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Home » Almaty province cave painting. Tours to petroglyphs of Almaty province.

The Semirechye of Petroglyphs.

Sights petroglyphs in Kazakhstan.

“The language of light can only be decoded by the heart” 

Travel to petroglyphs in Central Asia.

Russian sources of the late XVIIIth – earlyXIXth centuries report the name of this historical and geographical region of Central Asia as Zhidysu - Zhetysu (Kazakh for ‘seven rivers’). It originally belonged to the south-eastern Near Balkhash region bounded by the northern slope of the Dzhungarian Alatau.
Since the second half of the 19th century, the name ”Semirechye“ has become common with the establishment of the Semirechensk area within administrative boundaries, including all the territory south of Lake Balkhash to the Near Issyk-Kul region, the upper reaches of the Chu River, the delta and middle reaches of the Ili River Valley.
According to modern geographical interpretation, the area of Semirechye covers the area between Lakes Balkhash, Sasykol and Alakol in the north, Northern Tien Shan Ranges in the south, Dzhungarian Alatau in the east and the Chu-Ili mountains in the west. It administratively coincides with the Almaty region of Kazakhstan.
The largest river of Semirechye -Ili- divides the whole region into the right bank and left bank, into Eastern and Western Semirechye. Sand and salt deserts are common in the northern and north-western plains of Semirechye, and meadow-riparian landscapes are common along rivers. In the Dzhungarian Alatau, foothills and ridges of the Northern Tien-Shan (Trans-Ili Alatau, Ketmen, etc.), at an altitude of 2,000m above sea level, leafy forests are present and transform into pine forests and alpine meadows at a higher altitude.
The Dzhungarian Alatau, over 400km long in the latitudinal direction, consists of two ranges that are distinctly parallel to each other: the northern, or main, and the southern range. The Dzhungarian Alatau system includes several sub-parallel high mountain ranges, accompanied by low and short ranges and their spurs.
The absolute heights of the main mountains exceed 4,500m above sea level. A distinctive feature of the Dzhungarian Alatau is a series of sharp benched slopes, divided into low mountains (700 - 1600m), medium lands (1600 - 3100m) and highlands (3100 - 4662m).
Metamorphic shales of the middle and lower Paleozoic play an important role in the structure of the main ridges and front ridges. Paleozoic sandstones and limestones are less common. The foothills consist of sequences of Paleogene, Neogene and Quaternary sediments.
The snow line in the Dzhungarian Alatau is located at altitudes of 3,200-3,800. Glaciers and snow, but mainly ground water, feed numerous rivers, which flow from the northern slopes to Lakes Balkhash, Sasykkol and Alakol, and from the southern slopes to the Ili River.
The Chu-Ili Mountains stretch for some 200km from the Zailiy Alatau in a north-westerly direction and are a continuation and completion of the Northern Tien Shan, with whom they share a history of geological development.
They form a system of ranges separated by intermontane troughs. The elevation amplitude of the Chu-Ili Mountains is much less than in the Zaili Alatau (about 5,000m), the highest mountains being Anyrakay (1,180 m), Kulzhabasy (1,178m) and Khantau (1,024m).
Typical of them are surviving fragments of ancient surface peneplanes, surrounded by steeply sloping low mountains turning into hills on the periphery composed of intrusive and volcanicsedimentary rocks. The axial part of the Chu-Ili mountains forms a watershed of the Chu and Ili rivers.
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 Rock Art Sites in Kazakhstan 11 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.
The Dzhungarian Alatau and its multiple spurs are home to numerous locations of petroglyphs concentrated mainly in the low- and mid-hills. The Chu-Ili Mountains have a larger concentration of sites, especially in the central and southern part of the Kazakh Uplands.
There are very few known large locations of petroglyphs in Northern Tien Shan, but numerous sites in the mountain valleys of the Zailiyskiy Alatau, Kungey Alatau and Ketmen Range. The total number of the recorded rock art sites in Semirechie now exceeds 50, but the figure increases year after year as archeological research continues and the search coverage widens.
In Semirechie rock paintings have not yet been discovered. The predominant technique is pecking, rarely engraving or other techniques. The most common type of substrate, used at different periods to create petroglyphs, were the surfaces of sandstone and siltstones, covered with “desert patina“; fewer drawings were pecked on the patinated surfaces of intrusive rocks.
In Semirechye, there is a concentration of several major locations of petroglyphs, the study of which has lasted for decades and served as the basis for the development of modern schemes of periodization of Kazakhstan rock art.
The oldest petroglyphs are dated to different stages of the Bronze Age (IInd millennium BC) and identification of more ancient groups of images has not yet been possible. Pictorial traditions of the Early Iron Age (1st millennium BC – Vth century AD) and the Middle Ages (VIth - VIIth centuries) are well represented.
No carvings are dated to the PostMongolian period (XIIIth - XVIth centuries). Petroglyphs of Late Middle Ages and modernity (XVIIth - XXth centuries) have been poorly studied; they are often associated with epigraphy and tribal signs (tamgas) of nomads of Western Mongolian and Turkic origin.
Petroglyphs and inscriptions relating to the current stage of development of traditional rock art are notable everywhere. The most expressive, abundant and widely spread Semirechie rock art is that of the Bronze Age, in almost all areas.
It is generally characterized by a relatively homogeneous repertoire of images (anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and signs), similar style, iconography and technique of execution. There may, however, be chronological, territorial, and, probably, cultural differences in Eastern and Western Semirechie.
