Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country surrounded by deserts. The Tien Shan ("Heavenly Mountains") range

Wayman Richard Corbis
Man in Turkmenistan. The most distinctive item of clothing for the Turkman is a large hat made of drooping fleece, which serves to protect the face from the elements. © Wayman Richard/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

separates it from the Ferghana Valley, part of which occupies the southwestern area of the country. The Kyr-gyz's rich cultural traditions are seen in the mountainous areas of the northern part of the country, where they settled as they moved from the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia. The Chinese chronicles describe them as fair skinned, green eyed, and red haired. The Mongols arrived in the tenth century and the intermingling created a very sturdy, handsome people, whom even the Soviets could never change.

The Kyrgyz have traditionally been a nomadic people, living in yurts. Even in the early 2000s many Kyr-gyz have a yurt in their compound, and the death ceremony even in the capital city, Bishkek, is performed in a yurt. Their 100-year-old epic Manas tells the story of the warrior king and the migrations, of his people. It is the world's longest epic and the Manaschi, who recite the story, keep the oral tradition alive.

The traditional dress worn by the men is often leather trousers, terishym, which are also used by women when they are migrating or helping with the animals. These are worn along with high leather boots for everyday, chaitik, or embroidered massey. Over that they wear a shirt and often a leather jacket with fur lining known as ton. For special occasions the older men wear a long coat, chepken, which may be held together by a sash or a leather belt with silver buckles, kur. Very fine suede long coats with extra-long sleeves were made with elaborate hook embroidery. The typical headgear is a conical embroidered felt cap with embroidery and a tassel at the top, ak-kalpak. For special occasions the urban men wore flat, gold embroidered caps with fur lining and fur edging the headdress.

The women wore a long shirt, which was often made out of striped red and black cotton known as kalami or it could be of abr, the ikat of cotton and silk. For everyday use they would wear a sleeveless jacket and a padded long coat along with leather shoes. They wore a bonnet with embroidered ear caps over which a turban would be worn or a decorated cap. Long, embroidered plait covers were worn to cover the nape of the neck, which was considered to be vulnerable to black magic. The women favored greatly the brightly colored ikat striped cotton of Kodzhent, which was given a glossy polished surface with the use of egg white. This was used as a sash, as well as a scarf. Elaborate dresses, koinok, were made from silken patterned cloth known as kimkap, probably derived from the name for woven gold brocade of India, the kimkhab. For special occasions they wore a wraparound skirt, belde-mehi. It was either made of velvet or silk with leather and fur lining, and rich embroidery. This could be worn easily on horseback and would cover them well, giving warmth as they rode their horses.

The bishmant was the elaborate dress worn by brides along with a long, conical headdress decorated with gold, silver, pearls, and precious stones and often with a highly decorative veil to cover only the front of the face, while a gossamer colorful veil floated beyond from the conical hat. Older women wore elaborate turbans made of fine cotton, chosa. The turban was held in place by an embroidered strap. From beneath the turban, a draped cloth covered the neck and the front of the neck giving great dignity to the matriarch. On special occasions even in the early 2000s one can see in the mountain villages the older married woman astride a horse with her elaborate dress and headdress, riding forth to accompany the men, who are dressed in their finest embroidered leather coats and caps and who carry hooded hawks on their wrists.

Jewelry is very much a part of the dress. Elaborate buttons were used on the dresses. Long silver and coral earrings, iymek, which extended nearly 9 inches in length, framed the face. Large pendants were worn on the breasts as protective shields and linked chains of pendants and corals were stitched to the jackets. Silver buckles were attached to the leather coats and belts of the men. The engraved symbols of the sun, the moon, the stars, the falcon (their totemic bird) and others, protected them from the evil eye. The magical skill of the silversmith associated with fire and molten metal imbued the wearer with strength to face the adversities of life.

See also Cotton; Jewelry; Silk; Textiles, Central Asian; Traditional Dress.

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