Turkic Peoples’ History

It is generally agreed that the first Turkic people lived in a region extending from Central Asia to Siberia with the majority of them living in China historically. Historically they were established after the 6th century BCE. The earliest separate Turkic peoples appeared on the peripheries of the late Xiongnu confederation about 200 B.C  (contemporaneous with the Chinese Han Dynasty). Turkic people may be related to the Xiongnu, Dingling and Tiele people. According to the Book of Wei, the Tiele people were the remaining of the Chidi , the red Di people competing with the Jin in the Spring and Autumn Period. Turkic tribes, such as Khazars and Pechenegs, probably lived as nomads for many years before establishing the Göktürk Empire or Mongolia in the 6th century. These were herdsmen and nobles who were searching for new pastures and wealth. The first mention of Turks was in a Chinese text that mentioned trade of Turk tribes with the Sogdians along the Silk Road. The first recorded use of “Turk” as a political name is a 6th-century reference to the word pronounced in Modern Chinese as Tujue. The Ashina clan migrated from Li-jien (modern Zhelai Zhai) to the Juan Juan seeking inclusion in their confederacy and protection from the prevalent dynasty. The tribe were famed metal smiths and was granted land near a mountain quarry which looked like a helmet, from which they were said to have gotten their name  (tujué). A century later, their power had increased such that they conquered the Juan Juan and established the Gök Empire.

Turkic peoples originally used their own alphabets, like Orkhon and Yenisey runiform, and later the Uyghur alphabet. Traditional national and cultural symbols of the Turkic peoples include wolves in Turkic mythology and tradition; as well as the color blue, iron, and fire. Turquoise blue, from the French word meaning “Turkish”, is the color of the stone turquoise still used as jewelry and a protection against evil eye.

It has often been suggested that the Xiongnu, mentioned in Han Dynasty records, were Proto-Turkic speakers. Although little is known for certain about the Xiongnu language(s), it seems likely that at least considerable part of Xiongnu tribes spoke a Turkic language. However, some scholars see a possible connection with the Iranian-speaking Sakas. Some scholars believe they were probably a confederation of various ethnic and linguistic groups. Genetics research in 2003 on skeletons from a Xiongnu necropolis in Mongolia found some individuals with DNA sequences also present in some modern day’s Turks, suggesting that a Turkish component had emerged in the Xiongnu tribe at the end of the Xiongnu period.

Xiongnu writing, older than Turkic is agreed to have the earliest known Turkic alphabet, the Orkhon script. This has been argued recently using the only extant possibly Xiongu writings, the rock art of the Yinshan and Helanshan. It is dated from the 9th millennium BCE to the 19th century, and consists mainly of engraved signs (petroglyphs) and few painted images. Excavations done during 1924–1925, in Noin-Ula kurgans located in Selenga River in the northern Mongolian hills north of Ulan Bator, produced objects with over 20 carved characters, which were either identical or very similar to that of to the runic letters of the Turkic Orkhon script discovered in the Orkhon Valley.

The Hun hordes of Attila, who invaded and conquered much of Europe in the 5th century, might have been Turkic and descendants of the Xiongnu. Some scholars argue that the Huns were one of the earlier Turkic tribes, while others argue that they were of Mongolic origin. Linguistic studies by Otto Maenchen-Helfen suggest that while many Hun proper names may have been Turkic in origin, the language used by the Huns in Europe was too little documented to be classified, and was more likely an Indo-European language. In the first half of the first millennium, mass migrations to distant places were common, geographical borders were fluid and cultural identity was more likely to change dramatically in the lifetime of an individual, relative to the modern era. These factors also made it more likely that the Huns were, initially at least, closely related to the Turkic peoples.

