CENTRAL ASIA'S NEW DASTANS
H. B. Paksoy
CENTRAL ASIAN SURVEY (Oxford)
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1987. Pp. 75-92.
Give me a chance, my rebellious dreams
My father has erected his statue in my memory
May years and winds be rendered powerless
May his legacy not be erased from my conscience
Give me a chance, my rebellious dreams
Grant my father a holy DASTAN
May years and winds be rendered powerless
May his remembrance never be allowed to fade
(Muhbir, November 1982 [Tashkent])
The dastan is ornate oral history and an important part
of the Turkic literature of Central Asia. Traditionally,
dastans have been repositories of ethnic identity and
history, and some constitute nearly complete value systems
for the peoples they embrace. The primary, or "mother,"
dastans are those composed to commemorate specific liberation
struggles.  Set mostly in verse by an ozan, 
50 mother dastans are recited by Central Asians from the
Eastern Altai to the Western Ural Mountains and as far south
as Bend-e Turkestan in Afghanistan.
Most dastans commemorate the struggles of different
Turkic peoples against external aggressors, such as the
Kalmuks and Chinese. The central figure of the dastan is the
alp,  who leads his people against the enemy, be they from
afar or from within his own tribe. The alp endures many
trials and tribulations, which ultimately are shared by a
supporting cast. His problems are nearly always aggravated by
one or more traitors, who although a problem for the alp, can
never stop his ineluctable progress toward victory. His
success is celebrated by a toy, or lavish feast. Traitors and
enemies are dealt with, frequently paying with their lives
for their treachery, but more often left to roam the earth in
search of some kind of reconciliation with their consciences
and with God.
Love is a frequent theme in the dastan. Often a loved
one is abducted by the enemy, only to be rescued by his or
her mate after much searching, fighting and sacrifice. Foes
and traitors sometimes attempt to extort favors from the
lovers, but this does not deter the resolve or threaten the
ultimate triumph of the alp and his supporters.
Dastan characteristically refers to historical events;
it is a repository of historical memory, a record of the
events and customs of its creators and their descendants. The
dastan travels with Central Asians, and, like its immediate
owners, it is not bothered with borders. It provides the
framework to bond a coherent oymak  sharing one language,
religion and history. The dastan is the collective pride of
tribes, confederation of tribes and even larger units. It
serves as a kind of birth certificate, national anthem and
proof of citizenship all rolled into one.
The fact that more than one oymak may identify with
a given dastan has far reaching implications. In this context,
Alpamysh  enjoys a very special place among
all major Turkic tribal units have at least one version which
they call their own. These variants --if they may be called
that-- display minor differences only in place names and in
Dastans are jealously guarded against textual change.
Not even minor details are allowed to be altered. They are
revised under only two conditions: when a major new alp
appears and his heroic fight against oppression and for the
preservation of his peoples' traditional life style and
customs warrants celebrating; and when the heirs of an
existing dastan face oppression by an outsider. Portions of
new dastans , however, will almost certainly be borrowed from
older dastans. This is not plagiarism: the new alp is being
compared to his predecessors, which is intended to reassure
the listener of the new alp's prowess, exemplary character
and resourcefulness. By borrowing from the old dastans, the
new alp is inextricably linked to the existing historical-
Dastans are intended to be both didactic and emotive.
They prepare children mentally to honor alp-like behavior and
to adopt alp-like responsibilities if need be. If a dastan
tells of a defeat of its own people, it serves to illustrate
the mistakes made and suggest remedies.
The very nature of the dastans as a well-spring of
traditional culture has led Soviet authorities to view them
with considerable distrust. In the early 1950s, for example,
the dastans were attacked from many quarters, although in
some cases Soviet Central Asians successfully counterattacked
to reduce official pressure.  Since then, the dastans have
occasionally been at the center of controversies between the
Russian center and the Central Asian lands. This tension may
be reflected in the different treatment of the dastans in
central and regional publications, such as encyclopedias. The
Bol'shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia's entry for
example, is limited to 240 words and is distinctly ambiguous,
referring to the subject as "Persian epic genre"  In
contrast, the Uzbek Soviet Encyclopedia describes
in nearly 1000 words, noting their importance as documents of
"liberation struggles," "heroic deeds," and the "legendary
warlike abilities of selfless heroes."  It is likely that
many Central Asians who read the dastans will substitute
Russian conquerors for more ancient ones described in the
dastans, which is probably why Moscow's attitude toward the
dastans has remained hostile. Soviet authorities have
published a number of editions of various dastans. Most of
these were "sanitized." During preparation for publication,
any passages describing the old ways or reflecting the roots
of historical identity are deleted from the text. All
relevant historical facts are stripped away and in some cases
replaced by artificial versions sympathetic to the Soviet
cause. This "sanitization" is designed to remove all aspects
of the Central Asian heritage that may contribute to the
reemergence of self-identity in the minds of the new
generation.  The new dastans, however, cast the Russians
unequivocally in the role of aggressors. The Olmez Kayalar
(Immortal Cliffs) is one of these.
