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Manas monument in Bishkek
|Original title||Манас дастаны|
|Subject(s)||A series of events that coincide with the history of the region in the 17th century, primarily the interaction of the Turki-speaking people from the mountains to the south of the Dasht-i Qipchaq and the Oirat Mongols from the bordering area of Jungaria|
The Epic of Manas (Kyrgyz: Манас дастаны, ماناس دستانی, Azerbaijani: Manas Dastanı, Turkish: Manas Destanı) is a traditional epic poem dating to the 18th century but claimed by the Kyrgyz people to be much older. This opens the possibility of Manas having spoken a dialect of Turki similar to that of the Kazakhs and Nogay people today. The plot of Manas revolves around a series of events that coincide with the history of the region in the 17th century, primarily the interaction of the Turki-speaking people from the mountains to the south of the Dasht-i Qipchaq and the Oirat Mongols from the bordering area of Jungaria.
The government of Kyrgyzstan celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of Manas in 1995. The eponymous hero of Manas and his Oirat enemy Joloy were first found written in a Persian manuscript dated to 1792-3. In one of its dozens of iterations, the epic poem consists of approximately 500,000 lines, and while Kyrgyz historians consider it to be the longest epic poem in history, the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata and the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar are both longer. The distinction is in number of verses. Manas has more verses, though they are much shorter.
In 2009, a parliament member suggested its nomination for the "longest epic story in the world" because “the great heritage of Kyrgyz people should find its place in the world history.” There have likewise been attempts to identify Manas as Mannasseh of the Old Testament.[permanent dead link]
“The end of oral epics in Central Asia has been prophesied since the nineteenth century... Nevertheless, we can observe a surprising vitality of oral performance and oral traditions among the Kyrgyz.” Manas still plays "an important role in Kyrgyz cultural identity".
The epic tells the story of Manas, his descendants and his followers. Battles against Khitan and Oirat enemies form a central theme in the epic. The epic is divided into three parts, each consisting of a loose collection of episodic heroic events.
The Epic of Manas is divided into 3 books. The first is entitled "Manas", the second episode describes the deeds of his son Semetei, and the third of his grandson Seitek. The epic begins with the destruction and difficulties caused by the invasion of the Oirats. Zhakyp reaches maturity in this time as an owner of many herds without a single heir. His prayers are eventually answered, and on the day of his son's birth, he dedicates a colt, Toruchaar, born the same day to his son's service. The son is unique among his peers for strength, mischief, and generosity. The Oirat learn of this young warrior and warn their leader. A plan is hatched to capture the young Manas. They fail in this task, and Manas is able to rally his people and is eventually elected and proclaimed as khan.
Manas expands his reach to include that of the Uyghurs of Moghulistan on the southern border of Jungaria. One of the defeated Uighur rulers gives his daughter to Manas in marriage. At this point, the Kyrgyz people chose, with Manas' help, to return from the Altai mountains to their "ancestral lands" in the mountains of modern-day Kyrgyzstan. Manas begins his successful campaigns against his neighbors accompanied by his forty companions. Manas turns eventually to face the Afghan people to the south in battle, where after defeat the Afghans enter into an alliance with Manas. Manas then comes into a relationship with the people of mā warā' an-nār through marriage to the daughter of the ruler of Bukhara.
The epic continues in various forms, depending on the publication and whim of the manaschi, or reciter of the epic.
The epic poem's age is unknowable, as it was transmitted orally without being recorded. However, historians have doubted the age claimed for it since the turn of the 20th century. The primary reason is that the events portrayed occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. Central Asian historian V. V. Bartol'd referred to Manas as an "absurd gallimaufry of pseudo-history," and Hatto remarks that Manas was
"compiled to glorify the Sufi sheikhs of Shirkent and Kasan ... [and] circumstances make it highly probable that... [Manas] is a late eighteenth-century interpolation."
Changes were made in the delivery and textual representation of Manas in the 1920s and 1930s to represent the creation of the Kyrgyz nationality, particularly the replacement of the tribal background of Manas. In the 19th century versions, Manas is the leader of the Nogay people, while in versions dating after 1920, Manas is a Kyrgyz and a leader of the Kyrgyz.
Attempts have been made to connect modern Kyrgyz with the Yenisei Kirghiz, today claimed by Kyrgyzstan to be the ancestors of modern Kyrgyz. Kazakh ethnographer and historian Shokan Shinghisuly Walikhanuli was unable to find evidence of folk-memory during his extended research in 19th-century Kyrgyzstan (then part of the expanding Russian empire) nor has any been found since.
Manas is the classic centerpiece of Kyrgyz literature, and parts of it are often recited at Kyrgyz festivities by specialists in the epic, called Manaschi (Kyrgyz: Манасчы). Manaschis tell the tale in a melodic chant unaccompanied by musical instruments.
Kyrgyzstan has many Manaschis. Narrators who know all three episodes of the epic (the tales of Manas, of his son Semetei and of his grandson Seitek) can acquire the status of Great Manaschi. Great Manaschis of the 20th century are Sagymbai Orozbakov, Sayakbay Karalaev, Shaabai Azizov (pictured), Kaba Atabekov, Seidene Moldokova and Yusup Mamai. A revered Manaschi who recently visited the United Kingdom is Rysbek Jumabayev. Urkash Mambetaliev, the Manaschi of the Bishkek Philharmonic, also travels through Europe. Talantaaly Bakchiyev combines recitation with critical study. Adil Jumaturdu has provided "A comparative study of performers of the Manas epic." 
There are more than 65 written versions of parts of the epic. An English translation of the version of Sagimbai Orozbakov by Walter May was published in 1995, in commemoration of the presumed 1000th anniversary of Manas' birth, and re-issued in two volumes in 2004. Arthur Thomas Hatto has made English translations of the Manas tales recorded by Shokan Valikhanov and Vasily Radlov in the 19th century.
Manas is said to have been buried in the Ala-Too mountains in Talas Province, in northwestern Kyrgyzstan. A mausoleum some 40 km east of the town of Talas is believed to house his remains and is a popular destination for Kyrgyz travellers. Traditional Kyrgyz horsemanship games are held there every summer since 1995. An inscription on the mausoleum states, however, that it is dedicated to "...the most famous of women, Kenizek-Khatun, the daughter of the emir Abuka". Legend has it that Kanikey, Manas' widow, ordered this inscription in an effort to confuse her husband's enemies and prevent a defiling of his grave. The name of the building is "Manastin Khumbuzu" or "The Dome of Manas", and the date of its erection is unknown. There is a museum dedicated to Manas and his legend nearby the tomb.