Today we head to Tamgaly gorge about 3 hours drive northwest of Almaty in Kazakhstan. Tamgaly means “painted place” in Turkic language and is a petroglyph site dating back to 1500BC. Most of the petroglyphs here are from the Bronze Age though there are also some from the Iron Age as well as later times. The oldest carvings from the Bronze Age were made using a picketing technique with stone or metal tools. “Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly” became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. There are about 4,000 rock carvings on these black flint rocks that depict sun-headed gods, shamans in furs, ritual dancing, hunting scenes, etc. Later additions depict Turkic warriors riding horses carrying banners and steering chariots. This valley was a cult center for thousands of years because of the necropolis and settlements found in the area. The carvings of the sun-headed beings were believed to be connected with a cult of Sun during the era of shamanism. The site is huge and all visits here must be accompanied by the resident guide who knows the different petroglyphs like the back of his hand. Unfortunately, he does not speak English. You can imagine me standing there watching him go on and on explaining the petroglyphs and then turning to my guide when he is finished and only getting something like “this is a sun-headed anthropomorphic being”. After a few times of this, I gave up pretending to listen to him and just wandered off a bit to take photos instead. We were the only people visiting the site that day and I have a feeling very few tourists ever come here which is a shame.
Entrance to the Tamgaly site
Balbals are small totem-like stone figures used to mark graves and sometimes important places by the Turks
The Tamgaly site resident guide charging ahead eager to show us all the petroglyphs
Archaeologists speculate that the person standing behind the bull could be one of the sun-headed deities with curling arms that look like vines.
Here are two other anthropomorphic beings with their arms raised as if showing off their biceps
A group of people dancing in ritual celebration
Archaeologists think that this horse with a rider was carved over an older petroglyph depicting a bull with horns.
Sun headed deity
On the top left is a small figure above the bull that to me looks like a turtle. However, archaeologists believe it is the depiction of a pregnant woman.
People tending to their cattle
There is a smaller horse inside the larger one depicting a pregnant animal
Petroglyph of a camel
A person leading a camel
Newer Buddhist inscription
Another sun-headed being on the right
A clearer depiction of the following petroglyph with sun-headed deities. Notice these anthropomorphic beings are male as depicted by their male protrusions.
This is one of the most famous petroglyphs here at Tamgaly showing people dancing underneath 6 sun-headed deities.
Several tombs have been found on the site with many others left unexcavated
This UNESCO Tamgaly site should not be confused with another site filled with Buddhist petroglyphs called Tamgaly Tas which I unfortunately did not have time to visit. Tamgaly Tas means “stones with signs” and is located on the right bank of the Ili River. These petroglyphs are all of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and buddhist scriptures in Tibetan, Dzunghar, and Manchu. It is speculated that these buddhist petroglyphs were made by Dzunghars who had converted to Tibetan Buddhism in the 18th century and that Tamgaly Tas was once a buddhist sanctuary used for prayer and meditation. Similar rock carvings have been found in India, China, Tibet, and Kyrgyzstan. It is also believed that Tamgaly Tas is an energy vortex point where ancient people came to “recharge” themselves. The largest rock carving is of three buddhas sitting on lotus flowers. Legend has it that in the 10th century, a Buddhist mission came to this area by the banks of the Ili River and there was a sudden earthquake causing a large rock to fall from the cliffs. They took it as a sign for them to return to India and carved these three buddha images before they left. A short boat ride across the river from Tamgaly Tas is Nomad’s Land which is an abandoned former movie set. This small walled city was built as the set for the 2005 movie Nomad. My guide said that people like to come here to pose next to the fake catapults and cardboard buildings, mainly for Instagram posts.
The following day, I flew from Almaty to Shymkent in Western Kazakhstan mainly to see the UNESCO Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. Stay tuned!
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