were left in the open air so that they could жылдыз көрсүн (zhyldyz korsun) or “see the stars” (Abramzon 314). The felt and other objects that had been put under the deceased were hung on poles a good distance away from the yurt and left there for several days, where children and animals did not disturb them (Kadyrov [#2 in author’s list of field data sources]). In this ritual, Snesarev detected remnants of the age-old concept that the heavenly bodies have cleansing power (134-135). In reflecting on the taboo that the Uzbeks of Khwarazm have against coming in contact with the place of ablution and elements of bedding put under the deceased, Snesarev thinks that these practices stem from the belief in the sacred impurity of the dead. In order to avoid the threat of any kind of disaster, people were advised not to set foot in the place where the deceased had lain (ibid. 133). In my opinion, the act of placing a stone in this place immediately after starting to wrap the body in a burial shroud and washing this area with water from 40 buckets provides clear evidence that people were attempting to ward off the threat of black magic.

Sometimes, when death frequently claimed members of a clan’s subtribe or family, the body of the last to die would not be taken out the door of the yurt, but rather through a gap created by lifting up its lattice frame. According to those who supplied information on this topic, this was done so that the spirit of the deceased did not return to the yurt or get lost. There is another explanation for this: in this instance, the Kyrgyz believed that the lattice frame of the yurt acted as a barrier to keep the spirit of the deceased from returning for its next victim. In any case, one sees that in both of these explanations the living disapprove of the deceased’s spirit returning to the yurt and the family it left behind out of fear that grief will again befall the family.

The mourning yurt retained its status until the death anniversary, which was usually marked one year after the funeral. During that year, relatives and guests from distant areas who for some reason did not attend the funeral would occasionally arrive to express their condolences to the family who had lost one of its members. Each time that guests arrived, the widow or the women who had lost a loved one would repeat their ritual of lamenting over their loss. While wailing, these women would turn their faces to the wall of the yurt. Only after this ritual had finished and they washed their faces would they greet the women who had arrived. Male guests would lament outside of the yurt and after finishing, they could enter the yurt and offer their condolences. When the period of commemorating the deceased began, it was acceptable to serve the memorial meal in the yurt, and, in addition to this, all of its doors were always left open. This is because of the belief that the spirit of the deceased would return to its family and yurt and supposedly take part in the memorial meal; in other words, it was thought that the deceased’s spirit would be fed (Kochkunov 111-113).

The cult of the dead and ancestors is closely connected with the custom of horse racing and playing different games, which were integral and essential components of the funeral, burial, and memorial rituals of the Kyrgyz. They were held on a small scale on the day of the funeral and on the third, seventh, and 40th days, and on a larger scale on the days leading up to the death anniversary, which was when the period of commemorating the deceased ended. In wealthy families, this period finished with аламан байге (alaman bayge), a long-distance horse race. “Immediately after the race finished, the jockey boy who had won first place would ride up to the yurt of the deceased by which a funeral flag was displayed. There he would dismount his horse, pull the flagpole out of the ground, break it into several pieces, and throw it into the hearth where the post-funeral meal had been previously prepared” (Simakov 141).

In families of ordinary nomads, this exercise was carried out much less flamboyantly with one of the family’s relatives performing the activity on the day of the death anniversary.

After all of the memorial ceremonies had finished on the day of the death anniversary, the deceased’s male relatives would lament over their loss for the last time, but not outside the yurt, but rather by the hearth, where the memorial meal had been prepared. Fat would be thoroughly fried on the bottom of an empty cauldron because its smell supposedly enticed spirts. The cauldron would then be көмкөрүү (komkoruu), or turned over, and the men, embracing each other around it, would lament loudly. The widow and all of the women who were in the yurt at that time would lament with them in unison. Thereafter, they would leave the yurt and conduct the ritual of casting off the cloak of mourning near the hearth. For this, one of the elderly women would remove the widow’s outer mourning garments—her чапан (chapan) robe and жоолук (zhooluk) black veil —which she would throw into the same fire as the mourning flag and pole had been thrown. The widow would immediately be dressed in a new robe and элечек (elechek) headwrap. From that moment on, she was allowed to wear jewelry and communicate with anyone; in other words, she could return to leading a normal life. Daughters of the deceased would also stop wearing their black mourning veils, and sons would trade in their mourning cummerbunds for new ones. This ritual ended the year-long mourning process (Israilov [#1 in author’s list of field data sources]).

