Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly is the best researched and documented site of rock art in Central Asia.
It provides insight into the culture of the traditional steppes civilisations of Central Asia. The site also includes ancient settlements, bural sites and sacred sites.
Altogether over 5,000 images have been recorded in 48 different complexes. Overall the petroglyphs (rock carvings) appear to cover a period from the second half of the second millennium BC right through to the beginning of the 20th century.
Map of Tamgaly
Of the 41 sites currently represented in our “Petroglyphs” Connection only 8, by my count, have been inscribed solely/mainly because of their rock art (Gobustan, Coa/S Verde, Mong Altai, Hail, Alta, Tanum, Valcamonica and Tamgaly). Tamgaly was the 6th of these which we have visited (missing Mong Altai and Hail). Looking back, and trying to discount both the “shock of the new” for the first ones and “travel excess/ennui” for some of the later ones, our view is that Tamgaly emerges pretty well in “interest terms” and significance compared with the others and contains some historically significant representations! It also introduces an archaeological period and culture which is not well known in W Europe/N America possibly because access to it by their archaeologists was cut off for political reasons
As previous reviews have stated, Tamgaly needs to be reached by car, probably from Almaty in a day return trip. We played a slight finesse on this and “saved” a day as we arranged for the vehicle taking us from the Kyrgyz border north of Bishkek to Almaty to take in Tamgaly “on the way”. The turn off north is almost exactly half way between the border and Almaty on National Highway A2 after around 1.5 hours in either direction – Tamgaly then lies another 1 hour along a deteriorating road reaching into ever emptier rolling steppe lands. At the (very) small village of Karabastay there is a visitor centre which neither our guide, archaeologist or driver thought ever opens nowadays – we were told that it only contains photos anyway. I was reminded of the somewhat decrepit Korgalzhyn visitors centre a few days earlier! A couple of kms further on there is a fenced area, a rough car park, a couple of picnic huts, a guard house and 2 rather fine “portaloos” - you have reached “Tamgaly” (except that there seems some debate/confusion as to its name as a number of the signs call in “Tanbaly” in both Cyrillic and Latin script!).
A standard “visit” (we spent a “generous” 2 hours on it with a double circuit) consists of seeing 4 of the 6 groups of petroglyphs as designated by archaeologists and as referred to in literature, by following a reasonably self evident route. The main ones (Titled “Groups II - V”!) lie within a few hundred meters of each other around 500m up the valley from the car park. Group I is passed on the way, but isn’t signed, and group VI is a bit further on. At each group, recently installed, black “marble” notice boards display accurate etched drawings of the rock faces in front of you, together with copies of the main figures – indeed viewing the faces from them with good binoculars was often better than nearer viewing. Good photos of the petroglyphs depend very much on the direction of the sun – they were often better if it wasn’t shining or if a different angle was chosen. Close access to some of the carvings is somewhat ineffectually restricted by ropes – whether you can get close will depend on your guide (we were not restricted) - it appears that all visitors are supposed to have an authorised guide and, presumably, if you arrive without one, then a guard will have to be paid instead? In addition there is a cemetery area with excavated graves. These are a reminder that the full title of the site is “Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly”. In fact the entire inscribed area contains numerous burial grounds, “Kurgan” burial mounds and remains of areas of settlement, animal enclosures etc. Even though many of these will not be seen it is worth knowing about them in order to understand the overall nature of the site. The graves are of particular importance in helping archaeologists to understand the function of Tamgaly and its cultural environment during the Bronze and Iron ages which is when the majority of the Petroglyphs were made (with the Middle/Late Bronze ages from c1400 BC being of particular significance).
But this was not just a place where pastoral nomads merely passed by at random at various times and filled their spare hours etching pictures on the available rock faces simply for the pleasure of it!! The theory is that the Petroglyphs are situated in a cultic complex – an “Open air temple”. Group IV, in particular, is regarded as the “composition centre” of the whole ensemble. It contains a single panel of 6 (some, including “our” (Russian trained and speaking) archaeologist who (unbeknown to me) was included in our “tour”, say 7) “sun head” images which are believed to represent the “pantheon” of the peoples who carved them. The entire composition portrays a hierarchy of deities, male dancers and women giving birth and, finally at the bottom, “worshippers”. The elevated location of this panel, and the natural amphitheatre surrounding it, is thought to have facilitated its use in rituals, possibly with some personages on the same level as the glyphs and others as “audience” below. “Archaeocoustics” is said to demonstrate the suitability of the site for transmitting sound and the state of the rocks at the base of the composition would seem to show that fires were lit there – so, one could imagine a night time ceremony with flickering flames highlighting the deities and accompanied by sound of rituals! Fanciful? Possibly!
