Petroglyphs, as a type of fine art, have appeared on the territory of Kazakhstan since ancient times and have been preserved until present. The many monuments of petroglyphic art that have been discovered during recent years demonstrate the peculiarities of artistic traditions of ancient tribes.
The most famous centers of petroglyphic fine art of Kazakhstan are located in Semirechie (Land of the Seven Rivers in Russian (Jetisu in Kazakhz), the historical name of South East Kazakhstan). Although the history of studying similar monuments is more than one hundred years, very little was known about them until recently. At the end of the 1950s, a very unique sanctuary with petroglyphic paintings of Tamgaly was discovered in the mountains of Anrakhai. Research work on them started in the 1970-1980s. Another outstanding monument, the sanctuary Eshkiolmes in the valley Koksu, was discovered in the 1980s. More and more collections of Petroglyphs are being discovered in Semirechie territory. More than ten of these sites have been included into this research work. The possibility to differentiate the main phases of the development of petroglyphic art in Kazakhstan became possible after these discoveries.
There are currently, fifty discovered monuments in Semirechie, where one can find paintings of petroglyphic art. The most famous Petroglyphs are in the natural boundary Tamgaly, in the valley of the river Koksu, among the Sholak, Kyndyktas, Anrakhai, and Bayan Zhurek mountains. Along with these outstanding sanctuaries, which include several thousand petroglyphic paintings, there are also small groups of with several hundreds or tens of painting Petroglyphs on canyon walls, hills, and burial ground stones. As a rule, there are other archeological monuments: settlings, burial grounds, sacrificial altars, or cult constructions located next to these Petroglyphs, which make it possible to conduct complex research and give additional information about Petroglyphs. The discovery of connections between different types of monuments gives the opportunity to consider them as a one entire system. This, in turn, considerably widens the understanding of ancient art of Semirechie.
The main part of petroglyphic paintings of Western Semirechie belongs to the Bronze Age. These types of paintings comprise about 80-90% of the total number of Petroglyphs in this region. They considerably differ from petroglyphic paintings of Eastern Semirechie by their technical methods, style, and character of location. The name of the largest sanctuary «Petroglyphs of the Tamgaly tradition» was reserved for the main group of Petroglyphs of Western Semirechie, which were executed in a particular style.
The natural boundary of Tamgaly is located in 170 km. to northwest of Almaty in the Anrakhai mountains. The majority of Petroglyphs are located in the lower part of the main canyon, and in a side canyon, which is adjacent to it from the west, as well as in seven small canyons that are located to the northwest of the main canyon. The total number of paintings in the main canyon is approximately 2,000. All of them are conditionally divided into seven groups. The numbering of the groups starts from the estuary of the canyon. Here one can see the images of sun-headed idols, disguised warriors, married couples, women in childbirth. There are also compositions with many figures, portraying images of people and animals in scenes of hunting and bull sacrifice. Plots with the image of chariots are very rare. There are many solar symbols.
These Petroglyphs are from various times, but they mostly belong to the Bronze Age. Paintings done in the «animal» style of the Saaks are located separately from the ancient Petroglyphs. In some instances, however, they complete them and even overlay them. Medieval petroglyphic images have been hammered out on the hills that surround the canyon, and on the sideward waterless small canyons.
The natural boundary Tamgaly is currently one of the most ancient and outstanding monuments of petroglyphic art of Semirechie.
The natural boundary Karakyr is located in 7 km. to northwest of the main canyon Tamgaly on the north slope of the Anrakhai mountains. Petroglyphic images are dispersed in the higher part, as well as in the lower part of several hills. The main part of the paintings, located in 2-3 layers, was discovered on rocky edges of northern hill of the natural boundary.
The geologic-geomorphologic and landscape-climatic conditions of Semirechie determine specific features of the topography, number and substrate of rock art sites in the eastern and western part of the region. Thus, there are no petroglyphs on morainic boulders in the Chu-Ili Mountains, while they are common in Dzhungarian Alatau and the mountains of Northern Tien Shan. In general, the location of the Semirechie petroglyphs in mountainous and steppe landscapes is on open vertical and/or horizontal rock surfaces in erosion and river valleys traditionally cultivated by settled pastoralists and farmers and nomads of all historic periods.
Early Iron Age rock art traditions in Semirechie, also predominant in Eshkiolmes, are the Pre-Saki and Early Saki petroglyphs (8th — 6th centuries BC). They are characterized by the prominent role of the wild fauna represented -felines, wolves, boar, deer, mountain goats, as well as birds of prey. The abundant art of the Pazyryk culture is characterized by the leading role of human images-mounted and dismounted soldiers armed with bows, battle axes, daggers or swords, and a birthing woman occupying an almost central position in this art. The iconography includes hunting scenes and animals torn to pieces, with body or head 180° reversed. These petroglyphs are dated to the 5th – 3rd centuries BC.
