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Cumani – The nomad people that left their traces from China to the Balkans

The brave and fierce Cumani from ancient China to present day Macedonia

The field of Igor Svyatoslavich's battle with the Cuman–Kipchaks, by Viktor Vasnetsov

I live in Kumanovo, a city in the northeastern part of Republic of Macedonia. It is known by many of its characteristics and events, including the Kokino megalithic observatory, the old buildings, crafts, factories, the importance of the nightlife, rock, metal and jazz concerts and festivals and cultural events in general (sincerely, we need more of these, but we cannot underestimate the earlier presence of these events).

However, Kumanovo is mostly known for its citizens; extroverted, noisy, they like to have fun, they have a special place in their minds for gossip 🙂 , they have specific and unique humor (everyone agrees with that!) and, above all, they are known for their different character – in their way – aggressive, wild and pugnacious. Where does this come from? The answer lies far, far away in the history.

The City Square of Kumanovo, known as Плоштад „Нова Југославија“ (Square New Yugoslavia)

The Cumans (Macedonian: Кумани) were a Turkic nomadic people, who were living on the area north of the Black Sea and along the river Volga, which was known as Cumania. Since then, the Cumans were known as strong, combative and redoubtable warriors. They were also known for interfering into and influencing the politics of other areas and empires, including those of Kievan Rus’, the Byzantine Empire, the Kingdoms of Serbia, Moldavia, Georgia and Hungary and is also known that they had an important role in the creation of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

Not just warriors, but also literate and with their own language, the Cumans indirectly forced the making of the Codex Cumanicus – a linguistic manual used by the Catholic missionaries as a way of understanding these nomad people.

In the other Slavic countries, they are also known as Polavtsi (with variations of the name due to the differences in the languages). The primary meaning of “Cuman” is still unknown, but with a general acception of the Turkish meaning of the word “qun” or “quman”, it means “pale” or “cream colored”. This meaning goes next to the Old East Slavic word “polovŭ“ which means “yellow” or “pale”. Some say that this name was used because of their pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, other meanings point to the Serbian and Croatian word “polje” (eng: field) which alludes to “men of the field”.

Cuman Cavalry

There are many doubts regarding their origin; according to their anthropological features, they might have their foundation in inner Asia or east of the bend of the Yellow River in China. Other philosophers say that they come from northern China, or, according to the natural philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus, their origin lies within the area of Derbent (Dagestan, Russia).

One thing is certain; the Cumans were fierce, they had large armies, they were always mingling in politics and war strategies and they knew how to leave their traces wherever they go.

State of Cuman-Kipchaks in the 13th Century (1200-1241)

One of their greatest success was the invasion and the attack on Pereyaslavl principality, which led to a 175 years of war. They had defeated the armies of the great princes of Kiev. The Cumans went on and attacked the Byzantine Empire and then continued “visiting” and influencing the politics of all of the above-mentioned Kingdoms.

Eventually, this led them to becoming part of the Eurasian populations, since they never formed a country of their own. However, after all those years and wars, the Cumans left their traces and characteristics from China to the Balkans; from the largest to the smallest cities.

Polovtsian warrior

Let’s start with the very fact of placenames which can be still found stretching from China to Macedonia, such as my hometown (not only that the people of Kumanovo are similar with the Cumans regarding the “wild spirit”, the aggressiveness and the combative features, but also with the shoe and clothes making, which was one of Cumans’ primary occupation and Kumanovo is known as the leading town in Macedonia for textile and shoe-making factories); then, the Slavic village named Kumanichevo in the Kostur district of Greece, Kuman – a city in Xinjiang, China; Kuh-e Kumana, a mountain in Lorestān, Iran; Polovtsy, a town in Smolenskaya Oblast’, Russia; Polovtsy in Belarus; the village of Kumane in Serbia; the municipality of Kuman in southwestern Albania; Küman, a village and municipality in the Lerik Rayon of Azerbaijan, the  village of Kumanite in Bulgaria etc.

Interesting fact: Kumanovo is also known by the fan group “Kumani”, fierce supporters of the basketball team “Kumanovo”.

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