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Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia


Western Göktürk Khagans (Yabgus)
AD 552 - 738

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 yabgu).

The Göktürk empire soon divided permanently into eastern and western branches (with the western essentially creating a vast region in Central Asia known as Turkestan, which later divided into various states and remains divided today). It was the eastern faction which pressed China, although not especially successfully. In the meantime the western faction of Turks expanded towards Chorasmia and Sogdiana - the borders of Persia's eastern territories - 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.

The Central Asian steppe

(Information by Peter Kessler and Hayreddin Barbarossa (drawn from Turkish editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Grand Larousse), with 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), from History of Civilizations of Central Asia, B A Litvinsky (Ed, Motilal Banarsidass Publications, Delhi, 1999), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Iranica, and the All Empires historical community.)

552 - 576

İstemi 'Yabgu'

Brother of Göktürk Khagan Bumin. Western viceroy (yabgu).

552 - c.560

The Göktürks expand their territory quite rapidly, although this sudden expansion may be responsible for pushing the proto-Bulgars westwards over the next half a century to settle in the Caucasus. The Göktürks soon follow then to establish their domination over the nomadic tribes of the Pontic-Caspian steppe - especially the Ogurs, Onogurs, Sabirs, Utigurs, and the main body of Bulgars (although some groups may already have moved to Pannonia under Avar domination).


The Hephthalites are defeated in former Kushanshah territory (in what later becomes Afghanistan by an alliance of Göktürks (under the leadership of İstemi) and the Sassanids. A level of Indo-Sassanid authority is re-established in the region for the next century. The western khagans set up rival states in Bamiyan, Kabul, and Kapisa under the authority of the viceroy in Tokharistan, 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 or tap on map to view full sized)


İstemi's desire 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 succeeds him and very soon declares his independence from the great khagan of the Eastern Göktürks.

576 - 603

Bilge Tardu Yabgu / Tardush / Dianjue

Son. Rival for the (Eastern) imperial title. Great khagan (599).


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 (whose personal name is Dianjue). 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.

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, during which time (at least) they are overlords to the Alani, Bulgars, and Khazars, amongst others. 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.

Altai Mountains
The Altai Mountains link together the borders of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, and Xinjiang, providing the source for the rivers Irtysh and Ob and also, it would seem, the source region for the early Turkic tribes

583 - 603

Bilge Tardu denounces the sovereignty of Bagha İşbara of the Eastern khagans, 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 Kuang of Sui for protection which diverts Tardu. Shortly after being proclaimed great khagan (in 599), He attacks the Sui capital at Chang'an, around the year 600, and demands that Emperor Yang Kuang 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.

603 - 611

Çulo / Chuluo / Heshana Khan / Daman

Grandson of Tardu. Overthrown. Executed 619.


Çulo (known also as Heshana Khan and by his personal name of Ashina Daman) is little more than a puppet of the Dulo clan. He is overthrown by Şipi, the Eastern khagan, 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.

611 - 618

Şikoey / Shegui / Sheguy

Grandson of Tardu, elder cousin of Çulo.

611 - 618

Şikoey (otherwise known by the longer name of Shih kuei Qagan) is the grandson of Tardu (but is sometimes claimed as his younger brother). During the weak reign of Çulo he had been expanding the land under his control, taking territory to the Altai Mountains in the east and advancing 'to the sea' in the west (the Caspian Sea, most probably - a vast domain in total). His primary camp is in the San-mi Mountains, to the north of Kuca (Kucha, on the Silk Road, now within 'Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region' at the far western end of China's territory). Şikoey paves the way for a brief resurgence of western Göktürk power under his younger brother, Tong Yabgu Qagan.

618 - 630

Tong / Tun Yabgu

Brother. Overthrown and executed.

618 - 630

The accession of Tong witnesses that very resurgence in the fortunes of the western khagans. He forms a new army, and puts down revolts by the Tiele (Tieh-lê) so that he can annexe their lands and extend his domains as far as Gandhara. He also takes steps to defeat the Sassanids after allying himself (as did his predecessor) with the Eastern Roman empire. But a new revolt soon breaks out, this time led by the Qarluqs (around 627) and the On Oq (the so-called 'Ten Tribes of Western Göktürks' or 'Ten Arrows' which includes the Türgish), and this weakens the khaganate.

Gokturk mounted 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

627 - 630

During the early years of his reign, Eastern khagan Khieli makes the mistake of attacking the powerful Tang empire and is defeated by a revolt of the Tiele tribes that is led by the Uyghurs and the Xueyantuo. In 627, as he begins the Third Perso-Turkic War alongside the Eastern Roman and against the Sassanids, 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, but in the same year, perhaps taking advantage of the situation in the east, Tong is overthrown and executed by his uncle.

630 - 631

Baghatur Sepi / Zibil / Külüg Sibir

Uncle and usurper. Abdicated under pressure. Killed.


Having murdered his nephew for the khaganate, Baghatur Sepi faces the collapse of that very khaganate. The Göktürk princes begin struggling against each other for power. The Tang eventually intervene, and not to the benefit of the Göktürks themselves. They already dominate the Eastern khaganate and now wish to extend the area under their control.

631 - 633

Irbis Bolun Cabgu / Sih Cabgu / Se Yabgu

Son of Tong. Bloodthirsty and lost support. Fled.

