Abylai Khan - Era in Kazakhstan’s History

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Abylai Khan is one of the key figures in the Pantheon of Kazakh heroes. His name is related to the idea of national unity of the Kazakhs.

His life may serve as classic example of influence of a personality on the course of the world’s history, and it may be a source of inspiration for creation of both epic-scale literary best-sellers and mega-blockbusters of Hollywood level, as for dramatic situations, intensity, plentifulness of events and sudden changes in his destiny.

There are many studies of his role in destiny of the Kazakh people, written by different researchers. One of them, Doctor of Historical Sciences Abuyev Kadyrzhan Kabidenuly, the author of thesis "Activities of Abylai Khan on consolidation of the Kazakh lands and development of Kazakh-Russian relations", eloquently notes that "Khan Abylai is a whole era in the history of Kazakhstan. His name is related to the idea of nationwide unity, state independence and territorial integrity of Kazakhstan. It is in the fight for implementation of this idea that Abylai’s miscellaneous natural abilities were opened: his statesmanship, personal courage, captainship and politician talent, skilled diplomat’s qualities. Only thanks to his marked abilities, Abylai - being a humble shepherd surnamed Sabalah - was exalted to the title of Khan, enjoyed support of the wider population and prominent figures of his epoch."

Abylai Khan, whose Mohammedan name is Abilmansur, lived from 1711 to 1781, when life of the Kazakh people was set at history stake. His efforts had cushion effect on pressure of Russia and China. As well as having to pursue a filigree policy of finding a “way between a Lion and a Dragon" that were Russian and Chinese Empires, Abylai Khan was also bound to solve extremely difficult problems in relations with hawkish Dzungarian nation, such problems he inherited from previous generations. 

Dzungarian Expansion

It must be said that destinies of the Dzungars and the Kazakh people were related in sort of strange Karmic way. Expansion of the Oirats and Dzungars inland through the territory corresponding to modern Kazakhstan started in the 15th century, when prerequisites for the Kazakh Khanate formation were just being created.

Troops of the Oirats leader Uz-Temir Taishi in 1456-1457 in Kok-Kenese near Syganak utterly defeated army of Abul Khair Khan’s nomadic Uzbeks, and then, without facing resistance, began to plunder the entire valley of the Syr Darya. Many towns were captured including Turkestan, Tashkent, Otrar.

In the same year, when the state of Abul Khair Khan was in decline, the rebellious sultans Zhanibek and Kerei moved out of the nomadic Uzbeks’ state, located in the Chu-Talas interfluve and abandoned after the Oirats invasion, and with the permission of the Essen-Buga, Khan of Mogolistan, they formed the Kazakh Khanate.

 After the new state improved in strength and enlarged its territory, it has become an obstacle to the success development of the Dzungar leaders’ expansionist policy thanks to the wise khans and unity of the people.

However, in 1718, after the death of Tauke, Khan of whole Kazakh people, the Kazakh Khanate has disintegrated, divided into three Zhuzes - the Great, Middle and Little. Taking advantage of lack of integration of the people, the Dzungars began to invade the Kazakh lands.

"Sweeping away barriers of scattered small groups of Kazakh forces, thousands of Dzungarian troops quickly moved deep into Kazakhstan leaving behind piles of dead bodies, ashes of fires, driving prisoners by tens of thousands, caravans of captured wealth, - as the famous Kazakh writer Sabit Mukanov writes about that time. - The Kazakhs had to fled leaving their cattle, property, old people and children. A lot of people were exterminated by the Dzungars, many others died in crossing tumultuous rivers ... Abandoning everything the Kazakhs moved out to the Central Asia, Saryarka and other places.

“These transitions, - as the Russian historian A.I. Levshin wrote, - were followed by imminent devastation and death. Flocks and herds were growing down day by day, exchange trading discontinued, poverty and suffering has become universal, ones died of starvation, others abandoned wives and children of theirs." These parlous times survived in the Kazakh people’s memory as years of the great disaster ("Aktaban shubyryndy. Alkakel Sulama").

Abylai Khan Unites Kazakh Land

“And in those times, so difficult for the Kazakh people, such an exceptional man as Abylai appeared at the historic arena, - Sabit Mukanov said. - He became an orphan early in life, grazed camels of Tole biy, famous biy of the Great Zhuz. There he was met by already famous Batyr and Commander Kanzhygaly Bogenbai, who immediately noticed his outstanding personality. With the permission and blessing of Tole biy, he took Abylai with him in exploration, and then let him to participate in battles with the Dzungars.


The first major battle with participation of young Abilmansur (his real name), took place in 1733. According to tradition, before starting the battle, warriors of the warring parties had to fight in single combat "zhekpezhek". At this time, Sharysh, a close relative of Galdan Tseren, the Dzungars’ leader, was a participant of the single combat on the Dzungarian part. The Kazakhs, with the permission of Batyr Bogenbai, were represented by young Abilmansur, who won in a tough fight. Then, being encouraged with a cry of "Abylai!", Abilmansur rushed towards the enemy, dragging the rest of the Kazakh soldiers. The Kazakhs won the battle.

