Talgar is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a modern town in Almaty Region, southeastern Kazakhstan. It is the administrative center of Talgar District. The town is located between Almaty and Esik, 25 km from Almaty and several kilometres east of Birlik.

Modern town of Talgar

The first records of Talgar settlement were made by a Persian geographer in a medieval geographical treatise Hudud al-‘Alam (“Borders of The World”) in 982. The settlement bore a name Talkhiz and was situated in the mountains of Semirechye at the borders of Turkic tribes Karluk and Chigils. The geographer described inhabitants of Talkhiz as “brave, martial, and valiant people”.  The exact locationn of ancient Talgar was unknown, but since the name of the modern place is the same, the ancient settlement had been situated somewhere close by. Thus, archeological excavations in the southeastern suburbs of modern Talgar revealed the mysterious settlement.

Talgar Mountains
Talgar Mountains

Thanks to the work of archeologists I.I. Kopylov, A.Kh. Morgulin, K.M. Baipakov, and T.V. Savelyeva the scenario of the development of Talgar settlement was reconstructed.

In the 9th century a fortification belonging to the head of a Turkic tribe was founded on the place of Talgar settlement. The locality was chosen because it was on the Silk Road and situated at the foothills of Zailiisky Alatau, incorporating rich land sources and summer pastures there.

With time Talgar settlement became popular with merchants and craftspeople. First they served the owner of the settlement and his court, but later they started producing goods for nomads and surrounding settlements. Such city development was common in Central Asia at that time.

The Site of Talgar
The Site of Talgar is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

By the beginning of the 10th century Talgar had become a city. It was a time of political and economic change in Kazakhstan history, since the country got controlled by the feudal Karakhanid dynasty. The territory of Kazakhstan was conditionally divided into several appanges governed by Karakhanid deputies. Talgar developed rapidly in this period and, like other cities of the Ili river valley it became the capital of an economically and geographically important territory.


A research team led by Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, researched  Iron Age burial sites in Tuzusai in 2011.

Tuzusai, village flourishes in the summer. The fruit trees are  full with ripening cherries, both sour early cherries and sweet late cherries. Wild and domesticated apricots, raspberries, black and red currants, and gooseberries are  all ready to be picked; and dried on tin roofs. Lake Kapchigai is full of freshwater fish. The wheat turned yellow and the soy plants reached almost a foot tall.

The bounty of today’s Kazakhstan is a reminder of how rich and fertile the Talgar region must have been more than two thousand years ago. Rob Spengler, a paleo-ethnobotanist, has taken soil samples from trash pits, pit house fill (remains after the pit house dwelling collapsed), and ancient hearths at the site of Tuzusai.

In 2008, 2009, and 2010 he washed these soil samples using a method called flotation, where the light particles of ancient carbonized seeds are separated from the soil matrix. He has found millet, barley, wheat, and even grape pips. The idea that the Saka and Wusun people of the first millennia BCE grew cereal crops, as well as kept sheep, goats, cattle, and horses, has changed our perspective on early nomadic cultures.

There is evidence that the diets of ancient people of Kazakhstan were highly variable, including plants, fish, birds, and other wild animals, as well as the meat and milk of their livestock. The Ili River runs for hundreds of miles from western China and empties into Lake Balkhash. Fish and other river and marsh resources must have been important in ancient times.

Broken pieces of spindle whorls, and small ceramic disks with perforated centers were found on the digs   Finds of such domestic objects remind us that nomads were members of household groups.

But there is much we cannot know from these preserved artifacts.  How important were women to the basic economy? Did they spin the hair and wool fibers for the clothing worn by an entire household?   Who made the large storage vessels, sometimes dripping them with red slip and glaze?

Sometimes the elite burial sites, with their magnificent inventories of gold and silver ornamentation, can cloud our visions of the everyday lives of the commoners. But during the bountiful months of the summer, planting gardens, tending to livestock, fishing, gathering berries and wild fruit, putting up stores for the winter, and repairing their mud-brick houses must have been the average Iron Age person’s main concerns.


Learn More

Nomads and Networks in the Field: Everyday Life in the Iron Age – Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan Smithsonian August 12, 2012

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