The name Kazakhstan is composed of two words, “kazakh” and “stan,” where “stan” means “land” and “kazakh” supposedly means “free,” though the word is so old its origin is not clear.
For a postcard-picture impression of the ninth-largest country in the world, here is an image taken between 1911-1914 of Kazakhs inside a traditional yurt, drinking kumis (fermented mare’s milk) during a (posed) wedding ceremony. The third woman from the right wears a traditional red wedding dress before being taken to the bridegroom’s yurt for the continuation of the festivities.
My own theory regarding the origin of the word “kazakh” is that it derives from the ancient Turkic “skaz” (rhyming with “buzz”), which means “tale” or “song.” Music and poetry have been central to Kazakh culture since ancient times and a great “skazakyn” – an itinerant minstrel who improvises songs while accompanying himself on the dombra (a Kazakh lute) – is traditionally considered to be as indispensable to the welfare of a community as a wise ruler or a heroic warrior, with many songs referring to Kazakhs collectively as a people of free-roaming poet-singers.
Islam is the dominant religion in Kazakhstan.
Uniquely in Central Asia, the country is a secular state and has a reputation of religious tolerance. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is buried in Almaty where a synagogue is named after him and where Lubavitcher Jews come from all over the world to pray at his grave.
However, Islam is not native to the steppes and mountains of Kazakhstan. It was first brought to the country some time around the 7th or 8th century and was not widespread until the middle ages. But the Kazakhs never entirely abandoned their pagan traditions, and their present beliefs, though officially Suffi Islam, are a mixture of Muslim and pagan traditions.
The flag of Kazakhstan preserves some of its people’s ancient mythology.
The national ornament on the left (hoisting side) evokes the horns of cattle, symbolizing prosperity, the Golden Eagle is an ancient symbol for strength, wisdom, freedom, and future, and the sun, surrounded by 32 grains, stands for life energy, while harking back to nomadic life in sun-drenched steppes.
But most significantly, the light-blue background represents the sky and is a symbol of unity (of the Kazakh people and the world) which goes back to ancient history, when the nomadic tribes of Kazakhstan believed in a creator who had no earthly form and resided in the sky.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, parallel to the country’s Islamic revival, modern Kazakhstan, and Central Asia in general, has seen the revival of a pagan religion going back to the 6th century and centered on Tengri the sky god. Tengrism is an attempt to create an alternative national consciousness, one presumably less foreign than Islam due to its earlier practice, and though it does not seem likely that Kazakhstan will abandon Islam in favor of shamanism and animism, the country’s president is known to have referred to Tengrism favorably as a natural part of the Kazakh people’s national consciousness.
This seems to be part of the larger current phenomenon of world-wide revival of religion in general, and of neopaganism in particular, from Slavic neopagan sects in Russia which see Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a Jewish conspiracy, to feminist restorations of the goddess Ashera in the U.S. The attempts of Kazakhstan’s Tengrists to create a polytheistic national consciousness might seem slightly more interesting, although it does sound like trying to prove that the world is flat by using a bulldozer.
Still, I would like to join this trend of revivals by suggesting something of my own, likewise aimed at forming a national consciousness that would enable the meeting of the four rivers as mentioned in my first post. It seems to me that everything previously mentioned has one thing in common – common roots more ancient than the oldest of pagan epiphanies – and that is, their origin in the imagination.
What I am suggesting, in my second Times-of-Israel blog post, is a new system of beliefs, a religion I have been practicing ever since I took time to think about the nature of reality while serving in the IDF. Three years in the army and three months in the biology department of Tel Aviv University sufficed for me to realize that imagination – not as a concept, but as an act – is the only reality and that the only solid thing in life is not the temporary illusion, but the eternal illusionist, which made it only natural to transfer from Biology to Literature and to keep writing, as I had been doing since I can remember myself: except for one instance, where I am a baby on my back, looking up at a ceiling which does not yet spell home to me, except for that instance which is likely only a false memory, everything I remember seems to come after that moment when it occurred to me, with an inexplicable suddenness (like it must have occurred to the first creatures who realized they could glyph their impressions in solid objects), to ask for a pen and paper so I could write something as great as the Disney Pooh-Bear episode I had just watched on our six-channel soviet television set
But the name for it only came when I first opened a Facebook account a year or so ago (as part of a content-writing job which I quit soon after trying to pretend to be half a dozen different social-networking entities) when I had to define my religious views. Annoyed with my virtual aul of facebook friends for not being able to imagine anything better than “atheism,” I first coined the word Artheism as a joke and only later realized how perfectly it fit.
I propose to revive imagination as the most ancient of pagan rituals, to revive the art of storytelling not as a means of self-enslavement in a single consciousness but as a means of self-liberation, as a way of worshiping the creation by practicing it.
 “village,” Russian, from Turkic
Nomads in prehistoric steppes – petroglyphs in Kazakhstan