New Nation Digs Deep for Its Turkic Roots

A region long dominated by the Russian empire shifts alliances

IT runs 20 times the length of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey combined. Written down, the poem - the world's longest - could match a good set of encyclopedias for sheer bulk. This epic tale of the great warrior Manas is the heart and historical memory of Kyrgyz culture. Heads of state from Central Asia and Turkey gathered in Kyrgyzstan recently for a celebration of the 1,000-year anniversary of Manas. The Turkish roots of the legend and of the delegations celebrating here point to a shifting identity in a region that has spent much of the last 200 years sharing nationhood with Russia. On a bright, barren pasture in the Tien Shan Mountains off the western shoulder of China, horse breeder Bubutay Kojomberdyeva, a widow, describes her favorite scene in the tale, which the Kyrgyz call ''an ocean of poetry.'' Sitting in her wool-felt yurt churning mare's milk and drying sheep fat, she recalls how the hero's loyal widow watches horse races at his funeral wake and weeps at memories of their lives together. As the story goes, Manas fought off the enemies of the Kyrgyz and united the scattered clans. Walter May, a British scholar who has translated two volumes of Manas from literal Russian into poetic English, calls it ''a history of the efforts of those people to come to an understanding with the people around them.'' Experts note that, as in nationalistic ideologies everywhere, the facts of the legend are dubious. Kyrgyz explain that Manas is an oral tradition compiled over centuries, so that the date can only be very approximate. Indeed, earlier thousand-year celebrations were planned in the 1930s and 1940s but canceled when they ran afoul of Soviet ideology. But many experts outside the country put the age of the poem at well under 500 years. ''They're making it all up,'' says Gennady Markov, a leading Russian cultural anthropologist who specializes in Central Asia. ''A thousand years ago there was no Kyrgyz people,'' he says. ''You can only speak of the Kyrgyz as a people in the post-Mongol period'' - that is, the 15th century. ''This is all pure nationalism,'' adds Dr. Markov. ''They're searching for great ancestors that never existed in nature, for roots in ancient states that never existed.'' In neighboring Kazakstan, he says, some Kazaks are tracing their roots back to the Sumerians of ancient Babylon, as are Kalmyks living on the northwest edge of the Caspian Sea. The Sumerians, Markov says, have no modern descendants. And some Turkmen in Turkmenistan are claiming ancestors among the great Parthians. Some Kazaks, who are close in ancestry and language to the Kyrgyz, claim that Manas is their oral tradition that was awarded to the Kyrgyz by the Soviets. But for the past 70 years, says American scholar Martha Brill Olcott, ''the Kyrgyz have defined themselves by the Manas.'' Hence the Manas celebrations, which now range from operas to a long-distance horse race. Some of the excitement last month reached this shepherd and horse-herder camp above the Susumyr Valley when one of the men spotted the lead truck of the Manas horse race winding out of the mountains above. It was followed by horsemen from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, and Japan nearing the end of their six-week road race across Central Asia. Saparbek Mambetov, a horseman and shepherd whose trousers are painstakingly patched all over, had gathered up nearly $100 with his two brothers from family savings to help the government finance the Manas celebration. But silently watching the sleek horses trot by in a stark mountain pass is as close as he would actually come to it. Whether a historical Manas existed, or when he lived, is an open question. For hundreds of years - or a millennium if the British scholar Mr. May and most Kyrgyz are correct about the age of the poem - Manas has been strictly an oral history told and embellished by bards, called manaschi, who typically traveled from village to village. One of the more noted manaschi today, Urkash Mambetalyev, was himself discovered as a boy by a famous manaschi visiting his village. The Manas is an almost hypnotically rhythmic incantation. In dramatic passages, Mr. Mambetalyev's baritone voice breaks shrilly and he sways and gestures violently with his hands. Good manaschi, he says, have rich enough language and imaginations that they often recite the same lines in different ways, improvising their stories a bit, but holding true to the four-foot trochaic rhyme scheme (as in ''Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater.'') Their voices must last them hours on end. Their memories must be prodigious. Mambetalyev can recite Manas for a full day, but actually reciting all of the Manas would take all day every day for months. The epic was unwritten until the 19th century, when traveling Russian ethnographers began to record bits of it. In the early 1920s, the Soviets began recording and translating the Manas, and the work became popular in Moscow as a literary source. But in the 1930s, under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, it was deemed feudalist dogma. Like many people and ideas, Manas was rehabilitated after Stalin's death. Mambetalyev stopped visiting villages only recently, he says, because of the rising cost of fuel. If Professor Markov scoffs at Kyrgyz claims to a national hero from more than 1,000 years ago, he hears in the tale itself an echo from the deep past. The Turkish language, a close cousin of Kyrgyz, has produced several versions of the Manas legend. The oldest apparent source for the Manas, he says, is the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, completed around 2000 BC. But the search for a national identity beyond family, clan, and tribe is a modern phenomenon. These days ''all the peoples of Central Asia try to prove they are part of ancient Turk culture,'' says Katya Sheronina, an ethnographer at Moscow's Folk Museum of the East. NURLPA, KYRGYZSTAN: Bubutay Kojomberdyeva sits with her grandson in her yurt, a tent covered with wool felt. She lives on a high pasture herding sheep and horses. MARSHALL INGWERSON

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.