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Göktürks (Blue Turks)

The Gök Türks (or Göktürks) were early Turks who lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle in Central Asia, principally in Mongolia, to the north and west of China. They emerged into history in the early sixth century AD from obscure tribal origins. The Chinese recorded more than one source for them during the sixth and seventh centuries but none provide entirely conclusive evidence. Even so, Chinese records are the best hope of pinning them down.

As can be expected with such an obscure group in a region that was almost entirely outside the reach of contemporary writers, Chinese records of the Göktürks offer a mixed bag of options. They could have been a division of the Hsiung-nu (Xiongnu) who were certainly recorded by the Chinese and who may have given rise in the fourth century to the Huns who later terrorised Europe. While the Huns migrated west, possibly to escape population pressure on hunting grounds, the Göktürks clearly remained behind, perhaps supplying that very pressure on hunting grounds during their own rise. They could also have been the Turkified Xianbei who fled a massacre by the Northern Wei who ruled northern China in the fifth century. A third option is that they were Turkified Indo-Europeans, making them Tocharians who had intermarried with proto-Turkic groups in the two-and-a-half millennia since their split from the main body of Indo-Europeans of the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

Whatever their origins, these were the first nomads in Mongolia (or anywhere) to refer to themselves as Turks. It is believed that this name was for a dynastic ancestor called Türük, of the Ashina tribe (which can also be shown as Asen, Asena, Ashinas (in Islamic texts), or Açina). He (and by extension his tribe) was believed to have descended from the combination of a child and the Kök Böri ('Blue Wolf'), hence blue Turk. The word 'kök' (the earlier form) or 'gök' (seemingly a later, Anatolian Turkish form) means 'blue', but also 'sky' or, in a more abstract sense, 'heavens'. Such an early name for an illiterate people was quite naturally rendered in a variety of different ways by different writers across several centuries, including Kök Türük, Tourkh, Tr'wk, Tujue, Turk, and Türük. They all mean the same thing.

Curiously, perhaps, in The Turks in World History, Carter Vaughin Findley points out that the Ashina name probably originates from one of the Iranian languages of Central Asia. Blue is the colour that was used to identify the east - therefore 'gök' in Turkic - which provides a dual meaning for Göktürk, in that the blue Turks were also the 'Turks of the East'. Findley's observation is seconded by Peter Benjamin Golden and also by the Hungarian researcher, András Róna-Tas, who finds it highly plausible 'that we are dealing with a royal family and clan [that is] of Iranian origin, almost certainly Saka'. If that origin provided anything more than simple cultural influences then this would mean that the Ashina core tribe was almost certainly of Indo-European origin. To balance this, Zhu Xueyuan suggests that Ashina derived from the Manchu word 'Aisin' and the early Wusun (Asin or Osin), whom he considers to have been a Tungusic people.

İstemi and Bumin were two Göktürk brothers (notably bearing non-Turkic names - a common occurrence with Göktürk rulers which reveals a level of heterogeneity amongst the early Turks). Defeating the ruling Rouran, they managed to unite all Turkish-speaking peoples within a confederation. The empire they created was almost immediately divided in two, east and west. Each division maintained its own line of descent, although the two divisions frequently interacted.

(Original information by Hayreddin Barbarossa, drawn from Turkish editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Grand Larousse. Additional information from The Origin of the Turks and the Turkish Khanate, Gao Yang (Tenth Türk Tarih Kongresi, Ankara 1986), from Türkiye halkının kültür kökenleri: Giriş, beslenme teknikleri, Burhan Oğuz (1976), from The Turks in World History, Carter Vaughin Findley (Oxford University Press 2005), from The Origins of Northern China's Ethnicities, Zhu Xueyuan (Beijing 2004), from Ethnogenesis in the tribal zone: The Shaping of the Turks, Peter Benjamin Golden (2005), from The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, Susan Wise Bauer (2010), and from External Link: Encyclopaedia Iranica.)

439

The Book of Sui reports that on 18 October the Tuoba ruler, Emperor Taiwu of the Northern Wei, overthrows Juqu Mujian of the Northern Liang in eastern Gansu. The attack results in five hundred Ashina families fleeing to the north-west, into the Rouran khaganate in the vicinity of Gaochang. These Ashina families soon emerge as the Göktürks.

?

Türük

Of the Ashina tribe. Ancestor figure of Turks.

