Conventionally cemeteries are understood as places where the remains of the deceased are buried or in other forms (such as cremation urns) stored. Originally the word “cemetery” derives from Ancient Greek koimitírion, which refers rather euphemistically to a resting or sleeping place. In the local context of Bishkek, the cemetery finds its lingual equivalents in the Russian kladbishche and the Kyrgyz körüstön.
The Russian equivalent is derived from ukladyvanie (укладывание) which, in return, stems from the verb klast’ (класть), or to “lie down” – and hints at a naming taboo for the cemetery as the “place where the dead body is laid down”. In contrast to this, the Kyrgyz körüstön derives from the Persian ghabrestan (قبرستان), a compound made of the Persian estan “land, realm, place” and the Arabic verb gha-ba-ra “to dig”. The stem of the verb, in return, might be derived from the qubbar, literally the “digger” – which refers to larks, “small ground-dwelling songbirds that typically feed by digging up grub” (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D9%82%D8%A8%D8%B1).
Yet, cemeteries are more than the final resting place for the world-departed. Simultaneously, they are tangible heritage sites and might also be regarded as historical open-air museums. Any cemetery offers visitors valuable insights into significant historical events, architecture, life of communities, the past and current trends in burial and memory practices. Its particular aura enables a variety of different emotional, sometimes even entertaining, experiences with the place and its narratives. During our last field walk through Bishkek burial places, the Ala Archa Cemetery and the Southwestern Cemetery, we decided to pay a close attention to gravestones’ art represented by a variety of signs and symbols in order to reveal differences and patterns as well as to decode the story patterns conveyed through them. Of course, this topic deserves more extensive research and proper analysis. Yet, in this blog piece we would like to share our preliminary thoughts, observations and experiences as visitors.
Gravestones, as exhibits, constitute a fascinating and rich source of knowledge on the deceased, ranging from name, age, gender, physical appearance and relationships, emotional attachments, memory practices and rituals to religious and professional background, the time periods in which the individual lived and other contextual details. Among these things, the combination of size, form, color, material and location of graves within the cemetery helps us to dig deeper in order to further unfold their stories. Ornamentalism, use of secular symbols and aesthetic decoration are typical for all cultures and historical periods. People need symbols and signs to express their attitude vis-à-vis death – which entails the creation of a kind of symbolic language and its corresponding system of identities. According to the International Cemetery Gravestones Association, one of the major catalysts in developing tombstones was the fact that churches and burials became more commonplace in the 1650s. In the 19th century, the popularization of inscriptions increased rapidly. Simultaneously, they began to provide more detailed information about a deceased accompanied with a few words by beloved ones, colleagues and friends. Memorials became more extravagant as they manifested diverse combinations of design elements, such as memorial vases, plaques, busts and monuments.
Tombstones observed at the first gravesite, the Ala Archa Cemetery, are the most diverse in terms of design of gravestones decoration – sometimes very elaborative – as well as their symbolic markers. Looking at the spatial arrangement and grouping of private graves within the cemetery prompt us to think about the social hierarchy. The space manifests here the convergence of two historical eras and the ideologies encapsulated in them - the Soviet and the independent period. The very central location of the setting is wide, well-maintained and clearly glorified. That is the privileged section for current national heroes and ‘the best citizens’ who deserve public respect and prestige. It is largely represented by individual and family gravestones, more frequently, in the form of marble and granite monuments of different sizes and shapes.
Looking at major gravestones, we learn that they commonly include symbols of various shapes which illustrate then social and professional status of its (deceased) residents. It also serves to underline their affiliation with the Kyrgyz intelligentsia of both the Soviet and post-Soviet period. They comprise high-ranking officials, military commanders, top intellectuals, artists and many others. No wonder, in the Soviet period the focus on career and professional success corresponds to the particular identity fostered during this period. Today, this section also expresses a symbolic capital both for the nation and the family; therefore, these graves are frequently visited and properly remembered.
Yet, the Soviet-era part of the cemetery comprises also a large non-elite section marked by relatively strong standardization and an absence of ethno-confessional distinction. The design of these Soviet-era graves is marked by simplicity and austerity: a tombstone, often in the form of a metal or stone chapel-construction featuring only brief biographical information such as the resident’s name, date of birth and death. Contrasting this with the magnificent graves of national heroes and the intelligentsia, the cemetery aptly reflects the ambiguity of Soviet culture – oscillating along the binary of the elitist-individualistic, on the one hand, and the folk-collectivistic, on the other hand.
Some signs and symbols are of universal nature and do not require specific interpretation. For example, the interpretation of professional affiliation signs seems to be relatively universal: a bowl with a snake for medical doctors and an open book for writers or academicians, a microscope for scientists, a theatre curtain for artists and their respective musical instruments for musicians. Accordingly, at the tombstones, greet us – chiselled in stone – a doctor in a white coat with forehead reflectors, a professor with a pen in his hand or a journalist of the Soviet-era newspaper working through her manuscripts.
Paying attention to the head motif of gravestones can furthermore tell us something about how a person died – either a natural death or a life cut short. Specifically, broken columns or gravestones indicate the untimely death of someone who died either at a young age or in the prime of life before reaching old age.
