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Alpamysh is not done yet!
Written by , Sunday, 24 Mar, 2013 – 1:00 | No Comment

The Alpamysh epic is not yet finished! Since our last installment, we’ve been editing the last batch of posts. So, if you’re hankering for more steppe legendarium, stick around!

And we would also like to remind our readers that this edition of the Alpamysh is based upon H.B. Paksoy’s critical academic edition in English. Go check it out if you’re curious to learn more about the editorial and conceptual history behind the epic. :-)

The Alpamysh, part 21: Baychobar makes it to the finish line!
Written by , Saturday, 15 Dec, 2012 – 1:00 | No Comment

A monument in honor of the horse in Kazakhstan. Photograph from Tugel.

After having killed his only son, Karajan approaches the finish line…

Seven days passed. Now, from whom do you hear the news? Hear it from the Kalmak, Taysha:

“Observers were looking. They could see anyone coming. There was one observer from Taysha Khan, and another from Karajan. They spotted the horse coming. Taysha Khan’s observer said:

‘My Khan’s happiness shall be increased shortly, there will be an end to his worries. [Indeed], Barchin Jan now belongs to the Khan, [for his horse] Tarlan is in sight!’

However, Karajan’s observer [recognized] the gold amulet upon the animal’s neck and declared:

‘Once the battle begins, all worries are forgotten; you cannot say contradictory words. The one coming is Baychobar!’

Upon hearing these words, Alpamysh climbed the white hill and saw Baychobar coming. He reflected,

‘I hung the golden amulet on his neck, saying,

“Whoever rides you shall forget his worries.
Glory shall be won by one’s self.

May I be sacrificed to your eyes Baychobar!
I do not have tulips blooming on the nearby mountain,
[but] you are priceless, even beyond one hundred thousand tumans!

When you walk, you earn honor.
God is my witness, I do not have elders.
I have no roses blooming in the spring if you do not run, earning honor.

God is my witness, I have no brothers,
I am but a poor beggar, away from my land.
But forty saints have touched my head,
and when you run, my worries disappear.

May I be sacrificed to your eyes!
When you win, the future of the Kungrats shall be secure!”‘

The race was to end where Alpamysh stood, at Kakbali Karatash. Taysha conferred with his vezirs:

‘Whoever’s horse comes across this rock shall have Barchin.’

Alpamysh was standing there…”

The Alpamysh, part 20: Karajan and Dost Mohammed’s tragic battle
Written by , Saturday, 8 Dec, 2012 – 1:00 | No Comment

Karajan, having caught up to his treacherous progeny, begs him to relent. But driven mad with lust, Dost Mohammed refuses, leading father and son into a tragic confrontation.

Note that Dost Mohammed is riding a black horse, whereas Karajan is riding a white one. The imagery is profoundly archetypal: this is a perennial battle, between generations, moralities, and destinies. There is also a strong resonance of the Biblical and Quranic story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, except in this case, the sacrifice must be made. That seems like a pretty heavy demand to be made upon Karajan for the sake of friendship. But remember that much more is at stake in this story than just Alpamysh marring Barchin: an entire social order has collapsed, and Karajan is fighting to bring back justice and order. In this sense, the slaughter of Dost Mohammed, Karajan’s only son, is Christ-like — the high price that must be paid for our redemption.

The dastan paints a complex figure in the form of Karajan. It lionizes the slaughter of Dost Mohammed, yet it indicates here and explores more fully later that Karajan’s decision breaks his heart. In general throughout the Alpamysh, we can sense a deep inner conflict in the main character: not quite Muslim in the fullest sense yet no longer a pagan — in fact, his whole relationship to Islam becomes somewhat pessimistic, as after the death of his son, he has lost all hope in this world — and vacillating between remarkable feats of strength and fragile weakness and laziness. He is the true main character of the dastan, the human being we can relate to, as opposed to the distant and mighty Alpamysh.

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The Alpamysh, part 19: Karajan catches up to Dost Mohammed
Written by , Saturday, 1 Dec, 2012 – 1:00 | No Comment

Turkmen racing on tarlans (a breed of Akhal-Teke). Photograph from the blog, 'Teke Talk'.

Atop his incredible steed, Karajan manages to overtake the Kalmaks in a dramatic race. He soon begins to catch up to his treacherous son…

An interesting tidbit: this portion of the dastan makes reference to the “Karadag”. Kara or Qara+ Dag/Dağ/Dagh, occasionally Daq or Tagh is Turkic for “Black Mountain”, and it connotes several locations within the former Ottoman sphere, from Montenegro in the Balkans to municipalities in Azerbaijan and Iran.

Three days’ time passed chasing after the Kalmaks. When the dawn broke to the Kalmaks, who speak a language no one knows, God granted him [Karajan] his wish: he caught up, having run without stopping! Bats [at dawn] gathered and folded [their wings]. Chobar, who was [artificially] restrained, [at] morning prayer time passed the Kalmaks.

After four days, at dawn, upon looking back, Taysha’s tarlan spotted the spreading wings of Baychobar. [The horse's] wish was granted at noon prayer time: like the northern winds of Spring, at the heels of the tarlan [he] came close. [Then] Baychobar passed, [and] on the way bit [the tarlan]. The tarlan fell behind.

[Baychobar] ran all day, ran all night. After five days on the slopes of the Karadag, the only one left [ahead] was Dost Muhammed…

The Alpamysh, part 18: Baychobar’s supernatural gallop
Written by , Saturday, 24 Nov, 2012 – 1:00 | No Comment

'The Path of Kathanka' by Susan Cavaliere.

Baychobar speeds across the steppe to catch up with the rest of the race in a miraculous sprint of supernatural proportions!

Supernatural stallions figure prominently in Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, two religious systems that made a deep imprint in Central Asia prior to the rise of Islam.