508

The Türük people (Göktürks) have been vassals to the Rouran khaganate since around 460 or so. This khaganate is the regional power, commanded by Yujiulü Futu until his death in battle at the hands of Mi'etu of the Gaoche in 508. The Rouran have forced the Ashina to migrate from their base Xinjiang to a new home in the Altai Mountains, and it is here that the Ashina gradually emerge as leaders of the Turks.

Altai Mountains
The impressive landscape of the Altai Mountains seems to have been where the Turkic peoples were formed, seemingly as a heterogeneous mixture of Mongolian peoples and Tocharian Indo-Europeans

?

Tuwu of the Ashina

'Wolf mother'.

? - 552

Bumin 'İl Kağan'

Son. Founded the Eastern Göktürk khaganate.

? - 552

İstemi 'Yabgu'

Brother. Governed the Western Göktürk khaganate as viceroy.

546

Bumin 'İl Kağan', or Bumin Qaghan, pre-emptively strikes against the Tiele and Uyghur people after these groups are found to be planning a revolt against their collective overlords, the Rouran. In hindsight, Bumin's attack may also partially be seen as preparation for a far greater strike but also seems to be a step in establishing the power of the Ashina and their followers. For this service he expects to be rewarded with a Rouran princess and a royal marriage, thereby increasing the importance of his own position.

552

The Rouran khagan, Yujiulü Anagui, has responded to Bumin's request for a royal marriage by sending an emissary to rebuke him: 'You are my blacksmith slave. How dare you utter these words?' In response, Bumin and his brother İstemi rise up against the Rouran, with support from the Western Wei. Anagui is defeated in battle to the north of Huaihuang (now the prefecture city of Zhangjiakou in Northern China's Hebei Province).

Disgraced by the defeat, Anagui commits suicide and the Türük people are now free to become the main power in the region. They move away from their traditional homeland in the southern Altai and migrate into the Orkhon Valley in Central Mongolia. This forms the centre of Göktürk power during their period of empire.

Eastern (Great) Göktürk Khagans
AD 552 - 745

The Ashina tribe of Turks founded the Göktürk empire by drawing together the other Turkic tribes into a confederation that then defeated in battle their Rouran overlords (in AD 552). With the regional power destroyed by this attack, the two brothers responsible for leading it, Bumin and İstemi, were free to replace the Rouran and, initially, govern territory in Mongolia, on the edges of an early medieval China that was divided and at war with itself. Bumin declared himself 'İl Kağan', the great khagan of the new empire, but he died within a year of his great success. His brother was placed in command of the western division of the empire as its viceroy (the Yabgus).

The Göktürk empire soon divided permanently into eastern and western branches. It was the eastern faction that pressed China, although not especially successfully. In the meantime the western faction of Turks expanded towards Sogdiana and the borders of Khorasan, and as far as the Crimea in the west. Less than two centuries after its founding, both the empire's eastern and western factions collapsed, the eastern one falling under Chinese domination.

The Ashina Turks adopted a writing system during their time as empire builders, with its basis being adopted from the Sogdian language. One memorial stele, the Bugutskoy stele, which was constructed by the Ashina to describe the heroic exploits of the ruling khagan, used letters that are clearly Sogdian. Another Sogdian inscription can be found on a broadsword that was discovered in the burial of a contemporary Turkic warrior at Jolene in the Altai Mountains. Runic writing spread through later Turkic groupings, and this also bears Sogdian influence. Records of the names of khagans vary greatly in how they render those names, and whether they're using a personal name or a reignal name. As many variations as possible have been included, and explanations provided where necessary.

552 - 553

Bumin 'İl Kağan'

Founder of empire. Brother of İstemi, the Western viceroy.

553 - 554

Kara K'ola / Issik Khagan

Son.

554 - 572

Mukhan / Mukan

Brother.

565

The White Huns are defeated in Kushanshah Afghanistan by an alliance of the Western Göktürks (under the leadership of İstemi) and the Sassanids, and a level of Indo-Sassanid authority is re-established in the region for the next century. The Western Göktürks set up rival states in Bamiyan, Kabul, and Kapisa, strengthening their hold on the Silk Road.

