We all have stories. Some are stories of everyday life. Others are heroic and tragic stories of people and groups that define our identity. One of the challenges we face as Americans today is that we don't have an agreed collective story of identity.
Instead, we have multiple stories of individuals and groups that often seem to contradict each other. Many of these stories are only now emerging into the national spotlight, to be seen perhaps for the first time, acknowledged, and ultimately incorporated into a new collective American identity. Forging that new American identity is a worthy mission for us all!
In contrast, the Kyrgyz people do have a collective story of identity, which has become enshrined as a permanent part of their cultural heritage. That story, known as the Epic of Manas, reflects hundreds, if not thousands, of years of history and meaning.
The Epic of Manas is a traditional epic poem dating to the 18th century but claimed by Kyrgyz tradition to be much older, having been passed down by oral tradition. Manas is the classic centerpiece of Kyrgyz literature, and parts of it are often recited at Kyrgyz festivities by specialists in the epic, called “Manaschi” (Kyrgyz: Манасчы). Manaschis tell the tale in a melodic chant unaccompanied by musical instruments.
A traditional Kyrgyz manaschi performing part of the epic poem at a yurt camp in Karakol, the fourth largest city in Kyrgyzstan, located near the eastern tip of the great Issyk Kul lake in eastern Kyrgyzstan.
Manas is said to be based on Bars Bek (b. 637-d. 711), who was the first “khagan” of the Kyrgyz Khaganate. The Epic of Manas is divided into three books. The first is entitled "Manas," the second book describes the deeds of his son Semetei, and the third captures the exploits of his grandson Seitek. The plot of Manas revolves around a series of events that coincide with the history of the region in the 9th century, primarily the interaction of the Kyrgyz people with other Turkic and Chinese people.
The government of Kyrgyzstan celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of Manas in 1995, though there is controversy among historians about the true age of the epic poem. The first written reference to Manas was found in a Persian manuscript dated to 1792–93. In one of its dozens of iterations, the epic poem consists of approximately 500,000 lines, making it one of the longest epic poems in history.
Today, Kyrgyz people consider the epic of “Manas” the golden treasury of popular thought, a reflection of more than 3000 years of experience in the history and spiritual life of the Kyrgyz people. The Epic of Manas tells the story of the formation of the Kyrgyz state, and how the great warrior Manas was able to unite the warring tribes and bring peace to the region. Manas was not only a historical figure, but also an example of who the Kyrgyz are, and who they want to be. Though some parts of the poem are legend, some parts are based in history. In 2009, the Manas epic was inscribed onto the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Modern day yurt camp on the shore of Issyk Kul lake.
For more about the Manas epic, click here. The following video includes some clips of well-known historical mananschi reciting excerpts from the Manas, as well as interesting historical video clips.
To listen to a young, modern day manashi, check out this video.
And begin to imagine what our new American story of identity might look like . . .