The Other Ablai

I write these posts to collect some stray thoughts that likely will have very little to do with my doctoral dissertation. In the meantime, at least, I would like to write up some related thoughts and arguments to put them to rest in a safe place.

Opening Thoughts
I live very near a street named for Ablai (usually Aблай in Russian and Aбылай in Kazakh), a Khan of the Kazakhs at the end of the eighteenth century. I cross this street whenever I go the National Library of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Ablai Khan’s history is a very complicated one, given that his life (1711-1781) spanned a very complicated set of political circumstances in the steppes between Russia, China, and Central Asia. However, this blog post has relatively little to do with Ablai directly, but more to do with the curious nature of his name and its connections.

Many of Ablai’s personal documents are preserved in the Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan (the video interestingly describes his documents as written in Kipchak, на кипчакском языке). In Kazakhstan, his most famous descendant was his great-grandson, the famous ethnographer of the Kazakhs, Chokan Valikhanov (1835-1865).1 The name Ablai, according to Chokan Valikhanov, was the name of both the famous Khan and the Khan’s grandfather.2 Chokan gives both forms: Ablai and Abulai. Valikhanov gives no explanation of the meaning of the name, but does explain that the first Ablai ruled in the city of Turkestan and for his many military victories earned the nickname Kan-Ichar (Qan-isher), or Blood-drinker. Perhaps unrelatedly, the name Alach (as in Alash Orda) also means Blood-Drinker in Oirat.

Valikhanov curiously opened the article with the statement that according to Russian chronicles, Ablai was a Siberian prince (tsarevich). This is, in fact, true — but I believe Valikhanov was mistaken in connecting this Ablai with his great-grandfather. Indeed, the Siberian prince Ablai in Russian chronicles was not a Khan of the Kazakhs, but rather a Khoshote taiji in today’s eastern Kazakhstan, near the river Irtysh. A taiji (sometimes written taisha in Russian and English, in confusion with the similar, but different, title born by Esen Taishi) was a title born by leaders of the Oirats subservient to a Hung-Taiji. There is plenty more on this topic one can read in either Atwood’s Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire or in the work of Junko Miyawaki.

Eastern Kazakhstan and Northwest China

Ablai and the Russians
From Baikov’s mission, one learns that Ablai Taiji provided forty camels and fifty horses for the caravan to China through Ablai’s lands, which were made available to Baikov once he approached Ablai’s territory on the Irtysh near present-day Pavlodar. Baikof started his trip to China in the autumn and spent that first winter living alongside the “Bukharans” that belonged to Ablai. Later Ablai sent thirty “Tatars,” perhaps some retainers or nobles from those same settlements, to China with Baikov. It is worth noting that the official letter from Tsar Ivan to the Emperor of China was written in Russian and Tatar both, to better the chances of its being understood.

Baikov’s mission occurred at a very momentous time, as during the same mission other subjects of the Russian empire were raiding along the Amur River along China’s northern borders, while the Qing had only gained control of Beijing in 1644.Even as the Qing were gaining control of some of the modern territory of China, the Muscovite state was also not yet a great power in Siberia and Central Asia. In short, no demands were made of Ablai, who aided the mission because he, too, stood to benefit from trade with the new rulers of Beijing. Prior to Baikov’s own visit, the Tsar had sent an emissary to prepare the way for Baikov, a ‘Tatar’ who seems to have gone by way of the Yenesei River rather than the Irtysh, thus avoiding the Oirats altogether. It is probably worth mentioning that the Russians failed in the main purpose of their first Chinese embassy: hand-delivering a letter personally between two equal leaders. Ablai’s simpler aims of acquiring rights to trade were more easily met.

Ablai’s Armor
Perhaps no figure in Siberian history rivals Yermak (Ermak) for fame and mystery. The legendary Cossack conquered the Khanate of Siberia almost single handedly, if you give much credence to Russian chronicles written far to the west, long after the fact. Baddeley wrote that, for the Russians, he was a “happy mixture of Hernan Cortes and King Arthur.” I rather prefer Stephen Kotkin’s version: he conquered nothing and then died. However, Yermak did not die before receiving two suits of armor from Tsar Ivan, featuring the royal arms. Whatever the truth of Yermak’s activities, there is evidence of his fame outside the imagination of the Russian Orthodox chronicles. My source for this information is Baddeley.3

Oirat envoys traveling up the Irtysh River to Tobolsk, the source of Russian power in Siberia, requested in 1650 a favor from the Russians in return for future peace between the Oirats and Russians. Ablai taiji was about to go to battle with the Kazakhs, as he had done already in 1643. A large campaign under the leadership of the “Kontaisha” necessitated Ablai finding the armor of Yermak. The Cossacks in Tobolsk sent away to Moscow to get permission. The next year, with Moscow’s writ in hand, they requested the armor from the descendants of the Tatar leader Kaidul and the Ostiak leader Alach. Following the death of Yermak, who drowned in his armor escaping across the Irtysh River [obligatory Tolkien reference here], his body and belongings were hidden by his killers, who supposedly witnessed many miracles and foresaw the future of Russian domination in Siberia.

The armor was apparently very well-made. Baddeley gives the measurements as 1 ell at the shoulders by 2 ells long. An ell is an old measurement related to the cubit. An “English ell” is five fourths of a yard, or roughly 1.14 meters. The mail had the royal arms on both shoulders and on the breast. Very high quality chain armor was thought to protect from bullets and arrows — and this chain armor was of the highest quality, a five-in-one mail. Four-in-one mail is closer to standard quality. One can learn something about the patterns of mail in this YouTube video after the eighth minute.