In the 6th century, 400 years after the collapse of northern Xiongnu power in Inner Asia, leadership of the Turkic peoples was taken over by the Göktürks. Formerly in the Xiongnu nomadic confederation, the Göktürks inherited their traditions and administrative experience. From 552 to 745, Göktürk leadership united the nomadic Turkic tribes into the Göktürk Empire. The name derives from gok, “blue” or “celestial”. Unlike its Xiongnu predecessor, the Göktürk Khanate had its temporary khans from the Ashina clan that were subordinate to a sovereign authority controlled by a council of tribal chiefs. The Khanate retained elements of its original shamanistic religion, Tengriism, although it received missionaries of Buddhist monks and practiced a syncretic religion. The Göktürks were the first Turkic people to write Old Turkic in a runic script, the Orkhon script. The Khanate was also the first state known as “Turk”. It eventually collapsed due to a series of dynastic conflicts, but the name “Turk” was later taken by many states and peoples.

Turkic peoples and related groups migrated west from Turkestan and what is now Mongolia towards Eastern Europe, Iranian plateau and Anatolia and modern Turkey in many waves. The date of the initial expansion remains unknown. After many battles, they established their own state and later created the Ottoman Empire. The main migration occurred in medieval times, when they spread across most of Asia and into Europe and the Middle East. They also participated in the Crusades.

Later Turkic peoples include the Avars, Karluks (mainly 8th century), Uyghurs, Kyrgyz, Oghuz (or Guz) Turks, and Turkmens. As these peoples were founding states in the area between Mongolia and Transoxiana, they came into contact with Muslims, and most gradually adopted Islam. Small groups of Turkic people practice other religions, including Christians, Jews (Khazars), Buddhists, and Zoroastrians.

According to other records, Togarmah (grandson of Japheth) is regarded as the ancestor of the Turkic peoples. For example, The French Benedictine monk and scholar Calmet (1672–1757) places Togarmah in Scythia and Turcomania (in the Eurasian Steppes and Central Asia). Also in his letters, King Joseph ben Aaron, the ruler of the Khazars, writes:

“You ask us also in your epistle: “Of what people, of what family, and of what tribe are you?” Know that we are descended from Noach’s son Japhet, through his son Gomer through his son Togarmah. I have found in the genealogical books of my ancestors that Togarmah had ten sons. These are their names:
the eldest was Ujur (Agiôr – Uyghur),
the second Tauris (Tirôsz – Tauri),
the third Avar (Avôr – Avar),
the fourth Uauz (Ugin – Oghuz),
the fifth Bizal (Bizel – Pecheneg),
the sixth Tarna,
the seventh Khazar (Khazar),
the eighth Janur (Zagur),
the ninth Bulgar (Balgôr – Bulgar),
the tenth Sawir (Szavvir/Szabir – Sabir).”

In Jewish sources too Togarmah is listed as the father of the Turkic peoples: The medieval Jewish scholar: Joseph ben Gorion lists in his Josippon the ten sons of Togarma as follows:

Kozar (the Khazars)
Pacinak (the Pechenegs)
Aliqanosz (the Alans)
Bulgar (the Bulgars)
Ragbiga (Ragbina, Ranbona)
Turqi (possibly the Kökturks)
Buz (the Oghuz)
Ungari (either the Hungarians or the Oghurs/Onogurs)
Tilmac (Tilmic/Tirôsz – Tauri).”

In the Chronicles of Jerahmeel, they are listed as:

Cuzar (the Khazars)
Pasinaq (the Pechenegs)
Alan (the Alans)
Bulgar (the Bulgars)
Turq (possibly the Kökturks)
Buz (the Oghuz)
Ugar (either the Hungarians or the Oghurs/Onogurs)
Tulmes (Tirôsz – Tauri)

Another medieval rabbinic work, the Book of Jasher, further corrupts these same names into:

Buzar (the Khazars)
Parzunac (the Pechenegs)
Balgar (the Bulgars)
Elicanum (the Alans)
Tarki (possibly the Kökturks)
Bid (the Oghuz)
Ongal (Hungarians or Oghurs/Onogurs)
Tilmaz (Tirôsz – Tauri).

