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Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia




Turkic Tribes IndexTurks

Many claims have been made about the origins of the Turks. The question has long been bound up in cultural and nationalistic claims, especially by the Ottoman empire and its successor, modern Turkey. The Turkish Cultural Foundation would like everyone to believe that Turks have been around twice as long as seems to be the case, founding many great empires along the way. Instead the appearance of the Turks before the second millennium AD seems to have been piecemeal, almost accidental, with no Turks prior to the sixth century AD exhibiting definitive Turkish cultural or ethnic trappings. The early story of the Turks is complicated and remains highly-influenced by other ethnic groups and cultures.

Various attempts have been made to link mentions of tribes in antiquity to some form of Turkic linguistic continuity. Establishing such continuity is impossible given the fragmentary nature of such mentions. The Chinese Spring and Autumn Annals refer to a neighbouring people as Beidi. Pomponius Mela in the first century AD refers to the 'Turcae' in the forests to the north of the Sea of Azov, and Pliny the Elder lists the 'Tyrcae' amongst people of the same area, but the steppe at this time was still a stronghold of Indo-Iranian tribes which can be grouped together as Sakas and then Scythians. Some Turkish influence can be detected in the Kidarites of the fourth century AD, but descriptions of them are somewhat confusing. Claimed as being inner Asians, they may be related in part to the Xiongnu, and can best be described as Turko-Mongolians. Claims of a 'Great Hun Empire' of Turks being formed by them are wide of the mark, but ascribing a Turko-Mongoloid-Indo-Iranian heritage to most (or all) of the early Turkic groups may be more accurate than any other form of description.

FeatureThe first fully-formed Turkic ethnic group was that of the Gök Türks (or Göktürks). Semi-nomads who dwelt largely in Mongolia, 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. They were the first nomads in Mongolia (or anywhere) to refer to themselves as Turks, with the name believed to be for a dynastic ancestor called Türük, of the Ashina tribe. In The Turks in World History, Carter Vaughn Findley points out that the Ashina name probably originates from one of the Indo-Iranian languages of Central Asia. Edward Dawson confirms this with the observation that the 'As-' or 'Ash-' verb, meaning 'to be', as seen in Asha, is also present among Germans. In this case, most uses of it were altered to 'is-', except in the word for the early Germanic gods, the Os or Aesir (see feature link, right, for more information).

Findley's observation is further supported 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. However, it is quite possible that the early Turks were a blend of all of these - Tungusic/Mongolian, Indo-Iranian Sakas, and even Tocharians.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, 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 Vaughn 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), from An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples, Peter B Golden (1992), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Iranica, and the Turkish Cultural Foundation.)


As a prelude to later appearances by fully formed ethnic Turkic groups such as the Göktürks, the Kidarites (Red Huns) now become an important factor in eastern Iran. They would appear to be inner Asians who may be related to the Xiongnu (and they certainly live around the northern edges of the powerful Xiongnu confederation). Their origins are very uncertain, with various theories abounding, but referring to them as Turko-Mongolians with a heavy dose of Indo-Iranian cultural (and perhaps ethnic) influence may be as close to the truth as it is possible to get. The Kidarites are the earliest of several waves of Huns (Xionites) to come into contact with established civilisations outside of early China. Not all of these, however, would appear to be Turko-Mongolians in make-up (specifically the Hephthalites).

Map of Central Asia and India AD 500
By the late 400s the eastern sections of the Sassanid empire had been overrun and to an extent occupied by the Hephthalites (Xionites) after they had killed Shah Peroz, but to refer to their large band of territory as a Turkic empire would be wide of the mark (click on map to view full sized)

454 - 456

Ernakh, son of Attila the Hun, governs his father's surviving eastern territories, and is king of the Akathirs, a Turkic tribe within Roman territory (probably the Utigurs). Despite being an early appearance by Turks, especially in a westwards location, it is undoubtedly the Mongolian or Turko-Mongolian Huns who have dragged them here. It is claimed by Procopius that Attila's two sons later share power and give their name to their subjugated people, who emerge in two groups named the Kutrigur Bulgars and the Utigur Bulgars.


Oguric-speaking tribes have recently been pushed out of the Kazakh steppe by the Sabirs due to population pressures from farther east and a domino effect of tribal movement in a westwards direction. Now they make their presence felt on the Pontic-Caspian steppe. The Saragurs attack the Akatirs and other tribes that had been part of the Hunnic union. Then, perhaps prompted by the Byzantine empire, the Ogurics raid Sassanid-held Transcaucasia, ravaging the Georgian kingdoms of Egrisi and Iberia and also Armenia while on their way southwards.

