During the Soviet Union people worshipped Lenin, Marx, Stalin and even their local communist leaders such as Frunze. When the Soviet Union collapsed each country needed to find new national heroes. The rest of the world does it – the Scandinavians have their Nordic gods, Ireland has St Patrick and England has St George. In this blog we’ll take a quick look at another national hero of Central Asia, this time in Kyrgyzstan – Manas. No other country in Central Asia, possibly even the rest of the world, revers one man quite like the Kyrgyz do.
Manas is literally everywhere! The country’s main airport is named after him. The main street in every city (including Bishkek) and town is named after Manas. There are statues in almost every town, including the famous Manas statue in Aloo-too Square in the centre of Bishkek. Aloo-too Square is kind of a big deal, as it is right next to Parliament and where all of the most important national celebrations are held, including Independence Day, so it’s kind of a big deal that Manas’ statue is right in the middle. The country’s flag even makes reference to Manas.
So who was Manas and why is he such a big deal? Well this is where it gets controversial and hopefully no Kyrgyz will be reading this. Firstly, most non-Kyrgyz historians and experts of the region agree that Manas never existed. Manas is the central character in one of the longest known poems, funnily enough titled the Epic of Manas. The poem itself is read by a professional, named a Manaschi, at any important events. It takes days to read out the entire thing so usually the Manaschi will read out small parts of it.
In the Epic of Manas, Manas is a great warrior and leader and by defeating the Kyrgyz people’s enemies surrounding them they are able to return to their traditional homeland, modern day Kyrgyzstan. Manas leads the Kyrgyz people to great strengths by uniting all 40 tribes of Kyrgyzstan, which is symbolized on the national flag by the 40 rays of sun in the center.
The controversy lies in the fact that most Kyrgyz believe Manas to have lived over 1000 years ago and that the oral tradition of Manas has been with them ever since, which also lends credence to the idea that modern Kyrgyzstan has been for over 1000 years their home. Most historians agree however that the poem is most likely from the very late 1700s and that the first time the disparate nomadic tribes of Kyrgyzstan were identified as a single group of people were when the Soviets came.
In fact, the first place called Kyrgyzstan was actually in modern-day Kazakhstan, while modern-day Kyrgyzstan was in a completely different country called Turkestan (not to be confused with Turkmenistan). There are of course some Kyrgyz who realise it’s just a very interesting story and certainly a piece of artwork to be proud of, and many of those realize that it was not Manas who created the first Kyrgyz nation, but rather a little know man by the name of Lenin. But it’s a little difficult to center the national identity of Kyrgyzstan around a Soviet leader from 100 years ago.