The following is published in 


Vol. 6, No. 1, 1987. Pp. 75-92.


                        H. B. Paksoy

     Give me a chance, my rebellious dreams

     My father has erected his statue in my memory

     May years and winds be rendered powerless

     May his legacy not be erased from my conscience

     Give me a chance, my rebellious dreams

     Grant my father a holy DASTAN

     May years and winds be rendered powerless

     May his remembrance never be allowed to fade

                         (Muhbir, November 1982 [Tashkent])

     The dastan is ornate oral history and an important part

of the Turkic literature of Central Asia. Traditionally,

dastans have been repositories of ethnic identity and

history, and some constitute nearly complete value systems

for the peoples they embrace. The primary, or "mother,"

dastans are those composed to commemorate specific liberation

struggles. [1] Set mostly in verse by an ozan, [2] more than

50 mother dastans are recited by Central Asians from the

Eastern Altai to the Western Ural Mountains and as far south

as Bend-e Turkestan in Afghanistan.

     Most dastans commemorate the struggles of different

Turkic peoples against external aggressors, such as the

Kalmuks and Chinese. The central figure of the dastan is the

alp, [3] who leads his people against the enemy, be they from

afar or from within his own tribe. The alp endures many

trials and tribulations, which ultimately are shared by a

supporting cast. His problems are nearly always aggravated by

one or more traitors, who although a problem for the alp, can

never stop his ineluctable progress toward victory. His

success is celebrated by a toy, or lavish feast. Traitors and

enemies are dealt with, frequently paying with their lives

for their treachery, but more often left to roam the earth in

search of some kind of reconciliation with their consciences

and with God.

     Love is a frequent theme in the dastan. Often a loved

one is abducted by the enemy, only to be rescued by his or

her mate after much searching, fighting and sacrifice. Foes

and traitors sometimes attempt to extort favors from the

lovers, but this does not deter the resolve or threaten the

ultimate triumph of the alp and his supporters.

     Dastan characteristically refers to historical events;

it is a repository of historical memory, a record of the

events and customs of its creators and their descendants. The

dastan travels with Central Asians, and, like its immediate

owners, it is not bothered with borders. It provides the

framework to bond a coherent oymak [4] sharing one language,

religion and history. The dastan is the collective pride of

tribes, confederation of tribes and even larger units. It

serves as a kind of birth certificate, national anthem and

proof of citizenship all rolled into one.

     The fact that more than one oymak may identify with a

given dastan has far reaching implications. In this context,

Alpamysh [5] enjoys a very special place among dastans, for

all major Turkic tribal units have at least one version which

they call their own. These variants --if they may be called

that-- display minor differences only in place names and in

local detail.

     Dastans are jealously guarded against textual change.

Not even minor details are allowed to be altered. They are

revised under only two conditions: when a major new alp

appears and his heroic fight against oppression and for the

preservation of his peoples' traditional life style and

customs warrants celebrating; and when the heirs of an

existing dastan face oppression by an outsider. Portions of

new dastans , however, will almost certainly be borrowed from

older dastans. This is not plagiarism: the new alp is being

compared to his predecessors, which is intended to reassure

the listener of the new alp's prowess, exemplary character

and resourcefulness. By borrowing from the old dastans, the

new alp is inextricably linked to the existing historical-

literary traditions.

     Dastans are intended to be both didactic and emotive.

They prepare children mentally to honor alp-like behavior and

to adopt alp-like responsibilities if need be. If a dastan

tells of a defeat of its own people, it serves to illustrate

the mistakes made and suggest remedies. 

     The very nature of the dastans as a well-spring of

traditional culture has led Soviet authorities to view them

with considerable distrust. In the early 1950s, for example,

the dastans were attacked from many quarters, although in

some cases Soviet Central Asians successfully counterattacked

to reduce official pressure. [6] Since then, the dastans have

occasionally been at the center of controversies between the

Russian center and the Central Asian lands. This tension may

be reflected in the different treatment of the dastans in

central and regional publications, such as encyclopedias. The

Bol'shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia's entry for dastans, for

example, is limited to 240 words and is distinctly ambiguous,

referring to the subject as "Persian epic genre" [7] In

contrast, the Uzbek Soviet Encyclopedia describes the dastans

in nearly 1000 words, noting their importance as documents of

"liberation struggles," "heroic deeds," and the "legendary

warlike abilities of selfless heroes." [8] It is likely that

many Central Asians who read the dastans will substitute

Russian conquerors for more ancient ones described in the

dastans, which is probably why Moscow's attitude toward the

dastans has remained hostile. Soviet authorities have

published a number of editions of various dastans. Most of

these were "sanitized." During preparation for publication,

any passages describing the old ways or reflecting the roots

of historical identity are deleted from the text. All

relevant historical facts are stripped away and in some cases

replaced by artificial versions sympathetic to the Soviet

cause. This "sanitization" is designed to remove all aspects

of the Central Asian heritage that may contribute to the

reemergence of self-identity in the minds of the new

generation. [9] The new dastans, however, cast the Russians

unequivocally in the role of aggressors. The Olmez Kayalar

(Immortal Cliffs) is one of these.

The Immortal Cliffs

     In 1981, Mamadali Mahmudov's historical novelette, the

Olmez Kayalar was serialized in the Uzbek literary journal

Shark Yildizi. Its publication coincided with significant

changes in the Uzbek literary establishment, including the

editorship of Shark Yildizi. These changes may be the result

of some as yet unknown processes but culminated in the

publication of a series of works displaying nationalistic

tendencies. [10] The Immortal Cliffs definitely falls into

this category. It is, in fact, a dastan, complete with all

the traditional structural and thematic requisites.

