A brief insight to Kazakh legend Abaj Kunanbajev

Take a philosophical stroll to Astana Road

Although fairly familiar with modern-day Kazakhstan travel guides, which always deliver on this Central Asian nation's very diverse and picturesque topography, I confess to not knowing too much about life there. Other than what's occasionally in the news or observed at events hosted by the Kazakh Embassy in Budapest, this remains a distant land of splendid panoramas: mountains and rocky canyons, steppes and deserts, often with cheerful local people leading the way. And then I took to our own little Silk Road route right here in Városliget, the City Park.

Running parallel with the busy Ajtósi Dürer road, there is a minor road just inside the park that is more of a walkway, called Asztana út. The city of Astana – which means “capital” in Kazakh – was indeed Kazakhstan’s main city until it was renamed Nur-Sultan in 2019, and so, knowing that there must be a fortuitous reason for this accolade in Budapest, I made my way there.

All became clear at what is otherwise a very ordinary promenade when I came across a statuette, erected in 2014 as a tribute to a renowned Kazakh scholar, Abaj Ibragim Kunanbajev, born 1845, died 1904. Here was something new for me to work on.

Kunanbajev is celebrated in Kazakhstan as a poet, philosopher, translator, reformer and all-round academic who is the founder of the country’s written literature. His collective works relate throughout to humanity and wisdom.

Born in the Zhidebay region at the foot of the Chingiz Mountain in what is now known as Abai District in the east of the country, he came from a Muslim background and his writings clearly reflect the fundamental principles of Islam. But his interests also extended to other religions and cultures relating to Europe and Russia.

Photos: Alexander Stemp

Kunanbajev’s repertoire and legacy is rich in songs, poems and prose. His translations of Russian writers and poets such as Pushkin, Lermontov and Krylov also became national endowments of Kazakhstan. As well, he translated and delivered works of Schiller, Goethe and Byron into the Kazakh sphere.

His most renowned work is “Kara Sozder” (The Book of Words), which has been translated into English and other languages and is widely available. It represents a moral, theological and philosophical account. This attribute reflects onto the Kazakh way of life and culture during his time.

Kunanbajev also encouraged the Kazakh state to educate children to be patriots. His teachings call on fellow citizens to embrace education, literacy and good moral character in order to escape poverty, enslavement and corruption. Many of his writings express great solidarity and nationalism. Before his time, most Kazakh verses were oral, echoing the nomadic traits of the people from the great Kazakh steppes.

Many of his verses are lyrical monologues. Themes of nature and love mix with philosophical reflections, and ideas of enlightenment and humanity are always most apparent. For instance, the stirring “Through Windless Night the Glinting Moon” is a short but highly spirited poem with much collective depth, illuminating atmosphere and humility all within.

During his lifetime, various political and economic changes occurred. Russian influence began to grow in Kazakhstan, resulting in further educational endeavours as well as new and different philosophies, whether Russian, Western or Asian. Kunanbajev abided to all these attributes. In this sense, his inventive works and poetry have defined and structured the Kazakh people in a positive sense ever since.

Kazakhstan’s first President from post-1991 independence until 2019, Nursultan Nazarbayev, emphasised the enduring value of the poet’s legacy. “Despite the fast-moving times and ever-changing world, our people often refer to Abaj as an advisory,” Nazarbayev said. “Over the years they discover newfound aspects and hidden depths within his greatness and abide with this.

“Abai will forever coexist with Kazakh life, culture and people, and will continuously encourage them to develop and reach for new and greater heights at all times, and adapt to new and modern times while respecting the past.”

What is clearly defined with this unpretentious intellectual is his obvious respect towards people, society, education and science, religion and traditions, nature and the environment, state and power, language and relationships. None of his works has lost insight and value, and they remain relevant today. As long as Kazakhstan stands in the global community, Kunanbajev stands proudly alongside too. The nation’s greatest folk hero provides wisdom to all mankind.

According to various expert estimates, Kunanbajev wrote more than 200 poems, compiled 60 various translations and composed at least 30 melodies. He can be ranked with Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin. A film about his life was made in his own country in 1995, simply titled “Abaj”.

There are many statues in his honour throughout his native land. General awareness and greater accessibility continues to flourish for the world’s ninth-largest country, now celebrating its 30th anniversary of independence.

It was an honour to come by him here in Budapest and make this further discovery. As for going to this vast, monumental land of great hopes and future promises, I am already half-way there.

For more about the man, read this article at the Astana Times news portal: “Kassym-Jomart Tokayev: Abai and Kazakhstan in the 21st Century.”

A “Kara Sozder”/Book of Words link: https://adebiportal.kz/en/books/view/455

Also see:  https://abai.kz/ and https://e-history.kz/en/news/show/7457/

For tourism, see the official link Kazakhstan – Local Travel Information and City Guide


And here are some quotes from the great literary master:

He who shouts in anger is harmless. 
Fear the one who is silent in anger. 
Modesty, which derives from weakness, is not dignity. 
The man who memorises the words of the wise becomes wise himself.
Empty youth is a disaster.
A bad friend is like a shadow: on a sunny day, run and fail, on an overcast day, seek and fail.

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