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Kyrgyzstan: Medieval Philosopher Reclaimed as National Hero

In recognition of Yusuf Balasaguni's achievements, the Kyrgyz government ordered that his portrait be imprinted on the 1,000 som banknote. (Photo: Public Domain)

When the 11th-century philosopher and poet Yusuf Balasaguni published a work on the principles of just governance, his ideas quickly gained traction among the rulers of the Karakhanid khanate in which he lived.
 
Both Balasaguni and the Karakhanid khanate are now history, but his personality and ideas on governance have lived on in Kyrgyzstan, a relatively new nation in search of an identity.
 
According to some historians, Balasaguni was born in 1015 — in the town of Balasagun, the capital of the Karakhanid khanate, located near modern-day town of Tokmok — and died in 1085 in Kashghar, currently part of Xinjiang Province in China. Ever in search of anniversaries that can help demarcate statehood, authorities in Bishkek have seized upon Balasaguni as a native son and have sought to capitalize on his status.
 
Balasaguni is most famous for his book Kutadgu Bilig, a didactic volume for rulers completed around 1069. Translated from ancient Turkic as the "Wisdom Which Brings Happiness," the text describes the author's views on various aspects of life in the Karakhanid khanate and offers practical advice to rulers. For this book and his other services to the court of Karakhanid rulers, Balasaguni was awarded the title "Khass Hajib," an honorific similar to Chancellor of the Court.
 
In accordance with Soviet policies intended to dampen nationalistic sentiments, historians in the previous era downplayed the significance of medieval Central Asian philosophers and scholars. But that all changed after Kyrgyzstan gained independence.
 
Since the early 1990s, Balasaguni has been hailed by Kyrgyz politicians and historians as the founder of Kyrgyz and Islamic-Turkic literature and science. Meanwhile, Kutadgu Bilig is presented as a masterpiece that marked a period of renaissance in Turkic and Eastern Muslim cultures. In recognition of Balasaguni's achievements, the government in 2000 ordered that Balasaguni's portrait be imprinted on the 1,000 som banknote. In 2002, they named the Kyrgyz National University after him.
 
President Almazbek Atambayev, who has called 2016 the year of history and culture, has made no secret of his desire to use Balasaguni's legacy to boost his nation-building initiatives. In a decree signed in May 2015, Atambayev stated: "The personality of Yusuf Balasaguni is of enormous significance in the history of statehood of the Kyrgyz and other Turkic peoples. This great thinker of the eastern Muslim renaissance era, a prominent statesman of the Karakhanid Khanate, made an enormous contribution to the theory and practice of state governance, the development of spiritualism and cultures of the Turkic world."
 
The decree instructed that Kyrgyz authorities conduct a series of commemorative events concerning Balasaguni. Authorities are to translate and publish Balasaguni's works in Kyrgyz, hold several international conferences, engage in a wide-reaching national outreach campaign through media to publicize Balasaguni's legacy, and dedicate a new Balasaguni museum in the Burana complex near the town of Tokmok.
 
Restoring Balasaguni's legacy also dovetails with the Atambayev administration's objective of strengthening collaboration among Turkic-speaking nations. Acting on a petition from the Kyrgyz government in December 2015, Turksoy, the International Organization of Turkic Culture, which unites several Turkic nations, named 2016 the year of Balasaguni. Unity among Turkic nations was a central theme at the September 17-18 conference on Balasaguni, organized in Cholpon-Ata by Atambayev’s office. Balasaguni and his works were additionally featured during the opening ceremony of the September 2016 World Nomad Games.
 
Government supporters are hailing Atambayev's initiatives. In a February interview with Erkin Too, a government weekly, Jypar Jeksheev, a prominent community figure, described Balasaguni as one of Kyrgyzstan’s most "outstanding and wisest ancestors."
 
"I think that this work should be used as an ethical guide and required reading for every [Kyrgyz] state employee," said Jeksheev, who has come to prominence in previous times for his ardent criticism of Atambayev’s two deposed predecessors, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
 
Outside of governing circles, reactions to Balasaguni have been mixed. In Tokmok, people are proud of the fact that Balasaguni was born near their town, but they show little knowledge of him. "I guess people have more pressing concerns such as earning a living, paying for utilities, and organizing their own festivities," said Kausara Suleimanova, a Russian language teacher at a secondary school in Tokmok.
 
Khairukhan – a teacher of Uzbek literature in Osh, who spoke to EurasiaNet.org on condition that her last name not be used because of fear of official reprisals – said Balasaguni’s works had been required reading in Uzbek-language schools in the southern region. Ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan have been reluctant to speak publically since ethnic rioting in and around Osh in 2010.
 
Khasanbai, a baker in Osh who provided only his first name, sees a contradiction in the efforts of Kyrgyz leaders to promote Balasaguni as a model of virtue.
 
"Balasaguni advocated honesty, justice, and unity among people. The current [Kyrgyz] leaders talk a lot about the virtues of his works on TV, but they are all caught up in lies and corruption; and instead of unifying people [Kyrgyz and Uzbeks], they divide them."

Kyrgyzstan: Medieval Philosopher Reclaimed as National Hero

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