It is especially interesting from a research perspective that the ritual of casting off the cloak of mourning was not carried out in the yurt but rather near the hearth (of which there were usually several), which was located within measurable distance of the yurt. In this ritual, the cult of fire manifests itself, along with its power to purify and heal the wounds of grief. At the same time, it serves as a symbol of the continuation of life. The very fact that this final and emotional ritual was conducted near the fire and items that symbolize mourning (e.g., the flag, flagpole, and clothing) were burned suggests that in more ancient times, at least from the turn of the first millennium BC until the very middle of the first millennium AD, the entire burial and memorial ceremony took place near fire. It is also possible that this ritual culminated in burning the dead. One comes to this conclusion because of the widespread custom that existed among the Yenisei Kyrgyz in the second half of the first millennium of burning dead bodies and burying the remains one year after cremation (Bichurin 353; Kyuner 60; Butanaev 57-65 et al.). In these practices, traces of the Zoroastrian cult of fire (Boyce; Maltaev 22-41) are also evident and in some of them, the cult of the dead and ancestors has been preserved. This cult was based on animistic beliefs originating from the idea that the spirits of the dead and ancestors do indeed exist (Abramzon 334-335).

It is well known that the cult of the dead and ancestors (Abramzon 334-353) was one of the significant aspects of pre-Islamic beliefs among the Kyrgyz. “Living offspring greatly respected their ancestors, ingratiated themselves with them, and avoided falling into disfavor with them. This is because people believed that the life and prosperity of the living considerably depended on the attitude that spirits of the dead and their ancestors had toward them” (ibid. 335). Descendants tried to keep some things that had belonged to their dead ancestors as a relic and treated them with respect. The yurt, for example, where deceased ancestors had lived was particularly cherished and was sometimes called арбактуу уй (arbaktuu yy), which means “the yurt in which the spirit of the deceased made its home.” People would try to keep such a yurt intact for a long time by carefully setting it up and folding it back down when it was time for them to move. On the day of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, 40 candles, or кырк шам (kyrk sham) in Kyrgyz, would be lit around a fire in the yurt in order to mark the end of the month-long fast орозо (orozo) during Ramadan. After saying the names of the dead, people would throw the burnt remains of the candles into the fire (ibid. 290). This is how pre-Islamic and Islamic religious beliefs became intertwined in this cult.

History of the Yurt in Kyrgyz Funeral Practices

Now we will briefly turn our attention to earlier historical facts that provide evidence of the role and significance of the yurt in the ancient Kyrgyz people’s funeral and burial customs and rituals.

Weinstein (50), the reputable researcher of Central Asian nomad ethnology (in the commonly-accepted historical sense), asserts that the invention of the yurt and its spreading into other areas dates from the middle of the first millennium AD is associated with the Old Turkic community. Even earlier and perhaps the earliest written evidence that the ancient Kyrgyz had felt yurts is in the chronicles of Chinese dynasties, but there is limited information there about the funeral customs of the Kyrgyz. One reads in the Old Book of Tang[18] about the Kyrgyz that “At funerals, people do not scratch their faces, but only wrap the body of the deceased three times and wail. After that, they burn it and a year later bury the bones that they collected. Then at specific times they wail” (qtd. in Bichurin 353).