The Immortal Cliffs
In 1981, Mamadali Mahmudov's historical novelette, the
Olmez Kayalar was serialized in the Uzbek literary
journal Shark Yildizi. Its publication coincided
with significant changes in the Uzbek literary establishment,
including the editorship of Shark Yildizi. These
changes may be the result of some as yet unknown processes but
culminated in the publication of a series of works displaying
nationalistic tendencies.  The Immortal Cliffs
definitely falls into this category. It is, in fact, a dastan,
complete with all the traditional structural and thematic
The conditions under which the Immortal Cliffs is
printed warrants special attention. Instead of being issued
as a monograph, it was serialized in Shark
Yildizi. Only 114 pages long, it was divided into two
installments and appeared during October and November (Nos. 9 and
10) of 1981. Its author, Mamadali Mahmudov, reportedly in his
30s, took approximately four years to complete this 55,000 word
The Immortal Cliffs was written under the well-known
and severe restrictions of the Soviet guidelines on historical
interpretation and was required to fulfill all the
requirements of "socialist realism." One might expect,
therefore, that its message --in both substance and form--
would be conventional and predictable. It is anything but
these, however. First of all, one must understand traditional
dastan construction to grasp Immortal Cliffs real
meaning as most Central asians do. In it, for example, subtle
adaptations from earlier and ancient dastans are well
concealed. The Immortal Cliffs must be read at three
progressively advanced levels of depth, content and
understanding. It may compare to a three-story building, with
one floor above ground and two subterranean levels. The
visible level contains the immediately recognizable arguments
and lessons, which are on view for everyone. The first sub-
level is constructed mainly of ancient Turkic dastans, which
are recognizable only to the initiated. The second sub-level,
a kind of secret vault, is accessible only through a
metaphorical "trap door." The vault contains the "last will
and testament " of Mahmudov's ancestors, who inspired him to
write as he has, and of Mahmudov himself, whose objective
becomes to add his own advice to the secrets of the vault,
advice which can be transmitted to the next generation in the
tradition of handing down a dastan from father to son.
The first, visible layer of the novelette has been
adequately discussed elsewhere by others.  Of primary
importance when considering the Immortal Cliffs are
the two remaining layers, particularly the sources from which
Mahmudov draws his inspiration and the implications of his
The basic plot of Immortal Cliffs is as
follows: Kunor and Kunis, joint heads of a tribe, bring their
tribe from Turkistan into the Jizzakh mountains to save them from
annihilation by the forces of Chengiz Khan. In the late 1800s
(the time of the story), Buranbek, a descendent of one of the
tribal heads, grows up reading the classical works of his
ancestry, such as Timur's Zafernama ("Victories"),
and becomes imbued with their spirit. His father is responsible
for teaching him the classical arts of using weapons (bow and
arrow, sword and shield, lance), horsemanship, a love of
nature, and respect for one's own history, heritage and the
relations between man and his environment. Buranbek also
participates in the philosophical discussions of his father
and his peers.
At the age of 21, he gains a chance to display his valor
in a fight with a bull. Shortly thereafter he marries his
sweetheart, but a treacherous individual from his tribe,
Kahramanbek, tries to ruin his marriage and Buranbek's
future. Buranbek travels to Russia with a caravan and spends
some time there. Later, Buranbek teams up with Boribek to
thwart the Russian advance into their territory. Buranbek
trains the young men of the Jizzakh plains to resist the
Russians. In the ensuing battle, the Russians' advance is
stopped. Buranbek is saluted as a muzaffer
("Victor"), which causes local jealousies. The jealous parties
kidnap Buranbek and take him to a dry river bed where they intend
to torture him. Buranbek is saved in the end by Boribek. In the
final scenes, Buranbek and Boribek discuss the future as they
would like it to be. Their principal wish is for future
generations to take note of the events of their (Buranbek's and
Boribek's) day in order to learn the lessons of their history
and, consequently, to preserve their freedom.
The basic structure of Immortal Cliffs is not at
variance with that of other Central Asian dastans, for
example Alpamysh. Buranbek in the Immortal Cliffs,
is born to an accomplished and respected father, and is in fact
reared with a knowledge of dastans. Buranbek displays his
leadership qualities in various ways. He learns from the wisdom
of his forefathers, reads the works of great commanders and
philosophers of his own heritage, endures all the hardships
with all of the dignity befitting an alp. Along the way,
Buranbek suffers the treachery of his kinsman and oppression
by the common enemy, and is forced to take up arms against
Buranbek, however, does not exhibit the magical
qualities at times attributed to an alp. This may be
Mahmudov's way of stressing two points: first that this is
history not fiction and the Russian threat is real and not
imaginary; and, second, that magical qualities are not
necessary to an alp or for alp-like action.
Unlike some fictitious alps, Buranbek does not speak when
only a few days old, nor does he lead troops at the age of
fourteen. Buranbek is already 21 when he is first called upon to
exhibit his alp-like qualities. When, a few years later, it
finally becomes necessary for him to confront Tsarist armies,
Buranbek borrows from the teachings and experience of Timur,
the great Central Asian commander, instead of through the use
of some magical weapon or tulpar (winged horse), to force the
withdrawal of the Russians.
In the Immortal Cliffs, Mahmudov adapts motifs from
ancient dastans on at least four occasions, in addition to
utilizing the general structure of Alpamysh. The borrowed
motifs are the themes central to Dede Korkut, Oghuz Kagan,
Ergenekon and Chora Batir. There are also
to yet another dastans, Kirk Kiz (Forty Maidens);
nothing is directly adapted or taken from it.
The Bull Theme From Dede Korkut
"Bogach" is a cycle of The Book of Dede Korkut,
return is believed to be a partial reconstruction of the
Oghuz Kagan dastan. 
