Nestorian and Manichean Christianity
Russian Orthodox Christianity
According to the Constitution, the Kyrgyz Republic is a secular state - there is no state religion. Religious political parties are banned. However, religious institutions do have to be registered.
Most of the Kyrgyz would claim to be Muslim - although their religion sits lightly on their shoulders, especially in the North. This may be because, as nomads, some of the traditions were more difficult to introduce and maintain than in settled communities - or simply a symptom of the easy going nature of the people. In the South of the country where there are more Uzbeks, religion is a stronger influence and visitors should be sensitive to local sensibilities - especially when visiting certain sites, or in the month of Ramadan, or when consuming alcohol.
In deference to religious sensibilities, the government have incorporated a number of religious holidays into the official calendar:
Nooruz - New Year - which is always celebrated on March 21st
Orozo Ait and Kurman Ait which mark the beginning and end of Ramadan and as such are moveable feasts
Orthodox Christmas - January 6th. (Remember - it is a predominantly Muslim country!)
The lands of Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, have over the centuries played host to a wide variety of religious traditions.
Perhaps one of the oldest forms of religion in the world, Shamanism arrived in Kyrgyzstan with the earliest invaders from Siberia. An essential feature of Shamanism is a belief in spirits which inhabit all living things, and which can live in men, animals, trees, and even in mountains. Ordinarily, normal mortals cannot enter the spirit world - but the shaman (a sort of cross between a medicine man and prophet, attempts to communicate with the spirits by entering into a trance.
Perhaps the most obvious remains of Shamanism in Kyrgyzstan are the many sitres containing Petroglyphs to be found around the country - with pictures of animals, hunters, and trees as well as designs representing the sun, moon and stars. (Many of the designs still found in traditional handicrafts - for example on shyrdaks - resemble many of the designs found on petroglyphs). Also, it is thought that balbals (small stone statues that are thought to have been grave markers) holding a cup is a symbol of the deceased submission and willingness to serve in the spirit world.
Many shamanistic ideas, traditions, rituals and practices can still be seen throughout Kyrgyzstan today. One example is the practice of hanging an animal carcass, (or part of an animal such as a horse tail), from a tree. It is sometimes said that sheep killed by a wolf is displayed in this way to show visiting inspectors that the livestock was indeed they prey of a natural predator - not killed and eaten - but some scholars think it is a sign that the place - a tree or stream - is a place of special, holy, significance - perhaps the spirit of a great shaman has taken up residence in the tree or stream. One tradition which is derived from this is to tear a piece of material and tie it to a tree around a stream - as a sign of good luck and wishing to return. If there is no tree, then sometimes poles are erected, and possibly even a cairn van be used.
The shaman is often characterized aa a healer, and many Kyrgyz, (and even Russians) still consult a holy man - he may not want to be called a shaman - who practices form of herbal medicine as well as consulting a doctor.
It is said that a cave near to the Issyk Ata Sanatoria, near to Bishkek, was the home of an Uzbek shamans, famous for her healing powers, and who led a hermit life there until the 1950 after her husband and son were both killed as Basmachi rebels. Top
A pre-Islam religion founded by the Persian prophet Zoroaster (628—551) — still practiced by the Parsees in India. It sees the world as dualistic - Good and Evil in conflict.
Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Zoroastan temples at several places throughout Kyrgyzstan - including in Bishkek, which used to be known as Jul during the 6th to 12th. Top
Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Buddhist temple at Ak Beshim, near Tokmok. Bishkek, used to be known as Jul during the 6th to 12th centuries and archeologists have discovered the remains of Buddhist temples in the surrounding environs.
The ancient town of Ak Beshim, near to Tokmok, was referred to by the Buddhist monk, Tripitaka (602—644), in his account of his travels.
The waters of Issyk Ata have attracted visitors for many centuries for their medicinal values — and this used to be a place of pilgrimage and in the nineteenth century villagers expressed their gratitude for the healing properties of the water by smearing onto a large rock which has an inscription on the Buddha on it which dates from the tenth century. The Tibetan inscription is on the face of a boulder with an eagle sculpture on top. Unfortunately, contemporary, modern, graffiti now joins it.
To the North of Kyzyl Suu, in the Issyk Kul region is To the North is the site of a medieval settlement of Torktol, and to the West in the village of Saru there are some ancient barrows (burial mounds).. In the hills above the village there is a Tibetan Buddhist inscription on a stone.