Map of Central Asia AD 550-600
As was often the case with Central Asian states that had been created by horse-borne warriors on the sweeping steppelands, the Göktürk khaganate swiftly incorporated a vast stretch of territory in its westwards expansion, whilst being hemmed in by the powerful Chinese dynasties to the south-east and Siberia's uninviting tundra to the north (click on map to show full sized)

Great Khagan Mukhan himself is responsible for securing the khaganate's borders against the last of the Rouran, and defeating the Khitan (founders of the later Qara-Khitai empire) and the Kyrgyz people. In the far west the empire now counts amongst its vassals the Khazars and the Magyars. His conquests may also displace elements of the early Avars and Bulgars, forcing them westwards.

572 - 581

Tapo / Taspar

Brother. Converted to Buddhism.

576

The desire of İstemi Yabgu to expand the Göktürk empire ever further westwards now leads him across the Kerch Strait and into the Crimea. With his death in the same year, his ambitious son, Bilge Tardu, succeeds him and very soon declares his independence from the great khagan of the Göktürks.

581

The death of Tapo effectively ends the first dynasty of Göktürk khagans. His chosen successor is Apo, son of Mukhan, but this choice is subsequently overturned by the high council. Amrak is initially selected and he opposes Apo's claim with support from Shètú. The khaganate is engulfed in political conflict as factions form around both leaders and various challengers vie for power, including Bilge Tardu, the current Yabgu in the west. Amrak is the weakest of the claimants, so he renounces his title in Shètú's favour. The latter is enthroned with the reignal name of Bagha İşbara. Amrak is granted a minor khaganate in the Tuul river valley.

581

Apo / Apa / Talopien

Son of Mukhan. Tapo's designated successor.

581

Amrak (Anluo Khagan?)

Son of Tapo. Reignal name not known for certain.

581 - 587

Bagha İşbara / Ishbara / Shètú

Son of Kara K'ola. Selected by Amrak and the high council.

581

Jotan

Brother of Tapo. Continued to oppose İşbara.

581

Fragmentation into east and west divisions has already resulted from the internal succession conflict, with the Western khagans following their own westwards expansionist policy. As part of that very policy, the Western Göktürk lay siege to the former Greek colony city of Chersonesus on the south-western tip of the Crimea. Their cavalry continues to roam the steppes of the Crimea until 590. Southwards, the Western Göktürks are able to cross the Amu Darya, where they come into conflict with their former allies, the Sassanids. Much of Tokharistan (former Bactria, including Balkh) remains a Göktürk dependency until the end of the century.

Gokturk burial figurines
In 2012 archaeologists were able to examine the previously-untouched tomb of a Göktürk khagan, which contained amongst many other delights these mounted figurines

583 - c.590

Bilge Tardu of the Western khagans denounces the sovereignty of Bagha İşbara, despite his being elected by the high council. Tardu leads an army into the east to claim the seat of imperial power at Otukan. İşbara is forced to contact Emperor Yang of Sui for protection (seemingly before the Sui have established their kingdom in 590) which diverts Tardu.

587 - 589

Çur Bagha / Čulohóu / Šāwa

Brother of İşbara. Vassal of the Sui emperors. Killed in battle.

588 - 589

Çur Bagha leads his White Hun vassals into the First Perso-Turkic War by invading Sassanid territory. The invasion has been threatening for several years as these former allies vied for regional power in the hinterland between their two empires. A senior Sassanid army commander by the name of Bahram Chobin (later to be enthroned as Bahram VI) leads an army of hand-picked Savaran elite troops to ambush a large army of Turks and White Huns in April 588, at the Battle of Hyrcanian Rock. Another attack in 589 captures Balkh. Then he crosses Oxus and repulses the Turkic Invasion, capturing White Hun territory that had been occupied by the Turks. Çur Bagha is killed during this fight.

589 - 600

Tunga Turan / Tuhan / Tulan

Son of İşbara. Vassal of the Sui emperors.

599 - 603

Shortly after being proclaimed great khagan (in 599), Bilge Tardu of the Western khagans attacks the Sui capital at Chang'an, around the year 600, and demands that Emperor Yang end his interference in the civil war. In retaliation, Chinese diplomacy successfully incites a revolt of Tardu's Tiele vassals, which leads to the end of Tardu's reign in 603.

600 - 609

Kimin Türe / Qimin Khan

Son. Vassal of the Sui emperors.

603 - 609

Türe becomes great khagan but the empire is officially and permanently divided between east and west thanks to the efforts of Bilge Tardu of the Western khagans. The eastern khagans will never again be able to claim command of the entire empire and soon face eclipse at the hands of the Chinese.

