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Petroglyphs of Semirechye.

Ritual cave drawing of Southern Kazakhstan.

“You have no power today tomorrow,
Your plans tomorrow scatter sleep!

You live today if you are not insane.
You are not eternal, like everything in this world on earth.”

Omar Khayyam.

A visit to the cave paintings of the Kazakhstan.

The name of this historical and geographical region of Central Asia in the form of Zhidisu - Zhetysu (Kazakh. Seven rivers) was recorded by Russian sources in the late XVIII - early XIX centuries and originally refers to the territory of the southeastern Balkhash, limited to the northern slope of the Dzhungarsky Alatau.
Since the second half of the XIX century. the name "Semirechye" has gained expanded meaning in connection with the establishment of the Semirechye region within administrative borders, which included the entire territory south of Lake Balkhash to Priissykkul, the upper reaches of the Chu River, the delta and the middle course of the river valley Ili.
In modern geographical interpretation, the territory of the Seven Rivers covers the area between the Balkhash, Sasykol and Alakol lakes in the north, the Northern Tien Shan ridges in the south, the Dzungarian Alatau in the east and the Chu-Ili mountains in the west, which administratively coincides with the territory of the Almaty region of Kazakhstan.
The largest river of Semirechye Ili divides the entire region into the right-bank and left-bank parts, into the Eastern and Western Semirechye. Sandy and solonchak deserts are widespread in the northern and northwestern lowlands of the Seven Rivers, and meadow-tugai landscapes are along the rivers.
In the foothills of the Dzungarian Alatau and the ridges of the Northern Tien Shan (Zailiysky Alatau, Ketmen, etc.) up to an altitude of 2000 metro above the sea level, deciduous forests are spread, which are replaced by spruce forests and alpine meadows above.
The Dzhungarsky Alatau has a latitudinal extension of more than 400 km and consists of two distinct ridges parallel to each other: the northern, or main, and southern.  The Dzungarian Alatau system includes several subparallel high mountain ranges, accompanied by low and short ridges and their spurs.
The absolute heights of the main ranges exceed 4,500 meters above sea level. A distinctive feature of the Dzhungarsky Alatau is a sharp stepped relief of the slopes, in which low mountains (700 - 1600 m), middle mountains (1600 - 3100 m) and high mountains (3100 - 4662 m) are distinguished.
The metamorphic schists of the Middle and Lower Paleozoic play an important role in the structure of the main ranges and leading ridges. Paleozoic sandstones and limestones are less common. The foothills are composed of strata of Paleogene, Neogene and Quaternary sediments.
The snow line in Dzhungar Alatau is located at heights of 3200 - 3800 m above sea level. Glaciers and snows, and mainly groundwater, feed many rivers flowing from the northern slope to the Balkhash, Sasykkol and Alakol lakes, and from the southern to the Ili River.
The Chu-Ili Mountains, with a length of about 200 km, extend north-west from the Zailiysky Alatau and are a continuation and end of the Northern Tien Shan, with which they have a similar history of geological development.
They form a system of ridges separated by intermountain tectonic depressions. The amplitude of the rise of the Chu-Ili mountains is much smaller than in the Zailiysky Alatau (about 5000 m); the highest here are the mountains of Anirakai (1183 m), Kulzhabasy (1178 m) and Khantau (1024 m).
Typical of them are preserved fragments of ancient alignment surfaces, bordered by steeply low mountains, which at the periphery turn into a small hills composed of intrusive and effusive sedimentary rocks. The axial part of the Chu-Ili mountains forms the watershed of the Chu and Ili rivers.
The geological-geomorphological and landscape-climatic conditions of the Seven Rivers determine the topography, abundance and substrate of the rock art monuments in the eastern and western parts of this region.
So, in the Chu-Ili Rock Art of Central Asia 209 mountains there are no petroglyphs located on rock fragments (boulders) of moraine deposits, while in the Dzungarian Alatau and the mountains of the Northern Tien Shan such locations are quite common.
In general, the Seven Rivers are characterized by the location of petroglyphs in mountain-steppe landscapes on the open vertical and / or horizontal surfaces of the cliffs of erosion and river valleys, traditionally developed by settled cattle breeders and farmers, as well as nomads of all historical eras.
In the Dzungarian Alatau with its numerous spurs there is a significant amount locations of petroglyphs, concentrated mainly in the lowlands and midlands. The Chu-Ili mountains are distinguished by an even greater concentration of monuments, especially in the central and southern parts of the small hills.
In the Northern Tien Shan, there are few known large petroglyph locations, but in general in the mountain valleys of the Zailiysky Alatau, Kungei Alatau and the Ketmen ridge, the number of monuments is also significant.
The total number of registered monuments of rock art of Semirechye today exceeds 50 locations, but this number increases from year to year as archaeological research continues and the search area expands. In Semirechye, only the locations of petroglyphs carved in stone are known; cave paintings have not yet been discovered.
The prevailing technique for performing drawings is embossing, less commonly engraving and other methods of applying images to the surface of a stone. The most common type of substrate used at different times to create petroglyphs was the surface of sandstone and siltstones covered with “desert tan”; much less often, patterns were knocked out on the patinated surfaces of intrusive rocks.