According to Dede Korkut, a male offspring must earn
adult name, which can only be accomplished by performing a
manly deed. In the case of the son of Dirse Khan, the ruler
of an Oghuz tribe, such a chance occurs early in his life. He
finds himself facing an angry bull owned by Bayindir Khan, at
the age of fifteen:
The bull charged him, bent on destroying him. The boy
gave the bull a merciless punch on the forehead and the
bull went sliding on his rump. Again he came and charged
the boy. Again the boy gave him a mighty punch on the
forehead, but this time he kept his fist pressed against
the bull's forehead and shoved him to the end of the
arena. Then they struggled together. The boy's shoulders
were covered with the bull's foam. Neither the boy nor
the bull could gain victory. Then the boy thought,
'people put a pole against a roof to hold it up. Why am
I standing here propping up this creature's forehead'
and stepped aside. The bull could not stand on its feet
and collapsed headlong. The boy drew his knife and cut
off the bull's head.
After this event, with due ceremony, the boy is named Bogach
In the Immortal Cliffs, and encounter between a bull
an alp occurs under similar circumstances, in the sense that
Buranbek's first manly endeavor is to fight with a bull which
terrorizes the kishlak (winter quarters of a tribe) in which
he was born.  At that time, Buranbek is 21 years of age,
realistically possessing the physical strength required for
The bull in Immortal Cliffs, belonging to a member
the tribe, goes mad and begins attacking at random. Buranbek
hears of this while at the yaylak (summer pastures of a
tribe) and mounting his horse, gallops to the kishlak. The
bull spots Buranbek:
Buranbek managed to dismount from his horse with
enviable skill. The bull groaned once again and charged
him. Buranbek swiftly evaded the bull. The bull ran into
the mulberry tree that was in front of him. Buranbek
quickly anticipated the bull and got behind the mill-
stone. The bull hit his head on the milling stone with a
loud thud... The bull bellowed frighteningly, and
raising the dust and as if flames were coming out of his
eyes, charged Buranbek. Reyhan (a young girl from the
kishlak) screamed with fear. Buranbek sidestepped and
hit the bull between the eyes with his fist. He then cut
off the head of the bull with the ax that Reyhan handed
Mahmudov has taken this motif from Dede Korkut
verbatim, but he does not credit his source. There can be
little doubt, however, that Mahmudov intends the reader to
make this connection.
The Wolf Motif From Ergenekon and Oghuz
The wolf plays a prominent role in the dastans
 and Oguz Kagan.  The wolf motif, together
adaptations from Chora Batir,  direct the
readers' attention to the location of the ultimate message
accessible through the metaphorical "trapdoor" in the dastan
Immortal Cliffs --regaining independence. By
sprinkling clues, Mahmudov seeks to signpost this passageway
to the "treasure," which he has meticulously buried at the
deepest level in the Immortal Cliffs.
Ergenekon is the name of a valley which became a
secluded homeland to the Gok-Turks.  In this location,
the remnants of the Gok-Turks, threatened with extinction
elsewhere, multiplied and thrived. In one of the two known
variants of the dastan Ergenekon, a she-wolf rescues
a Gok-Turk warrior who has been mutilated by the enemy and takes
him to Ergenekon. There, conceiving sons from him, they re-
populate this oymak. According to the second version of the
dastan, two sons of the Gok-Turk ruler and their Wives take
refuge in Ergenekon after their defeat by the Tatars.
The conclusion of both versions are similar. The population of
the oymak becomes so large that Ergenekon can no longer hold it.
The population desires to leave, but no one knows the way out.
Finally, a blacksmith notices that a
portion of the mountains surrounding this valley is composed
of iron ore. The people of the valley pile wood and coal high
in front of this section setting it ablaze. The ore melts and
a passageway from Ergenekon is secured.
The whole dastan Oghuz Kagan is devoted to the
of a ruler and his people. A number of the 16 variants
contain the "pathfinder wolf" motif, without incorporating
the Ergenekon episode. It is also known that the wolf is the
tamga (the seal) and gok-boru (blue
wolf), the uran (war cry, password) of the Gok-Turk tribal
Moreover, the Gok-Turks displayed the head of the wolf on
their standards and banners. 
In the Immortal Cliffs, both the wolf and the
mountainous location of Kattabag kishlak have significant
connotations. The wolf motif appears in two contexts. First
in connection with an opportunist member of the kishlak named
Kahramanbek; and secondly with a veteran fighter for
freedom, Boribek.  Kahramanbek is later discovered to be
a traitor, while Boribek teams up with the main alp of the
Immortal Cliffs, Buranbek, to fight off the
Kahramanbek encounters a wolf pup while he is climbing
Akkaya with a party of his tribesmen on a pleasure outing.
Akkaya is the dominant mountain near their kishlak; it is
also the location where the ancestors of the kishlak Kattabag
are buried. Kahramanbek is at first disposed to kill the cub.
Changing his mind, he tries to force the cub to cry out in
pain, hoping to lure the mother wolf out into the open, his
intention being to kill the mother as well as the cub. In
spite of the pain Kahramanbek inflicts on the cub, the cub
does not utter a sound, in other words, does not betray his
mother. Giving up the thought of luring the cub's mother,
Kahramanbek mutilates the cub's body in anger, breaking his
legs, cutting off one ear and leaving it to die. The cub, as
the reader discovers later, survives to become an avenging
Mahmudov is making a clear allusion to the oldest dastan
through his use of the wolf motif. Kahramanbek, a traitor,
tries to kill the mother wolf, which, by Mahmudov's use of
the allusion to the older dastans, inter alia represents
independence and sanctuary. His message is thus
uncomplicated: one must beware of the traitors in our midst
who will betray us, in this case to the Russians; you may
have to endure great pains and suffering, but eventually you
will become the avenger.
