In the remote north-western corner of Kyrgyzstan is the valley of the Talas River. There are, basically, only three roads into the valley, one over the mountains from the main Bishkek – Osh highway, another over the mountains from the even more remote Chatkal valley (which is open only for a few months each year) to the South West and the third to the town of Taraz in Kazakhstan. The valley comprises one of the oblasts (regions) of Kyrgyzstan and the administrative centre is located half-way up the valley and is also called Talas.
This is known as the “Land of Manas”, because it is reputedly the birthplace of this legendary hero of the Kyrgyz.
The story of Manas and his exploits are told in the traditional form of Central Asian literature, an epic cycle of songs, poems and stories performed by itinerant minstrels (known as akyns in Kyrgyz). The Manas epic is twenty times longer than Homer’s Odyssey, and the akyns who can recite the epic are called “manaschi”.
Scholars says that the Manas epic is not exactly a single work, but rather an encyclopaedic collection of folk myths, fairytales, legends, songs and poems which have been combined and grouped together around a central character – Manas, his son (Semetei) and grandson (Seitek).
The first part of the cycle stands alone and has a tragic ending … all the heroes who participated in the Great March on Beijing perish – including Manas himself. The second part of the cycle depicts how Semetei deals with the heroic deeds of the next generation in fighting the enemies of the Kyrgyz people. Once again there is a tragic ending with the hero and his companions dying – this time not at the hands of a foreign army, but as a result of internal strife and a treacherous plot devised by Semetei’s rivals who usurp power and oppress their own people. The final part of the cycle describes Seitek’s struggle to restore justice and the triumph of good over evil.
A few kilometres to the east of the city of Talas is the village of Tash Aryk, which is notable for the fact that it is home to the Manas Ordo complex which contains the Manas Gumbez, (or mausoleum) and museum.
The complex was established in 1995 to mark what was said to be the 1000 years of the Manas Epic. It is a place of pilgrimage for many Kyrgyz and has come to embody the spirit of the nation just as the hero himself is thought to embody the soul of the Kyrgyz people.
At the entrance to the complex is a massive six meter bronze statue of the hero with his foot on a dragon symbolising his victories over the enemies of the Kyrgyz people. It stands on an equally grand pedestal, 18 meters high, and is surrounded by well tended rose gardens, fountains and fir trees. (It is actually a second statue to stand here; the larger original was so massive that it began to sink into the ground).
The Manas Ordo Museum
In the grounds of the complex is a museum dedicated to the story of the epic. Housed in a striking marble building, the museum is dedicated to the story of the epic.
On the first floor (ground floor) are exhibits depicting some of the famous manaschi, including black and white photographs who memorised the epic and kept it alive over the centuries by recitations. There are also exhibits about the archaeological exactions carried out in the area, including photographs of the mausoleum before its most recent renovations in the 1970’s.
A grand staircase, lined with murals, takes the visitor to the second floor with displays of utensils, tools and other artefacts which date from medieval times.
There are also reconstructions of armour, horse livery and clothes which are modelled on those described in the epic and said to the sort of things that Manas and his companions would have used and worn. Most of them are, in fact, modern reconstructions.
The Manas Gumbez
A short walk from the museum is the Manas Gumbez, or mausoleum. The mausoleum has been dated to about 1334, although it appears to have undergone at least two reconstructions. Made of bricks, held in place by clay, it measures just 5 meters square, and has a domed roof. The dome is a recent addition, but the walis display original decorations depicting a number of typical Islamic patterns – vegetation, geometrical designs, and there are some inscriptions but not all are readable.
One of those inscriptions which has been deciphered is over the doorway and says that the mausoleum was built for a woman. However, it is said that when archaeologists excavated the site, they discovered the corpse of a tall man inside. One suggestion for this mistaken inscription is that after his death, Manas’ wife, Kanykei, had the misleading inscription placed on the tomb to prevent his enemies discovering it, robbing it, and destroying his remains. (Another legend says that, to protect the body, she allowed people to think that this was his mausoleum, but in fact she arranged the body to be interred in the South in the Alai Mountains).
Nearby are two large boulders which are said to be meteorites.
The complex is overshadowed by a huge manmade mound, which gives a grand panoramic view of the surrounding countryside and is said to have been used as a lookout post by the sentinels whose duty it was to protect the valley. On the hill there is a stone bearing a 13th century Arabic inscription referring to a fortress that stood on the site.
The field at the foot of the hill is often used on holidays and special occasions as a hippodrome.
Central Asia Discovery