Ak Orda Presidential Palace
Ak Orda Presidential Palace

Astana (Kazakh: Астана, آستانه), formerly known as Akmola (Kazakh: Ақмола until 1998), Tselinograd (Russian: Целиноград, until 1992) and Akmolinsk (Russian: Акмолинск, until 1961), is the capital and second largest city of Kazakhstan, with an officially estimated population of 708,794 as of 1 August 2010. It is located in the north-central portion of Kazakhstan, within Akmola Province, though administrated separately from the province as a federal city area.

From the ancient history of Astana: Bozok Town

The central part of Kazakhstan has always been a territory of inter-ethnic communication. In the middle of the first millennium BC it is through here that the Great Steppe ran, the very one mentioned by Herodotus. Subsequently the route turned into the Silk Road. Numerous caravan routes gave birth to cities with prosperous trade and handicrafts while the population – apart from traditional cattle breeding – was engaged in farming.

Bozok is a predecessor to Astana. It is an ancient settlement discovered in 1999 by an archaeological expedition headed by Kemal Akishev and now considered to be the precursor of the modern capital of Kazakhstan. As the scientists ascertained, Bozok realized its peak of prosperity in the 10-13th centuries AD.

Bozok, which is believed to have been almost completely constructed of baked brick, was a permanent headquarters of the Kypchak khans. Nowadays it is known that the ancient settlement consisted of three parts, the central one containing cult Muslim constructions (mosques and mausoleums), and two side parts (dwellings houses, buildings of craftsmen, etc.).

Each part of the ancient city was surrounded by ditches and earthen walls. In the city’s environs, archaeologists found remains of ancient reclamation dams. The city’s existence refutes common opinion that the Kypchaks were exclusively nomads and occupied themselves only with cattle-breeding.

Akmola City

On July 16, 1863 Akmola was officially announced as a district city. On October 21, 1868 in keeping with the “Provisional Regulation on Administration in Steppe Regions of Orenburg and in the West-Siberian General-Governorship” they set up an Akmolinsk region with its centre in the city of Omsk. In those days Omsk was the centre of the West-Siberian General Governorship. It may be conjectured that the name of the Akmola region owes its name to the fact that they might have entertained the idea of transferring its centre to Akmola. This assumption can be substantiated by the circumstance that in 1879 Major General Dubelt submitted to the Russian Ministry of Communications of Russia a project of constructing a railway to connect Tyumen with Akmolinsk. In the course of the first 30 years of its existence the population of Akmola numbered a little more than 2,000 people.

However, over the next 30 years (from the 1860s to the 1890s) the city’s population became then as large (as detailed in the collection Volosts and settlements of the Akmolinsk region issued in 1893 in St. Petersburg). Akmolinsk was an uyezd (“district”) city with a 6,428-strong population which could boast of 3 churches, 5 schools and colleges and 3 factories. Such was the first stage in the brightest days of the development of the city. The second stage whose impact was paramount for the destiny of the city was the development of Virgin Lands.

In December 1960 the city numbering a mere 100,000 people turned into the centre of the Tselinny territory which embraced all northern regions of Kazakhstan. Shortly after, in 1961, Akmolinsk changed its name for Tselinograd. With time, in 1971, the Tselinny territory was abolished with the city of Tselinograd turning into the centre of the region. In 1992 the city was returned its former name – Akmola. There exist several versions of the origin of the city’s name – Akmola. As the first one has it, the area of Akmola was given its name after that of a white-coloured lime-stone hill.

As Prokopius, a Byzantine writer maintains Huns called mola a high barrow, a fortress. According to another version, the locality of Akmola turned into a centre of trade fairs that would bring cattle which was the source of variety of milk products (koumyss, shubat, etc.). Hence the name of the locality (literally ak mol – white abundance). Akmola as a “white sacred place”: this is actually the translation version which has become the ultimate choice of the members of the Republican Onomastic Committee upon meticulous study of all available historical sources.

Akmola region is by right one of the Republic’s granaries, a big centre of agricultural machine-building. In fact it produces one fifth of all the grain, one tenth of cattle-breeding products with one fourth of grain being sold to the state. Just as well-developed is meat-and-milk cattle-breeding, pig-breeding, sheep-breeding, horse-breeding and poultry farming. The region boasts deposits of gold, uranium, bauxites, antimony, copper, lignites, caoline ores, quartz sands and other commercial minerals. Traditionally, development of industries in the region was associated with agriculture, with processing of agricultural raws. The region is fairly active in conducting foreign economic activities, it maintains mutually-advantageous relations with the states of both the near and the far abroad. Grain, meat, flour and milk products are primarily exported to CIS countries.