Several large petroglyph locations are concentrated in Semirechye, the study of which has been going on for more than a decade and served as the basis for the development of modern patterns of Kazakhstan rock art periodization.
The most ancient petroglyphs of the Seven Rivers date from different stages of the Bronze Age (II millennium BC); it is still not possible to identify more ancient groups of images. The visual traditions of the Early Iron Age (I millennium BC - V century AD) and medieval time (VI - XII century) stand out well.
Rock carvings of the post-Mongol period (XIII - XVI century) are not identified. Petroglyphs of the late Middle Ages and modern times (XVII - XX centuries), which are often associated with epigraphy and tribal signs (tamgas) of nomads of West Mongolian and Turkic origin, are poorly studied.
Petroglyphs and inscriptions pertaining to the modern stage of development of traditional cave art are distinguished everywhere. The most expressive is rock art of the Bronze Age - the heyday and widespread dissemination of this type of art.
Petroglyphs of this time are numerous and recorded in almost all areas of the Semirechye. In general, this pictorial tradition is characterized by a relatively uniform repertoire of images (anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and signs), similar stylistics, iconography, as well as the technique of their execution.
However, within the framework of this unity, chronological, territorial and, probably, cultural differences between petroglyphs of the Eastern and Western Semirechye are observed. A representative series of petroglyphs dating from the first half of the IInd millennium BC is highlighted at the Kulzhabasy complex in the southern part of the Chu-Ili mountains.
It is characterized by the dominance of single contour images of large wild bulls (up to 1 - 1.5 m) and compositions with them, four-wheeled carts with bulls or camels, etc. Petroglyphs of the Tamgaly type, most clearly represented on the eponymous monument, follow chronologically. 
The repertoire of these petroglyphs is distinguished by a greater variety of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic images, among which the leading place is occupied by images of solar characters ("sunheads") and other fantastic zoo-anthropomorphic figures, as well as horse-drawn chariots.
The dating of this unique series of petroglyphs is determined within the XIV - XIII centuries. BC. Along with this, the Late Bronze Age petroglyphs are distinguished in the Chu-Ili mountains and in the western part of the Trans-Ili Alatau, which are distinguished by a simpler interpretation of the figures, small sizes, and the repertoire is dominated by pastoral, battle and hunting scenes with an almost complete absence of syncretic images present in art of the early stages. In the Eastern Semirechye, several different-time groups of petroglyphs dating from the late Bronze Age are also distinguished; earlier images, comparable in time with the monuments of the Chu-Ili mountains, have not yet been identified.
In Dzhungarsky Alatau, the largest in Kazakhstan location of petroglyphs, Eshkiolmes, is distinguished by a wide variety of styles and a rich repertoire of engravings from the Bronze Age. Here, at least three stylistic groups of drawings stand out that date from the XIIIth - IXth centuries.
BC. and find correspondence in the Late Bronze petroglyphs of the Western Semirechye. The fine traditions of rock art of the Seven Rivers era of the Early Iron Age are also most clearly represented in Esquiolmes.
Petroglyphs of the pre-Saka and Early Saka times (VIII - VI centuries BC) are distinguished here, characterized by a specific set of visual techniques of animal style and a repertoire in which the images of wild fauna - cat predator, wolf, wild boar, deer, are of exceptional importance mountain goat, as well as birds of prey.
The visual tradition associated with art is well identified associated with the art of the Pazyryk culture; A distinctive feature of the repertoire of petroglyphs of this large group is the leading role of anthropomorphic images - horse and foot warriors, armed with bows, coinage, daggers or swords, and a woman in childbirth, which occupies almost a central place in this art.
Zoomorphic images are characterized by iconography of scenes of persecution and torment when the body or head of the animal is rotated 180 ° along the axis. The dating of these petroglyphs is determined in the V – III centuries. BC.
In the Western Semirechye another visual tradition stands out, associated with the reproduction on the rocks of mirrors with a pen (often full-size), dated on the basis of the similarity of images with real objects typical of the nomadic culture of Western Kazakhstan, the Urals and the Dzhetysar culture of the lower Syr Darya, - within VI - IV - III century BC.
In addition to these groups of petroglyphs, a large number of less expressive engravings belong to the Early Iron Age, the chronological and cultural attribution of which has not yet been completed. In particular, so far it has not been possible to reliably isolate petroglyphs from the end of the Ist millennium BC using materials from the monuments of the Eastern Semirechye - the beginning of AD, while in the Chu-Ili mountains (Kulzhabasy, Tamgaly) a representative series of petroglyphs were discovered, the repertoire and iconography of which find analogies in the art of Hunnu and Syanbi.
Within the framework of a single fine tradition, petroglyphs of the ancient Turkic period (VI – VIII centuries) and the time of the developed Middle Ages (IX – XII centuries) are distinguished; the basis for their  distinguishments are stylistic differences, images of dated items of weapons and equipment, as well as the presence of concomitant epigraphy and tribal signs-tamg.
