:: FACING EAST ::
:: Stone sculpture and petroglyphs of Central Asia ::
By Tjalling Halbertsma
One of the delights of travel in Central Asia is the sheer number of
ancient monuments to be found in its original surroundings, preserved
by remoteness and obscurity. Chance encounters range from deer stones
of the iron and bronze ages to ancient burial sites, graves and thousands
of petroglyphes carefully carved in canyons at the foot of sacred peaks
in the Altai Mountain range. To walk through Central Asia is to walk through
Most frequently though, one will stumble upon stone sculptures erected
by Turkic tribes in Central Asia. The statues, balbal in Turkish, are
scattered over what is now Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, western China, Russia
and Mongolia. The stones are as diverse as the Turkic people that carved
them and the distribution shows how wide the practice had become by the
8th century. Originally preserved by awe and ritual, the statues are now
permanently guarded but remain in situ.
The balbal depict male figures with highly idiosyncratic features but
they have one thing in common, they all face east. Often, two lines of
stones form a ceremonial walkway accentuating the direction towards sunrise.
Today they are used as beacons for travelers, but originally the stones
are believed to be grave markers as many balbal stand at grave and burial
sites. The graves consist of piles of stone boulders and are often surrounded
by rows of rocks positioned in a square. Sometimes several graves are
lined up sideways all guarded by individual balbal. The sites are easily
distinguished from the much earlier kurgan graves which are circular in
shape and date back over four thousand years.
But above all the Turkic figures are stunning works of art and engineering.
The faces have delicate features with almond shaped eyes, curly moustache
highlight the Turkic origins. Nose bridges are articulate and prolonged
and mine carvings reveal earrings and other jewelry. The robes, draped
over sturdy limbs and broad shoulders, differ from area to area. Hands
clutch a vase or vessel and tools, such as knives or flints for making
fire, dangle from decorated belts. The craftsmanship is clear: after fourteen
centuries it is astonishing that the features can still be seen at all,
for the sculptures stand in one of the fiercest climates in the world.
Temperatures in Central Asia can drop from 40 degrees C. in summer to
minus 40 degrees C. in winter, and in spring frequent sandstorms shape
the sculptures rough edges into smooth lines.
Erecting the sculptures must have taken great effort because for every
two meters above the ground at least one meter is buried in the sand and
many of the stones measure well over three meters in height. Some of the
statues have tilted slightly or fallen but most remain as they were positioned
originally: Central Asia remains the world’s largest open-air museum
In Mongolia the balbal, called khuuni chuluu in Mongolian or ‘stone
man’, are predated by bagan chuluu, spectacular deer stones from
the iron and bronze ages. The stone pillars also seem to be positioned
towards the east and feature exquisite carvings of deer with enormous
antlers rolling down their backs and elongated snouts. The few deer stones
that have human faces are amongst the earliest depictions of human beings
in Central Asia.
Most of the bagan chuluu are found in the heart of the Mongolian empire
on the southern shores of Lake Huvsgul where they tower over three meters
high. The pinnacles of granite cluster around graves from the same period
but it remains unclear if they should be interpreted as grave markers
or were erected for other rituals or commemorations.
The stones echo an era of two dimensional petroglyphes which be found
in Bayan Olgii Province, a remote region situated at the heart of Central
Asia. It is a landscape dominated by the peaks of the Altai Mountains,
stretching from Russia via Mongolia to western China. At the foot of these
sacred mountains over ten-thousand petroglyphes and rock engravings, depict
an ancient world dominated by deer, bears, hunters, wolves and life stock.
The engravings measure from a tiny argali sheep of two centimeters, to
a life-size horse in full flight. The images are often cut through oxidized
rock making use of the colors of different layers of the rock to make
the carvings stand out from their surroundings.
Petroglyphes in Bayan Oglgii include an image of a deer attacked by wolves,
hunting scenes and scores of wild animals. Others depict more domestic
scenes of yaks dragging carts, the wheels and horses flattened sideways
like hieroglyphs, and two-dimensional herders on horseback.
Though respective government have now taken measures to preserve the
artwork from looters and decay, the sculptures and rock carvings
remain in situ on the steppes and in the sacred Altai Mountains
of Central Asia.
Tjalling Halbertsma (www.halbertsma.com)
is based in Asia and frequently writes on Mongolian and Chinese art