Among animal symbols and signs, the dove is one of the most popular markers corresponding to the traditional Christian symbol of love and peace. It also represents divine spirit and purity. Generally, birds represent peace. Butterfly symbolizes the soul, a short life and can be seen often on the headstones of children’s graves.
One of the unique signs we found in the first gravesite is the anchor that symbolizes hope and steadfastness. It can also express the life of a sailor and corresponds to the Christian symbol of hope.
Among plant symbols, weeping plants and the drooping branch of a tree is the visual representation of sorrow and morning. Rose symbolizes love and beauty. A rose bud that has not opened could be often found on children’s graves.
Another category among major grave markers represented in the cemetery relates to the ethnic and religious background of residents. The contemporary part of the gravesite layout seems to be arranged according to a faith-based principle.
The second graveyard, the Southwestern Cemetery, is located relatively far from the city and occupies much more territory than the previous one. The entire setting of the graveyard reminds of a silent city built at the hills of Bishkek’s for ‘ordinary people’. One can note that the contemporary gravestones have the simplest form produced in a considerably less aesthetic and more standardized way that often lacks uniqueness and creativeness. Design, incorporated in decorating and beautifying current gravestones, reflects the demands and values of current society and provides crucial insight into the commodification of death, its loss of symbolic meaning and, maybe, also aesthetic quality as well. A range of small businesses for various cemeteries and funeral services are placed along the road to the gravesite and materially embody this trend. Commonly, a contemporary design set consists of a portrait photography, grey and black colors and extremely brief inscriptions reduced to the name and dates of the deceased’s life. Colorful plastic flowerpots and funeral wreaths have become extremely popular. They not only beautify gravestones, especially children’ graves, but also visually express love and mourning. Furthermore, toys and personal belongings often decorate the graves of children.
Contemporary gravestones, rather than professional affiliation or career achievements, more strongly resemble family identity. Surrounding graves marked with fences could be also be found and were usually accompanied with a tiny place reserved for praying and mourning. The size and form of gravestones and fences might be linked to economic ability of family members, rather than to the social status and profession of the deceased. In addition to this, the design of contemporary tombstones more often exhibits the frequent usage of religious symbols, such as the Muslim Crescent, the Christian Cross or the Star of David.
That might testify to an increasing public demand for religious and also ethnic self-identification of the city’s residents. However, there is no clear ethno-religious distinctions and hierarchy between the cemetery sections (Muslim, Christian and Jewish). Instead, the spatial arrangement of cemetery and gravestones design offers a more inclusive, still socially and culturally diverse picture of a contemporary Kyrgyz society.
Whether a site for sleeping, laying down or digging, the cities of the dead are usually understood as a specific urban sites located within the city of the living. Yet, can cemeteries not be understood in a different manner? Visits to both cemeteries provoked us to think of a fundamentally different conceptualization: cemetery and city as parallel universes? For cemetery and city are bound together in a spatio-temporal relationship which is both reciprocal and asymmetrical. The cemetery is indeed a peculiar urban space: it simultaneously lags behind, keeps pace and may also overhaul the city of the living. Being a distorted mirror image of the city of the living, all three temporal modes reveal different dimensions of the city.
Since most people first live and then die, the cemetery depicts the city and its population somewhat delayed. Both cemeteries are densely populated by many colorful personalities, who are rarely seen in the city of the living: Ashkenazi Jews and Ukrainians, war heroes decorated with medals, Soviet party officials, but also an Azerbaijani doctor with a Georgian surname, a native of Kharkiv with a Yiddish epitaph or a native Pole cavort in the crowd of Stars of David, socialist stars, crosses and crescents. In particular the Ala Archa Cemetery located between Jibek Jolu Avenue and Jash Gvardiya Boulevard harbours within its spatial confines the memory of a particular history forgotten by many who are dwelling today within the city of the living.
While the center of the city cemetery, already renowned in Soviet times, is well maintained and accessible through a network of concrete paths, the northeast of the cemetery reveals a completely different picture: trails overgrown with shrubs, collapsed graves, rusty grave fences and surnames that may sound strange to Russian and Kyrgyz ears: Weisleib, Shvartzman, Shekhtman, Goldblatt or Bernshtein. Between Soviet prefabricated housing in the east and graves of the Soviet-Kyrgyz elite in the west there is a large area of Jewish graves. Visitors who stumble over the graves might first think of the Bukharin Jews of Uzbekistan. Yet the Yiddish origin of their names belies this hypothesis.
