History Files


Central Asia

The Rise of the Turkic Peoples

Compiled by Hayreddin Barbarossa, 21 January 2004



There have been endless and unresolved debates on the ethnic identity of the Xiongnu. Some say they were Turkic, some others claim they were of Mongol/Manchu origin. The latest trend seems to be that their language was Proto-Turkish, which brings up the conclusion that they were a band of Asiatic folks governed by a proto-Turkish speaking people or peoples. Since it's still a blurred area, nothing can be said with any great certainty yet.

The first people to name themselves and their counterparts as Türk were the Gök Türks (gök means blue but also sky, or in more abstract sense, heavens). They appeared in the 6th century AD and managed to unite all the Turkish-speaking peoples in one confederation. The two brothers who succeeded in achieving this were İstemi and Bumin. Their empire was divided into two major provinces with one brother in power in each. They continued their line independently. The eastern faction pressed China while the western one expanded towards Sogdiana and Chorasmia. Less than two centuries later, both factions collapsed, the eastern one falling under Chinese domination.

About half a century later, a descendant of the crown dynasty managed to organise a successful revolt against the Chinese rule, reunited the tribes with diplomacy or war and re-established the state. He was given the names İl Teriş (one who "gathered" the country) and Kutlug (something along the lines of "sacred, blessed"). He was followed by his equally successful brother Kapagan. Kutlug's sons, Bilge and Kül Tegin overthrew Kapagan's weak son. Bilge was pronounced the "Kagan" and the younger brother Kül Tegin became the commander of the armies.

The two have been given the credit of starting the process of civilisation amongst the Turks. Unfortunately, no complete city has survived from their day. However, Bilge ordered 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 written in a phonetical Turkic alphabet), carved in Turkish and Chinese (iirc). He tells about not only history and warfare but also the social structure and maybe an early state philosophy.

Eventually, the state experienced the east/west factional division again. In 751 (iirc), an Islamic (Emevi) army allied with the Western Gök Türks against the Chinese in the Battle of Talas, and they won. This was the first serious contact between Turks and Islam.

The Eastern Faction subsequently collapsed following a coup d'etat by several tribes under the lead of the Uighurs. They overthrew the Kagan and proclaimed their own kagan: Kutlug Bilge Kül (with an interesting choice of names). The Uighurs adopted Bhuddism and built cities, Balasagun being the capitol. They allied with the Chinese Tang dynasty with a view to building an empire in Asia once again. They adapted the Sogdian alphabet to their dialect of Turkish, which remained the script for the writen form of their language until the Arabic was adopted in the eleventh century. It was taught at the Ottoman court until Bayezid II (who reigned in 1481-1512). He was the last person of note to learn it. Still, it's taught today in universities teaching Turkology or Historical Turkish Literature.

Uighur civilisation dissolved and was overthrown by several Turkic tribes, who would never be able to reach the level of their ancestors' glory in the homeland. A tribe who were part of the Uighur empire migrated southwest under Kara Han and established a new state there. Satuk Bugra became the first ever Turkish ruler to adopt Islam and added Abdulkerim to his name. what is now Afghanistan, another Turk dynasty, the Ghaznevis, founded the second Islamic Turk state. The legendary Persian poet Firdewsi was at the court of Mahmud Ghaznevi.

Another wave of Turks under Dokak, from the Qınıq clan of Oghuz, migrated to Khorasan and became subjects of the Ghaznevi. Soon later, they revolted under the brothers Çağrı and Tuğrul to build the Selçuk/Seljuq sultanate.



Images and text copyright © Hayreddin Barbarossa and original authors. An original feature for the History Files.