I was once in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan in the Russian Federation. As I looked out from the top floor of a modern hotel, the great Volga, shining silver in the golden sunset, was an ancient recurved bow laid on the ancient steppe. The weight of history in that place was tangible; you could hear the sound of horses’ hooves on the ground, the rush of wind and the rattle of arrows in a leather quiver. Tea is poured. The riders draw their cloaks around them as they settle for sleep, cold under the stars. These are the Tatars, members of the Golden Horde, absorbed by the Mongols in their great sweep across the Asian plains towards the West.
Their language is Tatar. It’s a Turkic language with around 5 million speakers, mostly in the homeland but also in Turkey, Kazakhstan. With such a large number of speakers it’s hardly endangered, but inevitably in the areas where it’s a minority language such as Turkey, it struggles to maintain its vitality. Don’t confuse it with Crimean Tatar, a related language but with only limited mutual intelligibility.
Tatar doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. It’s an agglutinative language, like, say, Turkish or Finnish, so words can be quite long encapsulating complex verb nuances like “I wish I had suggested to you to start making dinner”. Here’s how to say ‘hello’ though, which is simpler.
исәнме(сез)/саумы(сыз) – isänme(sez)/sawmı(sız)
and here’s ‘good bye’.
сау бул(ыгыз)/хуш(ыгыз) – saw bul(ığız)/xuş(ığız) – bye bye
It’s written in Arabic script in China. Oddly, in USSR times, it was written in Latin script, but now in Cyrillic.
Tatar cultural artefacts are very striking with beautiful decoration and workmanship. Take footwear, for example. Just look at these boots! They are made using a special technique called ‘Tatar stitch’ which provides strength and flexibility. No machine can reproduce it.
If you’re looking for something a bit more special, try this…
It’s a Kazan cap, essentially a few hundreds of thousands of dollars of precious stones thrown together using centuries old construction techniques for you to make an entrance at the local nightclub. Go on…you know you want one. Amazon is calling you…
Tatar culture doesn’t stop at superb craftsmanship, though. They have dance and music and great stores. But they also have … belish.
Belish is, in my humble opinion, the best meat pie in the whole world. It’s a huge great Cornish pasty of a thing, made from yeast dough covering a huge dish of meaty yumminess that’s brought to the table with great ceremony. The host cuts into it and the wonderful aroma of Kazan fills the room. Try not to fight over it. Sharing is good. Trust me; there’s more than enough to go round.