A lot of different balbals, stone sculptures, are found in the Kazakhstan steppe. They cut mainly out of coarse-grained granite or sandstone; they look as idols, milestones and road signs for travelers at the same time. What kind of meaning and memory these stones are carrying, what is their story and purpose?
Name Balbal came from "balbaltas" - ancient Turkic art work with stone; according to explanatory dictionary of Kazakh language edited by the Languages Committee, balbal translates as "stone sculpture depicting a human figure".
Looks of Balbals are different, they mostly depict upright standing person, meter or half-meter in height, often with a bowl or weapon in its hands, but some of the sculptures sitting in cross-legged “Kazakh” position. Some giants have weapons hanging around the belt; others have braids and even clearly carved earrings in the ears – these are signs of high status. Mostly men are depicted in stone, but one can meet there women balbals.
According to scientists, usually balbal was set up as a symbol of valor and long memory on the grave of outstanding human being. So these ancient monuments are monuments of the brave commander, wise ruler, talented akyn, or for somebody who was respected and honored by people around them. They belong to two main groups – ancient Turkic balbals that were built in VI - VIII centuries and Kipchak monuments raised in IX - XIV century.
It is known that in the Middle Ages traveler Guillaume de Rubruk wrote in his travel notes the following: "... the Kipchaks, paying homage to the departed famous people, erected a stone sculpture depicting a man holding a bowl and facing the east on top of the mound".
Balbals are mostly facing the east. During its construction steppe-dwellers followed Tengrism traditions, worship the Eternal Blue Sky, primordial religion of the Steppe. A new day starts on the east, sun returns to the world from that side, banishing darkness and granting warmth and freedom from nightmares.
Stone Balbals are the original inhabitants of the Kazakh steppe. Time wears away even the stone, but these fragments of the past are still preserved in the steppe, enclosing the souls of bygone eras, once erected in the memory of the khans, akyns and dzhigits. You can take look at them in a company of archaeologists enthusiasts in the steppe or visit a museum.
Balbals in the museums
Stone sculptures you can find in any historical museum in the Republic; here we are going mention only those that are known for their extensive collections.
East Kazakhstan Regional Museum in Ust-Kamenogorsk city is proud of its large collection of well-preserved balbals. Here you can see with your own eyes variety of forms, details of ammunition and regalia of stone warriors.
In the museum of Semey city, balbals (mostly related to ancient Turkic times) also occupy an honorable place. Most of them are radiant, once they were cut out of light-colored stone.
Since 1920, South Kazakhstan District Museum of Local History (Shymkent) has preserved important objects of the past life. There you can find valuable historical artifacts, including balbals sculptures.
Balbals in the steppe
Neighborhood of Shyngystau mountains (East Kazakhstan region) can please you with chance to touch history in the natural environment, without the museum’s showcases and ribbons. Many scientists tend to believe that balbals here are the first stone monuments of this kind in the Kazakhstan steppe. Faces on them barely marked, stone dressing is quite rough; and maybe they loose in details, but these stones with rough faces remember much more ancient times.
Aktogai district of Karaganda region once saw the Great Silk Road. And here was discovered Begazy Dandybai monument scientists dating back to bronze era. Also numerous stone balbals of ancient Turkic time are preserved here until nowadays.
Many people have heard about the new capital of Kazakhstan - wonderful Astana. It embodies the modernity of new technologies, unique buildings and complexes, harmoniously coexists with earlier sites views. Archaeological and ethnographical complex Kumai being built in Ereimentau district of Akmola region in order to prolong life of numerous balbals preserved there.
A mustachioed man, the most famous balbal sculpture, was found in Zhambyl, the most abundant area for the monuments discovery. The sculpture has Steppe eagle in the right hand (per Turkic beliefs bird feathers protect from demons), and is the jar with a wide neck in his other hand. This sculpture is widely known because of its monumental appearance.
Chu Zhaysansk religious sanctuary in the Shuisk district in this area is certainly precious to everyone respecting the history. Here you can see female sculptures next to male and explore the detailed images of chain armors and weapons of that time. There are other burial complexes with balbals located in Merkinsk area. Here you can see female sculptures as well. Most of the 64 stone sculptures are holding a large bowl at the abdominal level.
In the complex Bajte, Mangistau region, archaeologists discovered giant - balbal about two meters high. This is how the people honored the memory of their leader judging by the sculpture’s helmet.
And finally, about the magic
Not everyone shares the scientific confidence that balbals are monuments to the departed. Some people believe that they are the cult relics. It is known that magical properties attributed to balbals in the south of Kazakhstan; for generations locals were sacrificing to them trying to appease the spirits. And even today, many people believe that balbals are able to liberate man from the negative and heavy thoughts, and “with proper handling” problems shared with the ancient statue resolve by themselves.
Steppe is a special space with its own character and mood. It is carpet of various herbs up to horizon, ripples going across the grass under the touché of wind, as if across the sea; inflaming sunset on the sky, and single mysterious statues in its background.
Ancient monuments are always fascinating. They are personified stream of time, envoys from other times. It is always silence around them, and perception becomes deeper, it seems that if you touch its hand you will feel the warmth of man’s fingers that stayed here many, many years ago before you.
It is not secret every creator put himself in his creations and that artistic forms and ways of expressing thoughts are changing over the time. Monuments preserved from ancient times depict the face of the era and the way used to convey the meaning to descendants would say a lot to historians. This is our heritage, the memory of how our ancestors lived.