Back to category Published: 02 october 2019 Author: Zhanna Mukhatzhanova

History of Kazakhstan


Kazakhstan, situated at the center of the Eurasian continent, has a significant historical background and diverse multicultural heritage. It was the birthplace and cradle of numerous ancient civilizations, with a unique blend of cultural interactions and influences.

Prehistoric Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan's history can be traced back to a million years ago when the first islets of civilization emerged on its territory. During the early Paleolithic era, ancient people settled in the Karatau tracts, which were rich in wildfowl and wild fruits. These tracts also had the oldest sites of Stone Age people, with later settlements appearing in the central and eastern regions of Kazakhstan, as well as in the west, in Mangystau during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic era.


Nomadic cattle breeding emerged during this time, and the tribes inhabiting northwestern Kazakhstan had already domesticated animals, mastered horse breeding, crafts, produced and consumed kumys, and other dairy products by the 4-3th millennium BC. The emergence of the horse in farming, manufacturing, military arts, and commerce elevated humanity's civilizational path to a whole new level.

Around 4,000 years ago, tribes of the Andronovo culture appeared in Kazakhstan, which engaged in farming and nomadic cattle breeding. They were skilled in making metal weapons, wheel making, and depicted their battle chariots in rock paintings. These symbols marked the beginning of the Tengriism cult, which is the main polytheistic religion of many steppe peoples.

One of the most significant archaeological sites in Kazakhstan is the Tanbaly Tract. The site of ancient people dates back to about the 13th century B.C. It has an extensive necropolis and a canyon with more than 3,000 petroglyphs, which people considered a cult site, and visited only for religious rites. The petroglyphs depict hunting scenes, battles, and scenes of daily life, among others. Near the tract are burial mounds. People lived on the periphery of the gorge, where the remains of ancient settlements and camps have been found. Today, the Tanbaly tract is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting numerous tourists every year.

Scythian Culture

In the first millennium B.C., Kazakhstan began to witness the formation of states and tribal communities. Around 800-600 B.C., the Andronovo culture was replaced by the established tribes of the Saks, also known as the Scythians in the West. The Saks were a diverse group of people, consisting of nomads, semi-nomads, and farmers. Between the 6th and 3rd centuries B.C., the Sak tribes united to create their own state with its center in Jetysu (Semirechye), located in the southeast of modern Kazakhstan.

The Saks were known for their runic writing, mythology, and exceptional jewelry art. Many monuments from this era can be found in Kazakhstan, with the Issyk and Berel mounds being the most famous.

The Issyk Burial Mounds are an ancient royal Saka burial site dating back to the 5-4th centuries B.C. One of the Issyk burial mounds yielded the first «Golden Man» – a Saka warlord in gold armor and numerous gold ornaments and household items, including over four thousand ornaments made of gold, bronze, and gold weapons, statuettes, and vessels of varying sizes. 

The Berel Burial Mounds are known as the «Golden Mound of the Kings,» dating back to the 8-7th centuries B.C. This site also yielded a significant amount of original gold jewelry, which later became the foundation for the reconstruction of the third Golden Man in Kazakhstan. The sculpture of this Golden Man, along with his restored attire, is currently on display at the Astana State Museum of Gold and Precious Metals.

Golden man
The Golden Man in the Issyk Museum

The Huns

The Huns were a group of nomadic warriors that originated from the territories south and southeast of the Altai Mountains in the 2-3rd centuries B.C. They regularly raided the territories of the Chinese Empire, and it is believed that their raids were the reason that prompted Emperor Qin Shi Huang to order the construction of the Great Wall of China.

By the middle of the second century B.C., the Huns had formed a huge state with its own culture, spanning from Manchuria in the east to the Pamirs in the west. The Huns had their own code of laws and courts, which contributed to the development of their society.

This state lasted until the 2nd century AD, after which there was a split among the tribes. Some of the Huns migrated to the Dzungarian Alatau Mountains, where they established their own state, while the main group of tribes moved to the west of Kazakhstan, to the Urals, and to the Volga region.