Common distinguishing features of this fine tradition are the repertoire, in which the leading places are occupied by figures of equestrian warriors (often with banners), scenes of lists, pen-and-cart hunting and other plots, as well as a style in which features of animalistic art of the previous era are preserved. The most striking examples of medieval cave art in the east of the Seven Rivers are represented in Esquiolmes and Bayanzhurek, and on the left bank of the river.
Ili - in Tamgaly, Kulzhabasy, Akkaynar, Akterek, Oi-Dzhaylyau and many other monuments. The cave art of the Oirat tribes that lived in Semirechye in the 17th - first half of the 18th centuries remains poorly studied.
The monuments of this group are represented mainly by the cult Tibetan and Oirat epigraphy (Kegen Arasan, Taigak), sometimes accompanied by images of the characters of the Lamaist pantheon (Tamgalytas, Akkaynar), tribal tamgas and less often - images of animals and people (Kulzhabasy).
A significant part of the petroglyphs of the new time is composed of images and inscriptions on the rocks created by Kazakh nomads in the XIXth and early XXth centuries. The repertoire of these petroglyphs is limited to images of hunting scenes, horse racing or grazing cattle; at the same time, the creation of arabographic inscriptions “autographs” and images of patrimonial tamgas near winter sites acts as a functionally significant task of cave art.
Petroglyphs of this period rarely form significant clusters, but are generally widespread and quite numerous. The same signs characterize the content and forms of rock art of the 20th century, differing in the Cyrillic spelling of “autographs” and the spread of historical realities and ideological symbols contemporary to Soviet times: portraits of V.I. Lenin, a five-pointed star, emblems of the arms of the Soviet Army, etc.
Along with this, traditional plots of hunting, horse-riding, and others are preserved.
The study of the archaeological sites of the Semirechye began in the second half of the 19th century, but especially active and systematic research has begun since the 1950s and is ongoing. The least studied are the monuments of the Stone Age, known mainly for the collection of Mesolithic and Neolithic artifacts in the Chu-Ili mountains (Khantau, Kulzhabasy, Tamgaly, Anirakai), the foothills of the Tien-Shan and the Dzungarian Alatau.
In the foothill zone of Zailiysky Alatau, the stratigraphy of the Mesolithic location of Maibulak was studied. Monuments of the Eneolithic and Early Bronze Age have not yet been identified, but in the Chu-Ili mountains and Dzhungarskiy Alatau there are isolated finds of stone, copper and ceramic products dating back to the time preceding the extensive development of the Seven Rivers by the tribes of the Andronovo cultural and historical community. Settlements and burial grounds of the Bronze Age were studied throughout the territory of the Seven Rivers, including in landscapes associated with the locations of petroglyphs.
Most of the famous monuments belong to the "mixed" types (Semirechye, Kulsaysky), reflecting the significant impact from the XIV-XIII centuries. BC. in the Western Semirechye of the Atasu (Alakul) version of the culture of the Bronze Age of Central Kazakhstan and the andronoid cultures of Southern Siberia in the XIII - X centuries BC. - mainly in the Eastern Semirechye.
The culture of the ancient nomads I millennium BC it was studied mainly from numerous burial mounds, excavations of which were intensively carried out in the previous time, but a significant part of the materials remains unpublished.
The sites and settlements of the Early Iron Age were also recorded everywhere, but only separate monuments in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau, in the Chu-Ili Mountains and the Dzungarian Alatau were investigated by excavations.
The foothill zone of the Northern Tien Shan is distinguished by a large number of treasure finds, including bronze cauldrons, altars, etc. The medieval period is characterized by the coexistence of urban settled agriculture, represented by a large number of hillforts and rural settlements, and a nomadic culture known from funerary monuments on the territory of the Seven Rivers and memorials with stone sculptures. The monuments of the new era, the sites of nomads of the XVIIIth - early XXth centuries, are identified everywhere, but they have not been systematically studied.
On the whole, the current state of knowledge of the archaeological sites of Semirechye, although it remains insufficient to solve some issues of ancient history, allows us to consider rock art in the context of the general development of the culture of the region.
This is also facilitated by the integrated approach, which has been used since the 1980s in the study of many monuments of rock art of the Semirechye (Tamgaly, Kulzhabasy, Eshkiolmes), and providing for the study of the locations of petroglyphs along with other archaeological sites, as a single cultural landscape.
Despite the fact that the practice of creating cave paintings and inscriptions is still preserved among a certain part of the indigenous cattle-breeding population of Semirechye, this activity has no religious and religious significance.
At the same time, some locations of petroglyphs or individual sections of their territory are included in the sacred space of holy places recognized by tradition (Tamgaly, Kegen Arasan); however, in these cases, the main objects of worship are not ancient petroglyphs, but other cultural or natural objects - burials, places of worship, trees, sources.
With rare exceptions, the local population's awareness of the value of ancient petroglyphs remains minimal, which often causes neglect, deliberate destruction or renewal of prints, the creation of palimpsests, etc.

“Rock art of Central Asia.” Alexey E. Rogozhinsky.

Photos by
Alexander Petrov.