When I’m not reading/researching history topics, I write fiction. My newest project is a Middle Eastern/Central Asian novel about a royal family trying to keep out colonists and a growing terrorist ring wanting to recapture the glories of the past. While writing this book, I need to do a lot of research. This week, I’ve been reading about Central Asian women-warriors, leaders, poets, etc. and I thought it’d be fun to write a post about my favorite women I’ve encountered.
The first Central Asian woman warrior I stumbled upon was Saikal. Like Penelope or Clymestra, Saikal is two parts mythical, one part historical. Saikal comes from the Kyrgyz oral epic: the Epic of Manas.
The story focuses on Manas and his family’s efforts to establish and defend a homeland for the Kyrgyz people. For modern day Kyrgyzstan, the Epic of Manas serves as a reminder of their proud history and a source of morals. Like the Bible, it is seen as a guide on how to live a righteous and honorable life, while also providing an identity for a people who are trying to undo the social, cultural, economic, environmental, and religious damaged caused by Russian and Soviet colonialism.
Saikal seems to only appear in the Epic of Manas and I wasn’t able to find a lot of English sources on her role in the story. It seems that she was the daughter of Karachagan, a chieftain, and became a powerful warrior and tribal leader after marrying a drunkard. One day, she and Manas faced each other in combat and as they fought, Manas fell in love with her and realized that if he killed her, he could not marry her. Instead of delivering a fatal blow, Manas brought his spear against her shoulder. Saikal, had no problem killing him, and brought her spear against his side. This enraged Manas who struck her chest, stunning her. She nearly lsot consciousness and rode back to her men. She sent her golden horse as a gift of surrender to Manas, who sent it back. According to the myth, she wanted to marry him after that battle. A shaman named Kizir engaged the two in his dreams and they became a couple in the afterlife.
To listen to the tale of Saikal check out this link
Gulayim and the Forty Woman
Another woman whose story has been intertwined with myth, Gulayim was a sixteen year old girl whose father, Allayar, ruled a tribe near the southeast of the Aral Sea. They lived in Sarkop, a fortress. When Sarkop was invaded and Allayar was killed, Gulayim gathered forty women to her and defended her people. Today, in Karakalpakia, teenage girls wear ‘girl soldier’ costumes of dark blue woven hemp to honor these women and they are also referred to as Amazons of the Steppe.
While only fragments remain regarding Gulayim, she is still very much part of the Central Asian consciousness. Last year a play titled Qyrq Qyz was produced by award-winning Uzbek filmmaker Saodat Ismailova with music composed by Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky. It is a live production, utilizing traditional music and instruments, and a short film. All of the instruments are played by woman (although traditionally these instruments have only been played by men).
Kurmanjan Datka was born in 1811 and is known as the “Tsaritsa of Alai’ and the ‘Queen
of the South’ in modern day Kyrgyzstan. She was born into a rich family of the Mungush clan and at the age of 18, she was supposed to marry a man she would not meet until the day of the wedding. Instead, she fled into China and lived with her father.
In 1832 another feudal lord Datka Alymbek wanted to marry her. She agreed only because she loved him. Alymbek supported the unity of the Kyrgyz people and the independence of the Kokand Khanate. He was the governor of the Andijon Province in the Kokand Khanate and the regent of the 12 year old Shah Murad, the khan of Kokand. However, Alymbek was assassinated in 1862 and Kurmanjan was recognized by the khans of Bukhara and Kokand as datka of the Alai region.
Like her husband, one of Kurmanjan’s sons named Abdylda-Bek commanded the army of “Pulat Khan” during the people’s uprising against the Russian regime. Pulat Khan was a Ferghana Kyrgyz mullah and the people uprising was the last resistance against the Russians. When Pulat Khan was defeated, Abdylda-Bek fled to Afghanistan and died there in 1877. At that point, Kurmanjan knew her people could not resist and, instead, accepted Russian rule.
During this period of instability, Kurmanjan’s sons and two of her grandsons were charged with smuggling and murdering custom officials. Her favorite son was executed (she, apparently, attended the execution, unwilling to let her personal feelings jeopardize her people) and the rest were banished to Siberia. Kurmanjan retreated from public life and died in 1907 at the age of 90. She is respected because she was a powerful woman who held her own in a male dominated world and, while she convinced her people to accept Russian rule, she was also a master diplomat that kept her region safish during Russian occupation. She was respected by various regimes and her exploits were preserved in many manuscripts written in Chagatai Turkic, Farsi, and Kyrgyz.
In 2014, the government of Kyrgyzstan made a film about her life called Queen of the Mountains.
Khutulun was born in 1260 to Kaidu, cousin to Kublai Khan. Kaidu was the most powerful man who ruled from western Mongolia to Central Siberia to India. Khutulun, like her brothers, learned how to fight with a sword, wrestle, shoot bow, and ride a horse. She would become a general for her father, leading his men to great victories.
Khutulun may be best known for her ability to wrestle. She was so good at wrestling that she challenged all the men in the kingdom. If they could defeat her in a wrestling match, then they could marry her. Men from all over the region took up the challenge and she defeated them all. Marco Polo knew Khutulun and witnessed her matches and how she crushed many men’s hopes of marrying into her family.
Khaidu and Kublai Khan got into a spat and Khutulun lead the Mongol Heavy Cavalry into battle and she was known for charging forward, seizing a man by the throat, and carry that poor man back to her troops to be killed as her father saw fit. The war ended by shattering the Mongol Empire, breaking up the unified kingdom Ghenghis Khan left behind.
Eventually, Khutulun married a man named Abtakul. He didn’t defeat her in a wrestling match, though. Apparently, he had been hired by Kublai Khan to murder Khaidu, but was caught. Just as he was about to be executed, his mother intervened and volunteered to die for him. Abtakul refused and Khaidu spared them both. Abtakul was wounded in combat and Khutulun saw him in a hospital and fell in love.
Khaidu died in 1301 and he appointed Khutulun to be the next leader of the tribe. However, she refused and made a deal with one of her brothers. She would support his claim if he made her a general. Her brother agreed, and she became a general but only for five years. When she was 45, she was either assassinated or killed in battle.
Mohlaroyim, more commonly known by her penname, Nodira, was the wife of the
7th century khanate of Kokand, a renown poet, and powerful stateswoman in her own right. Her husband was Muhammad Umar Khan, who took the throne in 1810 after murdering his brother. They had one child together, Madali Khan, who would become khan of Kokand after Muhammad died in 1822. Madali, only fifteen when he took the throne, was a debauch ruler, marrying his wife’s sister and mother. Nodira seems to have kept the kingdom together. It is unclear who supported expansionist policies-Madali or Nodira-but it soon led to war with Nasrullah, the Emirate of Bukhara. When she was not trying to control her son, she wrote poet, often bringing up taboo topics and mourning the plight of Central Asian woman. Apparently, after Nasrullah invaded Kokand and killed Madali, he wanted to marry Nodira. When she refused, he hanged her.
You can learn more about Nasrullah here
The Soviets turned her into a national hero and in 2000, her portrait was printed on Uzbekistan’s first national postage stamp. She is also a prominent character in Hamid Ismailov’s novel the Devils’ Dance.