The Ogurics also appear in a listing of tribes in the supplement to the Syriac translation of 'Pseudo-' Zacharias Rhetor's Ecclesiastical History, composed around AD 555 based on an earlier text. The supplement (perhaps not fully reliable for the fifth century situation) mentions the tribes of Onogur, Ogur, Sabir, Burgar (Bulgar), Kutrigur, Abar, Kasar (this name is uncertain, possibly also being Kasir or Akatzir), Sarurgur (Sarugur/Saragur), Xwâlis, and Abdel (Hephthalites).

They are described in the clichéd phrases that are reserved for nomads in the ethnographic literature of the period. Beyond these scant notices, nothing is known of the later history of the Saragurs. They are probably incorporated into other more powerful tribal unions, their amalgamation being induced by the movements of other steppe peoples, perhaps the Sabirs, who enter the region by the late fifth and early sixth centuries.

500 - 700s

Around the Altai Mountains which had provided the anchor for the earliest Tocharian migrations, the Türük people (Göktürks) are vassals of the Rouran khaganate. One theory about their origins suggests that they are Turkified Indo-Europeans. The chances of the Türük people not bearing any relationship to Tocharians seems very slim given the latter's prevalence in the region for the past four thousand years. Generally, the Tocharians are gradually subsumed within other emerging ethnic identities during the course of the first millennium AD, including the Chinese Jie people, Tibetans (as the Gar or mGar, noted blacksmiths), and the Turkic Uyghurs with their notable Caucasian features who later dominate the region.

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 view full sized)

c.632 - 668

By this time the proto-Bulgars have long since settled the Taman Peninsula, an outcrop of territory on what is now the Russian side of the Strait of Kerch and the southern coast of the Sea of Azov, opposite Crimea. They have gradually been dominating and absorbing various small local groups to increase their numbers, including the Altyn Ola horde, and the Kutrigurs and Utigurs. Now that conditions are favourable and the right leader has emerged, Avar control is thrown off and a tribal state quickly blossoms into a great tribal empire by the name of Great Bulgaria.

717 - 738

Sulu of the Western Göktürk khaganate is claimed as being the founder of the minor Türgish dynasty, a Turkic tribe (or tribes) that had been subject to the khaganate but which now finds itself independent. Based in Transoxiana after being moved there during the great days of the khaganate, the Türgish now find themselves being defeated alongside the Sogdians by invading Umayyad Arabs. Sulu is elected their leader in 717, and he marshals the Sogdian and Türgish defences independent of Göktürk authority.

c.1130 - 1160

The Mongols are an amalgam of native Turkic and Mongol-Tungusic groups in north-eastern Central Asia. They briefly become powerful around 1130, defeating their neighbouring tribes and forcing the Jin to pay tribute. In 1160 they are destroyed by the neighbouring Tartars and their clans fight each other for local superiority. Mongol power collapses until a new figurehead can be found to reunite the clans.


The Byzantine capital at Constantinople is finally captured by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, bringing to an end the last vestiges of the Roman empire and making Greece an Ottoman province. The loss is viewed as a disaster for the Christian world, but it also completely realigns the balance of power amongst the Turkic tribes and kingdoms to the east and north.

Crimean Tartars fight Cossacks
Tartars of the Crimean khanate fight Cossacks from the Ukrainian steppe, a scene that would be repeated many times over the course of the khanate's three hundred year-plus existence

1519 - 1526

The Moghuls are a Turko-Mongoloid group, seemingly the offspring of inter-tribal wars and an intermixing of the various Central Asian tribes. They have a Turkic physiognomy and very distinct mongoloid features. Generally belligerent towards their enemies and competitors, they are excellent horse riders. Their descent would seem to be via Tîmûr-i Lang (Tamerlane, founder of the eastern Iranian Timurid dynasty), and Chagatai Khan of the Chaghatayids. From 1519, as the ruler of Kabul, Babar also leads a great many raids on Delhi. In 1526, he is invited by the nobility to invade, and Ibrahim is killed at the Battle of Panipat. Babar creates a Moghul empire which sacks and then controls Delhi as the heart of that empire.

1923 - 1924

The Turkic Ottoman empire collapses and on 29 October 1923 a republic of Turkey is declared. This is the most-westerly of modern states to claim a Turkic heritage, most others being located across Central Asia, including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.