609 - 619

Şipi / Shibi Khan

Son of Kimin Türe. Vassal of the Sui emperors.

611

Culo of the Western khagans is overthrown by Şipi and is executed in 619. It seems that the high council elects a replacement western khagan, but whether the two halves of the empire share the same high council is unknown.

Gokturk treasures
Göktürk treasures in the tomb discovered in 2012 also included large murals, leopard pictures, full-scale images of individuals, panoramic statues, grave guardian statues, mythological statues, gold coins, rings, and much more

615 - 617

Şipi is the first of the great khagans to contemplate rebellion against his overlords, the Sui Chinese, since Bagha İşbara first submitted to them to outwit his rival, Bilge Tardu of the Western khagans. He employs Sogdian viziers to help him plot and plan so that, when the Sui ministers arrive at the Chinese town of Mai for peace negotiations in 615, they are all killed.

During the last, turmoil-filled years of Emperor Yangdi's reign, Şipi fuels his troubles by supporting various warlords in north-west China who have claimed the throne. One of these warlords is Li Yuan of the Tang who eventually secures the throne and replaces the Sui with his own dynasty. Şipi supplies him with two thousand horses and cavalry of five hundred so that the Tang are able to make good progress, especially at the vital Battle of Huo-i, which virtually finishes the Sui as a military force.

619 - 621

Çuluk / Chuluo / Ilteber Shad

Brother. Ruled for 18 months. Died of poisoning or illness.

621 - 630

Kara Khieli / Illig Qaghan / Baghatur Shad

Brother. Father of Western Khagan Yukuk Shad.

627 - 640

During the early years of his reign, Khieli makes the mistake of attacking the now-powerful Tang empire (his elder brother's former allies) and is defeated by a revolt of the Tiele tribes that is led by the Uyghurs and the Xueyantuo. In 627 he attempts to levy horses from the vassal Tiele tribes after all his livestock are killed during a summer snowstorm. The Tiele revolt as part of a Xueyantuo coalition, and Emperor Taizong of the Tang wastes no time in allying himself with the Tiele and the Khitans in a joint attack.

Khieli is already facing internal dissent from the Göktürk generals who are jealous of the influence of his Sogdian viziers. Now he is defeated and captured by the Tang (in 630). Emperor Taizong spares his life but he is not allowed to return home. The eastern Göktürks now enter a period of Chinese domination without a khagan of their own. The Western khagans continue to remain independent.

639 - 640

A noble, Kür Şad, revolts and attacks the Chinese imperial palace with no success in 639. He and his followers flee to the north but are cornered and killed by their pursuers. Following his subjugation of the Göktürks, Emperor Taizong had briefly resettled them within Tang borders, but after a failed Göktürk assassination attempt against him in 639 he changes his mind and decides to move them between the Great Wall and the Gobi Desert, to serve as a buffer between the Tang and the Xueyantuo (former vassals of the Göktürks themselves). To keep the Göktürks in order he raises Qilibi Khan to the position of khagan of the Göktürks in a weakened recreation of their khaganate.

640 - c.646

Qilibi Khan / Ashina Sirba

Son of Tughruq Shad. Tang vassal during Gobi Desert period.

644 - 679

Faced with constant pressure from the Xueyantuo, Qilibi Khan's people abandon him and flee southwards, back into Tang territory. Qilibi himself also returns to the Tang and serves as a general until his death, which is probably within a year or so. Almost immediately, one Ashina Hubo claims the title of khagan and the reignal name of Yizhuchebi (Chebi for short), and attempts to re-establish the khaganate in the face of Tang opposition. He experiences a level of success before being captured and allowed to live on within Tang borders. His territory is subsequently divided into three segments, each of which is governed by a Tang commandant.

c.646 - 650

Yizhuchebi / Ashina Hubo

Led an independent khaganate. Defeated.

679 - 682

About thirty years later, a descendant of the crown dynasty manages to organise a successful revolt against Chinese rule in 679. He reunites the tribes with a mixture of diplomacy and war and re-establishes the state (which is known as the 'Second Empire' period). He is given the names İl Teriş (one who 'gathered' the country) and Kutlug (something along the lines of 'sacred, blessed'). Kutlug is aided by Tonyukuk (vizier in 682-721). The Chinese are defeated in 681 and the khaganate is restored. Taking the reignal name of Ilterish Qaghan, Kutlugh captures the capital town of Ötüken in 682.

