Kyrgyzstan is a land of mountains, surrounded by some of the most majestic ranges of Central Asia. In the north and east, on its borders with Kazakhstan and China, runs the lofty Tien Shan mountain range. Within the Tien Shan stands Kyrgyzstan's highest mountain, the Victory Peak, towering at 24,406 feet (7,349 meters). In the south, bordered by both China and Tajikistan, are a number of ranges. These include the Kokshaal-Tau, Alay, and Atbashi. In the west, along Kyrgyzstan's border with Uzbekistan, is a small mountain range that surrounds the Fergana Valley
Kyrgyzstan can be divided into four main geographic regions. Lake Issyk-Kul and the central Tian Shan Mountains cover most of eastern Kyrgyzstan. The lake is at the bottom of a large depression, or basin about 150 miles (242 km) long and 45 miles (72 km) wide. This is a warm, dry area. July temperatures along the lakeshore average 62 F (17 C). In January, the average temperature is 28 F (-2 C), while along the southern edge of the basin, average readings range from 90 to 13 F (32 to -10 C).
The name qirqiz or kyrgyz dates back to the eighth century. The Kyrgyz people originated in the Siberian region of the Yenisey Valley and traveled to the area of modern-day Kyrgyzstan in response to pressure from the Mongols. The Kyrgyz people believe that their name means kirkkyz, (forty girls), and that they are descended from forty tribes. Today the majority of Kyrgyz people live in the Kyrgyz Republic, also known as Kyrgyzstan, but there are large populations living in China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan was formerly the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic, or Kirghizia.
Initially, Kyrgyzstan stood out among the newly independent Central Asian republics for its sound, multi-party democratic system. While its neighbors returned to authoritarian rule, built on networks of patronage run by Soviet apparatchiks of old, Kyrgyzstan became relatively open, buoyed in particular by an outspoken civil society. However, by the mid-1990s, Askar Akayev, president since the republic's inception, took an autocratic turn. He shielded business monopolies owned by friends and family and cracked down on journalists who pried into allegations of corruption — all the while, Kyrgyzstan's economy floundered, its Soviet-era industry and agriculture withering away while tens of thousands quit the country for low-paying jobs in resource-rich Kazakhstan or Russia. In February 2005, after a round of allegedly rigged elections, popular sentiment boiled over and precipitated mass protests the following month dubbed the "Tulip Revolution" that saw Akayev step down and leave for exile in Moscow.
Elements of the Kyrgyz nomadic heritage still shape much of this largely pastoral and agrarian society. The brand of Sufi Islam practiced by the majority of the population has blended easily with sky- and nature-worshipping traditions of an earlier era. Though now illegal, the distasteful custom of wife-kidnapping — where a woman is unsuspectingly and often forcibly seized and taken to her husband-to-be's home — perseveres in parts of the country.
During the 15th-16th centuries, the Kyrgyz people settled in the territory currently known as the Kyrgyz Republic. In the early 19th century, the southern territory of the Kyrgyz Republic came under the control of the Khanate of Kokand, and the territory was formally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1876. The Russian takeover instigated numerous revolts against tsarist authority, and many Kyrgyz opted to move into the Pamir mountains or to Afghanistan. The suppression of the 1916 rebellion in Central Asia caused many Kyrgyz to migrate to China.
According to recent findings of Kyrgyz and Chinese historians, Kyrgyz history dates back to 201 B.C. The earliest descendents of the Kyrgyz people, who are believed to be of Turkic descent, lived in the northeastern part of what is currently Mongolia. Later, some of their tribes migrated to the region that is currently southern Siberia and settled along the Yenisey River, where they lived from the 6th until the 8th centuries. They spread across what is now the Tuva region of the Russian Federation, remaining in that area until the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, when the Kyrgyz began migrating south. In the 12th century, Islam became the predominant religion in the region. Most Kyrgyz are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school.
The first Kyrgyz state, the Kyrgyz Khanate, existed from the sixth until the thirteenth century A.D., expanding by the tenth century southwestward to the eastern and northern regions of present-day Kyrgyzstan and westward to the headwaters of the Ertis (Irtysh) River in present-day eastern Kazakstan. In this period, the khanate established intensive commercial contacts in China, Tibet, Central Asia, and Persia. In the meantime, beginning about 1000 B.C., large tribes collectively known as the Scythians also lived in the area of present-day Kyrgyzstan. Excellent warriors, the Scythian tribes farther west had resisted an invasion by the troops of Alexander the Great in 328-27 B.C. The Kyrgyz tribes who entered the region around the sixth century played a major role in the development of feudalism.
In terms of the earliest human life in the region, archaeological evidence indicates that people first arrived in central Asia about 30,000 years ago. Some of the most exciting finds apply primarily to the area of present-day Kyrgyzstan: the discovery of thousands of petroglyphs created by Bronze Age peoples, beginning about 5,000 years ago. More than 10,000 petroglyphs were found strewn around a place called Saymaly-Tash (Embroidered Stones) on the slopes of Mount Suleiman.
The modern nation of Kyrgyzstan is based on a civilization of nomadic tribes who moved across the eastern and northern sections of present-day Central Asia. In this process, they were dominated by, and intermixed with, a number of other tribes and peoples that have influenced the ultimate character of the Kyrgyz people.