From Almaty to Astana 

Astana (former Akmola) was announced as the capital of the Republic of Kazakhstan on December 10, 1997 by the Decree of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan of October 20, 1997 on approval by the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

The transfer was prompted by economic, ecological and geographic expediency. First, Almaty is too far from the actual geographic centre of the Republic. In addition the population of the city is nearing the 1,500,000 mark with no further prospects of spatial accommodation. In fact, the city is fairly overbuilt, densely populated and has no spare areas for development. No less acute are transport problems, year in year out ecological conditions of the “southern capital” deteriorates dramatically: virtually, in terms of aggravated environmental pollution it may well be rated as one of the topmost among Kazakhstani cities. Upon a thorough study of the entire territory of Kazakhstan subject to 32 parameters including social-and-economic indices, climate, landscape, seismic condition, natural environment, engineering and transport infrastructure, construction facilities, labour resources and others the city of Akmola was chosen as the most optimum alternative of all.

Overall condition of the city, its territory, its being virtually the geographic centre of Kazakhstan, its proximity to major economic regions on the crossroads of important arterial lines, an opportunity of bringing the number of the population up to 700,000 people, pretty stable heat-, water- and power supplies, well-developed transport infrastructure, balanced natural environment - all these factors came to be decisive in making the choice.

Within the context of contemplated realization of plans and development of the economic potential of the region, starting early 1997 there functions in Akmola a mechanism and a legal regime of the Akmola special economic zone, established by virtue of Decree of the President (October 9,1996). Three basic factors determine its existence:

  1. It establishes a free customs zone which enables all natural and legal entities engaged in business activities within the confines of the city’s territory enjoy the right to duty-free and non-taxable import of goods.
  2. Goods manufactured in the territory of the Special Economic Zone, are subject to exemption from customs duties when exported.
  3. There has been a concessional taxation regime introduced which, first and foremost, applies to enterprises involved in construction and maintenance of real estates. These moves are aimed at enhancing Kazakhstani foreign investors, their participation in the economic development of the capital.

City for the new millennium

Astana celebrated its 10th Anniversary as a capital in 2008. Today’s population of the city is almost 700,000 people.

Building work in Astana is on an unprecedented scale; to date, investment totals an incredible KZT 1 trillion 500 billion – dwarfing current projects in Dubai, and the construction of Brasilia and Canberra.

In 1994, the president decided the capital of Kazakhstan would be moved here from Almaty. In 1997, the city’s name – briefly Akmola and before that Tselinograd – was changed to Astana, literally “capital”. Moving the capital to Astana allowed Kazakhstan to build and – with the extraordinary level of foreign investment that the country has attracted since the discovery of its untapped oil reserves – to build on an epic scale…

On the right bank of the city is the building site of Khan Shatyr – a spectacular and unique, fully-functioning indoor city for 10,000 inhabitants designed by Norman Foster. This immense structure – an area larger than ten football stadiums – will regulate temperature and accommodate schools, hospitals, shops, sports and concert halls. Cars will be prohibited from entering, but canals and water transport will be used. The upper floor of Khan Shatyry will have a jungle, beach and a “sea”.

Foremost among the completed large-scale buildings is the “Tree of Life”. It stands midway down the length of a 1.5km-long boulevard lined with flowerbeds, sculptures and fountains. Huge offices line either side of this thoroughfare: a national archive resembling a giant egg, a pair of 30-storey cones in gold mirror glass and a trio of towers… The Baiterek Tower was completed in 2002. It is 97m high (a figure that reflects the year in which Astana became the capital) and comprises an “egg” of gold mirror glass held aloft on a “tree” of white steel. The Kazakhs have dubbed it “The Big Chupa Chups” for its resemblance to the lollipop. A lift ascends into the egg to an observation deck with a platform that supports a triangular gold ingot in which President Nazarbayev’s handprint has been cast. The tower has come to symbolise the ambitions of the country much like the Eiffel Tower in France.

In 1998, President Nazarbayev envisaged a permanent structure to house the Congress of World Religions (which takes place triennially in Astana). There was a site: directly opposite the presidential palace. There was a time frame: it had to be ready by 2006. The President had been thinking about the form that this ‘Palace of Peace & Accord’ should take. He decided a pyramid would be suitable and contacted Norman Foster to design it. The pyramid, 62m wide and long, incorporates an underground 1,500-seat auditorium which today functions as an all-purpose performing arts venue. Blue and yellow light permeates the cathedral-like interior of the pyramid itself. On exiting a lift at level six, ramps ascend through a hanging garden and wind towards a circular platform with a wide oculus at its centre. Here, Brian Clarke’s stained glass windows can be admired (a flock of doves are pictured ascending towards the sun that is the central emblem of Kazakhstan’s flag). The building required a workforce of nearly 2,000 - supplemented by the Kazakh army in the final stretch.

