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UNESCO Recognizes Kyrgyz Epic of Manas

Published: December 9, 2013 (Issue # 1789)

  • A statue of the epic hero Manas dominates Ala-Too Square in Bishkek, previously occupied by a statue of Lenin
    Photo: Malika Giles / For SPT

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — UNESCO has added the Kyrgyz Epic of Manas to its "intangible heritage" list.

The epic trilogy narrates the story of Manas and his descendants, Semetey and Seytek, as they battle against their Khitan and Oirat enemies, struggling to unite the disparate tribes of Kyrgyz people into a single nation and reclaim their ancestral lands. The longest recorded version of the trilogy is 553,000 lines long.

It is performed at many public occasions, from village festivals to national holidays. Recitals of the poem can take up to 13 hours, and many Kyrgyz historians claim the poem is the longest oral epic in the world.

The exact origins of the epic are somewhat controversial — Kyrgyz claim that the epic dates to the ninth or 10th century, and the Kyrgyz Republic officially celebrated the 1000th anniversary of Manas in 1995. However, the oldest extant mention of the epic dates back to only 1792, and the epic's plot closely corresponds to political events in the region that occurred during the 17th century, leading many Western historians to claim that the epic was written much later.

Regardless of its exact provenance, Manas has been rapidly embraced as a national hero by the Kyrgyz people and has become an important keystone of national identity since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Once discouraged under communism, the Epic of Manas is now a centerpiece of Kyrgyz culture and literature. A statue of "Magnanimous Manas" occupies the prime position in Bishkek's central Ala-Too square, a site that previously housed a statue of Lenin.

In the early Soviet period, the Manas trilogy was perceived as nationalistic by the authorities, and the poem was excluded from the school curriculum throughout the 1930s. However, the epic continued to retain its central position in collective memory and village life.

Since the end of communism, streets once named after Soviet stalwarts have been renamed after Manas in towns across Kyrgyzstan, as have many public buildings, such as the airport in Bishkek that holds the American airbase. Political speeches often refer to Manas, and the epic's recital at local festivals is often accompanied by the endorsement of public figures.

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