The Old Book of Tang provides more information on the subject of funeral rituals of the Old Turks (as well as the Kyrgyz [author’s note]) by explaining, “The body of the deceased is put in a yurt. Sons, grandsons, and relatives of both genders slaughter horses and sheep and, having spread them out in front of the yurt, offer them in sacrifice. They ride around the yurt seven times on horseback and then before entering it they cut their faces with a knife and wail. Their blood and tears fall down together. They do this seven times and stop. Then, on a chosen day, they get the horse on which the deceased had ridden and the things that he had used and burn them together with the body. Then, they gather the ashes and bury them in a grave at a certain time of the year. If a person dies in the spring or summer, they are buried in early fall when the leaves on the trees and plants begin to turn yellow and fall off. However, if a person dies in the fall or winter, burials take place in early spring when flowers begin to open. On the day of the funeral, just as on the day of death, relatives offer a sacrifice, ride horses, and cut their faces” (Bichurin 230). “In general, their customs are similar to those of the Xiongnu” (Ibid. 231).

It is evident from this information that the funeral and memorial rituals of the Xiongnu, ancient Kyrgyz, and Turks resemble one another except for certain details (e.g., time, method of burial, burning the personal belongings of the deceased, etc.). The place and role of the yurt in funeral customs are clearly apparent. Such customs as laying the deceased in the yurt, sacrificing horses and sheep, cutting and scratching one’s face, holding horse races on the day of the funeral, and others survived among all groups of Kyrgyz until the first half of the 20th

century and even today the yurt still functions as the primary place for conducting funeral ceremonies. Over several millennia, some aspects of these customs were affected by new developments and either disappeared or underwent socio-cultural changes. Evidence of this by can be found in the vocabulary of the Kyrgyz language today, and in everyday symbols, rituals, and gestures. For example, modern-day Kyrgyz culture heavily frowns upon adults, and especially children, who move in a circle around someone or something. This can obviously be traced back to the ancient practice that existed in funeral practices of riding horses around a mourning yurt seven times. Sources have shown that this practice was an integral part of the funeral ceremony for the Xiongnu, Kyrgyz, and Turks, and was carried out solely on the days of mourning. In other situations, the motion of going around someone or something was harshly criticized because it was thought to contain hints of black magic. Additionally, one sees evidence of the ancient custom of burning the deceased’s personal belongings in the practice of burning the widow’s outer mourning garments. Such a custom existed among the Kyrgyz of the 19th century and first half of the 20th (and is sometimes still practiced today).

The design of the yurt—specifically the dome, poles, and lattice frame—provided the idea behind the construction of burial monuments and sometimes its design was copied completely. Tursunov, who participated in the construction of a burial monument in the 1950s in Suusamyr Valley, told me about such burial monuments. He recounted that а wicker frame, which looked like an exact copy of a yurt, was constructed first by using tree branches and different types of shrubs and bushes. Then the inside and outside of this frame were covered with clay. A small opening was left on top, which was much smaller than in real yurts, and a doorpost was installed that faced the east (Tursunov [#4 in author’s list of field data sources]). When we examine the design of burial monuments as historic structures, we clearly notice how widespread the dome shape was. Burial monuments from the late 20th and early 21st centuries and, in other words, the present day, indicate that this tradition still continues. Today, it is a common practice especially in northern Kyrgyzstan to construct mausoleums in the shape of yurts out of brick, concrete, stone, and metal.

Houses of worship shaped like yurts presumably have deeper traditions. Weinstein asserts that in the Zoroastrian ossuary kept in the collection of the Samarkand Museum (and which dates back to the middle of the first millennium), a yurt designed in Old Turkic style has been conventionally replicated (56).

