The mergence of the Bahkirs was the result of a long ethnic interaction between quite a few ancient tribes and peoples; the decisive role in their genesis, however, was played by Turkic-speaking breeding tribes, who, prior to their relocation to the Southern Urals (at the turn of the tenth century) had led a nomadic life in the steppes of the Aral and the basin of the Syr Darya River. Beginning with the early stages of their history, before arriving in the locality of their present habitation, they had experienced the influence of the Tungus-Manchurians and Mongols, which made a distinct imprint on the Bashkirs’ anthropological type and language. After settling in the Southern Urals, the Bashkirs’ ancestors partly ousted and partly assimilated the indigenous Finno-Ugric and Iranian population, which also made an impact on the then forming Bashkirs’ ethnic culture. Moreover, some ancient Magyar component is traceable in the ethno-genesis of the Bashkirs, for which reason the Bashkirs were frequently confused in medieval sources with the ancient Hungarians. During the sway of the Mongol-Tatars, some Volga Bulgarian, Kipchak and Mongol tribes also entered Bashkiria. All in all, the formation of the Bashkir people had been completed by the fifteenth or sixteenth century.
The first written mention of the Bashkirs (922) was made by ibn Fadlan, envoy of the Bagdad Caliphate to Volga Bulgaria, who sent home information about the “country of the Turkic people by the name of Al-Bashgird.” The Bashkirs’ self-designation as Bashkort, known since the ninth century, which translates as ‘leader wolf’ (bash — ‘chief’, and kort — ‘wolf’), has been assigned by some researchers to the totemic ancestor, while a number of other experts have linked the ethnonym with the prominent military leader named Bashgird, who lived in the first half of the ninth century and under whose leadership the invading Bashkirs occupied the territories they inhabit nowadays. According to the 2002 census, Russia’s Bashkir population totals 1,673,389, including 1,221,302 Bashkirs residing in the Republic of Bashkortostan. The Bashkir language belongs to the Kipchak branch of the Turkic group of languages within the Altaic linguistic family.
The territory populated by the Bashkirs became part of the Russian state in 1552 to 1557 after the conquest of Kazan by Ivan IV (the Terrible). The inclusion of the Bashkirs as subjects of Ivan IV was formalized as an act of good will, therefore the Bashkirs retained title to their lands on the basis of patrimony. Nor were they forbidden to profess Islam and live in accordance with their ancestors’ customs. In practice, however, their land title was frequently violated, in consequence of which a succession of Bashkir rebellions and uprisings took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1798 to 1865, a semi- military system of cantons came into being on their territory. Like Cossacks, the Bashkirs, from then onwards, became a military class, from whose midst canton heads and officers emerged.
Islam, the penetration of which into the life of nomadic tribes who were the ancestors of present-day Bahkirs had begun as early as the tenth century, became the main religion in the fourteenth century, as evidenced by the Muslim mausoleums and gravestone epitaphs of that time. Another indication of the depth of the Bashkirs’ Islamic traditions is the fact that it was in Ufa that 1789 saw the establishment of the Spiritual Authority of Russia’s Muslims, which handled the registration of marriages, births and deaths, as well as matters related to property inheritance and admission to religious education at mosque- based schools. Like most Muslims in Russia, the Bashkirs are Sunni Muslims.
The religious ideas and beliefs of the pre-Islamic cultural stratum of the Bashkirs are for the most part like the same beliefs of other peoples. The Bashkirs’ ancestors worshipped the environment and natural phenomena, they invested some birds and animals (for example, the bear, wolf, horse, swan, crane, golden eagle and falcon) with sacral properties; they believed in wood goblins ana water spirits. A particularly important role was attached to the house spirit — probably because of the latter’s proximity to man. On the level of prejudice, especially fast adhered to by rural population, these ancient cults have survived to this day.
In terms of terrain and environment types, the Bashkirs’ ethnic territory covers several zones, such as the southern spurs of the Urals, the undulating forest-steppe of the Urals and the steppes of the Trans-Urals. The environment was decisive in the choice and development of the Bashkirs’ lines of economic activity, in which cattle breeding and agriculture have traditionally occupied the leading positions. The role of fishing, hunting and wild-hive bee keeping (replaced by beehive apiculture in the nineteenth century) was significant, but always subsidiary. Among their home trades and crafts the most typical have been hide and leather processing, the making of leather and wooden utensils, knitting and weaving.
In the past, livestock breeding was the Bashkirs’ main occupation, its development facilitated by age-long traditions and availability of spacious pastures suitable for grazing all year round. At the turn of the twentieth century, only the eastern Bashkirs, who still remained semi-nomadic, retained livestock breeding as their leading activity. Those of them who lived in mountainous areas pastured their cattle in summer onlv, resorting to winter stabling, which necessitated the laying-in of fodder.
The Bashkirs bred sheep and horses, as well as, to a lesser extent, cows and goats. Horses were used as riding and pack animals, as well as for hides, hair and food stuffs. The greatest favourites of the Bashkir cuisine is bishbarmak, which consists of pieces of horse meat with clear soup, and kaza dried sausages made of horse meat and fat. The Bashkirs’ traditional mare-milk-based drink, koumiss, has long been prized for its nutritional and healing properties. As well as the famous Bashkir honey, it is still widely used in folk medicine.
Slightly intoxicating, the koumiss drink quenches thirst and hunger, and is also valued for its taste; therefore it has always enjoyed particular veneration of the nomads of the steppes. The sprinkling with koumiss was used as a form of blessing affusion and cnarm. The sacral qualities of koumiss were ascribed also to vessels to hold it, such as leather flasks attached to the saddle, small wooden barrels for serving the drink and carved dippers for drinking koumiss at jiin clan festivals.
The Bashkirs lived predominantly in aul villages and camped as the need arose, making seasonal moves, the route of which depended on the choice of pastures suitable for the livestock. In the steppe zone the camping period was longer because in winter the snow mantle there was negligible, allowing the Bashkirs to keep their livestock and horses footloose. The traditional dwelling of the breeding Bashkirs was their collapsible felt yurta tent, which was either of the Turkic round-cupola or of the Mongol cone-cupola type. The farming and semi- nomadic Bashkirs, whose numbers increased considerably in the eighteenth to nineteenth century because of the dwindling of the pastures, lived in houses made of clay, adobe or sods, with flat roofs. The western Bashkirs, who lived in the forest or forest-steppe zone, predominantly had log houses of different designs.
Traditionally, the space inside a Bashkir house was divided into a “clean” half and a subsidiary one, with a hanging curtain to separate them. The ethnic originality of the home is underlined by the felt mats or yoven rugs on plank beds and towels hanging along the walls, horse harness and other household articles and utensils.
The folk dress of the Bashkirs is an harmonious blend of the nomadic (breeding) and settled (farming) cultural traditions, which is most obvious in their choice of material. The breeding Bashkirs relied to a greater extent for their clothes and footwear on hides, leather and wool, while their farming counterparts favoured fabrics made of nettle, hemp or flax fibres. The style, cut and composition of the Bashkir women’s costume ana particularly the nature of their personal ornaments show affinity with similar items typical of the settled farming peoples of the Middle Volga and the Ural region, as well as of their eastern neighbours — the nomads of Central Asia.