Mahmudov's plot indeed follows this path. Boribek is a
veteran Kazakh, a freedom fighter who has already fought the
Russians several times only to be betrayed by those of his
kinsmen who would cooperate with the Russians. He had sought
help of the nearby rulers; some half-heartedly furnished him
with troops. When the news arrives that the Russians are en
route to Kattabag, Boribek, the veteran independence fighter,
joins Buranbek to prepare a defense. They train all the young
and able men for the coming struggle, using techniques
suggested by Buranbek, which he claims candidly to have
borrowed, significantly, from Timur. They attack the Russians
and force them to withdraw.
It is hard to imagine that any Central Asian today could
miss what Mahmudov has clearly --some might say flagrantly--
attempted. Most will quickly recognize the wolf for what it
is: an undisguised (except perhaps from the Russians)
invitation to look to the distant past, to interpret the
recent past and, by implication, the present and the future.
Mahmudov may or may not want his readers to take the
Cliffs uncritically as a dastan in its own right. He
intends for them to read it like a dastan, the medium
conveying its own message and endowing the story with a layer
of meaning that only the invited can grasp or, more
appropriately, feel. Is Mahmudov warning Central Asians to
beware of the Kahramanbeks in their midst, those who would
betray them to the Russians? If so, he leaves no doubt who
will lose and who will win, who will be the torturer and who
The Importance Of Place: Central Asian Turkic Unity
Mahmudov indicates that the inhabitants of Kattabag came
from Turkistan,  fleeing from the armies of Chingiz Khan.
They first settled here, hoping some day to return to their
original home. The ancestors were originally organized around
two large families, under the joint leadership of Kunor and
Kunis.  Here is an allusion to an earlier dastan in
Mahmudov's choice of two leaders in the Immortal
Kungrats of Alpamysh also have two prominent Bays known as
Baybora and Baysari, who appear to be strikingly similar to
Kunor and Kunis in their deeds.
Mahmudov is attempting to link the inhabitants of
Kattabag to the historic Turkic lands, and he is directing
his Central Asian readers to their Turkic past: the routes of
continuous migrations of Turkic tribes, of the Orkhon
tablets, of the Kultigin monuments. Buranbek notes that
Turkic unity preceded Islam's arrival in Central Asia. The
Islamic umma is both alien (arab) concept and a latecomer to
the Turkic peoples. It sapped the vitality of the national
identity. We see this theme again when Boribek, who has
fought the Russians several times, teams up with Buranbek to
carry on the military struggle against the Russians. This
they agree to do by using techniques of warfare borrowed from
Timur.  Timur was a Barlas Turk and a Muslim, but one
remained relatively neutral toward religion and who, despite
the efforts of the ulama, did not use Islam as a basis for
unity in his empire.
The concept of Central Asian Turkic unity is one of the
strongest motifs in the Immortal Cliffs. What
or does not mean by Central Asian Turkic unity must be
understood clearly. His vision of unity appears to be
unconnected to pan-Turkism  which was designed by
Europeans to serve European goals in their 19th and early
20th century balance of power struggles.
The doctrine was apparently first articulated by the
Hungarian Orientalist Arminius Vambery  in 1865 and given
further impetus by an 1896 monograph written by Leon Cahun,
which Ziya Gokalp noted was written "as if to encourage the
ideal of pan-Turkism." 
Secondly, Mahmudov's vision is not a grand design for
world conquest or the destruction, subjugation or
assimilation of any other people (the Tajiks, for example).
Rather, Mahmudov's is a call to Central Asian unity, directed
against the most recent invader, the Russians.
At different points in the story Mahmudov addresses a
variety of themes related to the overarching concept of
Central Asian Turkic unity. For example:
- the common ancestry of various tribes in Central
Asia, i.e. Kazakh, Kirghiz, Uzbek and their unique and
specific cultural heritage; 
- the existence of traitors who have acted (and still
act) against such a unity; 
- the common enemies of the Turks: Arabs and Mongols in
the past, Russians during the time frame of Immortal
- the necessary steps to be taken, if Turkic unity is
to be realized; 
- the difficulties experienced by the peoples of Turkic
origin who allow Islam to cloud their sense of Central Asian
Turkic unity; 
Mahmudov's emphasis on Central Asian Turkic unity is
interesting also as a possible response to the recent novel
by Kirghiz writer Chingiz Aitmatov; A Day Lasts Longer Than
An Age (Novyi mir, No. 11; 1980). Aitmatov's
is that only Islamic unity can serve as an effective basis
for Central Asian resistance to the Russians. The Immortal
Cliffs may be a part of a larger debate --cleverly cloaked
"historical fiction"-- regarding the most sound basis for
Mahmudov's characters' hostility toward Islam may appear
to serve the regime. In one scene from Immortal
example, some Russian sympathizers in a conversational
setting are critical of Islam as an impediment to development
in much the same way as the official Soviet media today
criticize Islam. Clearly, Mahmudov's intention is not to echo
Soviet rhetoric. His call for Central Asian Turkic unity --
anathema to the Soviet regime-- ought to be sufficient proof.
Furthermore, his argument is based on knowledge of the Turks'
historical existence and written records dating from the
eighth century. It is a history obscured by contradictory and
unfounded Soviet "scholarship" on the "ethnogenesis" of the
Furthermore, both Mahmudov's and Aitmatov's works
appeared shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
(December 1979). It is conceivable that both men are offering
advice to the Afghan mujahidin about how to fight the
Russians, or at least to Soviet Central Asians about how to
think about the Afghan resistance to Russian aggression. If
this is so, it raises the intriguing possibility that the
Soviet establishment has unwittingly permitted potent pro-
mujahidin allegories to reach the public domain. The
immediate and intense criticism levelled at Mahmudov (see
below) may in fact have been an attempt to quash this view
before it became popular.
