The Cuman entered the steppes of modern-day Kazakhstan around the early 11th century, where they later joined with the Kipchak and established the vast Cuman-Kipchak confederation. While ancient cities Taraz (Aulie-Ata) and Hazrat-e Turkestan had long served as important way-stations along the Silk Road connecting Asia and Europe, true political consolidation began only with the Mongol invasion of the early 13th century. Under the Mongol Empire, the largest in world history, administrative districts were established. These eventually came under the rule of the emergent Kazakh Khanate (Kazakhstan).
Throughout this period, traditional nomadic life and a livestock-based economy continued to dominate the steppe. In the 15th century, a distinct Kazakh identity began to emerge among the Turkic tribes, a process which was consolidated by the mid-16th century with the appearance of the Kazakh language, culture, and economy.
Nevertheless, the region was the focus of ever-increasing disputes between the native Kazakh emirs and the neighbouring Persian-speaking peoples to the south. At its height the Khanate would rule parts of Central Asia and control Cumania. The Kazakhs nomads would raid people of Russian territory for slaves until the Russian conquest of Kazakhstan. By the early 17th century, the Kazakh Khanate was struggling with the impact of tribal rivalries, which had effectively divided the population into the Great, Middle and Little (or Small) hordes (jüz). Political disunion, tribal rivalries, and the diminishing importance of overland trade routes between East and West weakened the Kazakh Khanate. Khiva Khanate used this opportunity and annexed Mangyshlak Peninsula. Uzbek rule there lasted two centuries until the Russian arrival.
During the 17th century, Kazakhs fought Oirats, a federation of western Mongol tribes, including the Dzungar. The beginning of the 18th century marked the zenith of the Kazakh Khanate. During this period the Little Horde participated in the 1723–1730 war against the Dzungar, following their “Great Disaster” invasion of Kazakh territories. Under the leadership of Abul Khair Khan, the Kazakh won major victories over the Dzungar at the Bulanty River in 1726, and at the Battle of Anrakay in 1729.
Ablai Khan participated in the most significant battles against the Dzungar from the 1720s to the 1750s, for which he was declared a “batyr” (“hero”) by the people. The Kazakh suffered from the frequent raids against them by the Volga Kalmyk. The Kokand Khanate used the weakness of Kazakh jüzs after Dzungar and Kalmyk raids and conquered present Southeastern Kazakhstan, including Almaty, the formal capital in the first quarter of the 19th century. Also, the Emirate of Bukhara ruled Shymkent before the Russians took dominance.
Kazakhstan has an ‘extreme’ continental climate, with warm summers and very cold winters. Indeed, Astana is the second coldest capital city in the world after Ulaanbaatar. Precipitation varies between arid and semi-arid conditions, the winter being particularly dry.
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Kazakhstan is officially a bilingual country. Kazakh, a Turkic language spoken natively by 64.4% of the population, has the status of “state” language, whereas Russian, which is spoken by most Kazakhstanis, is declared an “official” language, and is used routinely in business, government, and inter-ethnic communication, although Kazakh is slowly replacing it.
The government announced in January 2015 that the Latin alphabet will replace Cyrillic as the writing system for the Kazakh language by 2025. Other minority languages spoken in Kazakhstan include Uzbek, Ukrainian, Uyghur, Kyrgyz, and Tatar. English, as well as Turkish, have gained popularity among younger people since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Education across Kazakhstan is conducted in either Kazakh, Russian, or both.
According to the 2009 Census, 70% of the population is Muslim, 26% Christian, 0.1% Buddhists, 0.2% others (mostly Jews), and 3% Irreligious, while 0.5% chose not to answer. According to its Constitution, Kazakhstan is a secular state.
Religious freedoms are guaranteed by Article 39 of Kazakhstan’s Constitution. Article 39 states: “Human rights and freedoms shall not be restricted in any way.” Article 14 prohibits “discrimination on religious basis” and Article 19 ensures that everyone has the “right to determine and indicate or not to indicate his/her ethnic, party and religious affiliation.” The Constitutional Council recently affirmed these rights by ruling that a proposed law limiting the rights of certain individuals to practice their religion was declared unconstitutional.