Monday, August 24, 2009

The Karakalpak People

Karakalpak Girl in Traditional Dress

The Karakalpaks (also Qaraqalpaqs) are a Turkic speaking people of Turkic and Mongol origin. Today they mainly live on the lower reaches of the Amu Darya (in antiquity known as Oxus) to the south of the former shore of the Aral Sea. The Karakalpaks probably number about 660,000-700,000 worldwide most of whom reside in the Republic of Karakalpakstan.

The name "Karakalpak" comes from two words: "qara" meaning black, and "qalpaq" meaning hat. Karakalpakstan is an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan. It occupies the whole western end of Uzbekistan. The capital is Nukus.

Karakalpak communities also exist in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and further afield small communities are also found in Iran, Turkey and Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Karakalpaks in Turkey are primarily concentrated in the mountains of eastern Turkey near the headwaters of the Murat River a major source of the Euphrates (called Arsanias in antiquity) near Mount Ararat north of Lake Van.

Those in Iran live mainly on the southern shores of Lake Urmia (Daryâcheh-ye Orumiyeh) a salt lake in north-western Iran near Turkey between the provinces of East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan.


For a relatively small ethnic group, the Karakalpaks have a very complex tribal structure. The Karakalpaks as a whole are divided into two divisions, known as Arıs, the Khunggirat and the On To'rt Urıw. The term On To'rt Urıw, which means fourteen tribes, is somewhat misleading since the On To'rt Urıw are actually composed of just four tribes: the Khitan (whose name derives from a nomadic people, originally located at Mongolia and Manchuria from the 4th century) the Kipchak, the Keneges and the Mangit. It is possible that the Karakalpaks adopted this term from the On Tort Urugh tribe of the Aral Uzbeks who were already occupying the Aral delta prior to the arrival of the main body of Karakalpaks. The Tort Urugh were already well established in region at the time of Abul Ghazi Khan's tribal reorganisation of the Khorezmian Uzbeks in 1644.

The Khunggirat are divided into two bo'limi or sub-groups: the Shu'llik and the Jawıng'ır, the latter name being remarkably similar to the term Dzungar, meaning left wing. It was traditional for many Turkic and Mongol tribes to be divided into right and left wings. The Shu'llik are composed of eight tribes or u'lken urıw: Mu'yten, Kiyad, Ashamaylı, Qoldawlı, Qostamg'alı, Balg'alı, Qa'ndekli and Qaramoyın.

Each of these is in turn divided into clans or urıw, there being 63 clans in total.

The Jawıng'ır are composed of just seven clans. The four tribes of the On To'rt Urıw are also divided into clans: the Khitan into 12, the Kipchak into 13, the Keneges into 8 and the Mangit into 4.


The Karakalpak population is mainly confined to the central part of Karakalpakstan that is irrigated by the Amu Darya. The largest Karakalpak settlement is Nukus which with a population of 260,000 is the sixth-largest city in Uzbekistan, and the capital of the autonomous Karakalpakstan Republic. Karakalpaks also live in the surrounding large towns, such as Khodzheli, Shimbay, Takhtaitash, and Kungrad.

Rural Karakalpaks mainly live on former collective or state farms, most of which have now been privatised. Many rural Karakalpaks have been seriously affected by the desiccation of the Aral Sea on the eastern side, the barren Ustyurt plateau to the west, and now the growing Aral Kum to the north, once the bed of the former Aral Sea.

Although their homeland bears their name, the Karakalpaks are not the only ethnic group to live in Karakalpakstan. Many Uzbeks live in the rich agricultural region around Turtkul (To‘rtko‘l) and Beruni also found in Karakalpakstan are Kazakhs and a small Turkmen community. Also in the Republic are Russian, Korean and other peoples whom migrated from other parts of the former Soviet Union.


The Karakalpak language is a subgroup of Kipchak-Nogay language group. Its vocal and pronunciation patterns share with the Kipchak-Nogay language group a vocal harmony that is full. The labial attraction is not full. Nevertheless, there are round speech patterns as observed in the Khirghiz language (SÖzgö: Sözge). Their written language is Turkic used commonly by all people living in the Russian province of Turkistan up until the end of the century nineteenth century. Their spoken language is closer to Kazakh-Khirghiz and that of Khoresm than it is to the Uzbek language used in the eastern areas of Uzbekistan.

The written language is rooted in the foundation of Karakalpakistan (1925). The Karakalpak dialect is mainly divided into two accents: the Northeastern and Southwestern accents. Apart from these two accents that are not much different from one another, there are some accents spoken within the boundaries of Karakalpakistan such as Karakalpak-Kazakh, Karakalpak-Turkmen and Karakalpak-Uzbek mixtures.

Karakalpak language is close to the languages of the Nogay and Kazakh. The North-eastern accent is spoken in Kara-Uzek, Tahta Köpür and on the coastal sides of Aral. The mixed Karakalpak accent is included within this group. In the rest of the Republic in the regions of Shimbay, Kokeyli, Kuybishev, Kongrat, Şomanay, Hojaeli, Kipshak, Shahbaz and Törtkül, the Southwestern accent is spoken.

The vocabulary is rooted in the Kipchak language in principle. The Karakalpak language had become a written language in the Soviet period for the first time and an alphabet was developed that was based on the Arabic letters at first and then Latin and then Cyrillic. Today once again officially the script is Latin albeit most people in Karakalpakstan are still using Cyrillic.


The word Karakalpak is derived from the Russian Cyrillic spelling of their name and has become the accepted name for these people in the West. The Karakalpaks actually refer to themselves as Qaraqalpaqs, whilst the Uzbeks call them Qoraqalpogs.

The word means "black hat" in Turkic and has caused much confusion in the past, since some historians have attempted to link them with other historically earlier groups, who have also borne the appellation "black hat".

Many accounts continue to falsely link the present day Karakalpaks with the Cherniye Klobuki or Chorni Klobuky (were a group of semi-nomadic Turkic tribes that settled on the frontier between the Rus states and the Pechenegs during the 1000s and 1100s CE) of the 11th century, whose name also means "black hat" in Russian.

In fact, the Cherniye Klobuki were a cadre of mercenary border guards who worked for the Kievan Rus. They were of mixed tribal origin; many adopted Christianity and became settled agriculturalists. There is no archaeological or historical evidence to link these two groups, apart from the fact that their names have the same meaning.

Recent archaeological evidence indicates that the Karakalpaks may have formed as a confederation of different tribes at some time in the late 15th or the 16th centuries at some location along the Syr Darya (previously known as the Jaxartes or Yaxartes from its Ancient Greek name or its southern Zhany Darya outlet, in proximity to the Kazakhs.

The neighbouring Kazakhs from the Lesser Horde (Jüz) who also came from the Syr Darya have a very similar language, customs and material culture to that of the Karakalpaks.


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