     The conditions under which the Immortal Cliffs is

printed warrants special attention. Instead of being issued

as a monograph, it was serialized in Shark Yildizi. [11] Only

114 pages long, it was divided into two installments and

appeared during October and November (Nos. 9 and 10) of 1981.

Its author, Mamadali Mahmudov, reportedly in his 30s, took

approximately four years to complete this 55,000 word

"historical fiction."

     The Immortal Cliffs was written under the well-known and

severe restrictions of the Soviet guidelines on historical

interpretation and was required to fulfill all the

requirements of "socialist realism." One might expect,

therefore, that its message --in both substance and form--

would be conventional and predictable. It is anything but

these, however. First of all, one must understand traditional

dastan construction to grasp Immortal Cliffs real meaning as

most Central asians do. In it, for example, subtle

adaptations from earlier and ancient dastans are well

concealed. The Immortal Cliffs must be read at three

progressively advanced levels of depth, content and

understanding. It may compare to a three-story building, with

one floor above ground and two subterranean levels. The

visible level contains the immediately recognizable arguments

and lessons, which are on view for everyone. The first sub-

level is constructed mainly of ancient Turkic dastans, which

are recognizable only to the initiated. The second sub-level,

a kind of secret vault, is accessible only through a

metaphorical "trap door." The vault contains the "last will

and testament " of Mahmudov's ancestors, who inspired him to

write as he has, and of Mahmudov himself, whose objective

becomes to add his own advice to the secrets of the vault,

advice which can be transmitted to the next generation in the

tradition of handing down a dastan from father to son.

     The first, visible layer of the novelette has been

adequately discussed elsewhere by others. [12] Of primary

importance when considering the Immortal Cliffs are the two

remaining layers, particularly the sources from which

Mahmudov draws his inspiration and the implications of his


     The basic plot of Immortal Cliffs is as follows: Kunor

and Kunis, joint heads of a tribe, bring their tribe from

Turkistan into the Jizzakh mountains to save them from

annihilation by the forces of Chengiz Khan. In the late 1800s

(the time of the story), Buranbek, a descendent of one of the

tribal heads, grows up reading the classical works of his

ancestry, such as Timur's Zafernama ("Victories"), and

becomes imbued with their spirit. His father is responsible

for teaching him the classical arts of using weapons (bow and

arrow, sword and shield, lance), horsemanship, a love of

nature, and respect for one's own history, heritage and the

relations between man and his environment. Buranbek also

participates in the philosophical discussions of his father

and his peers.

     At the age of 21, he gains a chance to display his valor

in a fight with a bull. Shortly thereafter he marries his

sweetheart, but a treacherous individual from his tribe,

Kahramanbek, tries to ruin his marriage and Buranbek's

future. Buranbek travels to Russia with a caravan and spends

some time there. Later, Buranbek teams up with Boribek to

thwart the Russian advance into their territory. Buranbek

trains the young men of the Jizzakh plains to resist the

Russians. In the ensuing battle, the Russians' advance is

stopped. Buranbek is saluted as a muzaffer ("Victor"), which

causes local jealousies. The jealous parties kidnap Buranbek

and take him to a dry river bed where they intend to torture

him. Buranbek is saved in the end by Boribek. In the final

scenes, Buranbek and Boribek discuss the future as they would

like it to be. Their principal wish is for future generations

to take note of the events of their (Buranbek's and

Boribek's) day in order to learn the lessons of their history

and, consequently, to preserve their freedom.

     The basic structure of Immortal Cliffs is not at

variance with that of other Central Asian dastans, for

example Alpamysh. Buranbek in the Immortal Cliffs, is born to

an accomplished and respected father, and is in fact reared

with a knowledge of dastans. Buranbek displays his leadership

qualities in various ways. He learns from the wisdom of his

forefathers, reads the works of great commanders and

philosophers of his own heritage, endures all the hardships

with all of the dignity befitting an alp. Along the way,

Buranbek suffers the treachery of his kinsman and oppression

by the common enemy, and is forced to take up arms against


     Buranbek, however, does not exhibit the magical

qualities at times attributed to an alp. This may be

Mahmudov's way of stressing two points: first that this is

history not fiction and the Russian threat is real and not

imaginary; and, second, that magical qualities are not

necessary to an alp or for alp-like action.

     Unlike some fictitious alps, Buranbek does not speak when

only a few days old, nor does he lead troops at the age of

fourteen.  Buranbek is already 21 when he is first called upon to

exhibit his alp-like qualities. When, a few years later, it

finally becomes necessary for him to confront Tsarist armies,

Buranbek borrows from the teachings and experience of Timur,

the great Central Asian commander, instead of through the use

of some magical weapon or tulpar (winged horse), to force the

withdrawal of the Russians.

     In the Immortal Cliffs, Mahmudov adapts motifs from

ancient dastans on at least four occasions, in addition to

utilizing the general structure of Alpamysh. The borrowed

motifs are the themes central to Dede Korkut, Oghuz Kagan,

Ergenekon and Chora Batir. There are also direct references

to yet another dastans, Kirk Kiz (Forty Maidens); although

nothing is directly adapted or taken from it.

The Bull Theme From Dede Korkut

     "Bogach" is a cycle of The Book of Dede Korkut, which in

return is believed to be a partial reconstruction of the

Oghuz Kagan dastan. [13] 

     According to Dede Korkut, a male offspring must earn his

adult name, which can only be accomplished by performing a

manly deed. In the case of the son of Dirse Khan, the ruler

of an Oghuz tribe, such a chance occurs early in his life. He

finds himself facing an angry bull owned by Bayindir Khan, at

the age of fifteen:

     The bull charged him, bent on destroying him. The boy

     gave the bull a merciless punch on the forehead and the

     bull went sliding on his rump. Again he came and charged

     the boy. Again the boy gave him a mighty punch on the

     forehead, but this time he kept his fist pressed against

     the bull's forehead and shoved him to the end of the

     arena. Then they struggled together. The boy's shoulders

     were covered with the bull's foam. Neither the boy nor

     the bull could gain victory. Then the boy thought,

     'people put a pole against a roof to hold it up. Why am

     I standing here propping up this creature's forehead'

     and stepped aside. The bull could not stand on its feet

     and collapsed headlong. The boy drew his knife and cut

     off the bull's head.