In Arabic records, Togorma’s tribes are these:

Khazar (the Khazars)
Badsanag (the Pechenegs)
Asz-alân (the Alans)
Bulghar (the Bulgars)
Fitrakh (Kotrakh?) (Ko-etrakh. Etrakh means turks [possibly Gokturks])
Andsar (Ajhar)
Talmisz (Tirôsz – Tauri)
Adzîgher (Adzhigardak?).

The Arabic account however, also adds an 11th clan: Anszuh.

Yet another tradition of the sons of Togarmah appears in Pseudo-Philo, where their names are said to be “Abiud, Saphath, Asapli, and Zepthir”. The Chronicles of Jerahmeel, in addition to giving the above names from Yosippon, elsewhere lists Togarmah’s sons similarly as “Abihud, Shafat, and Yaftir”.

Middle Ages

Turkic soldiers in the army of the Abbasid caliphs emerged as the de facto rulers of most of the Muslim Middle East (apart from Syria and Egypt), particularly after the 10th century. The Oghuz and other tribes captured and dominated various countries under the leadership of the Seljuk dynasty and eventually captured the territories of the Abbasid dynasty and the Byzantine Empire.

Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz and Uyghurs were struggling with one another and with the Chinese Empire. The Kyrgyz people ultimately settled in the region now referred to as Kyrgyzstan. The Bulgars established themselves in between the Caspian and Black Seas in the 5th and 6th centuries, followed by their conquerors, the Khazars who converted to Judaism in the 8th or 9th century. After them came the Pechenegs who created a large confederacy, which was subsequently taken over by the Cumans and the Kipchaks. One group of Bulgars settled in the Volga region and mixed with local Volga Finns to become the Volga Bulgars in what is today Tatarstan. These Bulgars were conquered by the Mongols following their westward sweep under Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Other Bulgars settled in Southeastern Europe in the 7th and 8th centuries, and mixed with the Slavic population, adopting what eventually became the Slavic Bulgarian language. Everywhere, Turkic groups mixed with the local populations to varying degrees. In 1090–91, the Turkic Pechenegs reached the walls of Constantinople, where Emperor Alexius I with the aid of the Kipchaks annihilated their army.

Islamic empires

Main articles: Ghaznavid Empire, Timurids, Delhi Sultanate, Bahri dynasty, Deccan sultanates, Safavid Empire, Ottoman Empire, Mughal Empire and Afsharid Empire
Suleiman I taking control of Moldova.
Crimean Khan, Mengli Giray at the court of the Bayezid II.
Tamerlane and his forces advance against the Golden Horde, Khan Tokhtamysh.
A Mamluk nobleman from Aleppo.

As the Seljuk Empire declined following the Mongol invasion, the Ottoman Empire emerged as the new important Turkic state, that came to dominate not only the Middle East, but even southeastern Europe, parts of southwestern Russia, and northern Africa.

The Delhi Sultanate is a term used to cover five short-lived, Delhi-based kingdoms three of which were of Turkic origin in medieval India. These Turkic dynasties were the Mamluk dynasty (1206–90); the Khilji dynasty (1290–1320); and the Tughlaq dynasty (1320–1414). Southern India, also saw many Turkic origin dynasties like Adil Shahi dynasty, Bidar Sultanate, Qutb Shahi dynasty, collectively known as Deccan sultanates.

In Eastern Europe, Volga Bulgaria became an Islamic state in 922 and influenced the region as it controlled many trade routes. In the 13th century, Mongols invaded Europe and established the Golden Horde in Eastern Europe, western & northern Central Asia, and even western Siberia. The Cuman-Kipchak Confederation and Islamic Volga Bulgaria were absorbed by the Golden Horde in the 13th century; in the 14th century, Islam became the official religion under Uzbeg Khan where the general population (Turks) as well as the aristocracy (Mongols) came to speak the Kipchak language and were collectively known as “Tatars” by Russians and Westerners. This country was also known as the Kipchak Khanate and covered most of what is today Ukraine, as well as the entirety of modern-day southern and eastern Russia (the European section). The Golden Horde disintegrated into several khanates and hordes in the 15th and 16th century including the Crimean Khanate, Khanate of Kazan, and Kazakh Khanate (among others), which were one by one conquered and annexed by the Russian Empire in the 16th through 19th centuries.

