Global Enthusiasm for Zhamby Atu, Kazakh Horseback Archery, is on Rise

ASTANA – A sport that combines marksmanship with exceptional equestrian skills, zhamby atu or Kazakh traditional horseback archery, captivates more and more fans in Kazakhstan and around the globe.

A young Kazakh rider takes part in a horseback archery at the Zhamby Atu Federation Cup final. Photo credit: Aida Dosbergenova/The Astana Times

In the traditional national game, a participant on horseback must shoot down a high-hanging zhamby (target) while galloping past. “Zhamby” derives from the old Turkish word yambu, meaning piece of gold or silver.

In Kazakh-style or zhamby atu sport a 30-centimeter diameter target hangs on a 50-centimeter string from a 2.5-meter pole, allowing it to sway naturally.

Horseback archery today might be a sports competition, but it was once a state-of-the-art skill for Kazakh nomadic armies in war and hunting. Zhamby shooting represents the pinnacle of Kazakh marksmanship, historically used to hone soldiers’ skills.

This practice has deep historical roots going back to the era of Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron ages, evidenced by many ancient rock paintings and petroglyphs.

If one looks closely at the logo of The Astana Times, it features a horseman-archer inspired by petroglyphs found at a ritual altar in the Zhetisu Region, dating back to the 5th-3rd centuries BC. The figure of a horseman-archer symbolizes power, determination, and the relentless pursuit of goals.

Revival of horseback archery in modern Kazakhstan

In just a few generations of sedentary lifestyle under Soviet rule, Kazakh traditional horseback archery has gone almost completely forgotten. Yet, even during this period of rapid decline, there were few people who held the tradition and heritage close to their hearts. Since gaining independence, the game has experienced a revival.

Eldos Badashev, head coach of Kazakhstan’s zhamby atu national team. Photo credit: The Astana Times

“This sport has been forgotten for many years. Our ancestors played it as a sport, it was a tradition,” said Eldos Badashev, head coach of Kazakhstan’s national team in horseback archery.

“Among the peoples of Central Asia, the rules are similar. But now that it has evolved into a modern sport, shooting techniques have diversified into distinct styles such as Korean style or Turkish styles,” he said.

In Korean-style archery, the target is a large one-square-meter tablet placed on the ground. The Turkish style positions the target slightly higher, at 1.5 meters, with a diameter of 60 centimeters. However, the most challenging of all is Kazakh-style horseback archery.

In our zhamby style, or Kazakh style, a 30-centimeter diameter target hangs on a 50-centimeter string from a 2.5-meter pole, allowing it to sway naturally, sometimes with the wind. This unique and challenging Kazakh style has gained international recognition. Many countries express admiration for its complexity and adopt it,” said Badashev.

The World Nomad Games and other world championships help keep alive this ancient skill, according to him.

“We can say that our audience has increased over the last 5-6 years. This is a fun sport. The holding of international competitions also contributed to its rising popularity. Many international viewers are also turning in to watch the [World] Nomads Games,” said Badashev.

“We also have a lot of local spectators, but less than in other sports because most of the competitions are held outdoors. There are people who do not understand it at first, but once a person sees it, he becomes interested and then keeps watching,” added Badashev.

Kazakh national zhamby atu team

Aitbek Sarybai, a sportsman from the Turkistan Region who holds world champion title, has a long background working with horses, playing another Kazakh national game – kokpar, a goat pulling on horses.

Children as young as seven can begin learning archery, but horseback riding is permitted only at 12-14, as it is a sport that has an element of danger. Photo credit: Aida Dosbergenova/The Astana Times

“I have been doing zhamby atu for around nine years. As you know, kokpar sport is well developed in our Turkistan Region. Growing up playing kokpar in the village, I came to this [zhamby atu] sport when I learned that this forgotten sport of our ancestors is being revived in Kazakhstan,” said Sarybai.

Aitbek Sarybai, a sportsman from the Turkistan Region. Photo credit: The Astana Times

He believes every Kazakh possesses an innate ability for horse riding, so improving his archery technique is more important for him.

“Archery techniques are well developed in other countries, whereas we have been riding horses since childhood. Because horses are in our blood, riding them comes naturally to us. However, to excel in archery, we should learn techniques from abroad. If we improve our technique, we can achieve a lot,” he said.

But those who can ride a horse freely are rare. According to head coach Badashev, many players give up the zhamby atu sport because they find it difficult to master free horse-riding.

“Because it is a challenging sport, many people cannot do it. Here, you need to be skilled in both horseback riding and archery, as this sport combines both disciplines. If you can’t ride a horse confidently, it will be difficult because you need both hands free to shoot the bow. The horse must move by itself. Imagine riding a horse with both hands free—it’s not easy. Still, many people are eager to take up this sport,” said Badashev.

Guldana Alabayeva is the sole female representative on Kazakhstan’s national zhamby atu team. Photo credit: The Astana Times

According to him, any activity that has an element of danger should be approached with caution. While children as young as seven can begin learning archery, horseback riding is permitted only at 12-14.

Guldana Alabayeva from the Zhetisu Region is the sole female representative on Kazakhstan’s national zhamby atu team, competing against dozens of men.

“There is no division between women and men in zhamby atu sports. Women participate on equal terms with men. Of course, it can be challenging for us at times, but when our horse is good and our preparation is good, we win places. This time, the speed of my horse was slow, putting me a little behind, but the [shooting] scores are still good,” said Alabayeva

Once the horse is ready, it is much easier to shoot from the saddle, according to her.

“If our horse runs smoothly, we only think about the target, but when the horse doesn’t run smoothly, we keep pushing the horse forward and struggle to aim accurately,” said Alabayeva.

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