After this event, with due ceremony, the boy is named Bogach

(Bullman). [14]

     In the Immortal Cliffs, and encounter between a bull and

an alp occurs under similar circumstances, in the sense that

Buranbek's first manly endeavor is to fight with a bull which

terrorizes the kishlak (winter quarters of a tribe) in which

he was born. [15] At that time, Buranbek is 21 years of age,

realistically possessing the physical strength required for

the confrontation.

     The bull in Immortal Cliffs, belonging to a member of

the tribe, goes mad and begins attacking at random. Buranbek

hears of this while at the yaylak (summer pastures of a

tribe) and mounting his horse, gallops to the kishlak. The

bull spots Buranbek:

     Buranbek managed to dismount from his horse with

     enviable skill. The bull groaned once again and charged

     him. Buranbek swiftly evaded the bull. The bull ran into

     the mulberry tree that was in front of him. Buranbek

     quickly anticipated the bull and got behind the mill-

     stone. The bull hit his head on the milling stone with a

     loud thud... The bull bellowed frighteningly, and

     raising the dust and as if flames were coming out of his

     eyes, charged Buranbek. Reyhan (a young girl from the

     kishlak) screamed with fear. Buranbek sidestepped and

     hit the bull between the eyes with his fist. He then cut

     off the head of the bull with the ax that Reyhan handed

     him. [16]

Mahmudov has taken this motif from Dede Korkut almost

verbatim, but he does not credit his source. There can be

little doubt, however, that Mahmudov intends the reader to

make this connection.

The Wolf Motif From Ergenekon And Oghuz Kagan

     The wolf plays a prominent role in the dastans Ergenekon

[17] and OGUZ KAGAN. [18] The wolf motif, together with

adaptations from Chora Batir, [19] direct the knowledgeable

readers' attention to the location of the ultimate message

accessible through the metaphorical "trapdoor" in the dastan

Immortal Cliffs --regaining independence. By liberally

sprinkling clues, Mahmudov seeks to signpost this passageway

to the "treasure," which he has meticulously buried at the

deepest level in the Immortal Cliffs.

     Ergenekon is the name of a valley which became a

secluded homeland to the Gok-Turks. [20] In this location,

the remnants of the Gok-Turks, threatened with extinction

elsewhere, multiplied and thrived. In one of the two known

variants of the dastan Ergenekon, a she-wolf rescues a Gok-

Turk warrior who has been mutilated by the enemy and takes

him to Ergenekon. There, conceiving sons from him, they re-

populate this oymak. According to the second version of the

dastan, two sons of the Gok-Turk ruler and their Wives take

refuge in Ergenekon after their defeat by the Tatars.

     The conclusion of both versions are similar. The

population of the oymak becomes so large that Ergenekon can

no longer hold it. The population desires to leave, but no

one knows the way out. Finally, a blacksmith notices that a

portion of the mountains surrounding this valley is composed

of iron ore. The people of the valley pile wood and coal high

in front of this section setting it ablaze. The ore melts and

a passageway from Ergenekon is secured.

     The whole dastan Oghuz Kagan is devoted to the exploits

of a ruler and his people. A number of the 16 variants

contain the "pathfinder wolf" motif, without incorporating

the Ergenekon episode. It is also known that the wolf is the

tamga (the seal) and gok-boru (blue wolf), the uran (war cry,

password) of the Gok-Turk tribal confederation. [21]

Moreover, the Gok-Turks displayed the head of the wolf on

their standards and banners. [22]

     In the Immortal Cliffs, both the wolf and the

mountainous location of Kattabag kishlak have significant

connotations. The wolf motif appears in two contexts. First

in connection with an opportunist member of the kishlak named

Kahramanbek; and secondly with a veteran fighter  for

freedom, Boribek. [23] Kahramanbek is later discovered to be

a traitor, while Boribek teams up with the main alp of the

Immortal Cliffs, Buranbek, to fight off the approaching

Russian troops. 

     Kahramanbek encounters a wolf pup while he is climbing

Akkaya with a party of his tribesmen on a pleasure outing.

Akkaya is the dominant mountain near their kishlak; it is

also the location where the ancestors of the kishlak Kattabag

are buried. Kahramanbek is at first disposed to kill the cub.

Changing his mind, he tries to force the cub to cry out in

pain, hoping to lure the mother wolf out into the open, his

intention being to kill the mother as well as the cub. In

spite of the pain Kahramanbek inflicts on the cub, the cub

does not utter a sound, in other words, does not betray his

mother. Giving up the thought of luring the cub's mother,

Kahramanbek mutilates the cub's body in anger, breaking his

legs, cutting off one ear and leaving it to die. The cub, as

the reader discovers later, survives to become an avenging

killer. [24]

     Mahmudov is making a clear allusion to the oldest dastan

through his use of the wolf motif. Kahramanbek, a traitor,

tries to kill the mother wolf, which, by Mahmudov's use of

the allusion to the older dastans, inter alia represents

independence and sanctuary. His message is thus

uncomplicated: one must beware of the traitors in our midst

who will betray us, in this case to the Russians; you may

have to endure great pains and suffering, but eventually you

will become the avenger.