The Huns were joined by Ugrian tribes, and by 375 AD, the Huns-Ugrian tribes, led by Attila, had moved into Europe and conquered significant territories of the Roman Empire, including the city of Rome. Their expansion was driven by their formidable military prowess and their ability to unite disparate tribes under a single banner.

The Turkic Kaganate and the Rise of the Silk Road

During the first millennium AD, the Turkic Kaganate emerged in the south of Kazakhstan, stimulating the development of caravan trade throughout the region. This led to the emergence of the first large cities in the steppe, including Chirik-Rabat, Otrar, Sygnak, Ispijab, Taraz, and Balasagun. The Kaganate existed until the 7th century and subsequently disintegrated into two Kaganates and smaller parts.

In the 7th century, the territory of the Kaganate came under the influence of the Arab Caliphate, which introduced Islam to the tribes inhabiting the southern outskirts of the steppe and brought the Arabic script. By the middle of the 9th century, new states had formed in these southern lands, including the Karakhanid and Oguz kingdoms, which were characterized by advanced culture for that time and created an original urban culture with trade and crafts traditions.

The Great Silk Road, which connected Byzantium and China, passed through the oases of Central Asia on the territory of South Kazakhstan, giving rise to large cities and small settlements, caravanserais, and other structures. However, other caravan routes such as the one along the banks of the Syr Darya and the so-called «sable road» through Central Kazakhstan and Altai to the southwestern regions of Siberia were also of great importance.

The urban architecture of this time was a unique combination of nomadic cultural traditions and Islamic architectural influences, leading to the creation of outstanding monuments such as the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassawi, Arystan Bab Mausoleum, and Aisha Bibi Mausoleum, which have survived to this day. Overall, the first millennium AD was a time of great cultural and economic development in Kazakhstan, with the emergence of powerful states, large cities, and a unique urban culture that combined nomadic and Islamic influences.

The Mongol Invasion and the Golden Horde

In the 11th century, the Kipchaks, a powerful and aggressive tribe, migrated to northern, eastern, and central regions of Kazakhstan. By the mid-11th century, they had established their dominance over almost all of Kazakhstan, except for Jetysu. The lands they occupied were called Desht-i-Kipchak, which translates to «Land of the Kipchaks». In Russia, these territories are known as «Polovtsian Field», and the Kipchaks were called Polovtsians by the Russians.

In 1218, the Mongol army invaded the Desht-i-Kipchak. Many Kipchak tribes joined Genghis Khan's army and became his primary fighting force. With the Kipchaks' help, Genghis Khan's army marched along the Syr Darya River, sacking the cities of Otrar, Sygnak, and Ashnas. Initially, the local nomads fiercely resisted the invaders, but many tribes eventually joined the Mongol army voluntarily.

By the 12th century, the Mongol ulus had subjugated the entire Turkic steppe. Jochi, Genghis Khan's eldest son, ruled the eastern Desht-i-Kipchak from Lake Balkhash to the Lower Volga region. Chagatai, the second son, governed Turkistan and Jetysu, while Ogedei, the third son, controlled the northeastern part of Jetysu, Tarbagatai, and some areas in the upper reaches of the Irtysh River and eastern Mongolia.

In 1227, Genghis Khan and Jochi passed away, and the empire was fragmented into several khanates. The Eastern Desht-i-Kipchak became part of the Golden Horde, which was established by Batu, Genghis Khan's grandson. By that time, the majority of the Golden Horde's population belonged to Turkic tribes, including the Kipchaks, Kangls, Naimans, Kereits, and Konyrats.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, Timur established a powerful empire that encompassed Southern Kazakhstan and Central Asia. He conquered vast areas of the Middle East and Northern India. In 1391, Timur defeated the Horde's army, which led to the division of the Mongol state into two parts: the western Ak-Orda and the eastern Kok-Orda. The Kok-Orda was later divided into two separate states: the Nogai Horde and the Uzbek Khanate. 