Thus, yurts, which were the primary dwelling of nomadic stock farmers, served not only as the place in which family members conducted their daily activities but in certain life circumstances (e.g., when someone died) they performed a very specific function. In particular, they acted as a place both for conducting funerals when a family member passed away and was buried and for holding memorial ceremonies. From the time a person died until the cloak of mourning was cast off, all stages of the funeral, burial, and memorial rituals were connected with yurts, which, for all intents and purposes, acquired a special function: they acted as an integral part of these particular rituals. The actions of those who participated in funeral and memorial rituals both inside and outside of yurts were highly regimented. Mourning yurts were drastically different from yurts that were used for everyday activities because of the funeral and memorial objects found there: the кылдырооч (kyldyrooch), which was a ribbon with a unique coloration, a repainted doormat, the каскак (kaskak), which was a pole with a flag on it, the тул (tul), which was the mounted portrait of the deceased on a crossbeam (this was only done for men), the woven mat hung on the outside of the yurt while the deceased lay inside of it, etc. The culture of socially acceptable behavior of those who were taking part in funeral and memorial activities both inside and outside of the yurt changed drastically: first and foremost, one sees that distinct boundaries were drawn between men’s and women’s spaces. Specifically, women were always inside the yurt, while men were outside and Kyrgyz funeral and burial rituals strictly outlined all their interactions. Yurts no longer acted as mourning yurts on the same day that the cloak of mourning was cast off, which was on аш (ash)—the day that marked the one-year anniversary of a person’s death and was the last day of mourning.

A preliminary and historical comparative analysis of data demonstrates that in such ancient times as the Hun, ancient Kyrgyz, and Old Turkic periods, yurts were already culturally important.

Many aspects of the topic addressed in this article “reflected a combination of different beliefs rooted in antiquity and animistic ideas based on the idea that the soul exists, as does its afterlife. Later, Islam embraced these concepts to some degree, although their ancient premises continued to remain quite visible” (Bayalieva).

The transformational processes that took place in Kyrgyz society in the 20th century had profound consequences for the entire culture and worldview of the Kyrgyz people. However, for the majority of the population of Kyrgyzstan the yurt has not fallen into disuse. Moreover, it has taken on surprising functions today, which were mentioned at the beginning of this article, and is irreplaceable as an area in which to hold mourning ceremonies on the occasion of a person’s passing.


1. There was usually neither an area for carrying out чыгдана (chygdana), or household needs, nor a эр жак (er zhak), a section for men, or эпчи жак (epchi zkah), a section for women in yurts that acted as guest houses. Therefore, guests had access to the entire yurt and hence would move around freely in them.

2. Many peoples of Central Asia are familiar with the custom of leaning on a staff. See Ф.А.Фиельструп. Из обрядовой жизни киргизов начала ХХ века. Ответст. ред.: Б.Х.Кармышевой и С.С.Губаевой. С.172. This topic is referenced in the bibliography of Fielstrup’s book.

3. Some sources argue that this custom predates Islam.

4. Gifts for the repose of the soul, which were intended for males who belonged to clans.

5. Gifts for the repose of the soul, which were only given out to women and consisted of pieces of cloth that ranged in size from 0.5 meters to 2-3 millimeters.[19]

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“Things That Are Makruh in Islam.”


Author’s Field Data Sources

Source #1 – Полевые материалы этнографические экспедиции сектора этнографии Института истории АН Киргизской ССР в Джетыогузский район Иссыккульской области, июль-август 1986 г. Рабочий тетрадь №1, 2 (Field data of the ethnographic expedition of the ethnography branch of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz SSR in Jeti-Oguz District of Issyk-Kul Region, July-August 1986, Study journal #1 & 2) (Информанты: Ж. Исраилов, 1920 г.р.; Б. Аблесов, 1923 г.р., Т. Кусегенов, 1925 г.р., А. Зарнаев, 1921 г.р.).

Source #2 – Полевые материалы экспедиции автора в Советский, Алайский районы Ошской области, июнь, сентябрь 1987 г. Рабочий тетрадь № 6,7 (Field data of the author’s expedition to the Soviet and Alay Districts of Osh Region, June & September 1987, Study journal #6 & 7) (Информанты: И. Абдуллаев, 1917 г.р., А. Иномназаров, 1919 г.р).

Source #3 – Полевые материалы экспедиции автора в Московский район Чуйской области, октябрь, 2000 г. Рабочий тетрадь №3 (Field data of the author’s expedition to Moscow District of Chüy Region, October, 2000, Study journal #3) (Информант: Б.Урматова, 1928 г.р.).