Influence of Chora Batir On The Immortal
Chora Batir is a dastan of Tatar origin, detailing
fights of the Tatars against the Russians in the 16th
century.  This fact alone places it in a very special
category, since the clearly named enemy is not Mongol or
Chinese as in the case of Alpamysh or Kultigin.
Chora Batir, as his second name indicates, is an alp.
It's quite likely that this dastan is modelled after a real
Batir.  During his lifetime, he performs several major
alp-like deeds. His prowess and skill attract the attention
of several rulers and he is invited to enter their service.
In one case, an arrow shot by Chora Batir is found to
have brought down a bird reputed to fly very high. It is
reported that ordinarily it is impossible to shoot this bird
in flight. Eventually it is determined that the arrow was
shot from Chora Batir's bow. He is invited to take part in a
shooting contest. Chora Batir borrows a bow and an arrow, but
the bow cannot withstand the power of Chora Batir when drawn,
He is immediately given another, but the same fate
befall the new bow. His shooting skills are then questioned.
He asks that his own bow be brought, which he had left with
his horse. One Batir cannot carry Chora Batir's bow, however,
and a second Batir is sent to help the first. Two Batirs
manage to carry it. With his bow in hand, Chora Batir wins
the contest, proving that he has all the qualities of an alp
and that he can perform feats that others cannot.
The other alps, who have been unseated from their former
glory by Chora Batir, conspire against him. Chora Batir
defeats all of the conspirators, and moves on. He also fights
the Russians who came to conquer Kazan. Chora Batir turns
back the Russians, and the Russian general takes an oath
never to return again or to gird a sword. Upon this victory,
Chora Batir becomes the Bash Batir (Premier Champion) of
Cifali Khan, ruler of Kazan.
After their defeat, the Russians consult astrologers to
seek a way to subdue Kazan and especially Chora Batir. The
astrologers determine that a Russian girl would conceive a
son by Chora Batir, and this boy would eventually kill his
father. The Russians then send a pretty girl to Kazan with
specific instructions to find Chora Batir and return to
Russian territory upon becoming pregnant. Chora Batir lives
with the girl. After conceiving, the Russian girl returns to
Time passes; Chora Batir's son by the Russian girl grows
up and leads the Russian troops advancing on Kazan. During
the final battle for Kazan, Chora Batir is killed by this
boy, his own son.
In the Immortal Cliffs, Buranbek, after turning back
tsarist Russian troops at Kattabag, is invited by the Amir of
Bukhara. He is greeted with high honors and treated as
Muzaffer (Victor). This, of course, draws the ire of the
traitors among the retinue of the Bukhara Amir. Buranbek is
invited to a private feast and lavishly praised during the
festivities. Finally, he is forcibly bundled up, taken to the
riverbed and tortured. Before the conspirators can kill him,
he is rescued by the loyal Boribek. Buranbek goes into hiding
to recover from his wounds.
Russian troops, under the command of Edward Mikhailovich
Evseev, occupy Kattabag. Earlier, during a visit to his uncle
in Omsk, Buranbek became involved with the wife of Colonel
Evseev and fathered a son of this Russian woman.  Upon
occupying Kattabag, Colonel Evseev immediately seeks out
Buranbek, but cannot find him.
Due to its contents, the accounts of Tatars fighting
against the Russians to retain an independent Kazan and then
turning them back, the dastan Chora Batir was especially
singled out by the Soviet regime for total extinction. The
Soviets almost succeeded in eliminating all written copies of
this dastan. How then did Mahmudov, a young man, who is
perhaps not a descendant of the tatar oymak, knew enough
about Chora Batir to quote it? Did he see a written
which somehow survived the Soviet cultural purge? If not, we
may conclude that Chora Batir is still alive, part
dastan oral tradition.  It surely is not a coincidence
that certain deeds of Buranbek, alp of Immortal
follows a pattern remarkably similar to that of Chora Batir.
At one time, Soviet scholarship insisted that the
ancient dastans were, on the whole, progressive. In the case
of Alpamysh, Soviet ideologues were lavish in their praise:
"One of the most perfect epic poems in the world" 
"The liberty song of Central Asian national fighting against
the alien invaders" 
"Authentic popular movement, voicing the ideology of the
toiling masses" 
In the early 1950s, however, the dastans were attacked
as being reactionary, their earlier progressive elements
apparently conveniently forgotten. "Impregnated with the
poison of feudalism and reaction, breathing Muslim fanaticism
and preaching hatred towards foreigners," was how one source
 described Alpamysh under the new interpretive
guidelines. Alpamysh was condemned by the Uzbekistan
Communist Party's Central Committee before the tenth plenum,
 by a special conference of historians of literature at
the Republic University in Samarkand,  and by the joint
session of the Academy of Sciences and the Union of Soviet
Writers in Tashkent.  At this last meeting, the defenders
of Alpamysh were declared "pan-Turkic nationalists."
The reaction of the official Soviet establishment
towards the Immortal Cliffs is strikingly similar to
campaign against the dastans thirty years earlier. The amount
of ire the Immortal Cliffs drew from the authorities
gleaned from the proceedings of the Uzbek Writers Union
meetings, which were reported in editorials in the Uzbek
press. For example:
...appearances of a lack of true ideological content,
inattention in defining the world view, and deviation
from a clear-cut class position in evaluating some
historical events and individuals can harm the talent of
even talented people. 