Ancient city of Otrar

Formation of the Kazakh Nation

During the 14-15th centuries, as the Golden Horde began to collapse, a unique nation began to emerge and take shape – the Kazakh nation. The people who inhabited the vast territories of the Great Steppe were influenced by a multitude of cultures and civilizations, and assimilated their accomplishments, ultimately creating a distinct culture of their own. The Kazakhs made significant contributions to art and technology, including the creation of the portable yurt dwelling, the development of horse saddles and stirrups, the mastery of horsemanship and military tactics, the production of intricate carpet patterns and silver ornaments, and the creation of beautiful melodies and music. As a result of this cultural synthesis, the Kazakh people gradually formed a unique identity and culture that set them apart from any other civilization.

Kazakh Khanate

In 1460, Sultans Zhanibek and Kerey, along with their clans, migrated to Jetysu and established the Kazakh Khanate in 1465. After the death of the Uzbek Khanate's khan, the Kazakhs returned to the banks of the Syr Darya River and expanded the boundaries of their Khanate.

Under the rule of the Kazakh Khanate's leaders, the territory expanded from the Irtysh River to the Ural River. The followers of Zhanibek and Kerey also regained the steppes of Saryarka from the Nogai Horde.

The Kazakh Khanate was a genuine state with a tribal hierarchy. During the reign of Tauke-khan, the Kazakh Khanate adopted the code of laws known as Zhety Zhargy. This code was created by famous public figures, scientists, and thinkers such as bis (judges, sages) Tole bi, Kazybek bi, and Aiteke bi.

Despite the formation of the Kazakh nationhood, various ethnic, political, and economic factors led to the emergence of three primary ethno-territorial associations within the Kazakh Khanate – the Senior, Middle, and Junior Juzes. Each association was further divided into several clans.

By the 14-15th centuries, the process of forming the Kazakh nationhood was virtually complete. However, in 1718, the first Kazakh Khanate fell under the pressure of the Dzungars.

Incorporation into the Russian Empire

Wars between the Kazakhs and the Dzungars erupted in the early 17th century and persisted until 1756, with the most challenging phase occurring during 1723-1727. As the Kazakhs struggled to fight the Dzungars without external support, Abulkhair, the Khan of Junior Juz, proposed a military alliance to Russian Empress Anna Ioannovna in 1730. In response, the empress offered full protectorate from Russia, leading to the beginning of the process of Kazakhstan joining Russia on October 10, 1731. The terms were first signed by Abulkhair, with Middle Juz gaining Russian citizenship in 1724 and Senior Juz in 1734. However, the Charter of the Siberian Kirghiz issued in 1822 abolished the khan's power, and the Kazakhs lost their independence.

The inclusion of the three Juzes into the Russian Empire had both advantages and disadvantages. The Russian government was primarily concerned about the security of the newly acquired lands, resulting in the construction of forts and Cossack camps tasked with protecting the land and trade routes from external enemies. The caravan routes that crossed Kazakhstan became internationally important, with many forts and settlements growing into major cities, such as the southern capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty, which originated from the small fort Verny founded in 1854.

Apart from military aid, Kazakhstan received significant investments, leading to the construction of roads, factories, manufactories, and plants, and the beginning of industrial mineral extraction. 

Culturally, Kazakhstan experienced a new era of development with the inclusion into the Russian Empire. Many settlements opened schools, including those teaching in the Kazakh language, and prominent figures such as scientist and educator Ybyrai Altynsarin made significant contributions to the enlightenment and education of the Kazakh people. Kazakh literature emerged, and Kazakh science was born, with writer and poet Abai Kunanbayev and traveler and explorer Shoqan Walikhanov becoming well-known names.

However, the accession to Russia had negative consequences as well, dramatically changing the life of Kazakh tribes. Many nomads were compelled to adopt a sedentary way of life, which was entirely foreign to them. Moreover, approximately 500 thousand peasant farms were relocated to Kazakhstan from Russia, occupying the original nomadic lands of the Kazakhs, which led to popular unrest and revolts against the tsarist regime.