     Mahmudov's plot indeed follows this path. Boribek is a

veteran Kazakh, a freedom fighter who has already fought the

Russians several times only to be betrayed by those of his

kinsmen who would cooperate with the Russians. He had sought

help of the nearby rulers; some half-heartedly furnished him

with troops. When the news arrives that the Russians are en

route to Kattabag, Boribek, the veteran independence fighter,

joins Buranbek to prepare a defense. They train all the young

and able men for the coming struggle, using techniques

suggested by Buranbek, which he claims candidly to have

borrowed, significantly, from Timur. They attack the Russians

and force them to withdraw.

     It is hard to imagine that any Central Asian today could

miss what Mahmudov has clearly --some might say flagrantly--

attempted. Most will quickly recognize the wolf for what it

is: an undisguised (except perhaps from the Russians)

invitation to look to the distant past, to interpret the

recent past and, by implication, the present and the future.

Mahmudov may or may not want his readers to take the Immortal

Cliffs uncritically as a dastan in its own right. He clearly

intends for them to read it like a dastan, the medium

conveying its own message and endowing the story with a layer

of meaning that only the invited can grasp or, more

appropriately, feel. Is Mahmudov warning Central Asians to

beware of the Kahramanbeks in their midst, those who would

betray them to the Russians? If so, he leaves no doubt who

will lose and who will win, who will be the torturer and who

the wolf.

The Importance Of Place:

          Central Asian Turkic Unity

     Mahmudov indicates that the inhabitants of Kattabag came

from Turkistan, [25] fleeing from the armies of Chingiz Khan.

They first settled here, hoping some day to return to their

original home. The ancestors were originally organized around

two large families, under the joint leadership of Kunor and

Kunis. [26] Here is an allusion to an earlier dastan in

Mahmudov's choice of two leaders in the Immortal Cliffs. The

Kungrats of Alpamysh also have two prominent Bays known as

Baybora and Baysari, who appear to be strikingly similar to

Kunor and Kunis in their deeds.

     Mahmudov is attempting to link the inhabitants of

Kattabag to the historic Turkic lands, and he is directing

his Central Asian readers to their Turkic past: the routes of

continuous migrations of Turkic tribes, of the Orkhon

tablets, of the Kultigin monuments. Buranbek notes that

Turkic unity preceded Islam's arrival in Central Asia. The

Islamic umma is both alien (arab) concept and a latecomer to

the Turkic peoples. It sapped the vitality of the national

identity. We see this theme again when Boribek, who has

fought the Russians several times, teams up with Buranbek to

carry on the military struggle against the Russians. This

they agree to do by using techniques of warfare borrowed from

Timur. [27] Timur was a Barlas Turk and a Muslim, but one

remained relatively neutral toward religion and who, despite

the efforts of the ulama, did not use Islam as a basis for

unity in his empire.

     The concept of Central Asian Turkic unity is one of the

strongest motifs in the Immortal Cliffs. What Mahmudov does

or does not mean by Central Asian Turkic unity must be

understood clearly. His vision of unity appears to be

unconnected to pan-Turkism [28] which was designed by

Europeans to serve European goals in their 19th and early

20th century balance of power struggles.

     The doctrine was apparently first articulated by the

Hungarian Orientalist Arminius Vambery [29] in 1865 and given

further impetus by an 1896 monograph written by Leon Cahun,

which Ziya Gokalp noted was written "as if to encourage the

ideal of pan-Turkism." [30]

     Secondly, Mahmudov's vision is not a grand design for

world conquest or the destruction, subjugation or

assimilation of any other people (the Tajiks, for example).

Rather, Mahmudov's is a call to Central Asian unity, directed

against the most recent invader, the Russians.

     At different points in the story Mahmudov addresses a

variety of themes related to the overarching concept of

Central Asian Turkic unity. For example:

     -- the common ancestry of various tribes in Central

Asia, i.e. Kazakh, Kirghiz, Uzbek and their unique and

specific cultural heritage; [31]

     -- the existence of traitors who have acted (and still

act) against such a unity; [32]

     -- the common enemies of the Turks: Arabs and Mongols in

the past, Russians during the time frame of Immortal Cliffs;


     -- the necessary steps to be taken, if Turkic unity is

to be realized; [34]

     -- the difficulties experienced by the peoples of Turkic

origin who allow Islam to cloud their sense of Central Asian

Turkic unity; [35]

     Mahmudov's emphasis on Central Asian Turkic unity is

interesting also as a possible response to the recent novel

by Kirghiz writer Chingiz Aitmatov; A Day Lasts Longer Than

An Age (Novyi mir, No. 11; 1980). Aitmatov's implicit message

is that only Islamic unity can serve as an effective basis

for Central Asian resistance to the Russians. The Immortal

Cliffs may be a part of a larger debate --cleverly cloaked as

"historical fiction"-- regarding the most sound basis for


     Mahmudov's characters' hostility toward Islam may appear

to serve the regime. In one scene from Immortal Cliffs, for

example, some Russian sympathizers in a conversational

setting are critical of Islam as an impediment to development

in much the same way as the official Soviet media today

criticize Islam. Clearly, Mahmudov's intention is not to echo

Soviet rhetoric. His call for Central Asian Turkic unity  --

anathema to the Soviet regime-- ought to be sufficient proof.

Furthermore, his argument is based on knowledge of the Turks'

historical existence and written records dating from the

eighth century. It is a history obscured by contradictory and

unfounded Soviet "scholarship" on the "ethnogenesis" of the

Turks. [36]

     Furthermore, both Mahmudov's and Aitmatov's works

appeared shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

(December 1979). It is conceivable that both men are offering

advice to the Afghan mujahidin about how to fight the

Russians, or at least to Soviet Central Asians about how to

think about the Afghan resistance to Russian aggression. If

this is so, it raises the intriguing possibility that the

Soviet establishment has unwittingly permitted potent pro-

mujahidin allegories to reach the public domain. The

immediate and intense criticism levelled at Mahmudov (see

below) may in fact have been an attempt to quash this view

before it became popular.

