In our first Cult-ED class we take you to the Kazakhs in Mongolia. Mongolia is located in Asia and borders the countries of China, Russia and Kazakhstan.
The Kazakhs are semi-nomads and have no permanent home or residence. They live in a type of tent which is called a ger or yurt.
Do you want to know everything about the eagle hunters of Mongolia? Then join us on a digital journey to the Kazakhs.
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To accompany the Cult-ED download the Jimmy Nelson App. Scanning the image from the worksheet with the app will enable you to step into the world behind the image, through your smartphone. Beautiful video material will guide you through breathtaking footage, but above all uncovers information about different cultures from around the world. No smartphone? Scroll down for all the videos.
In Mongolia, the Kazakhs live mainly in the westernmost province of Bayan-Ölgii, meaning ‘rich cradle’ in Mongolian.
It borders China to the north and Russia to the south and is separated from Kazakhstan to the west by a thin stretch of land of only 40 kilometres. This region functions as a semiautonomous homeland for the Kazakhs, who make up 90 per cent of its inhabitants. The subarctic desert climate produces extremely cold and long winters and short, hot summers. Mongolia’s highest peaks and largest glaciers can be found here in the snow-capped Altai mountain range.
Mongolia’s unique landscape and location ensure extreme seasonal weather.
The winters are as severe as they get in the habitable world, while the summers can be stifling. But whatever the season, the daytime skies are famously almost always blue.
Altai Mountain Range
Mongolia’s highest peaks and largest glaciers can be found here in the snow-capped Altai mountain range.
The forests, lakes and steppes are home to wildlife, including bears, wolves, foxes, eagles and the elusive snow leopard. This relatively isolated location allows for the Kazakhs to maintain their traditional lifestyle.
When a Kazakh hunts and kills an animal, every part of it is used and treated with respect.
Eagle hunters often wear eagle feathers around their hats to show their status as a hunter.
Kazakhs have used eagles to hunt for thousands of years, and to this day the golden eagle plays an important part in their lives.
The hunters find eagle nests by searching for the tell-tale white droppings on the rocks far below them. They take only females from the nest, because they tend to grow bigger than males, weighing up to seven kilos with a wingspan of two metres or more when fully grown.
Golden Eagle Festival
The Kazakhs have initiated an entire festival dedicated to their powerful emblem, the eagle.
The annual Golden Eagle Festival held in Bayan-Ölgii Province is as much a competition between the hunters as it is a show of cultural pride. On the opening day of this two-day festival, the Kazakh eagle hunters (known locally as baytolda or berkutchi) parade through the arena with their eagles on their arms. The eagles are released from the top of a cliff and are then expected to find their owners as fast as possible.
‘Staying warm is worth more than a thousand gold coins.’ a Mongolian saying goes.
According to legend, around 500 years ago, two horsemen arrived at a ger tent after riding through an intense blizzard. They each were carrying a thousand gold coins. There wasn’t much space in the crowded ger, so to enter they had to leave all their bags outside. One horseman left all his belongings, including the gold coins, outside and entered the warmth of the ger, while the other stayed outside to protect his valuable coins. The next day, the frst man stepped outside after a warm night to fnd his companion frozen to death, greedily holding on to his worldly wealth.
Traditional Kazakh clothing is well adapted to their semi-nomadic lifestyle and the extreme conditions.
Most clothing items are made of hide, fur or felt and are decorated with jewellery and objects such as animal horns or bones.
The iconic fur coats can be made of up to 18 fox pelts. Kazakhs use every part of an animal and objects such as horns and bones are used for decoration, along with jewellery.
They also indulge in richly embroidered clothing – women wear bright headscarves called ah jaulih and men wear skullcaps known as tuhia. Eagle hunters wear boots, black coats and fox-fur hats called loovuuz.
The Kazakhs are a semi-nomadic pastoral people. Many families move several times a year with their herds between fixed seasonal settlements, where they set up ger tents.
Ger tents are ideally designed for this nomadic way of life and very easy to assemble and transport. The sturdy circular wooden construction is covered with thick woollen and felt cloth and insulated with an extra layer of wool to withstand the intense Mongolian winds. Due to the intimacy of the living conditions, it is very important that everybody knows and accepts their place in the family while in the ger.
Islam was brought to the ancestors of the Kazakhs in the eighth century. In Mongolia, Buddhism is the biggest religion, but many Kazakhs are Sunni Muslims. However, most continue to follow pre-Islamic cults, by worshipping the sky, ancestors and fire. They believe in the forces of good and evil spirits, giants and wood goblins.
Kazakhs often have their own spiritual identity, which combines Islam with other traditions, such as Tengrism, Sufism, animism and shamanism.
The Kazakh shaman, known as bakshy, can be called on to perform rituals. With the help of the jinn or pari spirit, singing, dancing and the use of musical instruments or knives, the shaman can predict the future, perform exorcisms and healings.
Among many Kazakh traditions is the ancient art of eagle hunting. For more than 2000 years, Kazakh men have hunted on horseback with trained golden eagles.
Kazakhs have used eagles to hunt for thousands of years, and to this day the golden eagle plays an important part in their lives. The hunters find eagle nests by searching for the tell-tale white droppings on the rocks far below them. They take only females from the nest, because they tend to grow bigger than males, weighing up to seven kilos with a wingspan of two metres or more when fully grown. The intensive training starts right away, ensuring that an intense connection develops between the eagle and its new owner. The eagles are taught to hunt rabbits, foxes and even wolves. In the past it was almost exclusively men who became eagle hunters, but nowadays women and children as young as 13 are taking up the tradition.
Generation to generation
Eagle hunting is a skill passed down through generations.
Children as young as 13 begin the intensive training that forms a powerful bond between bird and owner. The eagles are taught to hunt rabbits, foxes, and even small wolves and are kept in captivity for about ten years. After this, they are released back into the wild, so that they may breed.