633 - 634

Baghaşa Tulu / Dulu Khan

Son of Bagha Shad (general or governor).

634 - 638

İşbara Teriş Tunga / Ashina Helu / Tong

Brother. Dethroned.


Despite having endured a series of short-lived rulers, some semblance of order has been restored the khaganate. Even so, influence is lost on its western edges between 632-635 when an Onoguric- Bulgar confederation throws off the Avars and founds Great Bulgaria.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 632-665
In AD 632, Qaghan Koubrat came to power as the head of an Onogur-Bulgar confederation on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, and three years later he was able to throw off Avar domination and found Great Bulgaria (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Even worse, İşbara Teriş Tunga is weaker than some of his own subjects. He sends arrows to ten tribes which means legitimatising them as shads (semi-independent governor princes), but he is careful to keep the delicate balance between the two main rival factions by appointing five from the Dulo clan and five from the Nushibi.

Possessions to the south of the River Oxus in Tokharistan are governed by a son of İşbara, one Tardu shad, and then by Tardu's son. As the most powerful Göktürk south of the Oxus (and possibly even north of it as western Göktürk politics begin to weaken the empire), the son mints his own coins. These show him bearing a crown decorated with two wings and a bull's head.

Despite İşbara's best intentions, even this new policy of his is unsuccessful. Following a clash of arms and the agreement known as the Ili River Treaty (which establishes the river as a border between the two rival clans), he is dethroned. Instead the tribes appoint Yukuk Shad, a prince from the recently-collapsed Eastern khaganate and the son of the late Khagan Kara Khieli.

Map of Central Asia AD 600-700
By the beginning of the seventh century AD, Göktürk power in southern Central Asia was waning while the Sassanids had established a degree of control over the southernmost parts of this region, and various city states had emerged in Sogdiana (click or tap on map to view full sized)

638 - 642

Yukuk Shad

Son of Eastern Khagan Kara Khieli. Abdicated.

638 - 640

Baghatur İpi

Seemingly not khagan, but perhaps a rival shand.

640 - 651

İpi Tulu / Irbis Seguy

Grandson of İşbara Teriş. Rival between 640-642.

651 - 658

Çençu Yabgu / Hallig / Ashina Helu

Declared himself khan. defeated and captured.


A Chinese account of the Western Göktürk 'Western Wing' division lists five tribes which includes the Esegels (Ezgil or Asijie, later to be found along the Volga with the Bulgars). The leader of the first tribe of Esegels is one 'Kül-erkin' ('Qiue-syjin' in its Chinese form - possibly a title rather than a name). He is 'most prosperous and strong, the number of his soldiers reached several tens of thousands'. Alongside him are the other four tribes of this division: another Kül-erkin or Qiue-syjin, this time of the Kashu or Geshu (Khazars - the same man as head of both tribes?); Tun-shabo(lo)-syjin of the Barskhan; Nizuk-erkin (Nishu-syjin) of a second tribe of Ezgil; and Chopan-erkin (Chuban-syjin) of a second tribe of Kashu (Khazars).

659 - 682

After some decades of increasing interference and influence, the Tang Chinese now establish full control of the khaganate by defeating Çençu in battle and taking him back as a permanent hostage. Emperors continue to appoint puppet khagans in the west whilst attempting to put down an independent splinter of the Eastern khaganate. (The use of 'Eçine' below is a variation of the usual 'Ashina' to demark someone of the royal house of the tribe of Ashina.)

Tang dynasty goods via the Silk Road
The Tang dynasty prospered greatly from the flow of goods which came in via the burgeoning Silk Road, and some of that prosperity would have reached conquered and occupied Koguryo, despite the unwillingness of the former kingdom's people to be dominated

659 - 676

Eçine Türçe / Ashina Mishe

Tang vassal.

676 - 678

Tuçi Khagan / Duzhī Onoq Qaghan

Tang vassal.

678 - 682

Eçine Kür Pur Çur / Ashina Yuanqing

Son of Eçine Türçe. Tang vassal.


Kutlugh İl Teriş removes his followers from the settled and Sinicised Eastern 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 vastly diminished western khagans also fall under the domination of the restored eastern khaganate.

682 - 700

Eçine Tuyça / Ashina Tuizi

Son. Vassal of Eastern khagans.

700 - 706


Relationship unknown. Vassal of Eastern khagans.

706 - 711


Relationship unknown. Vassal of Eastern khagans.

711 - 738

Sulu / Suluk / Ashina Xian or Zhèn?

Zhèn was the son of Xian. Vassal of Eastern khagans.

711 - 738

The exact relationship between the final western khagans is confused and uncertain. The aforementioned Ashina Xian and his son Zhèn could be little more than western shad (governors of the declining Eastern khaganate). Sulu 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.

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

Based in Transoxiana after being moved there during the great days of the khaganate, the Türgish now find themselves gradually being defeated alongside the Sogdians and Ferghanans by invading Umayyad Arabs from Greater Khorasan. Sulu is elected the Türgish leader in 717, and he marshals the Sogdian and Türgish defences independent of Göktürk authority. Fighting a largely hit-and-run-based war in the region's deserts, he enjoys a decade of success, including victory at the Battle of the Defile in 731. Unfortunately, internal politics ends his success when he is killed in 737/738 by one of his own relatives. The Türgish splinter into two factions.

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