Kazakhstan as Part of the USSR

Following the revolution of 1917, the establishment of Soviet power commenced in Kazakhstan, which was accompanied by uprisings and struggles against the new regime. Some Kazakh clans even left for neighboring China, unwilling to accept the new power. Although the process of establishing Soviet power was completed by the end of 1918, clashes with its opponents continued until the middle of the 1920s.

In August 1920, a decree was issued for the formation of the Kyrgyz Soviet Autonomous Socialist Republic, with its capital in Orenburg, which was later renamed the Kazakh ASSR. The capital was relocated to Kyzylorda, and in 1927, Alma-Ata became the main city of autonomy. The Kazakh Autonomous Republic was finally transformed into the Kazakh SSR in 1936 by the decision of the USSR government.

The late 1920s and early 1930s marked a time of forced collectivization, which was fiercely opposed by the Kazakh people who were accustomed to a nomadic way of life. Numerous uprisings occurred during this period, but were brutally suppressed by the Soviet authorities. Collectivization, prodrazverstka (a food procurement system during war communism), drought, and cold winters led to mass deaths from starvation, resulting in the Holodomor. It is estimated that over one and a half million Kazakhs died during this time.

Despite the tragedies, industrialization began in the late 1930s, and Kazakhstan became one of the largest industrial regions of the USSR. Mineral extraction was particularly developed, and Kazakhstan became a significant supplier of lead, zinc, titanium, magnesium, tin, phosphorus, chrome, silver, and molybdenum for the defense and technical industries of the USSR.

With the beginning of World War II, Kazakhstan became an important industrial and resettlement center for the Soviet Union. Over 400 factories and plants were evacuated from the European part of the country to Kazakhstan, forming the basis of its industrial development. The war years also saw a large influx of ethnic Germans, Poles, Jews, Chechens, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Koreans, among others. By the mid-1950s, the Kazakh population of the republic was only about 40%, leading to the formation of a modern culture in Kazakhstan that drew on the cultural heritage of all the different peoples who came to the region.

The post-war period also saw the second industrialization of Kazakhstan, with the discovery of new oil, gas, and coal deposits, as well as the construction of oil refineries. Kazakhstan became one of the leading suppliers of oil and coal in the Soviet Union.

Another significant event in the history of Kazakhstan was the campaign to develop virgin and fallow lands. During this time, the republic produced almost 600 million tons of grain, making it one of the largest grain producers in the world.

In 1955, the construction of the Baikonur military test site began in Kazakhstan. It became the world's first and most important space launching site, where the first artificial satellite was launched in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, went into space from Baikonur four years later. Today, Baikonur remains one of the world's leading space launch sites.

Unfortunately, the post-war years also saw the establishment of the world's largest nuclear test site near the city of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan. The site was used to test the latest nuclear and atomic weapons, with the first Soviet atomic bomb being tested there in 1949. The tests continued until 1991, leading to public outcry and ultimately resulting in the closure of the site in 2000.

Astana – the capital of Kazakhstan

Modern-day Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan declared independence from the Soviet Union on December 16, 1991, making it the last of the former Soviet republics to do so. This historic event is celebrated annually as Independence Day. The recognition of Kazakhstan's independence by Turkey, the United States, and China marked a turning point in the country's history.

Since gaining independence, Kazakhstan has become an active member of the global community. In 1992, Kazakhstan joined the OSCE, and the same year was admitted to the United Nations. Today, Kazakhstan is a key player in global politics, with a reputation for initiating many important political initiatives, not only in Central Asia but also around the world.

One such initiative is the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which is held in Kazakhstan and attracts participants from all over the globe. Kazakhstan was also the first former Soviet republic to chair the OSCE in 2010.

Today, Kazakhstan is a dynamic and democratic state with a rich cultural heritage and a diverse range of tourist attractions, from extreme adventures to classical sightseeing. The country's multinational culture, ancient history, and stunning natural beauty make it a destination that visitors will want to return to time and time again.

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