Influence of Chora Batir On The Immortal Cliffs

     Chora Batir is a dastan of Tatar origin, detailing the

fights of the Tatars against the Russians in the 16th

century. [37] This fact alone places it in a very special

category, since the clearly named enemy is not Mongol or

Chinese as in the case of Alpamysh or Kultigin. 

     Chora Batir, as his second name indicates, is an alp.

It's quite likely that this dastan is modelled after a real

Batir. [38] During his lifetime, he performs several major

alp-like deeds. His prowess and skill attract the attention

of several rulers and he is invited to enter their service.

     In one case, an arrow shot by Chora Batir is found to

have brought down a bird reputed to fly very high. It is

reported that ordinarily it is impossible to shoot this bird

in flight. Eventually it is determined that the arrow was

shot from Chora Batir's bow. He is invited to take part in a

shooting contest. Chora Batir borrows a bow and an arrow, but

the bow cannot withstand the power of Chora Batir when drawn,

and breaks. 

     He is immediately given another, but the same fate

befall the new bow. His shooting skills are then questioned.

He asks that his own bow be brought, which he had left with

his horse. One Batir cannot carry Chora Batir's bow, however,

and a second Batir is sent to help the first. Two Batirs

manage to carry it. With his bow in hand, Chora Batir wins

the contest, proving that he has all the qualities of an alp

and that he can perform feats that others cannot.

     The other alps, who have been unseated from their former

glory by Chora Batir, conspire against him. Chora Batir

defeats all of the conspirators, and moves on. He also fights

the Russians who came to conquer Kazan. Chora Batir turns

back the Russians, and the Russian general takes an oath

never to return again or to gird a sword. Upon this victory,

Chora Batir becomes the 'Bash Batir' (Premier Champion) of

Cifali Khan, ruler of Kazan.

     After their defeat, the Russians consult astrologers to

seek a way to subdue Kazan and especially Chora Batir. The

astrologers determine that a Russian girl would conceive a

son by Chora Batir, and this boy would eventually kill his

father. The Russians then send a pretty girl to Kazan with

specific instructions to find Chora Batir and return to

Russian territory upon becoming pregnant. Chora Batir lives

with the girl. After conceiving, the Russian girl returns to

her people.

     Time passes; Chora Batir's son by the Russian girl grows

up and leads the Russian troops advancing on Kazan. During

the final battle for Kazan, Chora Batir is killed by this

boy, his own son.

     In the Immortal Cliffs, Buranbek, after turning back the

tsarist Russian troops at Kattabag, is invited by the Amir of

Bukhara. He is greeted with high honors and treated as

Muzaffer (Victor). This, of course, draws the ire of the

traitors among the retinue of the Bukhara Amir. Buranbek is

invited to a private feast and lavishly praised during the

festivities. Finally, he is forcibly bundled up, taken to the

riverbed and tortured. Before the conspirators can kill him,

he is rescued by the loyal Boribek. Buranbek goes into hiding

to recover from his wounds.

     Russian troops, under the command of Edward Mikhailovich

Evseev, occupy Kattabag. Earlier, during a visit to his uncle

in Omsk, Buranbek became involved with the wife of Colonel

Evseev and fathered a son of this Russian woman. [39] Upon

occupying Kattabag, Colonel Evseev immediately seeks out

Buranbek, but cannot find him.

     Due to its contents, the accounts of Tatars fighting

against the Russians to retain an independent Kazan and then

turning them back, the dastan Chora Batir was especially

singled out by the Soviet regime for total extinction. The

Soviets almost succeeded in eliminating all written copies of

this dastan. How then did Mahmudov, a young man, who is

perhaps not a descendant of the tatar oymak, knew enough

about Chora Batir to quote it? Did he see a written copy

which somehow survived the Soviet cultural purge? If not, we

may conclude that Chora Batir is still alive, part of the

dastan oral tradition. [40] It surely is not a coincidence

that certain deeds of Buranbek, alp of Immortal Cliffs,

follows a pattern remarkably similar to that of Chora Batir.

The Aftermath

     At one time, Soviet scholarship insisted that the

ancient dastans were, on the whole, progressive. In the case

of Alpamysh, Soviet ideologues were lavish in their praise:

"One of the most perfect epic poems in the world" [41]

"The liberty song of Central Asian national fighting against

the alien invaders" [42]

"Authentic popular movement, voicing the ideology of the

toiling masses" [43]

     In the early 1950s, however, the dastans were attacked

as being reactionary, their earlier progressive elements

apparently conveniently forgotten. "Impregnated with the

poison of feudalism and reaction, breathing Muslim fanaticism

and preaching hatred towards foreigners," was how one source

[44] described Alpamysh under the new interpretive

guidelines. Alpamysh was condemned by the Uzbekistan

Communist Party's Central Committee before the tenth plenum,

[45] by a special conference of historians of literature at

the Republic University in Samarkand, [46] and by the joint

session of the Academy of Sciences and the Union of Soviet

Writers in Tashkent. [47] At this last meeting, the defenders

of Alpamysh were declared "pan-Turkic nationalists."

     The reaction of the official Soviet establishment

towards the Immortal Cliffs is strikingly similar to the

campaign against the dastans thirty years earlier. The amount

of ire the Immortal Cliffs drew from the authorities can be

gleaned from the proceedings of the Uzbek Writers Union

meetings, which were reported in editorials in the Uzbek

press. For example:

     ...appearances of a lack of true ideological content,

     inattention in defining the world view, and deviation

     from a clear-cut class position in evaluating some

     historical events and individuals can harm the talent of

     even talented people. [48]

     Mahmudov permitted some confusions to arise in the realm

     of a realistic description of the conditions of the

     historical past and in the realm of an approach to past

     events on the basis of Marxist-Leninist methodology.