A representative series of petroglyphs dating to the first half of the IInd century BC is notable in the Kulzhabasy Complex (south of the Chu-Ili Mountains). They are characterized by the dominance of isolated contour images of large size (up to 1 - 1.5 m) of wild oxen and panels where four-wheeled carts are associated with bulls or camels.
They are chronologically followed by Tamgaly type petroglyphs, most vividly represented at the eponymous site, with more variety of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic images, with solar characters (“sun-headed”) and other chimerical composite figures, as well as horse-drawn chariots.
This unique series of petroglyphs is dated to the 14th -13th centuries BC. In addition, Late Bronze Age petroglyphs, distinguished by a simple interpretation of small size figures, with a predominance of pastoral, battle and hunting motifs, with an almost complete absence of the syncretic images present in the art of the early stages, are notable in the Chu-Ili mountains and the western part of the Trans-Ili Alatau.
Several groups of petroglyphs of different ages dating back to the Late Bronze Age in Eastern Semirechie are also notable; earlier images such as those in the Chu-Ili mountains are absent. The largest known and studied petroglyph location in Kazakhstan’s Dzhungarian Alatau - Eshkiolmes- is characterized by a great variety of styles and a rich repertoire of engravings from the Bronze Age, with at least three stylistic groups of drawings, dating back to the XIIIth - IXth centuries BC and analogous to the Late Bronze petroglyphs in Western Semirechye.
Rock Art in Central Asia 12 Early Iron Age rock art traditions in Semirechie, also predominant in Eshkiolmes, are the Pre-Saki and Early Saki petroglyphs (VIIIth - VIth 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 Vth – IIIrd 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 (VIth – Vth - III3rd 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 arts.
Petroglyphs of the ancient Turkic period (VIth - VIIIth centuries) and the Advanced Middle Ages (IXth - XIIth centuries) belong to a uniform pictorial tradition, different in style, with images of dated armor and equipment, epigraphy and tribal signs (tamgas).
Their repertoire is dominated by mounted warriors (often with banners), hunting scenes and other motifs which may retain features of the animal art of the preceding period. The most vivid examples of medieval rock art in the east of Semirechie are at Eshkiolmes and Bayanzhurek, and on the left bank of the river Ili - in Tamgaly, Kulzhabasy, Akkaynar, Akterek, Oh-dzhaylyau, among others.
The rock art of the Oirat tribes that lived in Semirechie in the XVIIIth and the first half of the XVIIIth centuries, remains poorly studied. It is mostly represented by cultic Tibetan and Oirat epigraphy (Kegen Arasan, Taygak), sometimes accompanied by pictures of Lamaist-pantheon characters (Tamgalytas, Akkaynar), tamgas, and less frequently by pictures of animals and humans (Kulzhabasy).
The most recent petroglyphs were made by nomadic Kazakhs in the XIXth - early XXth 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 XXth 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. The study of the Semirechie archaeological sites began in the second half of the XIXth century, but especially active and systematic research started in the 1950’s and continues today.
The leaststudied are Stone Age sites, known mostly from collections of Mesolithic and Neolithic artifacts in the Chu-Ili Mountains (Khantau, Kulzhabasy, Tamgaly, Anyrakay), the foothills of the Tien Shan and in the Dzhungarian Alatau. In the foothills of the Zailiyskiy Alatau, the Mesolithic stratigraphy of Maybulak was studied.
Sites of the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age have not yet been identified, but in the Chu-Ili and Dzhungarian Alatau mountains is isolated evidence of stone, bronze and ceramic pottery dating back to the time that preceded the development of the Andronovo culturalhistorical community.
Bronze Age settlements and burials were studied throughout Semirechie, including where petroglyphs are located. The most famous sites -mainly in Eastern Semirechie- Rock Art Sites in Kazakhstan 13 belong to “mixed” types (Semirechie, Kulsay), reflecting a significant impact in the XIVth - XIIIth centuries BC, in Western Semirechie, of the Atasus (Alakul) variant of the Bronze Age culture of Central Kazakhstan and cultures of Southern Siberia in the XIIIth - Xth centuries BC.
The culture of 1st millennium BC nomads is mainly known from numerous burial mounds, excavated in the past but far from entirely published. Early Iron Age dwelling sites and settlements are recorded everywhere, but only a few sites in the foothills of the Zailiy Alatau, Chu-Ili mountains and Dzhungarian Alatau have been excavated.
The piedmont area of the Northern Tien Shan is famous because of the treasures found there, which include bronze pots, altars, and other items. The Medieval period is characterized by the coexistence of an urban agricultural culture, represented by a large number of towns and rural settlements, and the nomadic culture, much represented by funerary sites and memorials with stone sculptures.
Modern sites of nomadic encampments from the XVIIIth to the early XXth centuries were found everywhere but not systematically studied. In general, the present state of knowledge of archeological sites in Semirechie, although still insufficient to address some questions of ancient history, allows rock art to be considered in the context of the overall development of the region’s cultures.
An integrated approach has been used since the 1980’s to explore many rock art sites in Semirechie (Tamgaly, Kulzhabasy, Eshkiolmes) along with study of other archaeological objects in their cultural landscape.
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.

“Rock Art Sites in Kazakhstan”.  Alexey E. Rogozhinskiy.

Photos by
 Alexander Petrov.