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Kazakh Saukele (female wedding headdress: from Sakas to Kazakhs through millenniums)

(World of an Object)

The first ethnographic exhibit chosen for “World of an Object” series exhibition in Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) RAS is saukele – Kazakh female wedding headdress.

The choice of exhibit is not accidental. Firstly, ethnographic collection of Middle Asia and Kazakhstan peoples (over 10 thousand items) are an important part of Museum’s funds. Secondly, saukele (‘sau’ – “sunny, beautiful”, ‘kele’ – “head’) and jurt were the most expensive elements of the bride’s dowry, so richly decorated saukeles represent best samples of Kazakh folk applied art. Thirdly, this particular headdress (MAE №439-21) is the first one of four kept in Museum and not demonstrated before saukeles by time of arrival. It is part of a big collection (MAE №439), collected and given to Museum by Kazakhs themselves in January, 1899.

One of givers, Laikzhan Derbisalaevich Birkambaev, while in St. Petersburg, visited MAE and was surprised by scarcity of Kazakh collections. He promised to send missing items. Soon an interesting collection including 88 items from Turgaiskaya volost of Aktubinskiy uezd and Sarayskaya volost of Kustanaiskiy uezd, aul №4 arrived from L.D. Birkambayev and his fellow-countryman Hasan Ish-Mukhammedovich Imambayev.

History of forming of Middle-Asian and Kazakh region ethnographic collections in MAE RAS totals in over 250 years. Mentioned in Kunstkamera Catalog of 1742 year are, for example, Bukharan shoes, 1779 – “Kirgizian” items. Archive information indicates that in 1860s-70s “clothes and items of nomad everyday life of Middle Asia peoples” were shown in MAE.

Famous Russian scientists and explorers, travelers, state and public figures, physicians, teachers, Maecenas merchants and representatives of Middle Asia and Kazakhstan peoples participated in completing collections. Rich collection of gifts from locals was given to MAE by cesarevitch Nikolay Alexandrovich who made a trip to Eastern countries including Kazakhstan in 1890-1891. There was an anniversary of 300 years reign of the House of Romanov in 1913, and many gifts received by them were given to museums. To MAE – unique by its dimension collection of Middle-Asian handicraft cloth from Bukhara (500 “pieces”) presented by Bukhara’s emir of emperor’s family. In 1909 an artist N.N. Scherbin-Kromanenko presented MAE almost complete set of so-called “dervish costume” from Samarkand which turned out to be clothes of pir or sheikh – head of one of Sufi orders – calandars. Gathering of collections, characterizing traditional culture and life of Middle Asia and Kazakhstan, continued in Soviet period as well.

Let’s go back to saukele. The most skillful masters crafted it. Jewellers-zergers founded, pressed or minted metal parts. As a rule, making of one saukele took a whole year. Its price reached 1000 roubles (cost of about 100 good horses) by end of XIX – beginning of XX century, and sadly its expensiveness became a reason of reduction of saukele manufacturing. It is important that while keeping main elements, each of saukele has its own features as a result of individual work, availability of materials and other reasons. This way, each such headdress is a unique, inimitable artwork.

Saukele was given from mother to daughter, from generation to generation. According to custom, the bride was dressed in a wedding dress at her father’s house. Saukele was put on the bride by a respectable woman, for what she received an expensive present from bridegroom. After wedding the wife wore saukele for solemn occasions in the course of year, more exactly, until birth of first child.

Saukele on “World of an Object” exhibition is one of the nest in MAE’s collection. High crown, made of felt, has truncated shape. Its front height is 34 cm, back height – 45 cm, top circle – 34 cm, lower circle – 50 cm.

Saukele (whole item and its separate parts), just as all Kazakh headdresses, has high semantic status. This way, ornamental images such as “tree of life”, “ram horns” and materials themselves carry large symbolical meaning. It was believed that silver has protective powers (arrow-shaped silver pendants make a whole bottom row of saukele). Magical functions of stones are widely known: coral saves from curse and evil eye, pearl – from walleye, cornelian – symbol of wellbeing and happiness, and so on.

Researchers drew attention  to similarity of Kazakh saukele and Saka headdresses (it is the name for Scythians in Persian sources). There were tribes called “tigrahauda” (“wearing pointed hats”) among Sakas, who occupied vast territories of Middle Asia and Kazakhstan. Suppositions have confirmed when in 1970s Kazakh archeologists found an untouched burial place of Saka chief (V-IV cent. B.C.) whose clothes were covered with golden plates. There was a high (60-65 cm) headdress with golden decoration put on his head, and even superficial comparison with saukele indicates their similarity. However, Kazakh saukele is female headdress. Archeological findings allow to explain this difference. There are two golden buckles in Siberian collection of Peter I, image on them was called “Rest in journey”. Each composition consists of three figures: two male and one female. Woman and man sit, second man lies on their knees. High headdress matching Kazakh saukele is on woman’s head. Accepting this object’s dating (III cent. B.C., as supposed by archeologists), both men and women could wear high headdresses in Scythian-Saka period.

Almost two and a half thousand years divide Saka headdress and Saukele. Nevertheless, during all this time high headdresses were common in Middle Asia and Kazakhstan. It is obvious that they were prototypes for Kazakh saukele – important element of wedding ceremony.

Exhibition was open in September – December 2001.