This year alone, a new bridge across the Ishim River; an outpatient medical facility, four monuments, a residential home for veterans and senior citizens were unveiled in Astana. A number of overpasses have also been completed and exit roads running towards the cities of Kokshetau, Kostanai and Pavlodar have been overhauled. 24 parking lots are being constructed to house 7,500 cars each (55 underground garages and multi-level parking lots accommodating up to 20,000 cars each will be operational by 2009).

An additional two bridges are under construction, as well as 22 schools, a medical cluster, a 3,500-seat concert hall by the Italian architect Manfredi Nicoletti and a 3km-long Green Water Boulevard… Groundbreaking ceremonies have been held to celebrate the start of construction of the Nokian tyres plant, Nissan and General Electric assembly facilities. New 5-star hotels, mosques and synagogue all function well - and a light rail metro line will open in 2010 (with a link to the airport). Landscaping work is also underway to make Astana greener. 400 hectares will be transformed into parks and squares and 40 thousand hectares of forest have already been planted around the city’s outskierts.

In cooperation with entrepreneurs’ public associations a fair of social projects has been organised in the capital for the presentation of programmes in the fields of healthcare, ecology, sports and culture, as well as the medical and social rehabilitation of disabled persons. This concept has resulted in 45 projects for a cost of more than one billion tenge, including the establishment of a baby food plant, the opening of a kidney dialysis centre and the improvement of the material base of rehabilitation centres.

The mayor of Astana has offered a grant for the most innovative projects. The winners will not only be awarded money for initial project development, but will also receive support in the form of further financing and execution at the Astana industrial park. The industrial park is planned to contain approximately 200 construction and processing projects. These are plans for the future, but currently, the construction of a Nissan car factory with an annual capacity of 30,000 cars, and a Nokian tyre plant are planned for development in Astana as part of the “30 Corporate Leaders” Programme.

Astana is developing rapidly and improving its image, not only due to the country’s high performance economy and its banking and energy sectors. The human factor is also of great importance. The personal involvement of the President of Kazakhstan, his responsibility and political will are making a great contribution to the outstanding development of

Astana. President Nursultan Nazarbayev holds annual meetings on the development of the capital at the Astana Master Plan Science and the Research Institution.

“The construction of our capital is making powerful and promising progress, which is inspiring the admiration offoreign visitors and the people of Kazakhstan. A metropolitan spirit is being formed, and the mentality of the Astana residents is changing. Our goal is not only to build a beautiful city, but also to form a unique spirit for the capital. We have already done a great portion of this work, but we have to do more,” the President has said.

Nursultan Nazarbayev identified the requirements for the construction of Astana, including the ban on singular construction projects and the requirement for these to be replaced by a transition to complex construction, attracting investors for the construction of utilities infrastructure and social projects, compliance with all town planning standards and the preservation of the capital’s general architectural concept:

“The general city planning scheme is a structure for the city. It should be amended only with care. It is unacceptable for every person involved to make their own changes. The only criteria for making decisions should be conclusions made by skilled specialists and experts,” said Mr.  Nazarbayev.

Astana is to become one of the top 30 cities in the world. To achieve this, not only the highest architectural design standards are necessary, but also infrastructure and high-level living standards should be met. The population of Astana has increased 3-fold since the capital moved there, and amounts to approximately 700,000 people today. The population will increase to one million people by 2011.

Now Astana is experiencing a building boom, with approximately 15,000,000 m² to be constructed in the next few years. Unique buildings are planned, such as the magnificent Khan Shatyr (Royal Marquee) designed by Norman Foster, or the unique Batygai covered city, where 10,000 people will live and work. As part of the constitutional reforms to be implemented in Kazakhstan, the law ‘On the Status of the Capital of the Republic of Kazakhstan’ gave Astana special status and importance as the administrative centre of Kazakhstan.

Turkish, Italian, French, Swiss and other experts are taking part in the construction of the new capital. The possibility for constructing in Astana a national cultural or trade zone by the construction companies of one or another country is now discussed during the official visits of foreign delegations. The municipal administration is allocating land and guaranteeing preferential status for such projects. This proves that Astana is open for architecture, culture, traditions and new trends.

The central section of the old town has been paved with new stone blocks. A great amount of urban landscaping work is being carried out to create a green belt surrounding the city to protect people from strong winds.

The city administration has paid special attention to creating up-to-date infrastructure. The basements and ground floors of houses have shops, cafes and service departments.

Astana is located at a road and railway junction. The international airport makes it possible to link Astana with major cities around the world. The administrative buildings on the left bank of the Yesil River are remarkable in terms of their comfort, architectural simplicity and harmony. Priorities for the city are the development of infrastructure, the construction of international hotels and trade centres, and the development of the existing construction base.