Caspian Region

Ulytau – the Kurultai Comes Home

The Caspian Post
Image: Yernar Almabek/Shutterstock

Since violent demonstrations rocked the country in January 2022, Kazakhstan’s leaders have urgently pushed forward a programme of changes and new ideas. Although Russian CSTO forces came to the government’s aid during the height of the protests, much of the new strategy appears to have a populist nature, banking on an increasing appeal to ethno-linguistically Kazakh citizens[1]. Thus last week, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev launched the First National Kurultai, a concept that could be seen as a 21st-century take on a Turkic council of elders. It brings together select politicians, entrepreneurs, experts, civil society representatives and members of regional public councils.  


Image: AkordaPress/Twitter

Historians first recorded the idea of a kurultai council amongst Turkic and Mongolian clans during the early 13th century in the era of Genghis Khan. In 1847, Kyrgyz leaders called a kurultai to agree to oppose the Kazakh khan. In 1917 the idea of a kurultai underpinned a very brief democratic republic of Crimean Tatars. Kyrgyzstan’s current constitution allows for local citizens’ kurultais, while in 2021, Sadyr Zhaparov proposed making a People’s Kurultai Kyrgyzstan’s supreme democratic body.


So the idea of Kazakhstan introducing a National Kurultai is not at all without historical pedigree. Particularly interesting, however, was the symbolism of where to hold the first meeting of this new Kurultai. No, not in the national capital, which after 2019 was named Nur-Sultan in honour of the nation’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev – the ex-leader whose autocratic legacy has been challenged following January 2022 riots. And neither in Almaty, the country’s biggest city and former capital. No. The Kurultai met in Ulytau. Try looking up Ulytau on Wikipedia in English; there’s not much to see. All you’ll find is a bland description of what seems like a fairly generic district within the Karaganda Region of central Kazakhstan. However, that’s entirely unfair.


Symbolically, the Ulytau region – north of Zhezkazan – actually has a deep historical resonance with the nomadic and Silk Road empires traditionally in control of this area of Central Asia. The word Ulytau means ‘Great Mountain,’ referring to a chain of arid but glorious ‘painted hills’ that rise in colourful geological stripes out of the otherwise flat steppe. Archaeologists have found evidence of human settlement in the district dating back to the early Bronze Age. Among the district's many ancient monuments is the 13th-century tomb of Genghis Khan’s eldest son, Jochi (Zhuchi) Khan, and the 12th-century mausoleum of the semi-legendary Alash Khan. According to oral tradition, the latter was leader of the united Kazakh people before they split into three ‘hordes’ (or jüzs). That gives Ulytau an immediate sense of prestige amongst Kazakh patriots. The understatedly majestic landscapes leading up to Ulytau’s mountain fore-slopes long continued to be “a favourite place of the khans of nomadic tribes” who for centuries would customarily hold meetings. Most notably, in the later 15th century, all three Kazakh hordes convened here, along with numerous representatives of subordinate tribes. They met to pledge an eternal alliance during a “grandiose kurultai”[2] whose powerful image the current Kurultai presumably hopes to mimic.



[1] Although Kazakhs are the largest ethnic group in Kazakhstan (around 70%), current estimates suggest that over 15% of the population are ethnic Russians while many Kazakhs themselves speak Russian as a first language.

[2] According to Dagmar Schreiber in Exploring Kazakhstan, p293