Mahmudov permitted some confusions to arise in the realm
of a realistic description of the conditions of the
historical past and in the realm of an approach to past
events on the basis of Marxist-Leninist methodology.
...difficult to know even which level or which social
groups its heroes were representative of...It is also
possible to encounter the very same shortcomings in the
prose and poetic works of some of our writers. 
Mahmudov and his work, as was the case with the dastan
Alpamysh during 1951-1952, is not the sole target.
Mirmuhsin's "Roots and Leaves," Ibrahim Rahim's "The
Consequence," and Hamid Gulam's "Mashrab" were also
Under pressure, Mahmudov was forced to recant:
Immortal Cliffs is my first major work. Rating my
creative potentials higher than I should have done, I
took up my pen to write about a very complicated
historical period. As a result I allowed some
shortcomings. What is the reason for this? Because I
could not present the spirit of that age correctly. 
Another critic remarked:
He also wants to emphasize his commitment to good
relations among the Soviet peoples. He states that
having lived in Russia for five years, he has come to
know and love Russian people, and he tried to convey
that affection in his novel. He maintains that he
stressed the positive influence of Russia on the
development of Turkistan. He also wants to dispel the
notion spread by [unnamed] foreign radio stations that
he has been persecuted; on the contrary, he is living
and working freely in his own homeland, among his writer
friends. He intends to rework his novel this year and
prepare it for publication. It may be worth noting that
according to his personal account Mahmudov has been a
member of the CPSU for some time. 
Mahmudov's admission to having committed "shortcomings"
in interpreting the historical evidence is in sharp contrast
to his detailed presentation of the evidence itself. From the
extensive footnotes Mahmudov provides for his readers, it is
clear that he conducted wide-ranging historical research --
far more extensive, in fact, than simply regurgitating Soviet
encyclopedia entries-- in preparation for the writing of the
Immortal Cliffs. For example, each troop movement by
the Russians is supported by footnotes, lending this "historical
fiction" the kind of accuracy that inclines one to think that
it is more history than fiction. For example, the Jizzakh
battle  which forced the withdrawal of General Cherniaev
and his troops (in the Immortal Cliffs, the battle
is waged by the inhabitants of Kattabag, under the leadership of
Buranbek and Boribek) and subsequent events are historically
accurate. Mahmudov used fiction to explain history, which is
what apparently got Soviet authorities so excited. One would
have thought that it was the historical record, which speaks
for itself, that they would have preferred to suppress. But
this may be a case of the particular genre providing a
convenient carrier and disguise for the author's larger
How deep was Mahmudov's recantation? In it he notes, for
example, that he once lived in Russia for five years and had
come to love the Russian people. This intriguing admission
raises the possibility that at least part of the Immortal
Cliffs is autobiographical, for Buranbek, too, made an
extended sojourn to Russia. Does Mahmudov wish the reader to
infer that Buranbek really speaks for him, the author? If so,
Mahmudov appear to be stepping up his attack, not stepping
back from it.
What conclusions can be drawn from the Immortal
and the controversy surrounding it? Some conclusions are
clearly justified. First, there can be little doubt that
Mahmudov intended his novelette to be understood by Central
asians as part of the dastan genre. In this way, he proposed
to speak directly to them by going around Soviet censorship
and the ubiquitous "socialist realism" filter which screens
out culturally and politically unacceptable material. In this
sense, the medium is clearly the message. History remains an
important political force in Central Asia. This is more so
than might have been expected perhaps because Central Asians
are daily fed an historical diet that is false and alien to
them. Mahmudov's critics, who attacked him largely on the
basis of what they deemed to be his faulty historical
analysis, appear to have grasped the significance of what he
was trying to do, even if they did not understand his means.
Second, there is Mahmudov's message, or, perhaps,
messages. One is clearly is that Central Asians should be
beware of the collaborators from among their own kin. But in
this regard, he leaves no doubt about whom the ultimate
victor will be.
Mahmudov's clearest and most controversial message is
his stress on the importance of the Turkic ethnic origins, as
reflected in his dastan, as the most logical common bond
among Central Asians.
It is likely that Immortal Cliffs was intended to be
a contribution to a debate among Central Asian intellectuals
about the future of Central Asia under Russian control. As we
have seen, Mahmudov's is by no means the only contribution
but may be the most provocative. Not only does he brush aside
the whole issue of Islamic based unity: he implies that the
Soviets can manipulate Islam to keep Central Asians apart.
This is a curious position inasmuch as Soviet newspapers
today provide abundant evidence of the political importance
of resurgent Islam among Central asian Muslims. Mahmudov may
be warning his readers that Islam is an inappropriate
identity structure to promote real unity. Central Asian
Turkic unity, on the other hand, is the suitable doctrine. If
the appearance of a series of like-minded "historical
fictions," with plots and structures closely resembling those
of Immortal Cliffs is an indication of larger
trends, it is entirely probable that the debate among Central
Asian intellectuals --the "Who are we?" dilemma-- centers on this
issue. Singan Kilich by Tolongon Kasimbekov (Frunze
[Bishkek], Kirghiz SSR, 1971); Baku 1501 by Azize
Caferzade (Azerbaycan, Azerbaijan SSR, Nos. 7 & 8, 1982);
Altin Orda by Ilyas Esenberlin (Culduz, Kazakh SSR,
Nos. 7 & 8 , 1982) have essentially common themes and by and
large concentrate on similar issues.