Our archaeologist went further and claimed a link between these depicted deities and those of the Avesta and Rig Veda (Mithra, Indra etc). At which point we move into the realm of the Indo-Aryan migrations and beyond my knowledge and competence! There is no doubt however, that the Tamgaly site is relevant to the debate around migrations, linguistic and belief transfer etc of that time - the burials for instance are assigned to the Andronovo Culture which you could research further if interested. The theory is expounded in detail (782 pages!) in "The Origin of the Indo-Iranians". This tome was published in 2007 by the highly reputable Dutch academic publisher Brill so should have some “credibility” – we are not in Erich von Däniken territory here! The Andronovo story relates to “wider” Kazakhstan and Tamgaly features only en passant, particularly on pages 182/3, 246/7 and figure 56. I briefly quote – “Images of a sun faced character on the … Tamgaly petroglyphs are probably images of the most ancient Indo-Iranian Mithra = Sun God. (followed by quotes from the Avesta and Rig Veda )…. All this leads us to interpret the petroglyphs as ancient sanctuaries. Interpreting the semantics of some images and compositions of Andronovo art on the basis of Indo-Iranian mythology is a serious argument in favour of setting the Ayrian homeland in the Steppe”. Figure 56 shows 2 of the “solar faced” characters from Tamgaly including one piece described as a “rock art masterpiece” in the Nomination File - “the solar anthropomorphic image standing on the back of a bull” (Group III). It should be mentioned however that the Nomination file says nothing of this interpretation and assignment of an identified deity to the image!
The other Groups contain further fine examples of petroglyph art – we particularly liked the image in Group III of a calf inside a cow which is also described as a “masterpiece” in the Nomination File (Photo). There are further “Sun men” together with a wide range of animals - camels, horses, deer etc and drawings of human sexual intercourse. LP says that there are also depictions of sexual relations between men and goats – but we didn’t see them and they weren’t pointed out! I thought back to the exhibition called “Sexo in Piedra” which we had seen in the Atapuerca museum a couple of years ago! (See my review). Look out also for the Bronze Age chariot in Group V – the earliest examples of chariots in the World have been found in Andronovo period graves.
The condition of the petroglyphs is a matter for concern. The base rock is sandstone whose flat surface has, in the right orientation and conditions, developed a black surface patina from the sun over the centuries (Called “Desert Sunburn”!). In some examples the artist has deliberately used this for effect by differentially clearing it. The problem is that the rock foliates very easily – primarily from water and frost but also from damage by humans. We were told that vibration has been minimised by keeping the car park well away and also that the area was used by Soviet tanks which shook the rocks. I haven’t been able to verify this so it might be a Kazakh invention! Group IV is particularly a problem with large cracks and separation taking place. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in future years, it will be found necessary to erect a cover and maybe even glass in front. It will also be noted that our favourite cow and calf has lost part of the head and forelegs .
Regarding Tamgaly’s inscribed criteria - Kazakhstan nominated it for i, ii, iii, iv and v. The AB evaluation would seem to indicate that ICOMOS rejected ii, iv and v but accepted i and iii. It did NOT however like the lack of a Management Plan and proposed “Referral”. We have no record of discussions at the 2004 WHC but the recommendation was overturned and the site was inscribed SOLELY on Criterion iii!! What nonsense – its inscription should clearly include Criterion i along with those at Coa and Tanum!!!
Here are 2 other links which anyone interested in discovering more about Tamgaly might find useful
a. This, solely about Tamgaly, has some nice line drawings of the figures, which, given the difficulty of identifying some of them in field conditions, might be of use to anyone going/having been – “The Rock Art of Tamgaly”
b. This also covers Tamgaly in some detail but unfortunately the only version I can find only has the text without the “figures” - “Rock Art sites of Central Asia: Documentation, Conservation, Management, Community Participation”
Tamgaly is the most striking site of rock arts in Central Asia; it is located about 125 km northwest of Almaty, and can be reached only by private transportation. There is no public bus going there, or even going to the villages nearby. I organized it with Stantours, the driver/tourguide (ask for Marat) was very knowledgeable, and is doing this trip on a weekly basis during the tourist season in summer.It is probably a good idea to travel with other people to reduce costs. To rent a car is another option, but you wont have a guide to explain the site. The total number of rock drawings is about 5,000, mainly scenes of goats, horses, warriors, animal sacrifices, and images representing the worshipped sun and their gods; there is even an erotic scene, most probably the first pornographic rock art worldwide, as most of the petroglyphs were made in the Bronze age about 3000 years ago. There is also a scene of dancing men with a woman giving birth. Some stones do have graffitis, unfortunately, or rocks were destroyed by human beings, and carried away. Others show signs of cracks, caused maybe by extreme differences in temperature, frost weathering, or by earthquakes that often occur in this region. The rock engravings are signposted in 5 groups, and can be easily visited in 2 hours. A few steps away, there is also a burial ground of the Turkic period which shows both mass burial, probably of a family with children, and single chamber. Tamgaly was discovered by Anna Maksimova in 1957, and together with some other great archeologists, they researched the rock engravings in the years to come. The site is now guarded, some signboards have been put up with explanations, and it is possible to be accompanied by one of the guards for a few Euros tip.
I visited the site at Tamgaly in October, 2005. There is very little security there and one spot looked as if someone had tried to cut one of the petroglyphs out of the rock-face. There was one soldier on guard at the site and that day we saw nobody else as we travelled to the site and returned to Almaty. It is fairly isolated. There was no description at the site except for a few old Russian signs. Things may have changed since then and I would like to know if it's a little more visitor-friendly. There was no entry fee and even my driver had trouble finding the place....he actually got lost a couple times along the way. The rock art is interesting but without a guidebook or a knowledgeable interpreter, it was hard to figure out what it all meant.
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