Legends of Kyrgyzstan: Epic of Manas

Legends of Kyrgyzstan: Epic of Manas

The Epic of Manas has the most verses of any epic poem, and is the centerpiece of Kyrgyzstan’s legends and literature. There are three parts to the Epic: the first part covers the warrior Manas as he unites the warring Kyrgyz tribes, the second part tells about his son, Semetei, and the third about his grandson, Seitek. Though some parts of the epic are based in fact, some parts are legends.

The Epic of Manas starts as the Kyrgyz are in the Altai fighting the Oirats, a group of Mongols. Manas is born to a shepherd with no heirs, and soon is seen to be a great warrior. He becomes famous for his strength, mischief making, and generosity. In fact, he becomes so famous that the Oirats plot to kill him. Not only do they fail to kill him, Manas fights to unite the warring Kyrgyz tribes and move them back to the Tian Shan, their ancestral homeland. He marries Kanykei, the daughter of a Samarkand khan, who is wise and beautiful, and the mother of their son, Semetei.

After the death of Manas and following civil war, Kanykei and Semetei are expelled and move back to Samarkand. Semetei grows up not knowing that he is the son of a legendary hero, but once he finds out, he decides to bravely reunite the Kyrgyz tribes. He is unsuccessful, and the second part ends with his disappearance. The third part starts with Seitek, Semetei’s son, being raised in an enemy camp, also unaware that he is the son of a warrior. Again, once he finds out, he fights his enemies and reunites his people, bringing peace.

However, since the whole Epic of Manas was only first written down in the 19th century, there are many unofficial versions passed down orally through manaschi. These manaschi would sometimes embellish versions, or only know parts of the epic, or expand parts based on their whims. Thus, there are many versions that sometimes contradict each other.

Understandably, the Epic of Manas has become a central part of Kyrgyz identity. The flag features 40 rays of sun, representing the 40 tribes that Manas united, and the highest honor the state can give is the Order of Manas. Many landmarks, from the airport in Bishkek, to a mountain peak, to a minor planet, to a main street in Bishkek, have been named in honor of Manas. Some even say that a depression in Barskoon Gorge was left behind when Manas scooped out a handful of water to drink, giving the place its name, Manas Bowl. Manas has become a model for Kyrgyzstan, both of who a person should be and what a peaceful state should look like. Regardless of how much of the Epic of Manas is factual and how much is legend, the poem and the characters have had a huge effect in Kyrgyzstan.