Instead, these are the graves of Askhenazi Jews, of whom approximately 20,000 have escaped to Kyrgyzstan when Nazi Germany occupied their home towns in the Western parts of the Soviet Union. Not only individuals but whole institutions were evacuated to Kyrgyzstan: for instance, the whole Jewish Theater Company of Warsaw alongside with the actress Ida Kaminska (1899−1980) was relocated, performing theatre plays in Yiddish and Russian in Soviet Bishkek until the end of WWII. By the 1970s many Jews started to immigrate to Israel and most of those who remained left the country after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In this section, a number of chapel-shaped tombstones can be found. Some of them are topped with the little six-pointed star of David as a symbol of Jewish faith or a Christian cross, while others - with the red-colored, five-pointed star refer to the secular sign of the Soviet Union. Usually, religious affiliation symbols on tombstones are more typical for Jewish gravestones. What is also interesting, language and script seem to play the role of identity marker particularly for the gravestones of this part. Most of the graves are accompanied with lower fences and an open door that is still open for us to interpretations. Generally speaking, the section appears neglected and is both geographically and symbolically excluded from the glorified central part of the cemetery. The dire physical conditions of graves provoke us here to think about the marginalization of socio-historical memory.
But the cemetery is not only a reflection of the past. At the same time, it reveals a lot about the inhabitants of the present, their understanding of social status, worldview and family relationships. In fact, the world of cemeteries resembles a parallel world, which depicts different aspects of the city of the living in a strikingly similar way. The pomp of Stalinist architecture finds its counterpart in the monumental funerary sculptures of Soviet war heroes, party officials and intellectuals, such as those found in the Ala-Archa cemetery. Similar to the Zolotoy Kvadrat of downtown Bishkek, symmetry is preserved here, paths (mostly) well paved and architectural structures (whether Stalinka or grave of the Soviet intellectual) well maintained.
But just as the second wave of architectural modernism swept over Bishkek (and the rest of the Soviet Union) after Stalin's death, this style of architecture also left its mark on the building forms in the cemetery. The grave of Sooronkul Eresheev (1908-1976) it takes up the clear and dynamic formal language of modernism seems to transform the final resting place into a launching pad from which the human soul embarks on a journey towards the expanses of the cosmos.
Yet similarities are not confined to the realm of architectural forms. Do not Soviet era murals that celebrate the achievements of the working-class find their equivalent in countless graves that cherish the professional careers of their (Soviet-era) inhabitants – from newspaper journalists, architects and generals to radio moderators, bus drivers and doctors?
Whether cemetery or city – the transition from the Soviet era to the post-Soviet present is fluid. Just as the neon signs and street names of the City of the Living slowly change from Russian to Kyrgyz, so too, with the end of the Soviet era, increased inscriptions in Kyrgyz, often decorated with Arabic suras. But Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions on graves from the 1940s and 1950s, on the one hand, and contemporary graves void of religious symbolism, on the other hand, complicate the picture.
Just as today's Bishkek knows the Uyghur quarter and the street of the Koreans, the inhabitants of the Southwestern Cemetery east of the village Verkhniy Orok have their own corners. But much like in the city of the living, the boundaries are blurred and often only a few meters separate the graves of Koreans, Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Jews.
In the realm of the living, the post-socialist city is characterized by two new phenomena: elite housing and informal housing. Elite housing with its overloaded facades, bursting with rich ornamentation and luxury glamour, finds its counterpart in the increased proliferation of magnificent tombs, which impressively reflect the status-consciousness of its residents (or its surviving relatives). Instead of the asceticism of the pious ıymanduu, these luxury graves rather reflect the very material ambitions of the worldly bon vivant. But also the informal housing, that lets the city grow organically on its fringes finds its equivalent in the cemetery. At the southern fringes of the Southwestern cemetery, a complex network of simply-built Muslim and Orthodox graves winds its way along the panoramic mountainside. The city of the dead reaches its own limits.
On December 9, 2020, the mayor of Bishkek announced that no new graves would be allowed to be built in the Southwest Cemetery from 2021. Lack of space. At the same time, a thick cloud of smog hangs over Bishkek. A toxic cocktail of rapid urban growth, poor home insulation, cheap fuel (coal), and air circulation obstructed by high-rise buildings have already transformed Bishkek into one of the world's most air-polluted cities in winter for years - and will continue to fuel migration from the city of the living to the city of the afterlife. Here, too, voices are growing louder for an immediate halt to the construction of high-rise buildings. Both the city of the living and the city of the dead (the Southwestern Cemetery) have exhausted their capacity. Yet they do grow further. But where to grow?
In the epilogue of their work Architecture of the City of Frunze” (Arkhitektura Goroda Frunze Valentin Kurbatov and Yevgeniy Pisarskoy embark in 1978 on an audacious thought experiment, imaging how the city of the future – that is the city of our present – would look like. Based on their observation that the city has almost by the “now” of the late 1970s exhausted all capacities for further grow they propose urban growth would unfold in two directions. First, they envisage an increased densification through the construction of high-rise buildings. Second, seeing the city virtually caught in between high mountain ranges they imagine how the city would expand deep into the foothills of the Ala-Too Mountain Range. To the south of the city the authors envision the "terraced construction on complex terrain" of low-storey houses.
If one takes a look at the new graves which are being built on the slope of the mountain on the south side of the Southwestern Cemetery one might feel inevitably reminded of this scientific-revolutionary prophesy. But unlike expected, it is not us, the (still) living who dare the first step up into the mountains. No, in our “biocentric” way of looking at things we have completely overlooked the fact that this time the dead are one step ahead of us. Is it possible that this time the city of the dead outpaces the city of the living, prefiguring utopian visions of a future city?