Almaty is located in a southeastern corner of Kazakhstan in a region known to historians and geographers (and most Kazakhs) as Semirechye (Russian: Семиречье, or Zhetysu in Kazak). The name Semirechye translates in English to “Seven Rivers,” referring to the several rivers that flow through this area between the Tian Shan and Alatau mountains to the south and east and the semicircle of water created by Lakes Balkhash (Balqash, altitude 341m; 1,119 ft) and Alakul to the west and north. I believe the seven rivers are the Aksu, Ili, Karatal, Kegen, Naryn, Tekes, and Shu (or Chu in Kyrgyz, which you may remember from the previous post), but there is disagreement about exactly which rivers get counted (my list excludes the Baksan, Chilik, Koksu, Korgan, Lepsi, Talas and Tentek), which is both a result and symptom of the fact that people don’t agree on the historical territorial boundaries of the region.
Bounded by tall mountains and large lakes and criss-crossed by water, this area has obvious agricultural and strategic value. It therefore hosts a long and complicated history of human habitation, much of which is recounted in brief in Svat Soucek’s occasionally gripping A History of Inner Asia. In his words, “Semirechie is an area where sedentariness and nomads have met at various points in history – coexisting, overlapping, competing – because it lends itself to both ways of life (as do, in fact many other parts of the Eurasian steppe),” which is a formulation that does not tell us much except that this was a place in which there were people, and these people met other people, and everyone changed over time.
The rest of Soucek’s book elaborates on this sentence, however, and it does so relatively succinctly. But to provide the even briefer version: the earliest cultural remains here date from the Bronze age and are attributed to the Sak/Saka people (same as the Scythians in Herodotus). Subsequently, the region was settled by Iranian Sogdians from the south who flirted with Turkic nomads from the north. This mix proved fruitful, and a rich culture emerged. The later conversion of both Iranian and Turkic peoples to Islam bolstered the region’s development such that there were several flourishing cities flourishing here along the Silk Road. All of this was then destroyed by the Mongols in the early 1200s.
Genghis Khan’s Mongols and their inheritors “reverted” Semirechye to an expansive pasture in which they lived as nomads, allowing the sedentary agricultural societies to collapse. Thus the area was relatively undeveloped and uninhabited when the Russians arrived here in the 1860s. They founded Fort Verny (The Loyal Fort) on the site of present (and perhaps past) Almaty (ave. alt. 862m; 2,828 ft) in the piedmont of the Zailisky Alatau Mountains and in the shadow of Pik Talgar (alt. 4,979m; 16,335 ft).
Those of you keeping track will have noticed that there is a huge difference in altitude between the Tianshan Mountains in Semirechye’s south and Lake Balkhash in the north: 4,368m (15,217 ft) between peak and lake. And as the map above shows, the transition from mountains to river plain happens abruptly. This is visible from my 12th-floor apartment (found for me by the lovely Asiyat Suleimenova, who looks after the Fulbrighters in Kazakhstan). Looking to the left off of my little balcony, I see the mountains; to the right, the steppe. It’s an incredible view.
Of course, the mountains’ dramatic rise suggests a tectonic fault, and indeed Almaty is considered at high risk of a major earthquake in the next few years. The last major earthquake was in 1911 and flattened most of the city. The Regional Security Officer at the US Embassy, who briefed the Fulbright students when we arrived, said that they expect everything to come down “like in Haiti” when the earthquake does come. His advice: Hope you’re not in a building when it happens. Kazakhs talk about the pending earthquake all the time (it’s equivalent to “the weather” as a topic in England). Oh dear.