Also in Issyk Kul, above the village of Tamga is Tamga Tash (letter stone) — a stone inscribed with ancient Tibetan runes. The rock is high above the water - quite difficult to find - and nobody knows how or why the inscription (some of which has worn away) comes to be here. Apparently it is an ancient mantra - still chanted by Buddhist monks today.
During the Battle of Talas, which occurred in 751 AD on the banks of the river Talas nearer the city of Taraz (Djambul) in Kazakhstan, a combined Arab, Kyrgyz and Tibetan force met and defeated the massed armies of the Chinese empire. The battle marked the greatest extent of the Chinese empire — and it was more than just a military defeat for the Chinese, however, because amongst the prisoners rounded up after the battle were many experts in the manufacture of paper and silk - two closely guarded secrets by the Chinese - and their secrets soon found their way Westward to Europe. Top
In the Issyk Kul Region there is Svetly Mys - which is thought to be the last resting place of the evangelist, Saint Matthew.
Having been a tax collector, he was called to be a disciple of Jesus. According to tradition, he later wrote the Gospel of Saint Matthew for his fellow countrymen in Palestine, - but about the time of the persecution of Hero Agrippa in AD 42, he left for other lands. Of his subsequent life and career we have only inaccurate or legendary information. Ancient writers are far from unanimous about his travels, but almost all mention the land of Ethiopia - South of the Caspian Sea, not the one in Africa! - and some mention Persia, the kingdom of the Parathions, Macedonia, and Syria. There is little information about his death and at least one author maintains that he did not die as a martyr - although others disagree. Is it possible that he made it as far into Central Asia as Issyk Kul - and died here?
Whether he did, or not, this site has attracted pilgrims for centuries, and it is thought that various religious communities (Nestorian, Armenian, Orthodox) have been been based here. In 1888 the Tzar ordered that an orthodox monastery be founded here - some of the wooden buildings still remain - and the roads were set out in the form of an orthodox cross. In the uprising of 1916 the monastery was attacked and most of the monks were killed. One of the icons of the Virgin Mary was said to have shed tears and blood - and was later placed in the cathedral church in Karakol, where it can still be seen. Two monks survived - one fleeing to Almaty and the other moved down the road to Ananyevo - and were later canonized as saints. Top
Nestorian and Manichean Christianity
Manicheism was inspired by a Babylonian prophet Mani (or Manes) who lived from 216 to 277 AD. It is a cross between a number of different traditions and was based on the idea of the duality between light and darkness. Although Mani himself was martyred and the movement declared a heresy, the religion proved to popular and came to Central Asia in about the 5th Century - where it survived until the 13th century - even becoming the official Uighur religion in 763.
Nestian Christianity began with Nestorian, the patriarch of 5th century Constaninople (428-431). The basic principle was to concentrate on the difference between the human and divine natures of Christ. Nestorian was exiled to Egypt where he died in 457 and the movement was declared a heresy. Many converts fled persecution and took the religion with them all over the Middle East, Central Asia and even into India.
Archaeologists have discovered several sites which have remains of Nestorian Christian churches or communities, such as near Tokmok. Bishkek, used to be known as Jul during the 6th to 12th centuries and archeologists have discovered the remains of both Nestorian and Manichean churches in the surrounding environs. Top
Russian Orthodox Christianity
With the arrival of the Russians came the Russian Orthodox Church, and many communities now have small churches.
In 1914. Bishkek housed two Orthodox churches. Nowadays there is only the cathedral which is located on the corner of Jibek Jolu and Togolok Moldo which has recently undergone renovations - although others are being established in the suburbs. The Church of Saint Nicholas is now an art gallery and is located in the centre of Oak Park.
Karakol boasts The Holy Trinity Cathedral, which served as a dance hall under the Soviets and it is now being renovated. Like the Cathedral in Almaty - it was reputably built of wood without nails - on a brick base by early Russian migrants (some sources claim in the end of the 19th century). The architecture of the church was influenced by the false-Russian style of wooden architecture of the 2-nd half of the 19-th century. The characteristic feature of this style is that facade of a building is decorated with small architectural details carved out of wood.
Other churches worthy of note are:
In Kyzyl Dyykan, in the Chui region — a small wooden church - the oldest in Kyrgyzstan.
Talas — built of brick in the 1920's
In Balykchi, a large, new, brick church which was constructed in the 1990's
There are a large number of Protestant Churches and missionary projects - especially in Bishkek - such as the Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans (there was once a sizable German community in Kyrgyzstan), Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah Witnesses.
