Its history began as a small steppe village. Caravans from Central Asia would travel through Karkaraly on their way to Siberia. The name Karkaraly is derived from the word "qarqara"- a precious decorative Kazakh headpiece. According to a legend, long ago a beautiful girl dropped her Karkara in the area that is now Karkaraly. Her search was in vain and the qarqara remained on the steppe. The legend states that though the beautiful karkara was lost, the beauty of the land will remain forever. According to another legend, this is the site where the great Ablai Khan was proclaimed khan.
Karkaraly is the administrative center for Karkaraly District. By demography and economy, Karkaraly district is one of the largest in Karaganda Region. The district has an area of 35 million hectares and a population of 42,500 people. 75% of that population live outside the city limits of Karkaraly. 16 ethnic groups are represented within the Karkaraly district. Of these, the largest ethnic group is Kazakh (96.2%), followed by Russian (2.23%), and Ukrainian (0.49%).
A fortress was built here in 1824. Three years later the Cossacks took it over. In 1869 Karkaraly was given the status of a city. In the 19th century, the city was an important trade center. The famous Koyandy fair helped in the development of trade, economic relationships, and culture. During this time, Karkaraly was the regional capital of Semipalatinsk Region. Gradually, Karkaraly became a large public and political center where politicians, people in literature and art, educators, scientists and travelers came.
Among those that visited were:
The history of Karkaraly is connected with the great Kazakh educator, poet, and composer Abai Kunanbaev. His father was the senior sultan of the Karkaraly region and created a name for himself by erecting the town’s mosque (known as Kunanbaev Mosque) and from his other acts of charity. In his historical novel-epic, author Muhtar Auezov wrote that by virtue of “building the mosque, Kunanbai has gained respect and glory.” The house in which Abai used to live in has been preserved and is now the city's music school.