In Zoroastrianism, one of the three representations of Tishtrya, the hypostasis of the star Sirius, is that of a white stallion (the other two are as a young man, and as a bull). Meanwhile in Buddhism, Kanthaka was a white horse that was a royal servant and favorite ride of Siddhartha himself, the eventual Buddha. Siddhartha used Kanthaka in all major events described in Buddhist texts prior to his renunciation of the world. Following the departure of Siddhartha, it was said that Kanthaka died of a broken heart. In one story, it is said that Kanthaka jumped across a massive river in a single leap — something similar to what Baychobar shall do in this portion of the Alpamysh.

Baychobar is often referred to as being “winged”, although whether metaphorically or literally is unclear. Unsurprisingly, the ancient Turkic tradition does have an analogue to the Greek Pegasus: the Tulpar (Тұлпар). It appears in the national seals of both Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

Readers should also note the allusion made to the Russians and other elements of sedentary Modernity, an example of the flexibility and adaptability of the dastan poetic form.

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The Alpamysh, part 17: the Saints come to the rescue
Written by , Saturday, 24 Nov, 2012 – 1:00 | No Comment

Blue-eyed Central Asian Buddhist monk, with an East-Asian colleague, Tarim Basin, 9th-10th Century CE (Wikipedia).

Karajan awakes three days later to discover his son’s betrayal. Can he and the injured Baychobar win the race for Barchin?

The Alpamysh makes several references to the “Saints”. Sometimes these figures are identified explicitly, as in the case of al-Khidr (“Hizir”); most of the time, simply as a collective. Who could these individuals have been in reality?

Central Asia has had a long and complex religious history. Its oldest spiritual genetics reach back to shamanism and Zoroastrianism, but there is also a heavy strain of Buddhism as well. This latter strain dates back to the ancient Greek kingdoms in Oxus, Bactria, the Khyber Pass, Gandhara and the Punjab. Hence, it is probable that the “saints” are, in fact, the bodhisattvas of Buddhist lore, in particular monks who had perfected the spiritual disciplines and subsequently ascended to nirvana, from which position they could assist and guide those still on earth trapped in the cycle of birth, death and re-birth. The bodhisattva notion would take on Islamic garb in the form of the Sufi pir.

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The Alpamysh, part 16: the horseshoe nails of treachery
Written by , Saturday, 17 Nov, 2012 – 1:00 | No Comment

Horseshoe nails. Photograph from Wikipedia.

To what ends will men go to satisfy lust? As Karajan drifts to sleep, his only son, Dost Mohammed, implements a terrible plan to prevent him from winning the race for the lovely Barchin.

The tired [lit. "small-minded"] batir, Karajan, tied the feet of his young mount, then placed his head on the saddle cushion, rested his head on his palm, and laid down. He immediately became motionless like a tree.

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The Alpamysh, part 15: Karajan is betrayed by his only son
Written by , Saturday, 10 Nov, 2012 – 1:00 | No Comment

Kyrgyz father and son riding a horse in the Aksu Valley. Photograph by Robert Smurr (University of Washington: Central Eurasia Image Database).

Taysha Khan sends a spy to report on Karajan, who reports back about the latter’s horse, who has oddly pegasus-like qualities. A conspiracy is hatched by none other than Karajan’s only son to kill the horse and tie up the heroic horseman…

A tore was sent by Taysha to observe the order of the race, and was instructed to keep an eye on the four hundred and ninety Kalmaks.

This man was At Peshin Tore, who at once reported about the horses: “We saw the four hundred and ninety horses as they filed past us. We watched all. Next to the chestnut [tree] was Karajan’s horse, [compared to which] all the others seem like oxen. Karajan’s friend’s horse is [quite a] mount.”

[The khan replied,] “Let us go see it.” He gathered nine Kalmaks to go with him.

They all went near the horse.

Ever since Karajan became friends with Alpamysh and became Muslim, he never missed a single prayer time. While he was performing his morning prayers, Baychobar was walking around behind him.

The tore inspected Baychobar’s body and flesh with his own hands. He discovered the wings on his shoulders, and the way the horse folded them, moving occasionally. Atpeshin Tore became scared of Baychobar. He fled, rejoining the crowd.

He gathered all of the four hundred and ninety Kalmaks and said:

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The Alpamysh, part 14: Baychobar is mocked
Written by , Friday, 2 Nov, 2012 – 1:00 | No Comment

A statue dedicated to the Kyrgyz horse. Photograph by Sophie Ibbotson (click to see more).

Karajan and Baychobar stop to rest, but when the rider attempts to get his horse to use a feedbag, the Kalmaks mock the animal — another grave offence in the culture of that time.

Upon reaching twenty days’ distance, the horses mounted by the Kalmaks stopped at a stage. Karajan observed this out of the corner of his eye. He reached the boundary [and listened, for the] Kalmaks were having a discussion.

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The Alpamysh, part 13: Karajan’s first trial
Written by , Tuesday, 30 Oct, 2012 – 1:00 | No Comment

Pamiri Kyrgyz in a match of Oğlak-Tartış (click image for more information).

As Karajan races against the Kalmaks to win the hand of Barchin for his friend Alpamysh, he undergoes a series of challenges. The first: the Kalmaks call him a betrayer of tradition for his conversion to Islam — a dreadful accusation!

The horse was covered with foamy sweat. Karajan cried out for the Saints’ help to progress for forty days.

After five days, Karajan was was running along the edge of the four hundred and ninety other horsemen. He slept for a while, then remounted Chobar.

After ten days, he made another stop: rested for a while, slept a spell, and tested his friend’s horse.

After fifteen days, he reached the fountain of Ak Bulak, where the Kalmaks were entertaining themselves. They were saying over and again, so that Karajan would hear them:

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