Masterpieces of Primeval Art

January 26th, 2015 Sections: Bishkek, Book review, History, Issyk Kul, Museums
Entrance to the Raritet Shop

Entrance to the Raritet Shop

About a year ago I was invited by Victor Kadyrov, the General Director of the Rarity Book Shop in Dom Druzhba – Friendship House – at the side of the main Ala Too Square to visit the shop.

I think it’s the largest bookshop on Bishkek, (I don’t know the actual figures), but it could also be one of the hardest to find … even if is just off the city’s main square.

It’s in the basement of the building – there are no large shop displays visible through picture windows, but a small sign just outside the steps that lead down to the main entrance under an awning in a recess at the side of the building.  

If you didn’t know it was there, it would be easy to miss it and pass on by. 

The building has a fascinating history.  Built by the Interhelper Group of Czech socialists that came to help Lenin’s Bolsheviks build a Socialist Paradise here on earth in the 1920’s … including the family of the future General Secretary of the Czech Communist Party and the architect of the Prague Spring, (Alexander Dubcek), who after years in the wilderness following that “experiment” in liberalization, returned to be the country’s President.

It was designed to be the Government House of the day … and in the 1930’s victims of the Great Purge were apparently held for a time in cells in the cellars before being shipped off to their executions in Chong Tash, to the South of the City … now the site of the Ata Beyit National Memorial.  (I was tempted to ask my host

When the new New Government House was built, just meters away on the Northern side of the Central Square, it became home to the State Historical Museum.

With the construction of the new building to house the Museum, the marble clad cube in the Center of the Square, Dom Druzhba becane government offices … housing the offices of the Ministry of Culture, a small zoo, an art gallery and … the Raritet book shop.

The inside of the shop

The inside of the shop

At first, the main shop was on the first floor, but a few years ago it moved to it’s present location.

Inside, it resembles a rabbit warren – lots of small rooms running under the length of one of the wings of the building.

To be honest, it’s a bit tight; cramped … but then that seems to be a feature of many bookshops around the world.  Not all of them are spacious and airy.  It adds to the atmosphere … like a bouquinistes – although the books on offer here tend to be new, in pristine condition with glossy covers, rather than well thumbed second hand tomes.

There was a reason I had been invited … although I knew the bookshop well, having bought many a volume there in the past … but they were starting a new project and thought I would be interested … and maybe some of our clients would be as well.

They had set aside three of their rooms to serve as a Museum – a small, private museum.

I was a bit surprised by the move … the space must be at a premium, and the rooms could probably be used profitably to display more books and extend the range on offer … for example, they have some foreign language books, but not that many.

I know that in the West many bookshops also operate as tea rooms, a sort of cafe serving tea, coffee, sandwiches and cakes … giving people two reasons to enter the premises, and while people buying books may settle down and order a cup of tea or coffee while they make a start on their new purchases, people popping in for a cup of tea might well have a browse if they some time to spare.  As it happens, they have already set aside a small area where it is possible to order tea or coffee and cake … sit and pass the time of day or peruse your latest purchase.

A Museum, however, struck me as something new … and as entrance was free of charge. it might act as a attraction, but wouldn’t bring an additional source of income.

On the other hand, it struck me as typical for Victor – a real “renaissance man”.  He’s not just a business man but has a wide range of interests, including history, art and philosophy … and he is also a collector … and seems to have amassed a considerable collection … and many of the exhibits are from his own personal collection …

They also provide evidence of the range of his interests – bowls and tools recovered during archaeological excavations, paintings, furniture, craftwork, clothes, jewelry and more … much more.

The Museum is small, occupying only a few rooms – but they are crammed full of exhibits and I found that although it was possible to zoom through the rooms getting a general overall impression, there was much that would repay a second and longer visit.

In a way the shop is a bit like Kyrgyzstan itself – small, hidden away and difficult to find, hard to access unless you know it’s there … and yet that’s deceptive as it’s big enough to be crammed full of interesting corners … and is well worth a visit.


During my visit we discussed a number of the exhibits and I was told about a recent discovery.  We were talking at that point about Petroglyphs and, in particular, the spectacular Stone Garden at Saimaluu Tash in Southern Kyrgyzstan.