Soviet authorities are unlikely to find either
alternative pleasing; both build on the premise that the
Central Asians - "Us" - are very different from the Russians
- "Them." Beyond this, the Russians will be disturbed that
the search for a strong political identity among Central
Asians has taken them to the distant past, to their dastans,
far from Soviet historiography and even further from ethnic
"merging" predicted for the Soviet future.
N. B.: It is reported that Mamadali Mahmudov has been
awarded the Ozbekistan CHOLPAN PRIZE in 1992 for his work
Olmez Kayalar (Immortal Cliffs). see
Umid/Hope (Journal of the Turkestanian-American
Association) Volume 1, No. 2. Fall 1992, P. 14.
1. Later on, the mother dastans may spin-off their lyrical
portions which become dastans on their own. The "lyrical"
dastans would be concerned only with the "love story"
constituting a sub-plot in the mother dastan. This usually
occurs when the owners of the dastan are living independent,
free and in relative calm. The "mother" dastan is not
discarded, or even dismembered. The lyrical dastan tends to
take on a life of its own. Subsequently, the lyrical dastans
may decay into folkloric tales, recited to children as
bedtime stories. See below for a discussion of the
"creation" of new "mother" dastans.
2. In The Book of Dede Korkut, the bard is termed an
See the translation by Geoffrey Lewis (Penguin, 1974). Such
a person is also called: Bahshi; Akin; Ashik; Kam in various
locations. In 1923, Gazi Alim used Akin; in 1938, Hamid
Alimcan used Bahshi. [See H. B. Paksoy, Alpamysh: Central
Asian identity under Russian Rule (Hartford: AACAR,
3. Used interchangeably with Batir/Batur, meaning "valiant,"
"gallant," "brave;" as attributes of a skilled and fearless
champion tested in battle or contest. See Gerard Clauson,
An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth Century
Turkish. (Oxford, 1972). P. 172.
4. Ancestral unit, division of a greater tribe or
confederation of tribes. In addition, boy-clan; soy-family,
lineage are also used to depict the infrastructure within a
5. Alpamysh is one of the oldest mother dastans. It
portrays the liberation struggle of a Turkic tribe against an
6. For example, see A. Bennigsen "The Crisis of the Turkic
National Epics, 1951-1952: Local Nationalism or
Internationalism?" Canadian Slavonic Papers Vol.
XVII (1975), No. 23, Pp. 463-474.
7. Bol'shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia. Third
Edition. (Moscow, 1978), Vol. 1, P. 458.
8. Uzbek Sovet Entsiklopediiasi (Tashkent, 1971),
9. See Paksoy, Alpamysh.
10. See John Soper, "Shake-up in the Uzbek Literary Elite"
Central Asian Survey Vol 1, (1982), No. 4.
11. Shark Yildizi, a monthly literary-artistic
social-political journal, Tashkent. Hereafter SY.
12. W. Fierman, in a paper read to Conference on Identity
Problems in Central Asia and Teaching Programs. University
of Wisconsin-Madison (November, 1983).
13. See, for example, Z. V. Togan, Editor/Translator, Oghuz
Destani (Istanbul, 1972); Oughouz-name, epopee turque. R.
Nur (Societe de publications Eyptiennes: Alexandrie,
Die Legende von Oghuz Qaghan (Siztb. d. Preuss.
Wiss. 1932. Phil.-Histor. K1. V, Berlin).
14. Dede Korkut., op. cit., Pp. 30-31.
15. SY No. 10, Pp. 75-76.
16. SY No. 10, Pp. 77.
17. N. Ural, Ergenekon Destani (Ankara: Turk Dil
18. See note 13 above.
19. For a synopsis of this dastan, see H. B. Paksoy, "Chora
Batir: A Tatar Admonition to Future Generations." Studies
in Comparative Communism (Los Angeles\London) Vol. XIX,
Nos. 3 and 4, Autumn/Winter 1986. Pp. 253-265. For an early
reference, see Tatar Edebiyati Tarihi (Kazan, 1925).
For bibliography, see Philologiae Turcicae
Fundamenta II (Wiesbaden, 1965), p. 29.
20. A more contemporary re-enactment of Ergenekon
may be found among the Kirghiz tribes who fled the Soviet forces
the 1930s. Led by Rahman Kul Khan, two sizeable Kirghiz
oymaks migrated to the Pamirs at the Wakhan corridor portion
of Afghanistan. The location of their yurt was at an
altitude of approximately 12,000 ft. In 1979, following
Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a large majority of these
Kirghiz tribes became, once again, refugees. See H. B.
Paksoy, "Observations Among Kirghiz Refugees from the Pamirs
of Afghanistan Settled in the Turkish Republic." Journal of
the Anthropological Society of Oxford Vol. XVI, N. 1,
Hilary, 1985. Pp. 53-61.
21. For the constitution of traditional Turkic self-identity,
the triad uran-tamga-dastan are critical. See H. B. Paksoy,
"The Traditional Oglak Tartis Among the Kirghiz of the
Pamirs." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great
Britain and Ireland (London) 1985, Part 2. (1985). Pp.
22. For an example of the wolf motifs in the 8th century AD
funerary epitaphs, see Eski Turk Yazitlari, H. N.
Orkun, Editor, (Istanbul, 1936, P. 35. For and English
Translation of the Kul Tigin inscriptions, which contains the
aforementioned motif, see T. Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon
Turkic. (Bloomington: Uralic and Altaic Series Vol. 69,
1968), P. 256.