Mongolian steppe
The vast Mongolian steppe provided the main heartland of the Khaganate's territory and allowed it to make its initial sweeping gains of new territory towards the west

Two names which precede Kutlugh in reignal lists are Nizük Beg and Funian. Virtually nothing seems to be available about them (in English, at least), so it has to be presumed that they are part of the drive towards re-establishing the khaganate's independence, possibly as rivals to Kutlugh.

679 - 680

Nizük Beg / Nishoufu / Ni-shou-fu

Relationship unknown.

680 - 681

Funian / Fu-nien

Related to Illig Qaghan (621-630).

682 - 692

Ilterish Qaghan / Kutlugh İl Teriş

Related to Illig Qaghan (621-630).

682

Kutlugh removes his followers from the settled and Sinicised Göktürks and returns to Mongolia. Once there he raises an army and sets about rebuilding the eastern khaganate, restoring most of its former territory. The Western khagans also fall under the domination of the restored eastern khaganate.

692 - 716

Kapaghan / Qapaghan Qaghan

Equally successful brother of Kutlugh. Ambushed and killed.

716

Inel Qaghan

Son. A weak khagan. Overthrown.

716

Bilge and his brother, Kül Tigin, army commander-in-chief, overthrow the weak Inel Qaghan. The two are later credited with starting the process of civilisation amongst the Turks in a khaganate that now stretches once again to the Caspian Sea. Unfortunately, no major settlement of their survives intact to the modern day.

716 - 734

Bilge Khagan / Bögü

Son of Kutlugh. Poisoned.

716

Bilge orders for his brother, himself, and their wise chamberlain, Tonyukuk, monumental tombstones with so-called runic scripture (so-called because of the resemblance - it's actually a phonetic Turkic alphabet), carved in Turkish and Chinese. These tell not only of Turkic history and warfare but also of the social structure, and maybe an early state philosophy. Bilge's brother, Kül Tigin, dies in 731.

734

Yiran / Yollig Qaghan / I-Jan

Son.

734 - 738

Türk Bilge Khagan

Brother.

738 - 740

Tengri / Tengli Khan I

Brother.

740 - 742

Sources differ when it comes to the successor of Tengri Khan I. His nephew, Tengri Khan II is sometimes shown, but others show one Kutluk Yabgu Khagan, a viceroy, army commander, and not a member of the royal house. It seems that the poisoning of Bilge Khagan in 734 has caused some confusion, with some writers not realising that the slow-acting poison had allowed the khagan time to execute his own killer. Tengri would be the rightful khagan, but perhaps Kutluk opposes him and rules much of the khaganate.

740 - 742

Tengri / Tengli Khan II

Son of Türk Bilge. Overthrown?

741 - 742

Kutluk Yabgu Khagan

Army commander (and opposing khagan?). Killed.

742

Tang Emperor Hsuan Tsung backs a revolt by three Turkic tribes within the khaganate that are not related to the royal house of Ashina. The Basmıl, Karluk and Uyghur khans rise up and kill Kutluk Yabgu Khagan, allowing Ozmış to be selected as the new khagan. However, after he refuses to accept the suzerainty of the Tang emperor, the uprising is sponsored again so that it kills Ozmış.

Early Turk warriors
This modern artist's impression shows three early Turkic warriors, from left to right, a Göktürk armoured cavalryman, an Eastern Turk tribesman, and a Türgish 'tarkan' champion

742 - 744

Ozmış / Ozmysh

Son of Governor (shad) Pan Kul Tigin. Killed in the renewed revolt.

744 - 745

Basmıl / Baymey Khan / Kulun Beg

Brother. Captured and executed by the Tang.

744 - 745

Basmıl Khan (known also by the reignal name of Kulun Beg and by the Chinese name of Pomei or Pai Mei) is elected khagan but the khaganate has already lost the Central Asian steppe. The Tang emperor decides that it is time that the Göktürks were removed entirely, and he sends an army to defeat Basmil Khan. This it does, and Basmil is captured and handed over for execution by the Uyghurs.

Yabgu Tufa, (viceroy) khan of the Uyghurs, is elected as 'Kutlugh Bilge Kül' - a very Göktürk name. This effectively ends Göktürk power in the region and signals the start of Uyghur sovereignty. However, branches of the Ashina clan subsequently migrate westwards into Europe, where they become the khagans of the Khazars, and possibly other nomadic peoples which have Turkic roots.