Turkic Treasures: The Mystique of the Kipchak Statues in Eastern Europe

Kipchak Stone Baba (Donetsk Local History Museum), 2008, © Riwnodennyk / CC BY-SA 3.0

by Murad Suleymanov

What is the significance of the Kipchak statues, or “stone women”, found mainly in Ukraine? Discover the culture and language of the Kipchak of Eastern Europe, better known as the Cumans.

The Kipchak statues, also known as the “stone women” or “petrified maidens,” are a series of ancient statues found in Eastern Europe, mainly in Ukraine. These statues are attributed to the Kipchak people, a nomadic Turkic group that lived in the region from the eleventh to the thirteenth century.

What do we know about the Kipchaks? They began arriving on the Eastern European plains from the steppes of Central Asia at the beginning of the High Middle Ages as part of various Turkic confederations. Later, they formed their own confederation of tribes united under a single leader known as the khan and established a loose political structure with power extending from the lower reaches of the Danube to Western Siberia, a vast region referred to in Persian sources as Dašt-i qipčāq ‘the Kipchak Steppe’. In Europe, the Kipchaks were known under the name Cumans.

They were esteemed for their equestrian skills and military prowess, leaving an indelible mark on the political and military history of the region during the medieval era. The Kipchaks were known for their raids on neighbouring regions, particularly the Slavic principalities in what is now Russia and Ukraine. They also had close ties with the Byzantine Empire and played a significant role in its wars against the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century.

The Kipchaks spoke a language that starting in the thirteenth century spread across their former domain and beyond. It gave rise to a dozen Turkic languages, including Crimean Tatar, Kumyk, Karachay-Balkar, as well as Karaim, the nearly-extinct language of some Eastern European followers of non-Rabbinic Judaism, and the now-extinct language of the Mamluks, a dynasty of sultans ruling Egypt into the sixteenth century.

The statues created by the Kipchaks are a characteristic symbol of their culture. They typically depict humans in various poses, such as standing, sitting or lying down, sometimes holding a vessel or a weapon. They are commonly carved out of sandstone but are sometimes also made from granite, limestone and flagstone.

While the terms “women” or “maidens” are commonly used to refer to these statues, a significant number of them clearly depict men. Some of the statues are adorned with intricate clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles, while others have a more simple design. The robes, shirts, hoods, helmets, as well as elaborate belts and buckles “worn” by the statues help scholars reconstruct Kipchak fashion of the time. Most of the statues range in height from about 0.5 to 1.5 meters.

The purpose of the statues is not entirely clear, but they are believed to have had religious or spiritual significance to the Kipchak people. Some theories suggest that the statues were used as fertility symbols, while others propose that they were used for shamanistic rituals or as tombstones. It is also believed that the Kipchaks did not originate the practice of carving such statues and that the tradition was imported by them from Central Asia and Western Siberia, where similar statues left by other nomadic tribes are found. Nevertheless, it was the Kipchaks who developed a distinct artistic style for such statues, found only in Eastern Europe.

It is unknown what the Kipchaks themselves called their statues. For a long time, it was thought that the word 𐰉𐰞𐰉𐰞 balbal found in Old Turkic inscriptions as early as the eighth century referred to any monoliths erected by Turkic nomads. However, modern scholars tend to believe that balbal referred to a very specific kind of stone structure, namely small and often untreated stone pillars put up to represent a fallen enemy. Meanwhile, in the Ukrainian folk tradition, the human statues are referred to as mamai and are believed to be evil people turned into stones for their sins.

In the thirteenth century, the Kipchaks were conquered by the Mongol Empire, which had been expanding westward from its base in Central Asia. Many Kipchaks were incorporated into the Mongol military and played a significant role in Mongol conquests, while others fled to Europe, where they mixed with the local population and became ancestors of some modern-day European peoples. Some of the remaining Kipchaks converted to Islam, which prohibits the making of statues representing humans. This is likely one of the reasons why this form of art disappears after the thirteenth century.

The statues survived through the Middle Ages since most of them were found in sparsely populated areas controlled by the Crimean Khanate, a medieval Crimean Tatar state. Following its conquest by the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century and subsequent civil colonization of the Pontic littoral, a large number of these statues were damaged or lost as peasants removed them and used them as building materials or destroyed them in a frenzy of religious zeal.

Today, many Kipchak statues are on display in museums and cultural centers throughout Ukraine, and they are considered important cultural artifacts of the region’s history and heritage. Unfortunately, their destruction continues even in the twenty-first century as some of these precious statues, found in the very heart of the combat zones along the Russian-Ukrainian border, have been deliberately damaged or vandalised. The Kipchak statues, with their enigmatic origins and cultural significance, stand as enduring symbols of the rich history and heritage of Eastern Europe, reminding us of the remarkable legacy left behind by a nomadic Turkic people and its influence on the region.

Murad Suleymanov, EPHE-PSL, Inalco, PROCLAC

Murad Suleymanov is a lecturer of Azeri at Inalco and of Judaeo-Tat at the OSRJL. He is also a member of the UMR 7192 (PROCLAC) and the author of A Grammar of Şirvan Tat (Reichert, 2020). At ILARA, he teaches Turkic languages.

Cite this blog post
ILARA (2023, June 30). Turkic Treasures: The Mystique of the Kipchak Statues in Eastern Europe. ILARA, the Institute for Linguistic Heritage and Diversity. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/q3ay

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