Smithsonian Institution presents online exhibition of famous Kazakh geographer and ethnographer

ASTANA – This year Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced a wide-ranging policy “Course towards the future: modernisation of Kazakhstan’s identity” outlining steps for modernisation of social norms. As one of its key characteristics, Nazarbayev emphasised “the ability to adopt and learn from the experiences of other people and countries.”


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One of the related projects in this area is an online exhibition devoted to the scientific expeditions and contributions of great Kazakh geographer and ethnographer Chokan Valikhanov named “Discover Kazakhstan: The Expeditions of Chokan Valikhanov” presented by the Washington-based Smithsonian Institution.

The online space offers archival and published documents and materials. This multi-year project was launched in 2010 in the year of 175th anniversary of Valikhanov’s birth, long before the new identity modernisation policy was proclaimed.

According to the Smithsonian Institute, the study and publication of Valikhanov’s scientific explorations are a collaborative effort between the Smithsonian and museums of Kazakhstan. This collaboration derived from a series of exchanges and seminars that began in 2005 with an International Partnership Among Museums grant from the American Association of Museums, awarded to the National Museum of Natural History (Washington) and Abilkhan Kasteev State Museum of Arts (Almaty).

This exhibition has grown out of the longstanding partnership between the Smithsonian and the State Museums of Kazakhstan. In addition to raising awareness of Kazakhstan, it presents to an international audience Valikhanov’s expeditionary accounts and scientific accomplishments of the 19th century.

To this day, scholars in the U.S. and Kazakhstan continue to research and publish Valikhanov’s original expedition records and collections. This joint effort places within proper historic context the rich collections from the geographer’s 19th century expeditions, which focused on his interpretations of the cultural history of the Kazakh people and provides a magnificent overview of Kazakhstan’s history.

Valikhanov was born in November 1835 in the Aman-Karagai district within the Kushmurun Fort (presently Kostanai oblast). Chingis Valikhanov, the boy’s father, arranged his son’s early education, enrolling him in 1842 at age six in a small private school providing a secular education. There he began his studies of Arabic script and foreign languages, including Chagatai.

In 1847, 11-year-old Valikhanov left Kazakhstan for Omsk, Siberia to enrol in the Cadet Corpus. His departure for Omsk marked both the beginning of a new life for Valikhanov and the beginning of his Russian military education and involvement.

Valikhanov graduated from the Omsk Cadet Corpus in 1853. He received the rank of Cornet and was assigned to the Sixth Cavalry Regiment of the Siberian Cossack Army.

Two years after graduating from the military academy, Valikhanov began his travels by accompanying Governor-General of Western Siberia Gustav Gasfort to the newly established fortress of Vernoe (presently Almaty).

In 1856, after a group of Kyrgyz nomads was officially incorporated into the Tsar’s empire, a diplomatic and geographical expedition embarked to the region of Lake Issyk-Kul, deep in the Kyrgyz frontier. It was at this time that Valikhanov made the premier ethnographic documentation of Manas, a monumental oral epic of the Kyrgyz that Valikhanov named the “Iliad of the Steppe” and that is today formally recognised by UNESCO as part of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Following the completion of his expedition to Issyk-Kul and Kulja and his return to Omsk, Valkihanov was ordered to report directly to St. Petersburg. He arrived there in 1857 and submitted formal reports to the Russian government. Realising the potential of an officer with innate insight into the geography, customs and languages of the region, the famous explorer Petr Semonov recommended Valikhanov receive full membership to the Imperial Russian Geographical Society. At the same time, Gasfort suggested to the Ministry of War and Foreign Affairs that Valikhanov immediately lead another expedition to the remote and fabled Silk Road oasis of Kashgar in Chinese Central Asia, where the Uyghurs had recently begun a series of violent revolts against the Manchu government.

On June 28, 1858, Valikhanov began the expedition that would lead him to instant fame throughout Europe and into the pages of history. Serving as a decoy to the geo-political intentions of the mission, Valikhanov embarked with a caravan of 43 men, 101 camels and 65 horses. Following his successful passage through the Chinese border without suspicion, the caravan arrived in Kashgar in early October 1858. Over the course of a half-year, Valikhanov took meticulous notes regarding major towns, including maps, the goods in the bazaars, the languages spoken and the customs practiced.

Forced to leave under increased rumours of espionage, Valikhanov and his caravan left Kashgar and arrived unharmed at Fort Vernoe (presently Almaty) on April 12, 1859. In 1861, Valikhanov formally published “Sketches of Dzhungaria” and “The Condition of Altyshar, or The Six Eastern Cities of the Chinese Province of Nan-Lu (Little Bukhara)” in 1858-1859.

Valikhanov died in April 1865 at the age of 29. He is known to the world as a “flashing meteor” of Central Asian scholarship and achievement. His lasting contributions of his ethnographies and explorations continue to strengthen in cultural significance to this very day.

According to the Smithsonian Institute, the online exhibition has been made possible through the support of Chevron Corporation, Air Astana company, Embassy of Kazakhstan in Washington, Embassy of the U.S. in Astana and General Consulate in Almaty, as well as Kasteev State Museum of Arts.

The project has been organised and carried out by the Smithsonian’s Office of Policy and Analysis, headed by Dr. Carole M.P. Neves, with the help of Lance Costello (web manager), Samantha Grauberger (programme manager), William Bradford Smith and Benjamin A. Wilson (researchers), and with the editorial assistance of Whitney Watriss. Research and content support for the project has been provided by the Smithsonian’s Asian Cultural History Program (ACHP), headed by Dr. Paul Michael Taylor, along with ACHP staff and associates including Jared M. Koller (researcher and web developer), Gregory P. Shook (programme manager), Christopher Lotis (publications director and project coordinator), and researchers Adam Grode, Robert Pontsioen, Madhuca Krishan and Dr. Amir Jadaibayev of the Kasteev Museum  In addition, Smithsonian staff who have participated in the preparation of the Valikhanov research project includes Paul Taylor, Gregory Shook, Jared Koller, and William Bradford Smith, along with Mikhail Weitz of the National Museum of Natural History’s Information Technology Office.

The Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846 with funds from Englishman James Smithson (1765-1829) according to his wishes “under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Today, the Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, with 19 museums and the National Zoo. Its goal is to shape the future by preserving the heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing the resources with the world, according to

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