Despite the fact that the Kyrgyz tend to be a tolerant people, the success of Protestant missionaries has not been without incident. For example:
«In 2002 there was a dispute in Naryn concerning the burial of a Baptist
- because it was held that the Kyrgyz Cemetery was for Muslims - and Christians
should be buried beyond the pale - outside the boundaries.
There is also a thriving community of Jehovah Witnesses throughout the country. They have also been in the news in recent years as several families of converts were ostracized by the Muslim neighbours who insisted that they should leave their homes and villages». Top
There is a small Roman Catholic community in Bishkek and a church with Services in Russian and English in Bishkek. Top
Islam arrived in the land now known as Kyrgyzstan sometime in the 7th century. Probably spread by merchants traveling the Silk Road, many of the practices of the religion were either adapted and grafted onto the existing shamanistic ones…, but others were duly ignored - as they did not seem to have had any relevance to the nomadic lifestyle and culture of the people.
There was more success in assimilating Islam into the everyday life of
the Kyrgyz - especially in the South of the country - in the 19th and
early 20th centuries. The early Russian colonists did not interfere in
religious matters and the peoples of Central Asia were free to practice
Islam as they had before. In the Soviet period, however, things were different.
Many mosques and religious schools were closed, mullahs arrested and three
of the "Five Pillars of Islam" were actually banned by Stalin in his -
antireligious campaign - and this was one of the causes of the Basmachi
rebellion. Some concessions were made by the authorities during and after
the Second World War - but control was still enforced. Perhaps it is surprising
that, despite of all disapproval and control, religion remained a force during
the 70 years of the Soviet period - to the extent that many Kyrgyz still
consider themselves Muslims even if they do not follow all the rites, rituals
and practices of the religion. Today, there is an upsurge of interest in
religion - once again, especially in the South. There are several new mosques
being built - some such as in Bishkek, Osh and Naryn, have been financed
by Turkish or Saudi Arabian funding - but many which are being established
in villages - are built by the local communities themselves. Several thousand
Kyrgyz who make the Hajj - the pilgrimage to Mecca. The situation regarding
"Muslim militants" is such that several organizations which are thought
to be involved in politics or have connections with terrorist organizations
have been banned, individuals arrested and printed materials confiscated.
This has been more marked following the incursions of Islamic Movement for
Uzbekistan into the Batken region in 1999 and 2000 - and the events in America
on 11th September 2001. There are several examples of mosques worthy of note.
The Burana Tower, near Tokmok, is thought to be a Minaret. Apart from the
new mosques established in Bishkek, Osh and Naryn there are:
In Karakol there is a Dungan (Chinese) mosque in the town that some sources claim actually predates the Church. The foundations of the Mosque is made of stone and the walls are made of fired brick. The roof has a characteristically Chinese architecture. The building has the elements of carved walnut wood and columns around it, decorated in various colours.
In the Moslem graveyard, on outskirts of the village of Safed-Bulan, between the villages of Ala-Buka and Kerben, is the brick mausoleum of Shah-Fazil, reputedly built by his son around 1050 AD and it is still an operating Sufi mosque and pilgrimage site. The central cupola is almost 16 m tall, and the interior is decorated with decorative panels, rosettes and relief inscriptions with Quranic texts and inscriptions in Farsi. Ibn-Nasir's tomb stands in the middle surrounded by Islamic grave stones or kayrak. The site underwent major restorations in 1978 and 1996. People know the site as Safed Bulon, after a black maiden who is said to have lived in the area. Please note, the mausoleum is an example of living Central Asian Sufism, i.e. a site of religious significance - not a sterilized 'monument' or ersatz culture, and so visitors should dress modestly when visiting.
Osh - The Ak-Buura river runs through the city North to South, and to the west is Sulaiman Too ("Solomon"s mountain"), which dominates the city. Some Muslims consider it sacred and make a pilgrimage to the site where the Prophet Muhammad is supposed to have once prayed. For some reason (apparently, in profile some people think it resembles a pregnant woman) it is also revered by many women who have been unable to bear children. At the top of a short (30 minute climb) is a flagpole and a mosque built in 1497 by the 14 year old Babur who had been recently crowned the King of the Ferghana Valley - and later went on to become the founder of the Mogul dynasty in India - destroyed and rebuilt twice it is another center for pilgrimage.
Technically, mosques are closed to women and non-muslim men - but many will invite visitors to enter. If you do plan to go into a mosque - remember to remove your shoes (and try to ensure that feet and socks are clean), and to dress conservatively. Top
There is a small Jewich community in Bishkek and a synogogue in Bishkek. Top