After the victorious battle, he was invited to the Abulmambet Khan, who found out that Abilmansur was a son of Wali Sultan, a grandson of Abylai Khan, and that’s why he rushed to the Dzungars, crying "Abylai!” Then, he was then elected as the Sultan of the Middle Zhuz. But although he was a Sultan, actually he had a power of Khan and behaved like a Khan.

Historian Kadyrzhan Abuev in his work "Abylai Khan and his time" writes: "The main direction of Abylai Khan’s government activities was to unite the Kazakh zhuzes in one state and strengthening of the central government ... When he entered into the formidable political "game" with the Qin government, Sultan Abylai showed himself as a skillful and subtle diplomat... First of all, the thorniest issue has been resolved concerning returning to the Kazakhs their traditional camping grounds on the Tarbagatai and Ili rivers previously captured and held by the Oirats. "

Another modern historian, Radik Temirgaliev, questions the agreement between Abylai Khan and the Chinese emperor regarding the mentioned return of the lands on the ground that "There is not a single document, confirming that the Qin Empire conveyed Dzungarian lands to the Kazakhs". However, Bukhar Zhyrau, who wished to consolidate three Kazakh zhuzes in a united strong state, and to return the lost lands, considered that Abylai fulfilled his cherished aspirations.

Even skeptical Radik Temirgaliev stresses the importance of Abylai Khan personality in the war against the Dzungars, he refers to the time, when he spent two years in enemy captivity: "In 1743, Galdan Tseren yielding to pressure of Russian and Kazakh delegations set Abylai free and thereby signed is country’s death-warrant. Since Abylai didn’t waste any time in captivity (fortunately, the conditions were quite bearable) and had a chance not only to learn the Oirat language, but also to made various kinds of acquaintances".

Abylai Khan managed to become a consolidator of the steppe aristocracy and the people due to a very important talent to pull in worthy representatives of the Kazakh land. According to Sabit Mukanov, his advisers were famous biys of the time - Tole bi from the Great Zhuz, Kazybek bi from the Middle zhuz, Aiteke bifrom the Little zhuz, clairvoyant Bukhar Zhyrau, who was always next to him.

In one of his poems, dedicated to the victory of Abylai and his warriors,
Bukhar Zhyrau names his top warriors, which commanded large detachments of soldiers: Kara Kerei Kabanbai, Kanzhygaly Bogenbai, Shakshakuly Zhanibek, and others.
Shokan Ualikhanov in the article “Historical Legends about Warriors of 18th Century” also mentions: Kanzhigaly Zhanatay, Basentiin Malaisary and Syrymbet, Uaq Sary and Bayan and the others.
The famous poet and thinker Mashhur Zhusup Kupeyev highlights the following heroes in his stories: Kekzhal Barak, Shanyshkyly Berdekozha, Balty Kerei, and others.

After making connection with the Qin Empire, Abylai never refused to recognize Russian protectorate and assured Russian officials that he, "as when he was taking out citizenship, he swore allegiance, as until he has his life, he will stand by."
Historian B. A. Moisseyev wrote about Abylai Khan's policy in relations with Russia and China:  " ...Abylai, being aware of the incomparably greater power of Russia and China by contrast with Kazakh Khanate, tried to keep normal inter-State relations with the two empires, using the latter ones as a trump card in dealing with its domestic rivals, as well as in the wars against Kokand and Kirghiz manaps".

When the Kyrgyz manaps attacked the peaceful Kazakh villages, Abylai with his soldiers repulsed them, however did not crushed the enemy troops, but, on the contrary, he offered to the fraternal peoples the olive branch and good-neighborliness. He did not capture their land, but successfully insisted on frontier recognition and return of captured people, stolen cattle, thus achieving the peace.

Link of times

In October 2013, the 300th Abylai Khan’s anniversary was celebrated in Kokshetau on a large scale. This event has being prepared for several months, and it is not surprising that the festivities stretched out over two days. The first day was a more official - conferences participated by the scientists and historians, meetings, devoted to the life and work of the outstanding person. And the second day has become a real people’s festival.

Ethno-village near Kokshetau has an amazing diversity. There were about hundred yurts installed, their interior reconstituted an atmosphere of ancient historic days. Visitors had a rare chance to see everyday objects of nomads, jewelry and works of applied art. Outside the yurts, despite rainy weather, the youth walked around wearing the national costumes.

"The Kazakh people having stood the test of time and now rebuilding its statehood, has rich and complex experience of communication and interaction with neighbouring countries and peoples. Kazakhstan being located in the heart of the Eurasian continent, bordering by Russia to the North, by China to the East and by the Central Asian countries to the South, by a twist of fate with such a unique geopolitical position is simply weirded to multipolar foreign political orientation. And in this regard, studying and summarizing the rich and complex history of Abylai’s epoch have a great cognitive and pragmatic importance. - I would like to quote this citation of professor Kadyrzhan Kabidenuly Abuev at the end of the story about the person, who changed the course of the Kazakh people history. - It was Khan Abylai, who laid down the foundations for friendly relations with Russia, established the basic principles of diplomatic relations with China and the Central Asian States".

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