National Geographic : 2002 Feb
No Kyrgyz festival is complete until a singer rises to intone stan zas from the longest narrative in world literature. The Epic of Manas bulges with half a million lines of verse. Purportedly a thousand years old, it's both the story of a Kyrgyz folk hero-that's Manas and a hymn to freedom, valor, and the unity of the Kyrgyz tribes. Scholars aren't certain Manas lived. No matter. In the words of Kyrgyzstan's president, Askar Akayev, the narrative is "our spiri tual foundation ... our pride, our strength, and our hope." Under the Soviets the epic was banned in schools, except for parts rewritten to conform to Soviet ideology; in Kyrgyzstan as elsewhere Moscow suppressed ethnic tradition and pride. But Soviet authority did not easily penetrate the soaring Pamir and Tian Shan mountain ranges, and the Kyrgyz who lived there clung to their roots. Shepherds sang of Manas around their campfires and parents handed down verses to their children. Annexed to Russia in 1876 as part of Russian Turkistan, the territory of the Kyrgyz became a Soviet republic in 1936. The So viets renamed the capital Frunze, for a general of the Russian Rev olution. After 1991 the Kyrgyz took back the city's original name, Bishkek, which is said to mean "five knights." Legend holds that NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, FEBRUARY 2002 Ghosts of com munism rest eternal in eastern Kyrgyz stan. Under Soviet rule religion was suppressed. But Muslims displayed crude sickles that also evoke the crescent moon symbol of Islam.