In Siberia, the Siberian Khanate was established in the 1490s by fleeing Tatar aristocrats of the disintegrating Golden Horde who established Islam as the official religion in western Siberia over the partly Islamized native Siberian Tatars and indigenous Uralic peoples. It was the northern-most Islamic state in recorded history and it survived up until 1598 when it was conquered by Russia.

The Chagatai Khanate was the eastern & southern Central Asian section of the Mongol Empire in what is today part or whole of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Xinjiang (“Uyghurstan”). Like the Ilkhanate and Golden Horde, the Chagatai Khanate became a Muslim state in the 14th century.

The Timurid Empire were an Turkic Uzbek-based empire founded in the late 14th century by Timurlane, a descendant of Genghis Khan. Timur, although a self-proclaimed devout Muslim, brought great slaughter in his conquest of fellow Muslims in neighboring Islamic territory and contributed to the ultimate demise of many Muslim states, including the Golden Horde.

The Mughal Empire was a Turkic-founded Indian empire that, at its greatest territorial extent, ruled most of the South Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and parts of Uzbekistan from the early 16th to the early 18th centuries. The Mughal dynasty was founded by a Chagatai Turkic prince named Babur (reigned 1526–30), who was descended from the Turkic conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) on his father’s side and from Chagatai, second son of the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan, on his mother’s side. A further distinction was the attempt of the Mughals to integrate Hindus and Muslims into a united Indian state.

The Safavid dynasty of Persia, most probably of Azeri (Turkish) origin: Through intermarriage and other political considerations, the Safavids spoke Persian and Turkish, and some of the Shahs composed poems in their native Turkish language. Concurrently, the Shahs themselves also supported Persian literature, poetry and art projects including the grand Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. The Safavid dynasty ruled on the Greater Iran for more than two centuries. and established the Twelver school of Shi’a Islam as the official religion of their empire, marking one of the most important turning points in Muslim history

The Afsharid dynasty was named after the Turkic Afshar tribe to which they belonged. The Afshars had migrated from Turkestan to Azerbaijan in the 13th century. The dynasty was founded in 1736 by the military commander Nader Shah who deposed the last member of the Safavid dynasty and proclaimed himself King of Iran. Nader belonged to the Qereqlu branch of the Afshars. During Nader’s reign, Iran reached its greatest extent since the Sassanid Empire.