     ...difficult to know even which level or which social

     groups its heroes were representative of...It is also

     possible to encounter the very same shortcomings in the

     prose and poetic works of some of our writers. [50]

     Mahmudov and his work, as was the case with the dastan

Alpamysh during 1951-1952, is not the sole target.

Mirmuhsin's "Roots and Leaves," Ibrahim Rahim's "The

Consequence," and Hamid Gulam's "Mashrab" were also

criticized. [51]

     Under pressure, Mahmudov was forced to recant:

     Immortal Cliffs is my first major work. Rating my

     creative potentials higher than I should have done, I

     took up my pen to write about a very complicated

     historical period. As a result I allowed some

     shortcomings. What is the reason for this? Because I

     could not present the spirit of that age correctly. [52]

Another critic remarked:

     He also wants to emphasize his commitment to good

     relations among the Soviet peoples. He states that

     having lived in Russia for five years, he has come to

     know and love Russian people, and he tried to convey

     that affection in his novel. He maintains that he

     stressed the positive influence of Russia on the

     development of Turkistan. He also wants to dispel the

     notion spread by [unnamed] foreign radio stations that

     he has been persecuted; on the contrary, he is living

     and working freely in his own homeland, among his writer

     friends. He intends to rework his novel this year and

     prepare it for publication. It may be worth noting that

     according to his personal account Mahmudov has been a

     member of the CPSU for some time. [53]

     Mahmudov's admission to having committed "shortcomings"

in interpreting the historical evidence is in sharp contrast

to his detailed presentation of the evidence itself. From the

extensive footnotes Mahmudov provides for his readers, it is

clear that he conducted wide-ranging historical research --

far more extensive, in fact, than simply regurgitating Soviet

encyclopedia entries-- in preparation for the writing of the

Immortal Cliffs. For example, each troop movement by the

Russians is supported by footnotes, lending this "historical

fiction" the kind of accuracy that inclines one to think that

it is more history than fiction. For example, the Jizzakh

battle [54] which forced the withdrawal of General Cherniaev

and his troops (in the Immortal Cliffs, the battle is waged

by the inhabitants of Kattabag, under the leadership of

Buranbek and Boribek) and subsequent events are historically

accurate. Mahmudov used fiction to explain history, which is

what apparently got Soviet authorities so excited. One would

have thought that it was the historical record, which speaks

for itself, that they would have preferred to suppress. But

this may be a case of the particular genre providing a

convenient carrier and disguise for the author's larger

political message.

     How deep was Mahmudov's recantation? In it he notes, for

example, that he once lived in Russia for five years and had

come to love the Russian people. This intriguing admission

raises the possibility that at least part of the Immortal

Cliffs is autobiographical, for Buranbek, too, made an

extended sojourn to Russia. Does Mahmudov wish the reader to

infer that Buranbek really speaks for him, the author? If so,

Mahmudov appear to be stepping up his attack, not stepping

back from it.


     What conclusions can be drawn from the Immortal Cliffs

and the controversy surrounding it? Some conclusions are

clearly justified. First, there can be little doubt that

Mahmudov intended his novelette to be understood by Central

asians as part of the dastan genre. In this way, he proposed

to speak directly to them by going around Soviet censorship

and the ubiquitous "socialist realism" filter which screens

out culturally and politically unacceptable material. In this

sense, the medium is clearly the message. History remains an

important political force in Central Asia. This is more so

than might have been expected perhaps because Central Asians

are daily fed an historical diet that is false and alien to

them. Mahmudov's critics, who attacked him largely on the

basis of what they deemed to be his faulty historical

analysis, appear to have grasped the significance of what he

was trying to do, even if they did not understand his means.

     Second, there is Mahmudov's message, or, perhaps,

messages. One is clearly is that Central Asians should be

beware of the collaborators from among their own kin. But in

this regard, he leaves no doubt about whom the ultimate

victor will be.

     Mahmudov's clearest and most controversial message is

his stress on the importance of the Turkic ethnic origins, as

reflected in his dastan, as the most logical common bond

among Central Asians.

     It is likely that Immortal Cliffs was intended to be a

contribution to a debate among Central Asian intellectuals

about the future of Central Asia under Russian control. As we

have seen, Mahmudov's is by no means the only contribution

but may be the most provocative. Not only does he brush aside

the whole issue of Islamic based unity: he implies that the

Soviets can manipulate Islam to keep Central Asians apart.

This is a curious position inasmuch as Soviet newspapers

today provide abundant evidence of the political importance

of resurgent Islam among Central asian Muslims. Mahmudov may

be warning his readers that Islam is an inappropriate

identity structure to promote real unity. Central Asian

Turkic unity, on the other hand, is the suitable doctrine. If

the appearance of a series of like-minded "historical

fictions," with plots and structures closely resembling those

of Immortal Cliffs is an indication of larger trends, it is

entirely probable that the debate among Central Asian

intellectuals --the "Who are we?" dilemma-- centers on this

issue. Singan Kilich by Tolongon Kasimbekov (Frunze

[Bishkek], Kirghiz SSR, 1971); Baku 1501 by Azize Caferzade

(Azerbaycan, Azerbaijan SSR, Nos. 7 & 8, 1982); Altin Orda by

Ilyas Esenberlin (Culduz, Kazakh SSR, Nos. 7 & 8 , 1982) have

essentially common themes and by and large concentrate on

similar issues.

     Soviet authorities are unlikely to find either

alternative pleasing; both build on the premise that the

Central Asians --"Us"-- are very different from the Russians

--"Them." Beyond this, the Russians will be disturbed that

the search for a strong political identity among Central

Asians has taken them to the distant past, to their dastans,

far from Soviet historiography and even further from ethnic

"merging" predicted for the Soviet future.

