|Religion and Philosophy of the Nomads
Religion and Symbols
The early religion of the ancient Kyrgyz was Earth-centered and led by Shamans. Ancient Earth religions are represented in the fertility symbols and “tree of life” designs. Plants and animals—flowers, leaves, horns, hoof-prints, birds, eagles—are typical in nomadic designs and symbolize not only the animals and plants that were central to their survival, but also a desire for fertility, happiness, and freedom.
Kyrgyzstan was on one of the routes of the Great Silk Road, which brought many new ideas, religions, and cultures to Central Asia. The Kyrgyz saimachi (masters of embroidery) absorbed the symbols and signs of the Usuns, Sakas, Uyghurs and Karakhanids, and fashioned them into their designs.2 Ideas from several religions are woven into the ancient Kyrgyz symbols:
Zoroastrianism (from 7th century BC Iran) spread during the Sassanid dynasty (AD 226-650) and is the earliest religion to hold that there is only one god. Zoroastrianism is represented in symbols of the sun, a whirling rosette, and in the oppositional concepts of good/evil, spirit/flesh, light/dark,3 represented in a wave pattern and also in the Sekirtic “jumping line” of alternating red/white colors, seen in almost every tush kyiz. This line is to remind us that life is full of antonyms: cold/hot, day/night, happiness/sadness. There is a continuous rhythm and balance in life.
Islam (after AD 500) established itself in Central Asia very quickly. A common Islamic motif in Kyrgyz embroidery is “Fatima’s hand,” meant to provide protection and ward off evil spirits.4 (Fatima was Mohammed’s favorite daughter.) The Kyrgyz nomads did not build mosques, but rather followed a less dogmatic form of Islam called Sufism.
Sufism is a mystical form of Islam popular in Central Asia. The traditional form of Islam, with its mosques and imams, were not useful to a nomad, who moved around a lot. According to Sufism, “God and the human soul are the same.”5 This belief allowed the nomads to travel to the four corners of the earth and bring God with them everywhere they traveled. This idea is represented in the “four corners of the earth” symbol found in all tush kyiz.
1 Kadyrov, V., Kyrgyzstan: Art of the Nomads, Rarity, Bishkek, Krygyz Republic, 2003, page 7