23. Bori, or Boru means wolf; bek-prince, chief, nobleman.
24. SY No. 11, P. 73,95.
25. For a definition of the homelands of the Turks see: 1)
Besim Atalay, Editor, Divan u Lugat at-Turk (Ankara,
1934). English translation is by R Dankoff with J. Kelly,
Compendium of Turkic Dialects. (3 Vols.) (Cambridge,
MA., 1982-84). 2) Sharaf al-Zaman Tahir Marvazi, China, the
Turks and India, V. Minorksky, Translator (London: Royal
Asiatic Society, 1942); 3) Hudud al-Alam, V.
Minorsky, Translator ((London, 1937); 4) Ibn Battuta, From
Travels in Asia and Africa: 1325-1354. H. A. R. Gibb,
Translator (New York, 1929). For Turkistan, see W. Barthold,
Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion. (4th. Ed.)
(London, 1977) Fourth edition; Alexander Park, Bolshevism
in Turkestan 1917-1927. (New York, 1957); Z. V. Togan,
Turkili Turkistan (Istanbul, 1981)
26. SY No. 10, P. 32.
27. SY No. 11, P. 116.
28. or, Pan-Turanianism. For an example of the "pan-
Turanian" treatment, see A Manual on the Turanians and
Pan-Turanianism. (Oxford: H. M. Government, Naval Staff
Intelligence Department, November 1918), (based on Vambery's
Turkenvolk (Leipzig, 1885) and that it was compiled by Sir
Denison Ross, as Sir Denison later personally informed Togan.
See Z. V. Togan, Hatiralar (Istanbul, 1969).
29. It appears that Vambery, a professor of Oriental
Languages, had extraordinary relations with the British
Foreign Office, drawing regular salary, later a pension. See
M. Kemal Oke, "Prof. Arminius Vambery and Anglo-Ottoman
Relations 1889-1907" Bulletin of the Turkish Studies
Association Vol. 9, No. 2. 1985. The pan-Turanian
so conceived and elaborated, was the prime diversionary issue
of European politicians and Russians, both under the tsars
and by emigres after the Bolshevik revolution.
30. Quoted in Charles Hostler, Turkism and the Soviets: The
Turks of the World and their Political Objectives (London,
1957), p. 141, citing Uriel Heyd, Foundations of Turkish
Nationalism (London, 1950), P. 28. See also L. Cahun,
Introduction a l'Histoire de l'Asie, Turcs, et Mongols, des
Origines a 1405. (Paris, 1896). For the spread of "pan"
ideas among Turks, see inter alia, Hostler; and Jacob M.
Landau, Pan-Turkism in Turkey: A study of
(London, 1981). Landau concentrates on the emigre aspects of
31. SY No. 10, Pp. 41, 51.
32. SY No. 10, Pp. 57; No. 11, Pp. 73, 74, 76.
33. SY No. 10, Pp. 56, 57, 60.
34. SY No. 10, Pp. 70, 75, 76, 83, 84.
35. SY No. 10, Pp. 64, 82.
36. The Soviet authors and propagandists are at variance with
each other as to the dates during which the Turks existed.
According to the Ozbek Sovet Entsiklopediasi
1971), Turks existed in Central Asia from roughly the 6th to
the 16th centuries and again in the 20th. (Entry on Turk).
D. E. Eremeev, in Ethnogenez Turok; proiskhozhdenie i
osnovnye etapy etnicheskoi istorii (Moscow, 1971)
albeit parenthetically, an amazingly garbled bit of
misinformation: he mentions attacks on the Byzantine empire
by Scythians in the 11th and 12th centuries and, in a
footnote, explains that the Scythians were Turks (Tiurk) from
the Balkans (p. 75). A misreading of Barthold's
A. N. Bernshtam in his 1946 work on the Orkhon Turks
establishes at the outset the limits the limits his
willingness to follow his data. He states: "(Even) if the
word Turk (tiurk) existed before the 6th-8th centuries,
(even) if the totem "wolf" is more ancient than the Orkhon-
Yenisei Turks (Tiurk), that does not mean that the Turkic
nationality (narodnost') is more ancient than the indicated
centuries and times." Sotsial'no-ekonomicheskii stroi
Orkhono-Eniseiskikh Tiurok VI-VIII vekov (Leningrad,
37. A fragment of this dastan was reported by Radloff and
very sparingly, in his Proben (St. petersburg,
38. See note 19. Chora Batir was certainly an historical
figure. See Jaroslaw Pelenski, Russia and Kazan: Conquest
and Imperial Ideology (The Hague-Paris, 1974).
39. SY No. 11, Pp. 86-87.
40. During World War II, the Tatars were "relocated" by
Stalin for their alleged cooperation with the Germans against
the Russians. Currently a sizeable tatar community is living
in Tashkent and elsewhere in Ozbekistan. They publish a
41. Anthology of Ozbek Poetry (Moscow, 1950). Notes
are cited from A. Bennigsen op. cit.
42. Bol'shaia Sovetskaia Entsiklopeadiia (Moscow,
43. Preface to the Russian translation (Moscow, 1949).
44. "Concerning the poem 'Alpamysh'" in Literaturnaia
No. 14 (September 1952).
45. Pravda Vostoka (Tashkent, 24 February 1952).
46. Ibid (28 February 1952).
47. Ibid (3 April 1952).
48. Ozbekistan Adabiyati ve Sanati (Tashkent, 17
Notes 48-53 are cited from John Soper, "Shake-up in the Uzbek
Literary Elite" Central Asian Survey Vol 1 (1982),
49. Ibid, (22 January 1982).
50. Sovet Uzbekistani (10 February 1982).
52. Jizzakh was also the site of another uprising in 1916.