In Western Semirechie, another pictorial tradition includes images of mirrors with a handle (often life-size), dated by means of their similarity to real objects. It is typical of the nomad culture of western Kazakhstan, the Near Urals and the Dzhetyasar culture of the lower reaches of the Syrdarya (6th — 4th/3rd centuries BC). In addition, large numbers of less expressive engravings, not yet attributed to a particular culture, date to the Early Iron Age. In particular, in Eastern Semirechie, it has so far been impossible to confidently distinguish petroglyphs from the end of the 1st millennium BC to the beginning of our era, whereas in the Chu-Ili Mountains (Kulzhabasy, Tamgaly) representative series of petroglyphs are similar to the objects in the Hunnu and Syanbi
The most recent petroglyphs were made by nomadic Kazakhs in the 19th — early 20th century. Their repertoire is limited to hunting motifs, horse races or cattle grazing, with inscriptions in Arabic script, graffiti and images of lineage –tamgas- close to wintering grounds. They rarely form significant concentrations, but in general are widespread and fairly abundant. The content and form of 20th century rock art differs, with Cyrillic graffiti and Soviet-era ideological symbols: portraits of V.-I. Lenin, the five-pointed star, emblems of arms of the Soviet Army and others. The traditional motifs of hunting, stunts on horseback and others persist.
Although some indigenous pastoralists in Semirechie still practice rock drawings and inscriptions, their activity has no religious or cultural value. At the same time, some of the rock art sites within their area are included within the sacred space recognized by tradition as holy places (Tamgaly, Kegen Arasan). However, even then, the main objects of worship are other cultural or natural sites, i.e. burial places, cultic buildings, trees, springs, rather than ancient petroglyphs. With few exceptions, the awareness of local people of their value remains minimal, thus giving rise to a negligent attitude towards them, deliberate destruction or retouching of the engravings, the creation of palimpsests, etc.
Typology and Dating
Tamgaly Bronze Age petroglyphs are unique in Central Asian rock art. The oldest series of rock images identified as the Tamgaly-type of petroglyphs has the most aesthetic and cultural value. They are distinguished by their large-size (from 25-30cm to 0.7-1.0m), vivid naturalistic style and their rich repertoire (anthropomorphic solar deities, “masks», club-carriers, an archer in a wolf mask, chariots, hoof prints, spectacle-shaped signs as well as images of bulls, Asiatic wild asses, horses, camels, wild boar, wolves, deer, etc.).
Tamgaly-type petroglyphs are distributed unevenly throughout the area of the gorge, mainly on the rocks in groups I-V, IVa, with more than 1,000 isolated images, also found in several peripheral locations of the Tamgaly complex, dated to the second half of the 14th – 13th centuries BC. Their area is limited from the central part of the Chu-Ili Mountains to the Chu Valley and the northern Issyk-Kul region.
Sholakzhideli Gorge is located in the Shu District of the Zhambyl Region, 5km east of Khantau Station on the western slope of the Khantau Mountains. The Low Khantau and Zhambyl Mountains form the northern end of the Chu-Ili Range. That area is surrounded by almost impassable deserts (Moyinkum, Begapdala and Taukum), to the west, north, and east. For more than three millennia, it thus had a special significance in the system of interregional communications, cultural, economic, political ties and relations. The routes historically connecting Eastern Europe and Western Siberia, Central Asia, Internal Tien Shan and China met there. Until the middle of the 19th century, trade caravans from Bukhara and Tashkent stopped to rest before continuing their journey through the desert to the shores of the Balkhash and farther on to Irtysh and Tobol. The strategic main road –Big Kalmy Road that connected the nomadic headquarters (urgu) of the rulers of the Dzhungarian Khanate and Tibet with the Volga Kalmyks-led from there to the Volga through the Kazakh Steppe. The Khantau archeological sites testify to the significance of the Semirechie area in Antiquity.
The Eshkiolmes Mountains are spurs of the main range of the Dzhungarian Alatau 15km south of Taldykorgan City–an administrative capital of the Almaty Region. The specificity of the natural structure of low range Eshkiolmes (850–1,300m) is its asymmetry: the northern slopes consist of smooth hillsides in a gently rolling country covered with grassland vegetation; the southern slope is steep and represents a chain of deep and narrow rocky gorges. Devonian eruptive and sedimentary formations shape the geological structure of the mountains. It is on these patinated Devonian rocks that numerous petroglyphs are preserved.
Tamgalytas (Ili Kapshagay) petroglyphs
Tamgalytas is a site of Tibetan-Oirat art and epigraphy of the 17th-18th centuries, located in the Almaty Region, 25km north-west of Kapshagay City, on the right bank of the Ili River. In the middle part of Ili Kapshagay (canyon), at the foot of the erosion rock ledge about 500 m long and 40-45 m high, an accumulation of boulders has 17 surfaces depicting four Buddha images (Shakyamuni, Bhaisajyaguru, Akshobya and Nageshvararaja), bodhisattvas of Avalokiteshvara and about 30 inscriptions executed in Tibetan and Oirat writing.
The Akterek Valley is in the Zhambyl District of the Almaty Region, 4km south of Akterek Village, 100km west of Almaty City. Akterek Gorge is located on the northern slope of Zailiyskiy Alatau, the western lower part of the range. Along with other adjacent valleys–Kastek, Rgayty–Akterek Gorge forms an important part of traditional mountain transit routes that connect Semirechie and the Ili Valley with the upper reaches of the Chu River, the Issyk Kul Basin and the area of Central Tien Shan.
Junior researcher at the Museum of archaeology