                  *          *           *

N. B.:  It is reported that Mamadali Mahmudov has been

awarded the Ozbekistan CHOLPAN PRIZE in 1992 for his work

Olmez Kayalar (Immortal Cliffs)

see Umid/Hope (Journal of the Turkestanian-American

Association) Volume 1, No. 2. Fall 1992, P. 14. 

                    *            *           *


1. Later on, the mother dastans may spin-off their lyrical

portions which become dastans on their own.  The "lyrical"

dastans would be concerned only with the "love story"

constituting a sub-plot in the mother dastan.  This usually

occurs when the owners of the dastan are living independent,

free and in relative calm.  The "mother" dastan is not

discarded, or even dismembered.  The lyrical dastan tends to

take on a life of its own.  Subsequently, the lyrical dastans

may decay into folkloric tales, recited to children as

bedtime stories.  See below for a discussion of the

"creation" of new "mother" dastans.

2. In The Book of Dede Korkut, the bard is termed an ozan. 

See the translation by Geoffrey Lewis (Penguin, 1974).  Such

a person is also called: Bahshi; Akin; Ashik; Kam in various

locations.  In 1923, Gazi Alim used Akin; in 1938, Hamid

Alimcan used Bahshi.  [See H. B. Paksoy, Alpamysh: Central

Asian identity under Russian Rule (Hartford: AACAR, 1989)].

3. Used interchangeably with Batir/Batur, meaning "valiant,"

"gallant," "brave;" as attributes of a skilled and fearless

champion tested in battle or contest.  See Gerard Clauson, An

Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth Century Turkish. 

(Oxford, 1972).  P. 172.

4. Ancestral unit, division of a greater tribe or

confederation of tribes.  In addition, boy-clan; soy-family,

lineage are also used to depict the infrastructure within a


5. Alpamysh is one of the oldest mother dastans.  It portrays

the liberation struggle of a Turkic tribe against an alien


6. For example, see A. Bennigsen "The Crisis of the Turkic

National Epics, 1951-1952:  Local Nationalism or

Internationalism?"  Canadian Slavonic Papers Vol. XVII

(1975), No. 23, Pp. 463-474.

7. Bol'shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia.  Third Edition.

(moscow, 1978), Vol. 1, P. 458.

8. Uzbek Sovet Entsiklopediiasi (Tashkent, 1971), Pp. 112-


9. See Paksoy, Alpamysh.

10. See John Soper, "Shake-up in the Uzbek Literary Elite"

Central Asian Survey Vol 1, (1982), No. 4.

11. Shark Yildizi, a monthly literary-artistic social-

political journal, Tashkent.  Hereafter SY.

12. W. Fierman, in a paper read to Conference on Identity

Problems in Central Asia and Teaching Programs.  University

of Wisconsin-Madison (November, 1983).

13. See, for example, Z. V. Togan, Editor/Translator, Oghuz

Destani (Istanbul, 1972);  Oughouz-name, epopee turque. R.

Nur (Societe de publications Eyptiennes: Alexandrie, 1928);

Die Legende von Oghuz Qaghan (Siztb. d. Preuss. Akad. D.

Wiss. 1932. Phil.-Histor. K1. XXV, Berlin).

14. Dede Korkut., op. cit., Pp. 30-31.

15. SY No. 10, Pp. 75-76.

16. SY No. 10, Pp. 77.

17. N. Ural, Ergenekon Destani (Ankara: Turk Dil Kurumu,


18. See note 13 above.

19. For a synopsis of this dastan, see H. B. Paksoy, "Chora

Batir: A Tatar Admonition to Future Generations."  Studies in

Comparative Communism (Los Angeles\London) Vol. XIX, Nos. 3 &

4, Autumn/Winter 1986.  Pp. 253-265.  For an early reference,

see Tatar Edebiyati Tarihi (Kazan, 1925).  For bibliography,

see Philologiae Turcicae Fundamenta II (Wiesbaden, 1965), p.


20. A more contemporary re-enactment of Ergenekon may be

found among the Kirghiz tribes who fled the Soviet forces in

the 1930s.  Led by Rahman Kul Khan, two sizeable Kirghiz

oymaks migrated to the Pamirs at the Wakhan corridor portion

of Afghanistan.  The location of their yurt was at an

altitude of approximately 12,000 ft.  In 1979, following

Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a large majority of these

Kirghiz tribes became, once again, refugees.  See H. B.

Paksoy, "Observations Among Kirghiz Refugees from the Pamirs

of Afghanistan Settled in the Turkish Republic."  Journal of

the Anthropological Society of Oxford Vol. XVI, N. 1, Hilary,

1985.  Pp. 53-61.

21. For the constitution of traditional Turkic self-identity,

the triad uran-tamga-dastan are critical.  See H. B. Paksoy,

"The Traditional Oglak Tartis Among the Kirghiz of the

Pamirs."  Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great

Britain and Ireland (London) 1985, Part 2. (1985).  Pp. 174-


22. For an example of the wolf motifs in the 8th century AD

funerary epitaphs, see Eski TĒrk Yazitlari, H. N. Orkun,

Editor, (Istanbul, 1936, P. 35.  For and English Translation

of the Kul Tigin inscriptions, which contains the

aforementioned motif, see T. Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon

Turkic. (Bloomington: Uralic and Altaic Series Vol. 69,

1968), P. 256.

23. Bori, or Boru means wolf; bek-prince, chief, nobleman.

24. SY No. 11, P. 73,95.

25. For a definition of the homelands of the Turks see:  1)

Besim Atalay, Editor, Divan u Lugat at-Turk (Ankara, 1934). 