The armor itself, sadly, does not survive. Indeed, a superstitious person might consider the armor cursed: Ablai himself later drowned in the armor following defeats in internecine struggles with his brother Ochirtu and the Volga Kalmyk leader Ayuka Khan. It perhaps adds to the mystique of the story, as the effort put in by Ablai to acquire armor that would protect him from arrows and bullets did not, in the end, keep him alive.

The Cossacks visited Alach’s heirs, who professed total ignorance about Yermak’s belongings. The descendants of Kaidul, on the other hand, handed over a coat of mail Not only did the Cossacks in Siberia comply with the request, but they also wrote down the affair and received Ablai’s note of confirmation upon receiving the armor.

 Ablai and Tibetan Buddhism
Zaya Pandita, the creator of the Clear Script and a renowned Oirat scholar, was the adopted brother of Ablai. Their father, Bai-Bagas of the Khoshot, was called on to send a son to learn from lamas in the east. At that time, Ablai and Ablai’s brother Ochirtu were not yet born — so he adopted Zaya Pandita and sent him instead. From 1616 to 1638, Zaya Pandita traveled, prayed, and studied in the lands of Tibet. Upon his return, Baddeley tells us that Zaya Pandita performed the cremation and funeral for his adoptive father before traveling among the Khalkha Mongols to preach. Baddeley suggests even that likely the great accords between Oirats and Mongols in 1640 would not have happened without Zaya Pandita.

Zaya Pandita’s biography, according to Baddeley, includes great information on his travels. It is from this account that we know it was during the winter he spent with his adopted-brother Ablai that he finished his creation of the Clear Script in 1648.

It would seem that not long after this, Ablai began building a monastery on the Beshka River, a small tributary that flows into the Irtysh near Ust-Kamenogorsk (Öskemen). Baikov saw the early stages of the work in 1655 as he left Ablai’s lands for China and a more complete monastery again upon his return in the spring of 1658. That same summer Zaya Pandita consecrated the settlement, amidst a crowd of hundreds of Tibetan monks.

The exact nature of Oirat settlements has confused historians in the past, most recently Peter Perdue in China Marches West.4 Whereas Perdue writes of Zunghar (Oirat) rulers building cities of stone with large walls to enclose bustling trade cities, from Baikov and other Russian sources it seems that rather there was a loose network of religious, trade, and farming sites within Oirat territory. Baikov remarks how he would leave an area known for trading fairs (like Yamysh Lake, the destination of Cossack salt caravans) and arrive in a farming community of clay homes run by “Bukharan” slaves raising vegetables for the Oirats, only to leave those areas and then travel to stone-walled Buddhist monasteries. Perdue’s error in this case is similar to the much less academically rigorous 2010 work of Leonid Kyzlasov, The Urban Civilization of Northern and Innermost Asia: Historical and Archaeological Research. Lost cities of stone in the steppes and taiga of Siberia are very romantic, but it might be best to not assume a universally recognizable model of “cities” and “towns,” especially within the domains of nomadic pastoralists. Ablai Taisha of the Oirats, according to Baikov’s first-hand accounts, made regular migrations to and from these smaller settlements, putting up his tents outside of them in order to benefit from the work of their inhabitants. In other words, the evidence seems to support a mobile power traveling between small sedentary populations (working in economic or religious production) rather than a nomadic power actually settling other nomads into large-scale city projects. The small number of domestic animals requested from Siberia by the Oirats is an interesting piece of evidence, but even small-scale pig or fox breeding would not turn the steppe into a densely populated area.

Indeed, it is worth noting that nomad-controlled sedentary settlements are of limited military importance for the same nomads, which might explain why none of these settlements seems to have survived the collapse of the Oirat population following the Qing campaigns of the 1750s. Stationary targets are a liability that a nomadic military traditionally attacks rather than defends.

The ruins of this same monastery remain, though little enough seems visible according to pictures of the site on the internet. The river Beshka appears to be named in honor of the site, however — it is the Река Aблакет, or the Ablaket River.

View of the Monastery at Ablaikit5
Ruins of Ablaikit in Google Maps: [49’27” N 82’34” E]

And again, the same pictures with helpful highlighting. I have marked the outer wall in red and the outlines of the two structures in green.


Final Thoughts
I would love to find more information on the Khoshot lineage that produced Ablai Taiji. Oirat history is so enticing, but I cannot believe that the best time to learn a new language (Oirat) is while preparing to write my doctoral dissertation. In any event, I would like to work more to negotiate the historical connections between Oirats and Kazakhs, military, economic, religious, and otherwise.

Yamysh Lake and the Irtysh River [51’52” N 77’27” E]

Also, I think a trip to Yamysh Lake and the other sites mentioned would be a great future roadtrip!

1Chokan was born Muhammed Qanafiya, son of Chingis Valikhanov. Chingis Valikhanov’s father was Wali, the son of Ablai by his second wife, Saiman. The direct father-son genealogy reads thus: Chokan son of Chingis son of Wali son of Ablai son of Wali son of Ablai “Kan-Ichar.”
2Valikhanov’s article on Ablai has been published several times. It is roughly 7 pages of text, depending on the publisher. The oldest version I can find is from a 1904 collection of Valikhanov’s work which states that Valikhanov wrote the essay for a contemporary (mid-19th century) historical dictionary.
3John Baddeley, Russia, Mongolia, and China. (pp. 160-161, in the same chapter in which he covers Baikov’s embassy at great length)
4Perdue combines the settlements at Khobuk Sair and Yamysh Lake into one massive city (pp. 106-107), including large stone walls guarded by cannons. I do not doubt that several Oirat taijis built various settlements, but there seems to never have been a large city like the one described by Perdue.
5 Pallas, Peter Simon. Travels through the Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire, in the Years 1793 and 1794. London, 1812.

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