Turks in Persian poetry

Main article: Persian literature
“     Countless Muslim authors have left us graphic descriptions of what they considered the essential attributes of the Turks as an ethnic group and the reasons for the latter’s pre-eminence in the Islamic world from the eleventh century onwards. These accounts are counterbalanced, often, by desciption of what these same authors considered the all too obvious limitation of the same people. All authors of adab works, manuals of war, and mirrors for princes, agree on the military superiority of the Turks, their hardniness, their skill with horses and the bow and arrow, as well as their ‘lion-like’ qualities and pride. Ibn Khaldun considered the Turkish mamluks to be the saviours of Islam. Nizam al-Mulk recalls that Al-Mu’tasim, the caliph who first introduced a mamluk army, ‘always said that there was none for service (khidmatkar) like the Turk’. ‘I can tell that Al-Mu’tasim knew very well what he was about when he made them into a corps and took them into his service’, writes also Al-Jahiz, for ‘… nothing can withstand [the Turks], and none desires to oppose them’. Mobile as they were, they were never pursued for ‘the Turk does not need to escape’. Turkish prowess in arms not only buttressed the caliphs’ power in the dar al-Islam, but was also especially effective against the infidel kings of Hind. ‘Arrow-shooting Turks’ are a favorite topos of Persian poetry, where they are compared with the bubbles in a glass of wine. No other army could charge as well, and Turkish horseman were taught to carry two or three bows and strings to match them. From ethnological parallels it is known that a skilled archer can shoot at least six aimed arrows a minute. The image of the Turk in Persian poetry soon developed into an ideal of manliness, the ideal beloved, white and beautiful, albeit cruel. ‘Turk’ came to relate to ‘Hindu’ like ‘ruler’ to ‘slave’, ‘angel’ to ‘devil’, while for Rumi, for instance, Turkestan became the heavenly world of light (from which the beloved appeared) and Hind the dark world of matter. Often enough the word ‘Turk’ was turned into the equivalent of ‘Muslim’, at least in India, where at times it also became a synonym for soldier. Ultimately the ‘lion-like’ Turk, with his disdain for menial household tasks, was linked to the climate of his country of origin which predisposed him to a certain robustness and military valour. The nomadic Turks had a strongly developed ‘love of homeland’ (ma?abbat al-wa?an) or ‘longing for homeland’ (al-?anin ‘ila-l-wa?an). This attachment reinforced the mutual similarity and homogeneity of the Turks which expressed itself in an absolutely single-minded desire to achieve military command. The Turks’ very single-mindedness was praised by Muslim writers as ‘the only way to achieve anything’. Solely the Dailamites were at times regarded as more warlike. But the dark side of the Turkish character, regarded as equally universal, was an insatiable love of plunder and violence. In their own country, ‘the Turks do not fight for religion nor for interpretation of Scripture nor for sovereignty nor for taxes nor for patriotism nor for jealousy, unless their women are concerned, nor for defense of their home, nor for wealth, but only for plunder. Given to violent appropriation, they were however free from unnatural vice, they treated prisoners well, kept their promises, and were not given to hypocrisy or intrigue, while being impervious to flattery, and not addicted to ‘rivalry in poetic display’. ‘The Turks know not how to flatter or coax, they know not how to practise hypocrisy or backbiting, pretence or slander, dishonesty or haughtiness on their acquaintance, or mischief on those that associate with them. They are strangers to heresy and not spoiled by caprice, and they do not make property lawful by quibbles. Their fault which makes them most unpopular is their love of land and love of moving freely up and down the country and propensity for raiding and preoccupation with plunder …’. Such, in short, were the characteristics of a people which had mastered ‘the art of war’ to the same degree of perfection as ‘the Chinese have attained in art, and the Greeks in philosophy and literature and the Sasanids in empire’. And, unlike other ethnic groups, the Turks were bound to obscurity if they did not leave Turkestan, they achieved fame and fortune only if they left their homeland. ‘Since the creation of the world until today no slave (banda) bought for money achieved the position of king (padshah) except the Turk’. A former, legendary, king of the Turks is supposed to have said: ‘The Turk is like a pearl (dur) in its shell at the bottom of the sea, when it is worth nothing; but when it comes out of its shell, and out of the sea, it becomes valuable and adorns the crown of kings and the neck and ears of brides’.     ”

Compiled from: Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: The Slavic Kings and the Islamic conquest, 11th-13th centuries, Oxford University Press, 1997, page 76-78.

Modern history

The Ottoman Empire gradually grew weaker in the face of poor administration, repeated wars with Russia and Austro-Hungary, and the emergence of nationalist movements in the Balkans, and it finally gave way after World War I to the present-day Republic of Turkey. Ethnic nationalism also developed in Ottoman Empire during the 19th century, taking the form of Pan-Turkism or Turanism.

The Turkic peoples of Central Asia were not organized in nation-states during most of the 20th century, after the collapse of the Russian Empire living either in the Soviet Union or (after a short-lived First East Turkestan Republic) in the Chinese Republic.

In 1991, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, five Turkic states gained their independence. These were Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Other Turkic regions such as Tatarstan, Tuva, and Yakutia remained in the Russian Federation. Chinese Turkestan remained part of the People’s Republic of China.

Immediately after the independence of the Turkic states, Turkey began seeking diplomatic relations with them. Over time political meetings between the Turkic countries increased and led to the establishment of TÜRKSOY in 1993 and later the Turkic Council in 2009.