The Saimaluu Tash field of “embroidered stones”, (which is what the name means), has thousands upon thousands of specimens, simply littered around the landscape. Some of the drawings date from about 2000 BC.  It is thought that they represent votive offerings brought by locals from the valleys to be nearer the heavens. There are images of animals, carts, agricultural activities such as ploughing, traditional ritual dances, all without any background.  The number of solar images suggest that sun-worship was the common religion in the region.   However, it’s relatively remote and receives only a few visitors each year.  Instead most people get to see petroglyphys at one of the many sites around the country where they are found.

Perhaps the most accessible site is the Stone Garden open air collection in Chalpon Ata on the Northern shore of Lake Issyk Kul.   The petroglyphs – many of them dating from about 500 BC –  are found in a field above the town.  They were probably made by the Saks and include drawings of animals (ibex, wolves and deer) and hunters … and some appear to have been arranged in patterns.

It was at this point that I was told about the new discovery … also in the Issyk Kul basin, a wide area with thousands of petroglyphs – large and small.  It could, I was told be as significant a discovery as those of Saimaluu Tash.

I was intrigued and asked how they had remained undiscovered for so long and was told that there were stories that Victor had heard of as a child, but that they were more spread out and had not really been investigated.  Over the years he made many attempts to find them based on what he heard long ago but only recently come across them … and now, he hoped to document them.

In a way this new discovery is a bit like Kyrgyzstan itself – small, hidden away and difficult to find, hard to access unless you know it’s there … and yet that’s deceptive as it’s big enough to be crammed full of interesting objects … and is well worth a visit.


The cover of Victor Kadyrov's new photo album - Masterpieces of Primeval Art

The cover of Victor Kadyrov’s new photo album – Masterpieces of Primeval Art

Well, Raritet is not only a bookshop … it also has a publishing arm which has published several books in Kyrgyz, Russian and English – including several by Victor himself, covering a wide variety of topics about Kyrgyzstan … about places around the country and the traditional culture of the nomadic Kyrgyz.

Victor’s enthusiasm and hard work has finally paid off … not only has he discovered the location of these petroglyphs, he has also photographed and documented them – eventually producing a book, a sort of photo album, illustrating them and providing background information about them and what they portray … trying to put them into a context and explain what can sometimes seem confusing.

To be honest, in a way, it’s an odd book … not exactly a scholarly treatise, but perhaps too much detail for a casual reader.  Having said that, it’s a well produced book with lots of lavish photographs … and it certainly taught me a thing or two.

To give just one example, perhaps the most startling: When I read through the text for the first time, I came across I came across references to hunting with cats and I smiled inwardly thinking of my cats being taken on a hunt … I know that they are hunters; I see them stalking the birds (and each other) in the yard, getting ready to pounce and eventually have to clean up their kills after them.

But then, I cam across the photographs showing men hunting … not with dogs, (which is perhaps more understandable), but with cats … big cats like the tigers that used to inhabit the Tien Shan as recently as the end of the Nineteenth Century.

When I saw the measurements of some of the petroglyphs, I thought to myself, “That has to be wrong”.  After all, most of the example, most of the ones I have seen are really quite small … but then there was a photograph with a man standing beside a boulder … and I had to do a double take and had to start rethinking all of my assumptions.

All in all … I decided … it’s a bit like Kyrgyzstan itself: small, not necessarily easy to fins … and yet big enough to be crammed full of interesting information … and well worth perusing.


Well Done Victor!  Keep up the good work and I look forward to your next project.



There is one comment. to “Masterpieces of Primeval Art”

  1. ian
    January 25th, 2015 at 20:32

    I ought to own up to a “vested interest” … I am listed in the credits as an Editor.

    Now, I am not a linguist, a translator, nor a professional editor … so, what that means is that I saw the drafts of the book, after the text had been translated from Russian into English … but before it was sent to the printers ready for publication.

    It wasn’t my job to translate – or even check the translation, but to read the text and make sure that the English didn’t contain any glaring errors.

    So, I read through it several times, each time finding and changing a few things which, it seemed to me, needed to be expressed differently for an English speaker.

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