English translation is by R Dankoff with J. Kelly, 

Compendium of Turkic Dialects. (3 Vols.) (Cambridge, MA.,

1982-84).  2) Sharaf al-Zaman Tahir Marvazi, China, the Turks

and India, V. Minorksky, Translator (London: Royal Asiatic

Society, 1942);  3) Hudud al-Alam, V. Minorsky, Translator

((London, 1937);  4) Ibn Battuta, From Travels in Asia and

Africa: 1325-1354. H. A. R. Gibb, Translator (New York,

1929).  For Turkistan, see W. Barthold, Turkestan Down to the

Mongol Invasion. (4th. Ed.) (London, 1977) Fourth edition; 

Alexander Park,  Bolshevism in Turkestan 1917-1927. (New

York, 1957); Z. V. Togan, Turkili Turkistan (Istanbul, 1981)

Second edition.

26. SY No. 10, P. 32.

27. SY No. 11, P. 116.

28. or, Pan-Turanianism.  For an example of the "pan-

Turanian" treatment, see A Manual on the Turanians and

Pan-Turanianism. (Oxford: H. M. Government, Naval Staff

Intelligence Department, November 1918), (based on Vambery's

Turkenvolk (Leipzig, 1885) and that it was compiled by Sir

Denison Ross, as Sir Denison later personally informed Togan.

See Z. V. Togan, Hatiralar (Istanbul, 1969).

29. It appears that Vambery, a professor of Oriental

Languages, had extraordinary relations with the British

Foreign Office, drawing regular salary, later a pension.  See

M. Kemal Oke,   "Prof. Arminius Vambery and Anglo-Ottoman

Relations 1889-1907" Bulletin of the Turkish Studies

Association Vol. 9, No. 2. 1985.  The pan-Turanian doctrine,

so conceived and elaborated, was the prime diversionary issue

of European politicians and Russians, both under the tsars

and by emigres after the Bolshevik revolution.

30. Quoted in Charles Hostler, Turkism and the Soviets: The

Turks of the World and their Political Objectives (London,

1957), p. 141, citing Uriel Heyd, Foundations of Turkish

Nationalism (London, 1950), P. 28.  See also L. Cahun,

Introduction a l'Histoire de l'Asie, Turcs, et Mongols, des

Origines a 1405. (Paris, 1896).  For the spread of "pan"

ideas among Turks, see inter alia, Hostler; and Jacob M.

Landau, Pan-Turkism in Turkey: A study of Irredentism.

(London, 1981).  Landau concentrates on the emigre aspects of

the subject.

31. SY No. 10, Pp. 41, 51.

32. SY No. 10, Pp. 57; No. 11, Pp. 73, 74, 76.

33. SY No. 10, Pp. 56, 57, 60.

34. SY No. 10, Pp. 70, 75, 76, 83, 84.

35. SY No. 10, Pp. 64, 82.

36. The Soviet authors and propagandists are at variance with

each other as to the dates during which the Turks existed. 

According to the Ozbek Sovet Entsiklopediasi (Tashkent,

1971), Turks existed in Central Asia from roughly the 6th to

the 16th centuries and again in the 20th. (Entry on Turk). 

D. E. Eremeev, in Ethnogenez Turok; proiskhozhdenie i

osnovnye etapy etnicheskoi istorii (Moscow, 1971) presents,

albeit parenthetically, an amazingly garbled bit of

misinformation: he mentions attacks on the Byzantine empire

by Scythians in the 11th and 12th centuries and, in a

footnote, explains that the Scythians were Turks (Tiurk) from

the Balkans (p. 75).  A misreading of Barthold's Turkestan P.


     A. N. Bernshtam in his 1946 work on the Orkhon Turks

establishes at the outset the limits the limits his

willingness to follow his data.  He states: "(Even) if the

word Turk (tiurk) existed before the 6th-8th centuries,

(even) if the totem "wolf" is more ancient than the Orkhon-

Yenisei Turks (Tiurk), that does not mean that the Turkic

nationality (narodnost') is more ancient  than the indicated

centuries and times."  Sotsial'no-ekonomicheskii stroi

Orkhono-Eniseiskikh Tiurok VI-VIII vekov (Leningrad, 1946),

P. 4.

37. A fragment of this dastan was reported by Radloff and

very sparingly, in his Proben (St. petersburg, 1896). 

38. See note 19.  Chora Batir was certainly an historical

figure.  See Jaroslaw Pelenski, Russia and Kazan: Conquest

and Imperial Ideology (The Hague-Paris, 1974).

39. SY No. 11, Pp. 86-87.

40. During World War II, the Tatars were "relocated" by

Stalin for their alleged cooperation with the Germans against

the Russians.  Currently a sizeable tatar community is living

in Tashkent and elsewhere in Ozbekistan.  They publish a

Tatar newspaper.

41. Anthology of Ozbek Poetry (Moscow, 1950).  Notes 41-47

are cited from A. Bennigsen op. cit.

42. Bol'shaia Sovetskaia Entsiklopeadiia (Moscow, 1950).

43. Preface to the Russian translation (Moscow, 1949).

44. "Concerning the poem 'Alpamysh'" in Literaturnaia Gazeta

No. 14 (September 1952).

45. Pravda Vostoka (Tashkent, 24 February 1952).

46. Ibid (28 February 1952).

47. Ibid (3 April 1952).

48. Ozbekistan Adabiyati ve Sanati (Tashkent, 17 March 1981).

Notes 48-53 are cited from John Soper, "Shake-up in the Uzbek

Literary Elite" Central Asian Survey Vol 1 (1982), No. 4.

49. Ibid, (22 January 1982).

50. Sovet Uzbekistani (10 February 1982).

51. Ibid.

52. Jizzakh was also the site of another uprising in 1916.

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