Source #4 – Полевые материалы экспедиции автора в Иссыккульский, Тонский районы Иссыккульской области, март, апрель 2002 г. Рабочий тетрадь № 4 (Field data of the author’s expedition to Issyk-Kul and Tong Districts of Issyk-Kul Region, March & April 2002, Study journal #4) (Информанты: С. Кадыров, 1919 г.р.; М. Абдрахманов, 1912 г.р., Ырсалиев, 1915 г.р.).

Source #5 – Полевые материалы экспедиции автора в Таласский, Карабууринский районы Таласской области, сентябрь 1988 г. Рабочий тетрадь №2 (Field data of the author’s expedition to Talas & Kara-Buura Districts of Talas Region, September 1988, Study journal #2) (Информанты: Э. Соорбеков, 1921 г.р., К. Абылгазиев, 1927 г.р); Кеминский, Московский районы Чуйской области, июль, сентябрь 1989 г. Рабочий тетрадь №3 (Kemin & Moscow Districts of Chüy Region, July & September 1989, Study journal #3) (Информанты: Б. Урматова, 1928 г.р.; А.Турсунов, 1935 г.р.; Б. Тентимишева, 1937 г.р.; К. Курманалиева, 1924 г.р.; А. Эшалиева, 1930 г.р., У. Акматова, 1923 г.р., Н . Момунова, 1918 г.р.); Кочкорский, Атбашинский районы Нарынской области, июнь-июль 1992 г. Рабочий тетрадь № 1,2 (Kochkor & At-Bashy Districts of Naryn Region, June-July 1992, Study journal #1 & 2) (Информанты: А.Мусабеков, 1917 г.р., А. Акматалиев, 1930 г. р., Б. Алиева ,1920 г.р.)

© A.S. Kochkunov, 2008. All rights reserved. Article published by permission of the author.


[1] Cyrillic words in italics throughout the article are in Kyrgyz and were provided by the author. Their transliterated form and translation have been provided (translator’s note). [2] A nomadic-type settlement in Kyrgyzstan made up of yurts and inhabited by relatives (translator’s note). [3] The Kaaba is a building at the center of Islam’s most important mosque, the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It is the most sacred site in Islam (translator’s note). [4] A type of grass that grows in sandy or pebbly soil and clay and is native to Europe and Asia (translator’s note). [5] In Islam, this word is used to describe anything that is inappropriate, distasteful or offensive (“Things That Are Makruh in Islam”). [6] This is 26-32 feet (translator’s note). [7] This was common at most formal dinners. (Editor’s note). [8] This is 32-49 feet (translator’s note). [9] This is 10 feet (translator’s note). [10] This was a funeral feast, which, as part of Slavic religion, was conducted for distinguished members of society before their cremation (translator’s note). [11] A black flag not only indicated the age of the deceased, but also a second characteristic, which was most likely the level of authority that the deceased had held while alive (translator’s note). [12] A long thrusting spear used in combat (translator’s note). [13] This phrase translates into English as “returning the bones” (translator’s note). [14] A warrior or fighter (translator’s note). [15] A group of related large or small families that have a certain economic and social unity and a shared last name (“Патронимия”). [16] Both of these words (i.e., “топ” [top] and “ража” [razha]) are used in Kyrgyz to describe several dozen families in a clan named after one common ancestor (translator’s note). [17] A genre of Kyrgyz folklore. Lamentations are performed by women at weddings and funeral ceremonies (“Кошок”). [18] The first classic historical work about the Tang dynasty (translator’s note). [19] This is 20 inches to 0.08-0.12 inches (translator’s note).

About the author

Aidarbek Sulaimankulovich Kochkunov

Aidarbek Sulaimankulovich Kochkunov is a Kyrgyz historian and ethnologist. He received a doctor of historical sciences in 2014 and has been a chairman of the Kyrgyz Young Historians' Association (1989-1990).

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Jill Neuendorf author

Jill Neuendorf

Jill Neuendorf, at the time she wrote for this site, was a fifth-semester graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the Translation and Interpreting Studies Department focusing on Russian to English translation. She was additionally teaching Russian at Georgetown University.

Program attended: Online Internships

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